Monday, May 14, 2012

Russian Writers Flex Their Muscles

You might believe in the power of the written word as I do, but in Russia that power compels people to do things they might not otherwise have dreamed possible.

This past weekend, in protest of what they consider to be a government running amok, 12 Russian authors walked from one Moscow city park to another. It wasn't a march, they had no permits for a march. It was just a casual walk to see whether it could be accomplished without them being molested by police.

It was unannounced, unplanned, unorganized. Yet still, 10,000 people joined them on their stroll through Moscow as if together they were of one mind, one heart; one singular purpose which was to express their displeasure in the grandest, most peaceful way.

As it happened no police stopped them or accosted them or questioned them, though the group snarled traffic and nearly brought the city to a stand still. No military intervention was required to calm the crowd, because they were as calm as people out for a leisurely stroll could possibly be.

Yet they were purposeful. They demanded the attention of their government and they received it. They made their Will known not only to the people they passed but all the way to the office of President Vladimir Putin.

Russian writers, under the rule of Stalin and the Soviet Empire, were subjected to some of the harshest treatment imaginable. They were threatened, their families threatened; imprisoned for years on end with no hope for parole; forgotten and pushed to the brink of extinction. Yet still they endure. Nay--they thrive.

The walk began at the statue of writer Aleksandr Pushkin and ended across town at a statue of playwright Aleksandr Griboyedov. Although the government allowed the walk to happen undisturbed a new bill in the Russian Parliament would impose fines of about $50,000 and 740 hours of compulsory labor on public protesters who did so without a permit.

Do not be confused. This was not a battle to win the hearts and minds of the Russian people. They are already firmly focused on their chosen leaders, and I don't mean Putin or his buddies at the Kremlin. I am referring to the writers. They have captured the attention of the people. They made them think and act in ways which they have not, until now. Until they walked. They didn't throw rocks or bottles. They were not incited to violence. They did not threaten the government.

They walked. And with that walk they made their point crystal clear.

No doubt there's a story in here somewhere.....

Friday, May 11, 2012

Harry Potter For 'Rent'

In what Amazon is surely counting as a major win on its behalf, J.K. Rowling's uber-popular 'Harry Potter' series is now available in the Kindle library as part of their Amazon Prime service. That means subscribers can borrow the books, one at a time, for an annual subscription rate.

If you want to buy the digital version of Rowling's books, however, you will need to visit her web site, Pottermore.

The fact that Amazon managed to secure the rights to make Rowling's books available for some readers is fairly astonishing, especially given the tight controls Rowling has placed on them so far. Although she is now worth an estimated $1 billion Rowling has expressed a serious desire to keep the 'Potter' books as secure as possible, thereby securing as much of the profits as she possibly can.

Nothing wrong with that. They are her works and she can do as she pleases with them.

I am more interested in this lending program at Amazon. It seems to me, given that I just wrote about libraries buying eBooks in order to then lend them to customers, that Amazon is in essence becoming the world's largest library. Sure there is an annual fee subscribers must pay, but every citizen who owns property pays for the use of public libraries via their taxes, whether they use the library or not.

Does this mean private libraries might some day replace the public libraries many of us have come to love and adore? Not likely. Amazon is hardly able to provide the wealth of different services currently available at the local library, not including the personnel who work there and act as repositories of a wealth of information.

It is worth noting however, that as future generations become more used to the availability of digitized information they may find themselves less inclined to leave their home to get what they need. Research, reference material; video, audio and now eBooks are all being made available on a more or less "free" basis via the Internet. This is doubtlessly going to have at least some impact on library attendance and use. Of course, librarians are nothing if not creative and I could easily imagine a day when they focus more on the "real" and less on the digital as a way of being a unique commodity.

What does this mean for writers? Not much. I've just had libraries on the brain lately.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Libraries Experiment With Buying eBooks

Libraries have been faced with a dilemma. On the one hand their patrons have been begging them to stock more eBooks and on the other hand publishers, who make those eBooks available to libraries, have been raising their fees for said eBooks, sometimes as high as 300 percent.

This is quite a quandary for a public institution faced with declining public funds.

They have tried reasoning with eBook publishers to no avail, now they are getting creative. Douglas County Libraries, in Colorado, has started buying eBooks then offering them to patrons via their own online platform, which includes a link for them to purchase the eBooks.

Douglas County Libraries started the new program in February and already major eBook publishers have started expressing an interest in joining the new program. At the same time other public libraries have been studying the system at Douglas County to replicate it for their own patrons.

This makes perfect sense to me and it solves a dire problem faced by libraries trying to keep up with the changes taking place in the publishing world.

Libraries are already become digital wonderlands, with computer terminals replacing card catalog filing cabinets everywhere; more access to digital media of all sorts including music, video and software. They are less about books today than they are about technology.

I have to be honest and admit I have been worrying about the future of libraries in the face of digital publishing. The recent move by publishers to increase the cost of eBooks was deliberate and unavoidable. The cost to produce eBooks is low but the challenges of getting a book produced and sold have not been diminished, meaning their costs still need to be recouped. This has led them to put the squeeze on libraries, a store house of "lending" which gradually eats into their profits (or so they say.)

This latest move by libraries to find a work-around that allows them to continue lending popular eBooks without having to ask the communities they serve for more money is genius. I hope it solves the problem so everyone gets what they want.

Of course, how often does that happen?