Internet killed the paperback star

Few months ago I had a very heated argument with a guy from France. He insisted on saying that I never published the books that I wrote since he was not able to find them in Internet by ISBN. It was probably only a provocation, of course, since it is not so difficult to find my books in Internet, both on the publisher sites and in the major Italian on-line bookstore, but it was founded on a fact too: most of the search engine for books are based on few databases owned by a limited number of providers, and very few of them list Italian books. Generally speaking, few of them list non-English books. The most famous one is probably Amazon. Now, if you search for 88-344-1882-4 in Amazon you will get no result. So, it looks like that book does not exist! Curious, isn’t it, since I have that volume just now in front of me on my table, and it is not a self-published book but it was published by one of the most famous Italian publishers of fantasy novels, the Armenia Publishing Group.

Of course I am not a famous writer, so you may think that Amazon will list only the most popular titles. OK, let us make an experiment: look in Amazon for 88-045-2046-9. No result again. Another unknown Italian author? Well, not really: that code is the ISBN of "Tutte le Cosmicomiche" by Italo Calvino, one of the most famous modern Italian writers, published by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, one of the most important publishers in Italy! Do you still think that such a book does not exist since it is not in Amazon? Search for 01-562-2600-6. Got it: "Cosmicomics" by Italo Calvino, published by Harvest Books! Of course it is the English translation of the original work, since Calvino wrote it in Italian language. So, here is the first problem: not all Italian books are listed in Amazon, even if the author or the publishers are very famous. Well, I feel better. It looks like Calvino has my same problems. Note, anyway, that you can find a lot of information on Calvino in Internet, but that a significant percentage is in English. Only 60,000 pages out of more than 900,000 are in Italian language. If fame would be measured only by the number of pages in the Calvino’s language, that is, Italian, he would have a rating lower than Dan Brown, who can count on more than 6 million pages.

If you are really determined to find any Italian books, anyway — probably that French guy was not — you may want to try another book finder, but be careful: a lot of them use Amazon catalog under the cover, so not necessarily changing the finder will change the result. Fortunately there are now various services which are indexing non-English books too. One of the best ones is BookFinder which indexed more than 150 million books. Try it, and you will find both "La Lama Nera" and "Tutte le Cosmicomiche". So, may Calvino and me heave a sigh of relief? Not yet. Even in Bookfinder a lot of books are missing. Why? Because many books are out of catalogs, they are no more for sale, and since book search services are usually provided by companies who are interested to sell books, they are not interested to index out of sale books. But can you say that a book does not exist simply because it is out of sale? I have more than 5,000 books on my shelves. Most of them are no more available in the bookstores. Not just those specific editions, but the titles themselves, since no new editions were published. They are great books from great authors. May you say that they do not exist? That they have never been published? Of course you cannot. But this is what you may say if you rely on Internet only. They cannot be found by search, so they do not exist. Simple, isn’t it?

You may think this is a problem related to English sites only, but this is not true. Let us visit an Italian popular bookshop, IBS, and let us search for 88-344-1882-4 again. No result again, and now we are in an Italian bookshop. So what? Well, try now to search for La Lama Nera or my family name. Got it! Why? Because ISBN is not so popular in Italy, so a lot of bookshop do not use it. Up to few years ago most of Italian books did not even have an ISBN identifier. At least a third of the books on my shelves have no ISBN code. Even nowadays that all published books use 10-digit ISBN code or the new 13-digits EAN code, if you go to an Italian bookshop — a real shop, not an on-line one — and you ask for a book, they expect you give them the author’s name and the title, not ISBN, to search into their digital catalogues.

Therefore, assuming that a book does not exists or that an author did not write or publish a work because you cannot find it in Internet is totally wrong. However this is exactly what more and more people, especially younger ones, think. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. One year ago I was invited by a friend to his house. He had a very beautiful painting from a very good Italian artist, Giannetto Schneider Graziosi. His watercolors are masterpieces. He has no site in Internet and, as far as I know, he is not interested to have it. He is also not interested to sell paintings by web. In fact, he is used to sell them in the traditional way, that is, to people he can see and speak with. So you will not find any image of his works in the web, nor you will ever find his name. Does he exist? Is he a good artist? Surely he is, but not for those ones who think that search engines are a reliable way to estimate the rating of artists: more hits, higher rate. Simply crazy!

Today, mostly in USA, people, companies, and academic institutes are used to digitize any kind of information: books, paintings, photographs, list of people, addresses, mostly everything. So more and more people are using Internet not only as a way to find something, but as a way to verify if something exists or does not, it is right or wrong. For example, there are people who verify which is the right way to write a word or an idiom by using Google: the version obtaining more hits is the winner. So, if most of people is writing in a wrong way, that way, soon or later, will become the right one. Same for people. How much famous is an individual? Just enter his or her name in Google and count the hits! Of course English-speaking people are advantaged in such a game. If you are a famous Armenian poet or a great Estonian writer, or a fabulous Zulu musician, you will probably get less hits than some second-rate American porn star. Of course, if you live in USA and you write in English, it is another cake, but if you are famous only in your own country and all articles and reviews about you are in your language, you may have a very limited visibility in Internet. It is even possible you will not get a single hit in search engines. For example, search for Pascarella Storia nostra: you will get only 279 hits. But Cesare Pascarella was really a personality. He became famous after the positive review of his work by Giosuè Carducci and was friend of Gabriele D’Annunzio. While I am writing this article, I have a copy of a work of his, "Storia nostra", published in 1961 by the prestigious Accademia dei Lincei, on my table. Of course, there is no ISBN number, but you will hardly find any info about that book in Internet. If the number of hits would be a reliable rating of fame for an author or a book, Pascarella should be considered just a hack!

In USA a lot of schools are used to publish books with names and portraits of students, so it is quite easy to find alumni lists in the web, nowadays. But in Italy we have not such an habit, so there are no list to digitize. And even when some is available, nobody is interested to do it. We do not suffer the digitizing fever. At "Massimiliano Massimo", an institute of Rome, there is one of the most famous and important private Italian secondary school, or liceo, as we call them. I am an alumnus of that school, which was attended by many famous Italian personalities like Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, Ettore Majorana, and Francesco Rutelli. But you will not find alumni list for that institute, even if it publishes a small booklet every year with just a plain list of names of all enrolled students. Nobody transcribed those list in the web: thousands and thousands of students who… did never exist, according to the current view.

This manner of thinking is not so surprising. My grandmother was used to say that something was true because she "read it on the newspaper" or she "saw it in the box". A lot of people still think that if something is televised, it is true. So, it is not surprising the success of the so-called reality show in the world. Of course, you can always shoot a scene or edit a clip to show whatever you want, but even if most people know how easy is today to manipulate a film, they still think that if something is broadcasted on TV, it must be true. So, if video killed the radio star, the web is killing any non digital work and artist. You must be in the web, to exist.

I could make dozens of examples like the foregoing ones. The conclusion is definitively worrying. Several years ago we were used to think that Internet was a virtual world. Nowadays, if something is not available or mentioned in Internet it does not exist, it is not real. Does not matter if there are million books, poems, paintings, sculptures, articles, people who have no citizenship within the web, especially if they live or exist in the real world in non-English countries. They are just ghosts, because today the real world is Internet. If you are not in the web, you simply are not.

The Australian aborigines believe that the Dreamtime is at the end. Probably they are true. The real life is just a dream and the dream is ending, or better, has been moved into the web. The web is the new Dream and if you are not in the dream you are just a ghost of the past, a vanishing entity that is designated to be forgotten. And your culture is going to vanish with you. Whatever have been written, thought or said, unless it is transcribed to the web is destined to disappear. Whole cultures will vanish because they have no passed through the looking-glass as Alice, and even when they tried the digital adventure, they are often ignored and insulated in some digital enclave if content is not in English language, as it happens for most of non-English blogs. Non-English blogspheres are mostly ignored and loosely linked to the big English-based blogsphere. The only one who can compete with the English blogsphere is the Chinese one, but it is on another planet.

So what? Well, I do not expect this trend will change. Really I think it is getting worst and worst. So, be prepared: it is drawing near the day that you will be accused not to exist if you have not an avatar in the Second Life or a site in MySpace. Time magazine stated at the end of 2006 that YOU are the person of the year, but they forgot to say that you are not really you, but your digital counterpart in the new Wonderland: the World Wide Web.

Commenti (3) a «Internet killed the paperback star»

  1. utente anonimo ha detto:

    Video killed the radio star only in that people stopped listening to radio as much, and watching TV more for their music.

    The Internet won’t kill the paperbook star until online books are more popular than hardcopy.

    For anyone to make the assumption something doesn’t exist because it cannot be located on the Internet is ridiculously extreme. When phone books were the norm, if I could not find something I didn’t assume it didn’t exist – it meant I had to broaden my search. The same should apply to anyone intelligently and honestly seeking.

  2. Dario de Judicibus Dario de Judicibus ha detto:

    Dear user #1, you said: «For anyone to make the assumption something doesn’t exist because it cannot be located on the Internet is ridiculously extreme.».

    Well, I totally agree with you: it is ridiculous, but it is also more and more true. There are a lot of people I spoke with that assume that it is possible to demonstrate the existence of something or someone by a Google search, or that count the number of hits by Google to rate the notoriety of a book, a movie, an individual.

    So now I have a question for you: if it is ridicolous but true, should we worry?

  3. utente anonimo ha detto:

    Very enjoyable article, one that my favourite author Calvino could, if still around, blend into a “On a Winters Night..” kind of novel in which we’re all the co-protagonists.

    These days, I have to google myself several times a week to make sure I’m still alive.


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