02 September 2009

On Google Books

Geoffrey Nunberg has a smart essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education on some of the limitations of Google Book Search. Plenty of people have groused about the problems they've encountered, but Nunberg gets to the heart of the problems by focusing on Google's shoddy treatment of "metadata":

I'm actually more optimistic than some of my colleagues who have criticized the settlement. Not that I'm counting on selfless public-spiritedness to motivate Google to invest the time and resources in getting this right. But I have the sense that a lot of the initial problems are due to Google's slightly clueless fumbling as it tried master a domain that turned out to be a lot more complex than the company first realized. It's clear that Google designed the system without giving much thought to the need for reliable metadata. In fact, Google's great achievement as a Web search engine was to demonstrate how easy it could be to locate useful information without attending to metadata or resorting to Yahoo-like schemes of classification. But books aren't simply vehicles for communicating information, and managing a vast library collection requires different skills, approaches, and data than those that enabled Google to dominate Web searching.

There's much to agree with there. I adore Google Books, and would have a hard time getting by without it, but they really have to devote more energy to these concerns. Here's hoping the high-profile finger-wagging will get Google to pay more attention to cataloguing.

01 September 2009

Reading over People's Shoulders

Once upon a time, the only way to get feedback on a book you wrote was to wait for published reviews. That could take a long time. Much of my writing has been in the academic world, and there it's not unusual for your first review to appear a full year after publication. In the world of trade publishing, where publishers usually send out advance copies for review, you start seeing the first few reviews a few weeks before the book is on the shelf. Still, that's typically a year after the book has been finished. I'm impatient.

Since the mid-1990s, it's been possible to track the popularity of books in Amazon.com's sales rank. Mind you, one of my books doesn't even make the top 7.5 million sellers in America, and even my current best seller is around number 250,000, so perhaps "popularity" isn't the best word. I don't think Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling have to worry about my overtaking them anytime soon.

Even in the Amazon age, though, the feedback is very limited and sporadic. But now, thanks to Google Alerts, I can now see every stray comment about my book the moment it appears on the Web — every blog post, every passing comment in a newsgroup, every reader's review on a book sales site.

This is much on my mind as The Lexicographer's Dilemma is about to be published by Walker & Co. in early November. (It's available for pre-order from Amazon.com, though it's far better to support independent booksellers whenever you can; the ABA deserves mad props.) The first professional review hasn't appeared anywhere, and yet I've been reading over the virtual shoulders of my readers for more than a month and learning what they think of it. I've found it enlightening to read comments on blogs I'd never heard of, like this one from You'll Eat It and Like It, or this one from KingTycoon on LiveJournal.

One new development that deserves attention is LibraryThing, a service that makes advance review copies available to layfolk. Of course I got an ego-boost from seeing that LexDilem was among the "really popular books" among LibraryThing participants (more than two thousand requests for thirty-five free copies), though that just means more negative reviews if the book is a dud. I suppose some authors might be upset that these readers are getting free copies instead of paying for them, but I'd just as soon see dedicated readers get their hands on the book as soon as possible if they're willing to spread the Gospel of Lynch. As of 1 September, there are six reviews on LibraryThing, and so far they're all pretty good (an average of 4.2 stars out of 5 — I'll take that).

Reading reviews and other comments by amateur reviewers is a strange experience. On the one hand, it's a treat to get a sense what real readers think about your writing; on the other, at least a few of those readers can be downright cranky. (One of my books once got a one-star review on Amazon.com because Amazon shipped it too late to be useful to the reader. I notice Amazon axed the review, though whether it was to protect my reputation or theirs is unclear.)

One reviewer (in a generous reivew) notes that "clearly [Lynch] sides with the descriptivists in most every way," which is kinda funny for someone who wrote a thoroughly prescriptive guide to grammar, style, and usage. I've generally resisted the urge to add my own comments to the blogs and discussion forums, thinking that's just a high-tech version of what Paul Fussell memorably described as the "A.B.M." — the Author's Big Mistake of responding to book reviews. But it's not easy to stay quiet, especially in a forum that begs for interaction. (I've also resisted the urge to post anonymous positive reviews of my own books on Amazon.com, the sort of thing James Boswell was doing 250 years ago.)

As I note on the page of shameless self-promotion, where I collect the more prominent professional reviews my books have received, "I'm happy that (so far) I've received no unambiguously negative reviews (though a few have had their reservations)." I suspect that LexDilem is the book that'll change that. People can be surprisingly passionate, or stubborn, about their likes and dislikes in the language, and the odds are good that some reader will be infuriated. Oh, well. It was a good run while it lasted.