Writer Ann Morgan’s Bookish Exploration of the Globe

As a way to understand more about the rest of the world, writer Ann Morgan read books from 196 countries and documented her journey.


It’s impressive enough to know people who read 50 or 100 books a year (especially considering the dismal reading statistics from the United States), but how about a year-long quest to read one book from every country in the world?

Ann Morgan has just completed this one-year exploration of the world by reading a book from each of the 195 UN-recognized nations, plus Taiwan. What began, she writes for the BBC, as an “intellectual exercise” turned into sometime much more:

“One by one, the country names on the list that had begun as an intellectual exercise at the start of the year transformed into vital, vibrant places filled with laughter, love, anger, hope and fear. Lands that had once seemed exotic and remote became close and familiar to me — places I could identify with. At its best, I learned, fiction makes the world real.”

So how did she come up with her list of 196 books? She asked people! Morgan created a blog about her project, which began in early 2012, and then started asking people for book suggestions:

“The response was amazing. Before I knew it, people all over the planet were getting in touch with ideas and offers of help. Some posted me books from their home countries. Others did hours of research on my behalf.”

Morgan calculated that she would need to read one book every 1.87 days to finish in a single year. But, as her article explains, what took as much time as the actual reading was tracking down English translations of many books on her list. If it hadn’t been for the generosity of strangers — some  sent unpublished manuscripts, others translated short stories into English or even wrote something just for Morgan to read — Morgan’s project would not have been possible.

She is now working on a book about her adventure called Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, which she describes as “part memoir, part literary criticism.” It will be published by Harvill Secker in 2015.

How uplifting to know that there are so many passionate readers and writers out there, people who are so eager to share their culture that they will write and translate with no expectation of anything in return except a warm, fuzzy feeling.

On the other hand, it’s unfortunate that so little of the world’s literature is available in English. There are a number of dedicated publishers working to change that, and I hope that as more  translations are available, more readers will find new worlds opening up to them.

So congratulations to Ann Morgan for spending an entire year reading and discovering what the world’s writers have to offer.

Hanser Verlag’s Michael Krüger on the State of Literature

Michael Krueger, publisher of Carl Hanser Verlag in Germany
Michael Krüger (Photo © Carl Hanser Verlag)

On the eve of retirement as publisher of Carl Hanser Verlag in Germany, the legendary Michael Krüger spoke with Publishing Perspectives about the current state of publishing and literature. Below, his answer to the question, “Do you think we are entering an increasingly impoverished literary age?”

“I only know there are good and interesting books, and bad ones. You can read them on paper or on the screen, I don’t care. I only get nervous when people are constantly reading second-class books, when reviewers praise third-rate books, and when booksellers put bad books in their windows. Since book publishing became a mass-market business, the quality level is constantly sinking. But there are still very good books around, in every country! The problem is that people can’t get them because they are hiding. People thought that with digitization, the good books would be easier to get. But the problem is that most of the readers love bad books! I have no explanation for the fact that modern societies have invested tons of money into schools and universities only to find out that horrible books are much more loved than the good ones…”

It’s certainly true that book discovery has only become more complex with the rise of ebooks and online bookselling. With millions of books for sale on Amazon, how can readers find the rare gem that they don’t even know they want? Recommendation algorithms from online retailers like Amazon and B&N are based on patterns, which means a reader will see books similar to what he or she has previously read — not so good for finding anything new.

Then again, some readers aren’t looking for anything new. They are looking for entertainment. Consider what Open Letter Books publisher Chad Post says about this:

“ . . . speaking in broad strokes, ‘entertainments’ tend to reinforce current dominant cultural modes, whereas ‘literature’ can upend some beliefs, ways of thinking, assumptions. Which may well explain why these books have limited sales success . . . ”

So, do “most of the readers love bad books” as Krüger says, or do they have a book discovery problem? I would argue that because readers have access to a larger selection of books than they will ever read in a lifetime and because many of them read for entertainment, they see little need to dig deeper than the recommendation algorithm, the bestseller lists and word-of-mouth recommendations from friends.

This isn’t true of all readers, obviously. There are book lovers who will seek out new books, pick through the shelves at their second-hand bookstore, and deliberately stray from the bestsellers. But we can’t expect that all readers will invest so much time and effort.

Passionate Journalism: Maria Popova’s Keynote at TOC 2013

It’s hard not to be impressed and inspired when you hear someone speak with real passion and eloquence. Watch this keynote presentation that Maria Popova of Brain Pickings gave at this year’s Tools of Change Conference, in which she encourages us to remember what journalism is all about and to consider alternatives to ad-supported journalism.

The Making of a Book GIF

Just to preface this post, I did not create a GIF of an entire book (but that would be a cool, if slightly useless, thing to do). Rather, I’m making some book-related GIFs today. I’m a sucker for a great GIF, and after I downloaded the Rapid Burst Camera app on my phone today, the obvious thing to do was make a GIF.

So I grabbed the closest book (The Island of Second Sight by Albert Vigoleis Thelen), and went to town. Not bad, eh?

turn a page

Just as the name suggests, Rapid Burst Camera takes a bunch of pictures really quickly, which gives you all the raw material you need to make a GIF. From here, there are a couple of options for creating your GIF.

Making a GIF with Rapid Burst Camera
The quickest option is to use the GIF animator that’s built into the Rapid Burst app. There are number of limited options including size and frames per second. Select what you want, wait while the app processes the photos, and out comes your animation.
Pros: Quick, easy, no fancy software needed.
Cons: No fine-tuning or control over the size of the GIF. If your file is larger than 500k, many websites including Tumblr and Facebook will only display a still image, not the animation.

Making a GIF with Photoshop
I used this method to make the GIF above. Start by downloading the photos to your computer. Then open a new Photoshop file, and drag all the photos you want to use into the new file. Each will appear as a separate layer. At this point, you’ll want to adjust the image size (Image -> Image Size). I reduced the resolution to 72 dpi and the size to 500 pixels wide. Using the animation panel (Window -> Animation), you can then create a slide per photo and adjust the amount of time per slide. To further reduce the file size, I deleted a few frames here and there. To save the GIF, go to File -> Save for Web & Devices. You’ll get a window with more options on how you want to save the file. I chose GIF 64 Dither under Presets, then reduced the dither a little more to bring the final file size below 500k. Gizmodo has good a tutorial on making a GIF from a video file.
Pros: More control, better outcome.
Cons: More steps, takes longer.

I hope to see more book-related GIFs on the web as soon as you all read this post!

Square App Accepts Mobile Credit Card Payments

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Square has arrived! Yesterday, the mobile-app-cum-credit-card-reader launched in the United States for the iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad and Android. By downloading the free app and plugging the free “square” credit card reader into the headphone jack of your smartphone, you can accept credit card payments. Your customers can leave you a tip, sign with their fingers, and receive an electronic receipt via email or SMS. The app also includes access to a secure online dashboard that displays analytics and documentation of all your sales.

The only fees the merchant pays are a percentage of the sale plus a few cents per credit card swipe.

Square was launched by Jack Dorsey, the cofounder and chairman of Twitter, who was inspired by a glass blower from St. Louis. Because the glass blower could only accept cash payments at his studio, he would lose potential customers (because who carries that much cash around these days?). Square works for bookstores, babysitters, politicians collecting campaign donations, dog groomers, plumbers on house calls, and anyone selling anything.

In my opinion, Square is a game changer. It means that more people can start selling their products and services themselves, out of their homes, on the go, or wherever they happen to be.

I’m tempted to download the app and get the card reader, and I don’t even have anything to sell!

Social Media is Not a Trick Question

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I’m attending the Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco this week! Yesterday, I got sunburned walking around in Nob Hill and near the Golden Gate Bridge, and now I’m in a dimly lit conference room listening to Aliza Sherman talk about social media strategy. (If anyone knows any good places to get breakfast around here, I’m all ears!)

I was struck by something she said in her presentation. She asked the audience, “Who are you trying to reach with social media?” Her question was followed by a deafening silence, so she responded, “this isn’t a trick question.” Of course businesses are trying to reach people who will buy their products, she said.

At many tech conferences, whenever speakers ask questions like these in reference to social media, they are looking for someone to say something that sounds old-school so the speaker can bash that person for not knowing anything about social media. You mean you want to sell people stuff on social media? That’s not how it works, idiot!

Well actually, that is how it works. However, we should rephrase this. Instead of saying you want to sell through social media, think about trying to grow your business through social media. There is a difference. You engage in social media not only to find existing and new customers, but also to tell them about your company, get their feedback, and build great brand awareness…which hopefully leads to more business.

The thing that companies struggle with is that social media usually operates a few steps away from a direct sale. Just because a company is on Twitter doesn’t mean its followers are going to be converted into paying customers.

Aliza suggests identifying several direct actions you would like your followers/fans/friends to take, other than buying something from you. Maybe you want people to give you feedback on your products. Maybe you want them to comment on your blog posts, or watch your video. Maybe you want to identify new business partners or employees from your community.

While not direct sales, these actions are no less important for a business.

It is important to make the distinction that social media is for business growth, not just sales. Sales are certainly a part of your strategy, but not the only part.

A Flash-y Anecdote

Just a quick anecdote on the Apple-Adobe confrontation that just blew up recently when Steve Jobs took his disparaging remarks about Flash to a new level. I am a huge Apple fan, but the company’s decision to exclude Flash is not so cool.

The other day, someone emailed me and several other people a link to a Wall Street Journal video. In the video Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen speaks with Alan Murray about Steve Jobs’ remarks and the ongoing rivalry between Apple and Adobe. It’s a good video and you should watch it.

Immediately, one of the other recipients of the email responded by saying he tried to watch the video on his iPad, but couldn’t because it required Flash.

Moral of the story: closed system=smaller audience (ahem, Amazon Kindle…)