Redoubles Effort to Become Worst Lit-Themed Social Networking Site on Earth

I received a chastising e-mail the other day from Red Room, the Bay Area-based literary site that promises me that I’ll be able to connect, maybe, with my favorite authors. “Starting September 20th, 2008, real names and real photos will be required for all members,” the note says.

This is a tactic drawn straight from Facebook, which is stubborn about making sure users use their government names. That led me to hope that maybe the site was going to allow users and authors to interact somehow. But as in January, when Red Room pitched itself as a MySpace for writers, or in February, when the site’s minders made clear that Amy Tan gets her own page but you don’t, the joint is still flailing. True, users do now get their own pages. But Ellen Swain Veen, Red Room “featured member,” how shall I get in touch with you? You are working on a “crime novel, short plays, and a non-fiction book for law students,” which is interesting, and you have a lovely photo of a cat. May I friend you or somehow get an update when that crime novel’s wrapped up? No, but I can send you a message that requires me to jump through a CAPTCHA hoop.

But at least I can get a message to Veen. If I want to interact with a big-name author, like, say Maxine Hong Kingston, I have precisely zero options. She’s written one blog post, last December. I’m not mad—she’s been busy. But is there any way for me to find out if she’ll ever write a second?

Not that I can tell, after reading Red Room editor Huntington W. Sharp‘s article about the improvements to the site. Which are modest: Updates are included on one page, but it still keeps its Berlin Wall between authors and members. Silly.

What’s in Store

Random House commissioned Zogby International to conduct a poll of more than 8,000 Americans about their book-buying habits. You can read the findings online (PDF). (Via)

Some interesting details pop up, once you scrape away the “American Dream Materialists” vs. “American Dream Spiritualists” funny business. (I have a sociologist in the family who cautions me not to treat Zogby as the gold standard in social research—I’m not articulate enough to restate all the reasons, though of course a poll on book buying commissioned by a company that’s trying to get you to buy books has inherent issues. And it’s an Internet poll, which I have to imagine skews the facts too.) Lots of us buy books at independent stores (49 percent) but not very often (9 percent of the time). We like Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar stores (47 percent) but not their online store (10 percent). Being able to find a book quickly online is more important that knowing what others thought about it. End-caps aren’t terribly useful. Hardly anybody cares about e-books.

Most interesting (at least to my own selfish interests), we consider book reviews an important factor in our book buying (49 percent)—a huge trouncing of Oprah Winfrey, who only inspires book buying five percent of the time. (Jon Stewart beat her with eight percent—where’s his book club?) Thing is, I wish I knew what people have in mind when they hear the term “book review.” Does it mean a reader review on an Amazon page or a post on a book blog or a piece in a literary review? Probably some mix of all three—after all, we’re in an era where a lot of younger readers don’t especially notice whether a story they take to appeared on the New York Times or the AP wire (“I saw it on the Internet”). Attention pollsters: Maybe break out the question into subcategories of “review” next time around?

Update: Caleb Crain weighs in.

License to Read

My complaints about the Kindle have mainly been based on supposition, if not just plain old whining, so thanks to Gizmodo’s Matt Buchanan for the legwork: He points to a paper from Columbia Law School’s Science and Technology Law Review (linked from BoingBoing, via Slashdot) that addresses the fine line between owning an e-book and merely owning a license to it–a distinction that only further complicates the question of whether you actually possess a book you buy for the Amazon Kindle or Sony Reader. (Both devices use language that suggest you just have a license for the book, which restricts your ability to lend or copy it.)

Money quote:

“Even if a publisher calls it a license, if the transaction actually looks more like a sale, users will retain their right to resell the copy.” Score one for the home team. There’s a kicker, though: If a court ruled with you on that front, you still can’t sell reproductions of your copy, an illegal act tantamount to Xeroxing your Harry Potters. You’d have to sell the physical media where the “original” download is stored—a hard drive or the actual Kindle or Sony Reader.

Breaking: Books Portable

British publishing exec Scott Pack talks a little sense when it comes to the integration of books and handheld technology:

“The iPod allows you to listen to Shostakovich on the train, Kate Nash on the walk to the office and then Radiohead at your desk.

“But it doesn’t work like that with books. You don’t want to read James Joyce on the train, Maeve Binchy while you’re walking and John Grisham at your desk.

“I’ve got every album I own on my iPod and can listen to anything I want whenever I want. But books are already portable and even if they weren’t, you don’t need to transport your entire library around wherever you go.”

“Factors which were very important on the music side, just aren’t at all with books.”

However, he argues that new technology will eradicate the cookbook, and we’ve heard that one before. As Chris Anderson points out in his recent article on free economies, people first thought that the home PC would only be useful for recipe filing, and look how that turned out.