November 15, 2012

They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our slightly larger jpgs!


I’m going to hell for using an image this small.

Maria Popova, whose blog Brain Pickings is a popular aggregator of internet curiosities, spent some time on a horse of Dali-esque height and absurdity yesterday after her request to use high resolution images of an illustrated book was turned down by Little, Brown.

You may remember Popova from her efforts earlier this year to persuade bloggers to use an obtuse unicode squiggle on their posts rather typing the word “via”, or her ongoing insistence that running an aggregator blog is “curation” and need be taken with the utmost seriousness.

The post in question begins normally: Popova’s topic is a book of illustrations of other books on authors’ shelves. The book, by Jane Mount, looks cute, and the authors’ musings about their shelves, also quoted extensively, are interesting enough. If anything is striking about the post it is that Popova seems to be putting nearly the entire book online. She posts photos of fifteen pages with accompanying text. For a book whose content is exactly and only more of those illustrations and text, that would seem to be excessive.

The real kicker though is at the bottom, in a hilarious postscript. It seems that when Popova wrote to ask permission to use high resolution photos (or perhaps to ask for the photos themselves — that aspect of the story is a bit unclear) an unnamed publicist at Little Brown limited her to three photos at higher resolution, or offered to put her in touch with the publisher’s licensing department.

Popova, needless to say, is not amused.

It would’ve been easy to indulge the instinct to roll my eyes at this laughable anachronism, shrug off the publisher’s voluntary self-deportation from relevance, and refuse to feature the book in righteous indignation.

I’d thought we were all clear by now: there is no instance in which you can use the word “righteous” about yourself without every reader immediately understanding that the word “self-righteous” would be more apt.

Moving along:

Instead, I choose to write about the book, but also refuse to perpetuate this hideous underbelly of the old-world publishing pantheon by virtue of tacit silence.

I’m laughing so hard even as I type this. Maria Popova is here to fight the good fight. That’s right, she’ll talk about the book, she’ll post all of these photos at a meager 600 pixels wide, but don’t expect her to do so quietly.

Maria Popova is a Luther for the internet age, taking her stand against the iniquities of only letting people post things your grandma might have to squint at a bit to read. I’m trying to be ridiculous here but she’s much better at it. I hope somebody in the Hachette licensing department gets “Hideous Underbelly” printed on their business cards tomorrow. And there’s so much more.

But it is a sign of great insecurity in the value proposition of your product when you have to place artificial barriers between it and its core user.

That is some singularly risible business jargon she’s using there. My entire job is to talk about selling books. Mine is basically the crassest position in the business. And even I don’t talk about readers as “core users.”

[Publishing] lives in an antiquated paradigm that serves neither authors nor their readers but is instead unapologetic about serving solely the publishers’ commercial interests.

It sounds as if she’s just jealous that she’s not been invited to some of our wonderful cash-swimming parties. You see, the trick is to hire starving authors to ball up the bills that rightfully belong to them, have them dump them into one of the olympic pools in the basements of every publishing office, and then laze around in them, laughing and taunting the authors we loathe so much. It really is a good time. If you were a nefarious publisher like me I’d ask you along.

To the authors and artists caught in this toxic paradigm and its false choice between going with a big publisher and never reaching an audience, I say: Take heart — there are people who will gladly support you and help you find your readers, not at the cost of your integrity or your soul,

That’s right. Jane Mount has jeopardized her soul because Little, Brown would not let Maria Popova use larger images. Somebody call the Vatican, tell them to get to work, we’re going to have to rewrite the bible.

I’m joking because Popova’s hyperbole is laughable, but there is a serious response to this. Sarah Weinman addresses it tangentially in a blog post yesterday. Popova argues (disingenuously, I think) that posting all or more of the book online would encourage, not dissuade, readers from purchasing the book. The publisher disagrees. This is not a sign of some darkness in the world, standing between the public and the colorful little drawings of book spines they deserve. It is a simple disagreement about what constitutes fair use. I side with the publisher here, that what Popova proposes is excessive, but it is just that, a minor dispute. It is to her credit that Popova did ask the publisher permission at all: many less scrupulous bloggers might not have. But to take to the rooftops and decry the “hideous underbelly” (still laughing) of the industry is absurd. Some publishers might choose to make an entire book available in order to drive sales, just as some record labels do with albums. The choice remains theirs, and to do so is a question of tactics, nothing more. Unless it is also a question of one blogger’s hilarious ire at having been refused, and her straw man devotion to “core users.”



Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.