PRESENTATION: Resurrecting the Ebook: A media archaeological excavation of the Kindle’s development, 1930-2007.

May 25th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

I recently gave a talk for the Media History Seminar at the Institute of English Studies. I took the opportunity to link earlier ebook developments to the success of the Kindle.

Abstract: Amazon’s launch of the Kindle in 2007 was lauded as the moment when ebooks finally became economically viable for publishers. This success was facilitated by Amazon’s careful analysis of previous failed attempts to commercialize ebooks since the early 1990s, and earlier theoretical models developed since the 1930s. This presentation will explore how the Kindle’s reputation stems from a mixture of adapting pre-existing technology and the right social-technological context rather than a complete revolution in ebook design.

 

PRESENTATION: A historiography of the ebook

October 30th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I was invited to give a talk for the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh. I took the opportunity to talk through some of the methodological challenges facing researchers of ebooks.

 

PRESENTATION: The Lost Generation?: A Media Archaeology of the E-Book, 1929–2006

July 8th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Abstract: The Kindle’s launch in 2007 is considered pivotal in the transition of the eBook from marginal interest to mainstream phenomenon. This narrative marginalizes the pre-history of the eBook stemming from Bob Brown’s manifesto, The Readies, in 1929 through to Sony’s big push for public eBook acceptance with the Sony Librie in 2006. Traditional accounts of the eBook recall early failures to monetize the eBook through expensive hardware experiments from 1999 to 2006, but this ignores a wider range of precedents apparent from a media archaeological excavation of the eBook before the Kindle.

The current project traces the development of the eBook from the Kindle to its precursors outside of the dedicated hardware that typically characterizes the eBook’s incunabular period. It is clear that dedicated devices did not catch on prior to the Kindle, but this does not mean that a samizdat eBook culture did not exist. eBook reading prior to the launch of the Kindle was facilitated by applications for the portable devices such as PalmPilots and Game Boys. This media archaeological approach reveals the birth of the modern standards for eBook formats and how users were frustrated with the lack of available eBooks and often went to great lengths to create their own eBooks. This reaches its apex in the development of an eBook application for the Game Boy, where readers built a programme to read a range of titles from Robinson Crusoe to Lolita on the games console.

It is possible to see the foundations of the modern eBook from such activity, as the necessity for reflowable text when reading on a Portable Digital Assistant (PDA) led to the formation of the Open eBook Publication Structure (a precursor to the EPUB format) in 1999, and several portable devices such as the Game Boy Advance, PalmPilot and SoftBook had facilities for modems, allowing readers to receive books without using a computer, often seen as one of the core selling points of the original Kindle. Amazon regenerated the eBook marketplace by amalgamating these elements into a single package while leveraging their competitive advantage of their total dominance over online bookselling to transform the commercial eBook marketplace. Through reconstructing this 87 forgotten, and often-unauthorized history, it is possible to find a richer pre-history of the eBook than the generally established historical narrative of public hardware failures.

PRESENTATION: Mapping Amazon’s Digital Infrastructure

June 19th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Abstract: It is difficult to talk about the digitalization of the book trade without mentioning Amazon, but the constituency and scale of the retailer have not undergone large-scale critical scrutiny. Amazon’s infrastructure, including the integration of ISBNs into Amazon Standard Identification Numbers (ASINs), has shaped the book trade over last two decades, and in places, has replaced traditional sources of information such as Bowker’s Books in Print and Nielsen BookScan. Amazon thus presents a large cache of data for publishing studies, although Amazon is notoriously secretive.

The current project maps Amazon UK’s online bookselling infrastructure and offers an initial foray into how this data can be analysed to present a survey of the contemporary publishing landscape. While Amazon’s websites are a living resource that are difficult to map, there is an impetus to archive and analyse data immediately, as Amazon is not an archival resource, aptly demonstrated by their purge of pre-Kindle ebook data in 2007 and their recent closure of the public popular highlights function. To this end, the current project will provide an overview of Amazon’s digital infrastructure, followed by two practical applications: (1) tracking the used book marketplace with a focus on Vladimir Nabokov; and (2) analysing Amazon’s use a cataloguing tool for books not on sale through Amazon or third-party seller. Through these case studies, the paper aims to open conversations of how to use Amazon as a research tool as well as a research object.

PRESENTATION: Reading Automata

June 12th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Abstract: Mass digitization of text has resulted in the development of textual generators that are much more capable of writing through reading pre-existing chunks of text. While they do not understand the semantics of the text, many of these machines are capable of creating reasonably intelligible discourse through their reading and reassembly of pre-existing texts. Through targeting specific corpora (including Moby Dick and live data from a remote buoy; instructions from WikiHow; and a database of time zones), text generators and Twitterbots are creating engaging literary works. In this paper, I will theorise and historicise the development of reading automata within the wider context of the recent textual return in digital media facilitated by the development of ebooks and Twitter.

Reading automata from sprowberry

PRESENTATION: 1984 Redux: The long term materiality of the Kindle infrastructure

May 22nd, 2015 § Comments Off on PRESENTATION: 1984 Redux: The long term materiality of the Kindle infrastructure § permalink

Abstract: The launch of the Kindle in 2007 marked the arrival of the eBook as a marketable phenomenon and in the following years, the eBook marketplace has gone from strength to strength. Amazon has consolidated its position as the market leader through created a complex proprietary infrastructure that has locked users into the Kindle system. This spans the ubiquitous hardware, software, large store and range of services which constitute the Kindle brand.

This has a caveat, as it means that all the data and infrastructure is reliant on Amazon’s continual investment in the Kindle brand. Due to the cloud-based storage of the Kindle’s data and the limited lifespan of the hardware, users are reliant on Amazon’s continual support. This transition is from book-as-object to book-as-service, which has some exciting opportunities but leaves consumers, and book historians, vulnerable to losing important historical data. The removal of data is not without precedent, as a copy of George Orwell was removed from users’ Kindles directly once it was discovered the publisher did not own the rights to the novel. More recently, Amazon discontinued their Kindle Popular Highlights website which offered an annotation corpus of over one million individual highlights, which is now no longer available.

In order to understand the complex materiality of the Kindle’s infrastructure, it is important to understand how it creates a situation in which we have landed into the precarious reliance on Amazon to preserve the infrastructure. The current project explores the precarious materiality of the Kindle infrastructure and the difficulties it presents for contemporary and future book historians who wish to delineate a comprehensive account of digital book culture in the early twenty-first century. As a corollary, the paper will suggest some solutions to the problem that can be undertaken currently including the urgent need to preserve the evidence that is proliferating on the Kindle infrastructure.

PRESENTATION: Twitter as a Site of Worship

September 22nd, 2014 § Comments Off on PRESENTATION: Twitter as a Site of Worship § permalink

Abstract: Robert Darnton’s communication model of the book trade closes with a feedback loop from the reading public back to the author. Traditionally, this would have happened through private correspondence or small-scale public events. The development of large social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter has scaled up these interactions, as well as made them visible to a wider audience, as readers can directly and publicly show their affection and support for their favourite authors.

In recent years, the rise of Twitter has been linked to its successes as a marketing and news network since it functions as a one-way broadcast medium, with many authors using Twitter to engage with an audience. In Twitter parlance, the audience of a twitter count is referred to a “followers,” a quasi-religious term that demonstrates the relationship between the authors and their readers in many interactions. The Twitter platform has also opened up the possibilities for systematic research of reception, as users can mine the large dataset of tweets for mentions of a particular book or author.

While many authors only use their Twitter account for publicity reasons, if indeed, the work is not outsourced, some authors have embraced the medium as a form of communication. Margaret Atwood (@MargaretAtwood, c.450,000 followers), William Gibson (@greatdismal, c.150,000 followers), Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself, c.2,000,000 followers) and E. L. James (@E_L_James, c.450,000 followers) represent four high profile examples of authors using Twitter as both a personal and professional tool. The current project examines the messages sent publicly to the authors as evidence of contemporary readership and the ways in which these interactions demonstrate the reception of twenty-first century authors. The writers’ mixture of tweets about contemporary issues, as well as the creative process and broadcasting some fans’ requests, reveals a new and interesting way for authors to engage with their audience. The data reveals that these authors choose to engage with some elements of their contemporary readership, but other comments go as unanswered “prayers” since the overwhelming volume of requests and messages are unmanageable for an author on their own.

PRESENTATION: Indexes as Hypertext

September 5th, 2014 § Comments Off on PRESENTATION: Indexes as Hypertext § permalink

Abstract: The digital revolution has led to the development of new forms of literature, including hypertext fiction. Hypertext, most commonly known as links on the Internet, is not exclusive to digital media, but instead has a long history in print. One of the ways in which hypertext can appear in print is through creative use of indexes to form a conceptual network on top of the linear text. With reference to three novels—Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and Steven Hall’s Raw Shark Texts—this talk will demonstrate the ways in which indexes are used in fiction to encourage readers to search through the text to assemble their own interpretation of the text. These innovative uses of indexes in fiction offer a blueprint for the creative appropriations of the index in digital fiction.

POSTER: Marked E-Books and Kindle’s popular highlight culture.

July 10th, 2014 § Comments Off on POSTER: Marked E-Books and Kindle’s popular highlight culture. § permalink

You can find further information about the project here: http://www.sprowberry.com/kindle/

Abstract: The current project analyses the evidence of readership available through the public facing popular highlights feature of Amazon’s Kindle platform. In order to be considered a popular highlight, the text must be shared by three users. There are over one million quotations that meet this basic criteria and can be analyzed in similar ways to evidence of marginalia and provenance in book historical research. The present research analyses the popular highlights as a measure of various genre’s popularity as well as observing usage patterns of the highlighting and sharing features.

The static e-book has become embedded in the public’s imagination as an exemplar of the future of reading on the screen. The Kindle is one of the forerunners in the commercial e-book marketplace, encompassing a range of both software and hardware platforms and offering millions of titles. While others have begun to explore the impact of e-book culture, (Galey 2012; Lang 2012; Wu 2013; Thomas & Round 2013), the current project focuses on the traces readers leave directly on their Kindles. Amazon offer tools to share annotations and highlights of their eBooks to replicate print marginalia. The data for popular highlights is shared on a public-facing webpage (Amazon.com, Inc. 2013) that can be collected for analysis. This research offers an approach to the empirical study of reception on a previously unprecedented scale and offers an insight into what users find interesting about the material they are reading.

The data was collected using wget on the Kindle Popular Highlights website, as Amazon.com does not currently offer an API for the dataset. The project focused on the Popular Highlights feature and the metadata pertaining to the book title, author, quotation and number of highlights. While this does not provide evidence of individual readers, it can be used to analyse patterns of readership and marginalia. An initial foray produced the first 100,000 popular highlights (out of a dataset of over 1,000,000 highlights) that were produced by over 8 million shared highlights. Unfortunately this method left many artefacts when converting certain characters, so the data was cleaned and organized.

The initial results revealed some interesting patterns. The most highlighted books were primarily Young Adult (YA) fiction, literary classics, pop science and self-help. Individual passages can be highlighted more than 1,000 times, with a quotation from Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games) received over 17,000 highlights. Each genre’s annotations often fit into roughly categorized groups: literary classics and pop science produce pithy aphorisms; self-help books are quoted for their instructions; and YA generally highlighted “spoilers” and dialogue that is central to the novel’s plot. Over 90% of the quotations are under 350 characters, although occasionally readers will highlight a whole page. Since one of the core features of the popular highlight function is the ability to re-use the quotations as tweets, brevity of quotation length is expected and confirmed as 42% of the highlights are tweetable. As the number of highlights fall, the books’ genres tend to become more esoteric and the highlights become fuzzier. Some of these bear the marks of experimenting with the feature or more playful purposes, such as “THE” in the New Oxford American Dictionary receiving 73 highlights.

The analysis comes with a few caveats: (1) the Kindle is only one eBook provider and is not representative of digital reading; (2) it is unknown to what degree this data is representative of reading on the Kindle in general; (3) the data does not currently include 90% of the data; and (4) without a finer breakdown of the users’ demographics, the data can only tell us so much about what the readers are attempting to do through highlighting. Nonetheless, the Kindle Popular Highlights dataset offers a snapshot into the possible ways in which book historical research can be conducted in the early twenty-first century.

References

Amazon.com, Inc., 2013. Most Highlighted Passages of All Time. Available at: https://kindle.amazon.com/most_popular/highlights_all_time/.

Galey, A., 2012. The Enkindling Reciter: E-Books in the Bibliographical Imagination. Book History, 15(1), pp.210–247.

Lang, A. ed., 2012. From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.

Thomas, B. & Round, J., 2013. Digital Reading Network. Available at: http://www.digitalreadingnetwork.com/ [Accessed October 27, 2013].

Wu, Y.-H., 2013. Kindling, Disappearing, Reading. , 7(1). Available at: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/7/1/000115/000115.html [Accessed October 27, 2013].

PRESENTATION: Reading the Kindle’s (Non-)Readers

June 24th, 2014 § Comments Off on PRESENTATION: Reading the Kindle’s (Non-)Readers § permalink

Abstract: As readers have migrated to eBooks and similar digital forms, there has been a transformation in the manner in which they leave marks on books. With this shift, there has been a movement from the widespread ability to find evidence of individual readers towards an aggregation of this information as a monolithic entity often described as “big data,” offering little discrimination between various people. The Kindle contains a database of several million individual highlights that cannot be analysed in great detail on the individual level, but rather on a global, where all nuances and reasonable analysis become vaguer.

One way in which we can trace the reader in these new forms is by instead looking at the collective markings of a single book. Surprisingly, the most popular book to annotate is the The New Oxford American Dictionary, which has been pre-installed on all the devices sold on the US. Over 1000 people have left annotations on the dictionary, but in an atypical way, characterizing many of Leah Price’s arguments about non-responsive readers. These notes are not close reading dictionary but rather something more complex and social, as a group has formed, primarily of pseudonymous teenagers, who use the dictionary in order to chat in a space that has been unrestricted by their parents or educators.

This paper examines this pocket of activity to the degree that it is representative of all digital reading practices and evidences. As the text is transformed into a social network and data to be mined for a variety of companies, to what degree can we see these readers as representative of the new forms of reading on top of the book rather through or in to it.

“Reading the Kindle’s (Non-)Readers.” Real, ideal or implied…? The Reader in Stylistics. June 2014. University of Nottingham.