Internet choice: June 2012

Here’s my somewhat belated monthly round-up of articles on the internet that I’ve found interesting, stimulating, annoying and, occasionally, funny. The full spectrum is available at that very quiet place, Google + .

There are more articles on the future of publishing out there than the number of raindrops we are endlessly subject to, the central question being whether content providers of words will go the way of the content providers of music, etc. Unusually, there is a readable perspective on this perennial topic at the excellent Scholarly Kitchen, a blog written by various specialist academic publishers and editors. Their advice to publishers: “If your priority is the dissemination of knowledge, then partnering within your own community to further that goal makes a lot more sense than turning over the future of scholarship to those who see it as a means of selling Kindles or iPads……So many of the current movements in the scholarly publishing space revolve around control — who holds the copyright, who gets to re-use the published material in new ways. If the research community wants to reclaim the ownership of its output, then it would be wise to truly do that, and to not merely trade one set of commercial owners for another.”

Turning to book publishing, in similarly dire straits, not enough of us appreciate – “digital is not free and easy” – as Brett Sandusky explains well in an article with the title The Biggest Lie in Publishing. Another article making the same point is at the HuffPo – “making e-books is harder than it looks” – it is not correct to assume that they should be vanishingly cheap. Random House is beginning to produce videos about what is involved in producing written and audio books.

In a vaguely related vein, Paul Bradshaw at the Online Journalism blog is writing a series of posts on how journalism education needs to keep up with the seismic changes in the industry. His first series post is about the skills gap – that is, the vast number of new (usually tech-based) skills that journalists are expected to have now compared with the old days of “rehash press release, where’s the cheque, ed?” (a style that I have actually witnessed!).

The Guardian reported the sad news that the Queen’s English society is closing due to lack of interest. Nobody cares about the correct way to write prose in an era of text messaging and Twitter. So we will no longer be told interesting snippets, such as the fact that in one of its surveys, it found that 80 per cent of English university undergraduates cannot spell.

If you like reading and book groups, you have until August to apply to join a panel for Pan Macmillan. (Via The Bookseller.)

“Bookstores are going down and taking discoverability with them” (Paid Content). Can “social reading” (interactive features and the like) perform this function? I can tell you that one solution proposed in the report, that of renaming titles so that, for example, Hamlet becomes Ghost Dad, is not going to work. Another attempt, involving “layered content”, is described in a tecchy post by Joe Wickert.

But the internet is good for discoverability of some things, so long as filtering is applied. I somehow found this article in The Smithsonian about Fritz Haber: “In 1918, Haber would be awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work in developing a method of synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen in the air—the process that enabled the production of fertilizer in quantities that revolutionized agriculture worldwide. But in the winter of 1915, Haber’s thoughts turned to annihilating the Allies. For his efforts directing a team of scientists on the front lines in World War I, he would become known as the father of chemical warfare.” Another element, bromine, is the topic of a neat little post about lethal lipstick at Sceptical Chymist, Nature Chemistry‘s blog.

The “outraged at bankers & fat cats” post for June has to be Robert Peston’s for the BBC, in which he reveals that “FTSE100 chief executives were last year awarded average total remuneration of £4.8m, a rise of 12%….at a time when earnings for the vast majority of people are stagnating and represents a record of just over 200 times average total pay in the private sector.” (Good point, but clearly the BBC does not share the values of the Queen’s English society.)

If you want more on that topic, you can read this piece in Eurozine: “From Scandinavian democracy to target of British anti-terror laws: the whole world knows about the Icelandic crash, but how did the country get itself into such a mess? Andri Snær Magnason tells a saga of privatizations, overreaching and astronomical pay checks.” (Just tipping over into July, the BBC is running a video in which uber-handsome and ubiquitous Professor Brian Cox “claimed the UK has spent more on saving banks in a year than it had on science “since Jesus”.”)

Spare a thought for those poor climate scientists. Pop Sci: “Not so much a battle as asymmetric warfare, between scientists and deniers. The scientists have science on their side. The deniers have billionaires, Republicans and talk-show hosts. The stakes are high, the tactics are nasty.”

If you’ve read this far, you might like some light relief from Gav Reads – reasons why we reviewers won’t read your self-published book (not that this will stop anyone from trying, as is evident in the comments to the post). One reason is, as described in The Guardian, the importance of good editing (not the same thing as self-editing!).

My Internet Choice columns, collected.

Internet choice: May 2012

Although I share links to interesting articles at Google +, I try to write a round-up post here once a month, to provide a little more detail of what I’ve enjoyed or found annoying over the past month online.

The Good Library blog: in an excess of Jubilee and Olympics celebrations, a succinct view of why we should instead be spending the money on books and libraries. No hope of that of course, but it’s a sentiment with which I have sympathy.

Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet, sounds as if it is a fascinating book from this brief Observer review. There is a more in-depth account in a Q&A with the author at Metropolis (for which the author is an editor), in which the book is described as “an evocative trip to the heart of the Internet, a look at both the physical connections behind the web and the complex almost ad hoc infrastructure supporting it”.

I’ve stopped reading the Language Log a good while ago as it has lost its way in a wealth of judgemental detail. Nevertheless, this post about e-book “editing” is hilarious. “The Nook edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (in its English translation) has been de-Kindled, quite literally. Every instance of the text string kindle has been replaced by Nook.” This is one of the problems with our current “spell check” generation, where nobody can spell any more as they all rely on auto-correct (see this BBC article). However good an auto-spell-checker (and my colleague Jeremy tells me that Swipe for Android is “almost making the ‘art’ of spelling redundant”) I would challenge any of them on matters such as “out” or “are” for “our”, “their” for “they’re” and so on, but now I’ve read the Language Log post, I’d also challenge it on nonsensical commercial censorship grounds!

From the plethora of (mostly silly) articles about the James Daunt/Waterstone’s decision to sell Kindles and provide free wi-fi for customers to download directly in-store, perhaps the best was one by Martyn Daniels of the UK Booksellers’ Association, who writes “the reality is that the deal is not just about digital, and online it about really knowing what your customers want and not what you think they want.” (His point being that Waterstone’s have now kissed their customers goodbye, though of course many people already browse in bookshops and order the books they want from Amazon on their smartphones while in-store.) Indeed, the commenter who writes that the next step will be that Amazon will buy Waterstone’s may have a point! For another perspective, see “James Daunt “doesn’t get” reaction to Amazon partnership, denies ever calling Amazon the “devil,” and lashes out at publishers”, an article at Melville House.

The Guardian carried an interesting comparison between the original (1963) and updated selections for the new Penguin English library.

Mad Bankers part 94. Via the BBC, “Andrew Bailey, a director of the Bank of England who will soon become the City’s top regulator, has said that free banking is dangerous and needs to be reformed by the government.” How ridiculous. Personal customers are a cheap resource for banks, as branches disappear and everyone performs their transactions with machines – yet are subject to constant targeted marketing. How about Mr Bailey doing something much more important, concerning the billions of pounds the banks have lost owing to their own greed and incompetence? Too hard for him, I suppose, whereas it is easy to flick a switch and charge personal customers unfair fees. Incidentally, there is an informative post at Sifting the Evidence blog at Nature Network, by two economics students, on real vs nominal interest rates and how the economics editor of the Sunday Times gets it wrong. And if you are really into all this stuff, or are like me and reading about it in frozen but fascinated horror, the Huffington Post has a blog on A Survivor’s Guide to the End of the Euro, by Simon Johnson.

“When the Guardian was print-only, subs had three or four deadlines a day. Now every minute of the day is a deadline.” Excellent, and true, article by the Corrections editor on the changing role of the sub.

Finally, the latest visualizations. Tornado tracking at O’Reilly Radar – beautiful. And the Guardian is creating an interactive map of Britain’s best bookshops (while they exist!) and literary locations (a better long-term bet). Take a look.

Internet choice: previous posts.

International Dagger page, and statistics news

New page at Petrona.
I have created a page on this blog (underneath the header) to list the books that have won the CWA International Dagger award since its inception in 2006. In all but one case, I have read and reviewed the winning title, so I’ve included a link to that in the list. I have also provided a summary of the judges’ comments about each book, with a link to the CWA page for that year, so you can see the shortlisted books for that year, together with the judges’ views on them. For those who really are true collectors, I’ve also included links to the Euro Crime listings of all the eligible titles for each year from 2006 on – posts which include links to Euro Crime reviews of many of these books.

Amazon top 500 reviewer!
The other day, I achieved my longstanding goal of becoming a “top 500″ Amazon reviewer – an accolade that I believe means one’s reviews are more seriously regarded. I am not sure precisely how this ranking is calculated, but it is at least in part due to other readers marking one’s review as “helpful”. At time of writing, 87 per cent (597 of 684) of comments on my reviews are “helpful” (the rest are “unhelpful” votes, at least some of which will be from disgruntled authors and/or publicists!), so I’d like to thank everyone and anyone who has voted one of my reviews helpful, and hence propelled my reviews up the rankings. For those interested, here are my 200-plus reviews and nine “Listmania” lists of carefully filtered reading recommendations. Any further “helpful” votes are very welcome indeed!

Google plus and sharing
The icon “g+1″ appears on many blog posts (usually at the bottom) and newspaper articles now. If you’ve enjoyed reading an article, it is well worth clicking on the icon as this will increase the page rank given to the article by Google, and hence make it more visible in searches. You can just click on the icon, you do not have to have a G+ account or “share on G+” as prompted, a “+1″ is all that is needed to optimise for search. I have some time ago created a Google+ crime fiction page – when I like an article I add a link to that page and, in the persona of “crime fiction page” click on the “g+1″ icon there, as well (that’s two votes!). If you have a Google + account you can put the crime fiction page into one of your circles, then you can share your own or any other article (with the g+1 icon) to the crime-fiction page very easily. Google + may not have taken off as a social medium yet, but when it does, crime fiction is ready!
Google + crime fiction page.

Is it a mad, bad, Amazon world?

Do you know, I really don’t mind that Amazon is being allowed to acquire the Book Depository* by the UK office of fair trading. Competition is a healthy thing, and it would have been better if the BD could have carried on in business independently. But as it couldn’t, the acquisition is not a bad thing – certainly not the horror some have portrayed it to be. Amazon has been around for a while now and as a reader I have benefitted from its presence immensely. (As have customers using or buying content from Amazon’s other partners, such as the Internet Movie Database, LoveFilm or Audible.)

Similarly, I don’t mind that Amazon is publishing books. As a reader, I can judge an Amazon book just as easily as any other kind of book. Existing publishers may see this as a threat just as booksellers have suffered at the hands of Amazon – through not acting quickly enough themselves to provide the service to their readers that Amazon came along and did instead.

Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t believe in monopolies and I would prefer it that Amazon’s competitors could equal or better its service. But so far, Amazon has done a pretty good job for readers. I might like it to do things a bit differently in some details, eg provide a translated fiction category, or ensure that independently published books are more clearly delineated from self-published books. But these are details. Amazon isn’t just about making vast amounts of money (its recent figures show just how much it has invested in e-readers at the expense of profits), it is about customer service. It has always encouraged customer rankings and comments on its website, long before most sales sites ever dreamed of it – and I, as a reader, also benefit from this, or I can ignore the social side of Amazon if I like, it is up to me. Buying books at Amazon is simple and pleasant, and if the price goes down between ordering and delivery, they drop it to the lower price (how many “street” booksellers would price-match an ordered book in this way? It has never happened to me).

Like many people, I love browsing in bookshops – an opportunity that is increasingly rare in many UK towns that have only a Waterstone’s branch or not even that. Yet I flinch at paying twice as much for a book today in a “real” bookshop that I know I can get on Amazon tomorrow. I like the fact that if one of my daughters wants an obscure, out-of-print book “The Last Years of Austria-Hungary: A Multi-national Experiment in Early Twentieth-century Europe (Exeter Studies in History)” I can get it next day from Amazon whereas if I email the publisher direct to enquire how to get hold of it I receive no response after an initial acknowledgement. I like the fact that I can obtain “The Judgement of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism” the day after another daughter asks me about it one evening – another out of print book that is available for one-third of the list price, new, at Amazon via a third-party seller at no postage cost if you are in Amazon Prime. If I wanted this book and went to a real bookshop, I would not experience this service.

Amazon reminds me of our poor milkman, who tried to stop us cancelling our delivery 15 years ago, when we finally gave up on him. Despite his service promises, he regularly arrived after we had left for work in the morning, hence consigning us to discovering sour milk outside our door in the evenings as there was no method to stop late deliveries, leaving us milk-less (these were the days when all the shops in a 5-mile radius were closed by the time we got home in the evening). He charged twice the price of the supermarkets. He told us that if everyone cancelled their milk deliveries his industry would collapse and the supermarkets would up their prices to more than he was charging. This has not, yet, turned out to be true. Not only that, but we now have the choice of five supermarkets (four of them small ones) within walking distance that sell milk and stay open until quite or very late at night. I hope that I can have the same faith in Amazon. At any rate, excuse me for not joining in the general condemnation of the Amazon-Book Depository merger.

* From PaidContent: Despite industry organizations’ fears that Amazon’s acquisition of UK online bookseller The Book Depository will create a de facto monopoly, the Office of Fair Trading is approving the merger. In the OFT’s view, The Book Depository is so small that Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) is not buying a real competitor. The OFT found that “Amazon’s share of the UK online book market was strong,” but TBD’s accounted for only “between two and four percent of online retailing” of hardcover books in the UK. The OFT also said that most of TBD’s growth was taking place in overseas markets, not in the UK.

Crime fiction from Norway

Having been away for a few days since the tragic and terrible events in Norway, I have seen the news coverage shift into “features” on the topic, one of which has centred on Norway’s crime-fiction authors and whether they have or could cover the type of incident that occurred, or the problems with its society that gave rise to it. Examples include Jakob Stougaard at the Nordic Noir book blog, Brian Oliver in The Observer and Jo Nesbo in the New York Times (translated by Tiina Nunnally).

As is so often the case, many of these questions are non-questions. Norwegian society is no different at some granular level from any other society. Putting laws or masses of anti-terrorist security in place has not stopped warped individuals or groups from committing terrible hate crimes – which have occurred recently in the USA, the UK, Sweden, Italy, Germany and Spain as well as in less stable regimes. All societies are a mix of those who have no time for violence against a child, adult or group; and those who find at least one of these abhorrent activities justifiable under some circumstances.

But turning from political-social observations – not my strong point! – to crime fiction which I do know a bit about, I thought it might be interesting to look at Norwegian crime-fiction authors to see whether they have, in fact, been blissfully unaware of the “hate” problems that beset individuals or groups in their country or elsewhere, or whether they have been confronting these issues in the same way as done by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo for Sweden. These authors wrote a ten-book series with the umbrella title The Story of a Crime, which together formed a blistering criticism of the 1970s welfare state. The books are dated in some respects, not least their espousal of Marxism, but setting aside the authors’ “solution”, they are marvellous depictions of the flaws in that particular society and its organised structures. Since then, many authors have been inspired by these books – I would say that if you only read one crime fiction series in your life, make it this one, as all the elements are there.

But returning to Norway. The magnificent Euro Crime database lists authors from the region, which I’ve used over the past few years to discover many authors from this country, together with their wonderful translators. Here are a few of them, with my take on their ability to assess human nature (as opposed to them being blinkered by living in a paradise!).

Gunnar Staalesen. Perhaps the most clear carrier of the Sjowall-Wahloo baton, Staalesen started his series about PI Varg Veum back in the 1970s just about when Martin Beck was hanging up his metaphorical truncheon. Only four of the approx 20 books have so far been translated, of which I’ve read the three that are in print. Varg Veum is an ex-social worker; many of his cases involve damaged children (or those who were damaged as children), as he carries out his Philip Marlowe-like investigations. He’s at odds somewhat with the Bergen police force, but comes to an uneasy alliance with them as he’s pretty good at solving crimes, partly because of his inside knowledge of how the welfare system works and how it is abused. If anyone thinks that Norwegian crime authors have their heads in the sands, they would immediately be disabused by reading these hard-hitting, well-constructed stories. Veum is, apparently, getting rather old now but luckily in the first translated book he has a young son who is now of an age to be able to succeed him – or so the author has hinted on his recent trip to the UK.

Anne Holt has written four books about a profiler and psychology academic Johanne Vik and her partner, senior policeman Adam Stubo (whose Norwegian name is not Adam but got lost in translation!). This series perhaps comes closest of the Norwegian books I’ve read to an analysis of organised “hate” crime, in that Johanne has spent time in Quantico as an FBI profiler and Adam is in the national police squad that takes over investigations of serious crimes from local forces. Part of the charm of this series is the domestic juggling that Johanne, in particular, has to do (which unfortunately, like other fictional characters in her situation seems to make her a target for men and women to dislike – don’t people realise how hard it is to be a good parent – in her case one of her children has specialist needs – and hold down a high-maintenance job?). In the last two books in this series the author explores the topic of organised “hate” crime- in Death in Oslo the topic is the kidnapping of the US president on a state visit to Norway; and in Fear Not the topic is the targeting of victims on racial or “moralistic” grounds, but at the end of the day, for profit. Fear Not contains a section that analyses this problem in a way that is separate from the rest of the novel, and is quite fascinating. Anne Holt herself is an ex-lawyer who was once Norway’s justice minister, so she is confident and persuasive when writing about these topics. She has written another, longer series about Hanne Wilhelmsen, a police officer seriously wounded in the course of duty so confined to a wheelchair. So far, only one of this series has been translated, and it’s a late one (though Hanne is a minor character in some of the Vik/Stubo books), so the jury is still out for this second series as far as English language readers are concerned.

Frode Grytten is a Norwegian author probably nobody has heard of. So far he has written one very good novel, The Shadow in the River, about a freelance journalist living in a decaying industrial town called Odda. He ends up investigating an apparent racially inspired crime, and in the process uncovers plenty of miserable prejudice and lack of integrity. This novel is highly recommended, written by someone with a clear perception of some of society’s ills. I hope the author writes more books.

Ella Griffiths wrote two novels back in the 1980s about two Oslo police detective brothers. (She also published a collection of short stories, one of which was used for one of the Roald Dahl-inspired Tales from the Unexpected TV series.) Sadly these books are not in print but I hope some enterprising publisher will make e-versions of them at least. Murder on Page Three and The Water Widow pull no punches in their depiction of family break-ups, drug addiction and so on. No idealistic society here, in these brisk and engaging novels.

Karin Fossum. Often called “Norway’s queen of crime”, Fossum has had nine books translated into English since 2002, all of which I have read. These novels are often rather like fables or allegories, set in country villages, but with a really sharp splinter. They address “small” crimes against individuals, and follow the consequences, which usually spiral out of control. These novels are short and written with a deceptive simplicity which makes the punch, when it comes, land very heavily. Fossum’s books are very sad indeed, and do not depict a very happy world. Nominally, most of them are police procedurals involving Inspector Sejer and his younger sidekick Jacob Skarre, but the men usually function in a subsidiary capacity, to keep the plot moving or to debate issues such as whether paedophiles can or should be rehabilitated into society. Very bleak, but rewarding, tales in which muddled up racial prejudice is but one element in a rich mix of awfulness.

K. O. Dahl is an underrated author who writes very good Oslo-based police procedurals. Reading them in chronological (as opposed to translated) order helps, as Gunnerstrada and Frolich, grimly funny individuals, investigate crimes of drug addiction, the hidden past of World War II, and other similar matters. The first book available in translation, The Fourth Man (featuring a befuddled Frolich), is not a patch on the next two, The Last Fix and The Man in the Window, which are great traditional police procedurals with a bleak heart and strong characterisation.

Pernille Rygg wrote a wonderful book, The Butterfly Effect, about a young woman who takes over a case from her recently dead father, a private detective. She’s a psychologist with supposed personality problems, what is more she hates her bourgeois mother and stepfather, has a transvestite boyfriend, and gets tangled up with witches and satanic sects. Unfortunately, the second novel, The Golden Section, did not fulfil the promise of the first and so far as I know the author has not written more. But The Butterfly Effect (1995) certainly puts paid to the idea that Norwegian writers were or are unaware of the seamier side of society and some individuals within it.

Jo Nesbo, currently the most fashionable and best-selling Norwegian author, and of these examples the only one who writes pure thrillers. The main character is Harry Hole of the Oslo (again) police, a man on an increasingly suicidal track but with a great sense of humour. As well as his over-elaborate but rollercoasting, searing plots, Nesbo addresses all the contemporary issues of crime fiction – Norway’s secret World War II past (The Redbreast), refugees from the former Yugoslavia (The Redeemer), the Russian mafia (Nemesis) and religious sects (The Devil’s Star) are all grist for Nesbo’s mill, as well as Harry’s relationships with his colleagues and doomed attempts at finding peace in his off-duty life. Nesbo’s two most recently translated titles, The Snowman and The Leopard, have focused more on the serial killer/gruesome torture end of the genre, which sadly seems to have contributed to his international popularity, but I hope he will return to more interesting and individual themes in future.

All these novels are bought to use by wonderful translators who deserve our (English speakers’) thanks for their efforts – Don Bartlett, Charlotte Barslund, Kari Dickson, Joan Tate, Tiina Nunnally/Felicity David, Robert Ferguson, Margaret Amassian, Hal Sutcliffe, Basil J Cowlishaw, K E Semmel, and others. Our gratitude is due to them for enabling us to read these authors’ books.

One final comment – one could look at other nations’ crime fiction – England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Denmark and so on, and find as many books that address difficult, unpleasant but real issues in society as well as featuring good plotting, characterisation and stories. A sense of place marks a good novel, of course, but though place provides a specific snapshot, the issues faced by us are common ones wherever we live. Crime fiction provides a most appropriate lens with which to examine such matters, often being well ahead of the curve, while enjoying a good story as we go.

Above is a brief synopsis of books I’ve read by Norwegian authors. There are more authors and books from the region that I have not read, of course, which can be investigated via the excellent Euro Crime listing.

The good, the bad and the Twitter

I have long had an ambivalent relationship with Twitter – I can write that because I joined it on day 1 of its existence, but did not use my account for a year or two because I did not see the point. Two things happened: Twitter began to attract more people/accounts of interest to me; and applications such as Thwirl and Tweetdeck were developed that made it nice to use instead of constantly crashing and being clunky. But using Twitter regularly bought up another problem that I am always experiencing on the Internet – dual work/non-work personae. I don’t feel the need to keep the two identities secret from each other, but I do want them to be separate and the Internet is making this harder and harder with every device you use seeming to be obsessed with hooking you up with all your “friends” by default, whether they are an actual friend or someone from whom you once bought a second-hand book via Amazon six years ago (or worse, your online bank). Hence this need for separation was not a point that seemed an uncontrollable issue* in the early days of Twitter, as this social media glue mania was not as fully realised as today. So I deleted my account.

Some time later, owing to a request from my employer, I invented two new accounts. In one I tweet in one of my work roles; in the other I tweet as myself (@Petrona_) – which is the account you can follow and read as a mini-blog on the right here. (I wasn’t asked to tweet as myself by my employer! But I took advantage of setting up the work account to also set up a ‘home’ one.)

All this preamble is getting around to me saying that I’ve been on Twitter for as long as it is possible to have been on it, albeit intermittently, and I have some ideas about what makes someone an interesting person or organisation I think worth following, and what does not. (The learning process never ends. I have recently “unfollowed” two accounts and my Twitter experience is immeasurably more relaxed and less irritating as a result). And this is why I decided to write this post (rant?) about my own Twitter likes and dislikes. I find that the only way Twitter is bearable or even pleasant is to be ruthless about filtering! So here is what I like/dislike, and hence who I follow/unfollow.

- I like a neat, personalised summary tweet (with a link to a full article if tweeting about an article) – not a link with no information about what it is or why it is of interest.
- I like tweets about something your readers might be interested in – not a stream of consciousness of each minute of your day. I don’t want to read about your every cup of tea, etc, however much I may like you otherwise.
- I don’t like very frequent tweeting (I prefer reading someone’s ten tweets a day to reading a hundred).
- Promoting yourself is fine if done in moderation, especially if you are funny about it; constant self promotion is boring.
- Promoting your product is fine – if done in moderation and not exclusively, and your affiliation openly stated.
- I like humour and jokes, but not frequent swearing and use of obscenities.
- Tweeting the same post two or three times to catch different time zones is fine, constant repeats are not.
- If you join in “me too” waves of Twitter-hate against a person/organisation, or other momentary hysteria, I’m unfollowing you however justified your cause.
- If you are tweeting on behalf of an employer or organisation, I like it if you inject a bit of personality and don’t come over as too “party line”.
- Tweeting about events you’ve attended in a way that excludes followers reads like boasting, I prefer either not to know or to know something that shares the experience.
- If you want to moan about your hard life, fine, but not too often and vary your complaints with other material – it’s tough for everyone!
- I don’t like “follow Fridays” and other clogging-up activities (eg 20 simultaneous tweets about the page you are on on 20 different books, via GoodReads wonky RSS export!). I have never yet clicked on a link in someone’s FF list and I don’t know why I’d want to read a tweet about what page of a book someone is on.
- On the other hand I’m happy for you to tweet your blog posts, so long as that’s not all you do on Twitter (because if so I won’t follow you on Twitter but will use my RSS reader where they are all saved up for when I want to read them).
- I quite like it when someone decides to do a live-tweet of an event and warns followers in advance so that one can temporarily unfollow until the hashtag-fest is over!

Twittering is like a conversation as many have said – it is a two-way street. So the twitterers I like best are those who behave like human beings – who vary their links to their blogs or books they are publishing (say) with other material, and who interact rather than broadcast. Take all the above with a pinch of salt, though, it’s just my view and I’m probably not a typical Twitter user. Each to his/her own.

Lots of people write books, Storifys and all kinds of things about Twitter of course and this post is but a minidrop in the ocean. However, it is worth drawing attention to Nicola Morgan’s blog and associated upcoming e-book Tweet Right – aimed at authors but I am sure will apply to anyone.

[* Which is it is now. I've recently been given a smartphone but it is too smart. I haven't been able to work out how to use it as a phone, but it automatically has merged everyone I've ever interacted with on email and every social media site out there and gives me all their updates, "likes", etc... aargh! - and I am definitely not "smart" enough to find the delete option - yet.]

Petrona’s choice from the Internet (25 May)

What are the essential books of the last decade? Jackie of Farm Lane books entered and won a competition by Penguin Essentials which asked bloggers to suggest their own favourites. Jackie’s excellent selection is here. Her prize (pictured at post) is the entire Penguin Essentials series – but I am wondering whether I should read some of the books she’s chosen as I’ve only read a few of them. I would be quite hard-pressed to decide on a few essential books from the past decade as I haven’t read enough “good” (literary) ones, unlike previous decades. But I’ll think on it.

Some good book reviews I read recently: Work in Progress reviews Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, a book I enjoyed very much years ago; Georgina Phipps of Allison and Busby finishes her epic review/reading summary of War and Peace (Tolstoy), a marvellous series of posts that bought the book back to me (I read it when I was 18 and about to go to college); and there’s another old favourite reviewed (superbly) at A Penguin A Week, The Last Tresilians by J I M Stewart (which I read when I was about 11 and understood very little! My father had all the Michael Innes and J I M Stewarts on his shelf in the attic which I read my way through at that time).

There’s a lot of reaction to the announcement of an eventual buyer for Waterstone’s bookshops, a deal that includes James Daunt of the highly-regarded independent chain. See this Guardian article, for example. This piece provides links to Waterstone’s and Daunt’s current websites, and asks which is better. It’s a no-brainer, of course the Daunt one is much more appealing and reader-friendly. However, this isn’t the point. The books featured on the Daunt homepage, or in a newly “independent” Waterstone’s branch, are available on Amazon for half the price in some cases, and cheaper than the Waterstone’s/Daunt price in virtually all of them. This is what Waterstone’s has to compete with – however attractive a website or bookshop, most of the sales are going to be made by Amazon or the Book Depository or a few other sites. I don’t see how real-world bookshops can seriously compete, sadly (I like both forms of book buying but I am not going to pay twice as much for a book just because I like the shop).

Paul Wakely of the BBC explains why publishers like his and my own company have to be so careful about user-generated comments on their websites, even though the same comments are all over Twitter, people’s own blogs, et al. The England and Wales law is enough to make any company with a physical office in either country relocate to California or the Cayman Islands. (It isn’t the going to court that is so much of a worry as the vast costs of dealing with frivolous threats and preparing due diligence possible defences.) The England/Wales libel laws need to change, which won’t happen by users getting cross because their comments have been removed, but it might happen if the same users (if they live in the UK) lobby their MP to support the current bill (awaiting a reading) – see Sense About Science. On a related topic, it is heartening to read (Economist), assuming that more people will believe it, that alternative medicine is 95 per cent ineffective, compared with placebos which can “work” a lot more often. (Or, “easy ways to save your money”.)

Brief links.

Excellent post about why being quiet does not mean being “not smart”. (Female Science Professor)

Books (150,000 of them) from the sixteenth and seventeenth century can now be seen online in full colour, thanks to the partnership between Google Books and various national or leading libraries. They’ve also scanned 450,000 books from the eighteenth century. (Inside Google books).

Dinosaur feathers? No, kiwi DNA preserved in Maori cloaks reveals the origins and history of the revered textiles (Nature News).

Not in front of the children (Nicci French blog). You just have to read this – incredibly awful parenting and a great (book-related) punchline.

I had to laugh at the £3.50 Waitrose lettuce leaf, though this writer with an eating disorder did not find it so amusing, thinking it gives the wrong message to young women.

Petrona’s choice from the Internet (12 May)

One important post on the Internet is that of my daughters, who are running the “race for life” next month for a worthy charity close to our family’s heart. Please support them if you can – the three of them range from a regular marathon runner, through a tennis player, to someone who has never run a long(ish) distance before. They and I would very much appreciate your support. Please go here to their (international) donation page. Thank you so much.

Onto topics more usual for this blog. Bookish, to launch this summer, is the latest publishers’ initiative to encourage readers to buy books from their websites, which very few do currently (probably because most publishers’ websites are hopeless and their prices and/or e-commerce do not compare with sites such as Amazon). According to the New York Times, the one-stop site will be a mix of recommendations, reviews (by visitors) and features. I have already participated in several similar initiatives which have withered mainly due to lack of sufficient users or content, so it isn’t clear to me how Bookish will be better than those, or better than what one can do currently on a well-used, focused site like Amazon or Goodreads.

A Swedish newspaper has bucked the trend and boosted its circulation by being more ambitious editorially! (As well as various cost-cutting and efficiency initiatives.) Not only is this great news but the description of Svenska Dagbladet, described as an “upmarket tabloid”, reminds me strongly of the Annika Bengzton novels by Liza Marklund. One can almost imagine Annika as one of those journalists. Story in The Guardian.

There’s a nice post from Nicola Morgan who is preparing a booklet called How to Tweet right, about how and why to use Twitter. She is offering to list Twitter users in her index of recommended people to follow – instructions in the post at the link if you want to be included.

Unsurprisingly, publishers are now finding that e-books are contributing a significant amount to their total sales. (See also: Publishing’s paper problem and how to future-proof the industry.) What they need to do sooner rather than later is to sort out a more rational sales method, one that does not discriminate for or against readers from particular geographical regions. If they can do anything about pricing that would also be great, but those who rail against the high price of new e-books compared to the equivalent hardback need to acknowledge that cost is not only about distribution.

For those readers like me who are getting increasingly annoyed by the “noise” of self-published e-books when trying to look through Amazon listings, here’s a slightly unwelcome post about how tough it is to be an author of such a book. Amazon have told me that it cannot “kitemark” its e-books on the listing page as to whether the title is independently (professionally)- or self-published. The customer has to click through and look at each book’s product page (and even there, one cannot tell from the stated “publisher”, one has to check the blurb to be sure-ish). Given the plethora of these books, together with the large amount of “mini” books by established authors cashing in on the format’s flexibility to provide us with short stories, chapters or spin-offs, I’m pretty much at the point of deciding not to buy an e-book unless I know in advance which title I want to look at, as it is all too time-consuming and overwhelming.

Links in brief.

A book editor asks: what is suspense?

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a backlist book.

The four kinds of newspaper headline – and the health story.

Operation sandwich: the secret of the new Kindle.

Bad news, as a publisher outsources its subediting for two of Australia’s largest newspapers.

Petrona’s choice from the Internet (30 April)

Scott Adams’s take on the ludicrous “birther” issue in the USA (is President Obama, in fact, American? – honestly!) made me smile this week: “I think the birther issue is good for the country. A modern republic needs some simple and unimportant issues to keep its citizens invested in the process. The important issues of our time are far too complicated for the average person, and I count myself in that group. We need a few simple issues so we can be part of the political conversation without hurting anything. The last thing our system of government needs is regular citizens getting involved in Middle East strategy, healthcare reform, the budget, climate change, or anything else that might matter.” This point reminds me a little of the referendum in the UK next week, and associated current debate, in which we are to be invited to vote on our electoral system.

I enjoyed this post by James Wilsden, the director Royal Society’s science policy centre, in which he looks at how quickly China might become a world leader in science and innovation, based in part on how quickly the country came from nothing in the sporting sphere. Just look at that graph comparing countries’ projected spending on R&D! (Research and development.)

The Guardian asks its readers to name their favourite literary pseudonyms, the peg being the shortlisting for the Orwell (a pseudonym in itself of course) prize of “Death to the Dictator! Witnessing Iran’s election and the Crippling of the Islamic Republic” by “Afsaneh Moqadam”. Nominations include Benjamin Black, Flann O’Brien/Myles na gCopaleen (both pseudonyms of the same person), Currer Bell (and presumably Ellis and Acton), Lewis Carroll, Richard Bachman, Saki, etc. There are lots of names in the comments field, plus the usual Guardian comment pseudo-(intellectual this time) bickering.

Moving to something a bit more substantial, there’s a fascinating “guest” post at O’Reilly Radar about the use of linked data to examine the US Civil War on its 150th anniversary. By “linked” data they mean connecting data held on individual museums and historic sites, with the aim of making historical data both more discoverable and “interoperable” (the goal of many an open data project). The post is by two of the project organisers and well worth reading.

The latest back-to-front application of Twitter came to my notice – Storify. So you can write lots of 140-word tweets, then use Storify to combine them into a post. Hmm, what is blogging, exactly? A day or two after I read about this application, I saw it used for the first time in my own experience – when Chris Mims Tweeted the story of how he helped to establish the scientific blogging network for Seed Media, Inc. (These tweets were stimulated by the sale of the platform to National Geographic). See more about that here, if you are interested in this storm in a teacup.

A few brief links:

I was so impressed by the sheer magnitude and effort of Michael Sheen’s 72-hour The Passion in the streets and environs of Port Talbot, Wales. Lyn Gardner writes it up.

The Good Library blog has a passionate list of bullet points about what a good nationwide library service “could have done”. Broadly, who could disagree, though some of his points are plain wrong, most notably that people who work in libraries are overpaid whereas the truth is the opposite. Unfortunately, these sorts of incorrect details can undermine the real force of the main argument, as well as alienating many of those who feel the same and who happen to work in libraries!

Amazon is not the publisher’s enemy. A good counter-argument to that made last week by the small publisher Linen Press, whose owner said that every book sold through Amazon cost her more money than it took to produce the book.

Here’s an excellent review of Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen, at Shade Point.

The dark, disturbing genius of Philip Ridley. Indeed.

Mrs Peabody Investigates: crime novels that make you want to rant: Field Grey by Philip Kerr.

How to kill e-book piracy.

Translators must read with their ears.

Will books vanish along with bookshops? and Top 20 Facebook apps for book lovers.

Petrona’s choice from the Internet (18 April)

DRM, or “digital rights management”, is one of those topics that never ceases to generate heat in online discussions. Here’s a good post at O’Reilly Radar by Joe Wikert, in which he gives four reasons why DRM is like airport security: false sense of security; treats everyone like a criminal; is highly inefficient; and introduces silly limitations. Junk it, is his advice. For a consumer, it is annoying to pay more for an ebook than for a print hardback (partly for tax reasons), and then not to be able to loan it to anyone. It is also annoying to know that an ebook can be downloaded by a reader in one part of the world but not another. (See also Piracy adding to publishers’ digital costs at The Bookseller blog.) For my part, I seem to have stopped reading books in the e-format, pretty much, unless I see a book I’m about to buy in print on sale in e-form very cheaply. Even that assertion does not always hold, for example I’ve been shelling out £6 or £7 a go for Anthony Trollope books which are free in e-format (thanks to the Gutenberg project). I think it’s their sheer length that puts me off reading them on screen. And, returning to a point made above, the fact that someone else might want to read them as well as me. The Gutenberg project, incidentally, has just released its 30,000th English language book. DRM eat your heart out!

There is a fascinating slide presentation by Paul Adams, ex-Google and now at Facebook, about “how real social networks work, and why online social networks leave us feeling exposed and awkward”. (The slide show is embedded at Scholarly Kitchen but was presumably originally uploaded somewhere else.) The points are obvious but very well-put together and convincing. Or at least, they are in the first 30 or so slides, I got the message by then and did not progress through to slide 224, though I am sure they are all very good. In a sort-of similar point on a different topic, Alex Howard (at O’Reilly Radar again) argues that as “we all struggle to make sense of a world rapidly changed by technological disruption, the institutions that preserve cultural memory are becoming even more important.” He uses a museum project, Ignite Smithsonian, as an example.

How book publishing has changed since 1984 – this is a great article by Peter Osnos as he looks back “at an age of old retail and indie bookstores, before computers, celebrity memoirs, and megachains came to dominate the literary world.” And it isn’t only book publishing that’s changing. In the wake of its recent sale to AOL, The Huffington Post is being sued for back-pay by 9000 of its bloggers, who previously wrote for nothing.

Some nice book reviews this week: What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn (review at Reactions to Reading); Rupture (1000 Cuts) by Simon Lelic (review at Mysteries in Paradise); and Hotel Bosphorus by Esmahan Aykol (review at A Work in Progress).

Short links to posts I liked this week:

Help! I need a publisher. Have you been to Oxford? (Nicola Morgan)

London Book Fair vote shows that publishers are still relevant (Future ebook)

Novelists: What are you trying to accomplish? (Mysterious Matters)

Huh?! Faber (and Marcus Chown) to answer science’s biggest questions in tweets. (Bookseller)

Stupid, stupid. Want to avoid a retraction? Hire a medical writer, say medical writers. (Retraction Watch)

Even more stupid. Despite demand, parents urged not to use direct-to-consumer genetics tests on their kids. (Spoonful of Medicine)