How Geolocation Could Lead to a Book Renaissance
By: Michael del Castillo, Literary Manhattan
If you look hard enough, every location that has ever been written about is a setting of literary significance. The problem is, it takes a lot of time and energy to look.
Which is why we were so excited to meet Kentaro Okuda, who painstakingly collected hundreds of quotes from over 80 works of literature, and connected them with the exact longitude at latitude coordinates where the quotes take place for his LiteraryMap.NYC. A book lover’s dream, and possibly a huge business opportunity.
“I was always interested in literary maps,” said Okuda, a graduate of New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, where he studied with Dennis Crowley, the founder of Foursquare, another location-based service. “The New York Times did a literary map back in 2005, and I was fascinated by it, and I really wanted to do something like that on my own.”
Published in June, 2005, the Times’ “Literary Map of Manhattan,” created by Randy Cohen and Nigel Holmes, was originally proposed in May of that year by Cohen as a tool for his bibliophilic readers. But the resulting map with just 99 locations was only the beginning of what is possible.
It would take four more years for Okuda’s former classmate, Crowley, to launch Foursquare a pioneer in geolocation technology, that let users “check in” at various locations to unlock secret deals. That technology, coupled with the launch of smartphones two years earlier, kicked off the era of geolocated services. As of last June an estimated 1.7 billion people now have a geolocating device in their pocket.
The same year the iPhone launched, David Petrou, at the time a software engineer for Google, now their senior staff software engineer, created a subdivision of Google Book Search capable of “visualizing” places in books on a map.
“One of the first things I did upon moving to New York City was to buy some books about this great metropolis: guide books, historical accounts, collections of stories from famous reporters,” Petrou wrote in a blog post at the time of the launch. “My excitement grew with each word I read.”
Shortly thereafter, Google shelved the project. “And I’m unaware of any plans to bring this back,” Petrou told us in an email last month. The technology remains untapped and we believe a string of recent developments outside Google shows it is now finally ripe for mass consumption.
In May 2011 the New York Public Library received a $50,000 grant to build the New York City Chronology of Place in partnership with Topomancy, described by David Riordan, NYPL Labs’ product manager, as “opensource geospacial superheroes,” and by their site as a “technology cooperative” specializing in geo-spatial web development, urban and environmental mapping, humanitarian relief and citizen-centric computing, among others.
The grant period for the project, referred to as an “experimental urban-scale historical gazetteer,” according to an email sent to Literary Manhattan, ended July 31, 2013. We’ve reached out to the library for an update on the status of the resource and will let you know if we learn more.
Last May, The Atlantic published a report on the first ever Publishing Hackathon, hosted by Perseus Publishing, in which Literary Manhattan’s idea for a similar app as Okuda’s LiteraryMap.NYC, called Library Atlas, was a finalist. As one of six groups selected, Literary Manhattan presented the idea and data on over 100 geolocated quotes from six different books all set in Manhattan, at Book Expo of America.
The books featured in the app included Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Inferno by Eileen Myles, among others. The panel of judges at the event included Douglass Rushkoff, a media theorist whose website includes the credos, “Computers don’t kill books, people do,” and “We are trying to run a 21st Century digital economy on a 13th Century printing press era operating system.” We couldn’t agree more—even though Literary Manhattan didn’t end up winning the $10,000 grand prize.
The same month of the Book Expo, at the International Arts and Ideas Festival in New Haven, Connecticut, author Andrew Barden Williams launched Placing Literature, a crowdsourced map now featuring more than 2,600 literary scenes.
“We highlight two authors per month as they map the places from their novels (or encourage their readers to do the mapping for them),” Williams wrote in an email to Literary Manhattan last month. “One is traditionally published and the other is independently published, and oftentimes the indie author is more known.”
Last year alone Placing Literature, in partnership with IndieReader.com highlighted 13 independent authors, eight of which, are New York Times bestselling authors, including J.T. Ellison, author of When Shadows Fall. Each quote links to an opportunity to purchase the book that contains it from independently owned bookstore, Madison, Connecticut-based RJ Julia’s booksellers. A cut of the sales is paid to Placing Literature via IndieBound’s affiliate sales program.
Okuda’s work with LiteraryMap.NYC taps into a powerful zeitgeist we believe is swirling around the publishing industry, and has the power to literally transform words on the page into experiences in the street, which just so happens to be our motto.
The 39-year-old Okuda describes himself as “a project manager by day, and a digital cartographer by night,” on his site, and when he’s not helping Ted Talks fellow, Shih Chieh Huang build luminescent, robotic octopuses (you can see him in the background of the studio footage at the beginning of this video from a Ted Talk in July), he’s voraciously reading and meticulously documenting the longitude and latitude locations of quotes for fans of his map.
He’s independently worked on LiteraryMap.NYC since June 2013, collecting 350 data points, or literary scenes, from 80 different works of literature, including novels, short stories, plays and poetry.
“Other people have pins on approximate locations, for example, they have a pin on 41st Street & Lexington Avenue, for a passage about mid-town Manhattan in general,” said Okuda. “It has nothing to do with that particular location, so I want to focus on more accurate pinpoint locations.” Similar to Placing Literature, Okuda generates a small revenue stream by linking to the book on Amazon, which pays him a commission on sales via their affiliate program.
To speed up the rate of discovering quotes Okuda says he’s happy to accept crowdsourced data from those interested in helping, and can be reached here, for tips on how to make sure the information is collected in a way easily integrated with the site. So impressed were we by his work, and his data standards, that Literary Manhattan donated the data points collected for Library Atlas to his endeavor.
We believe the same “geofencing,” technology that tells the GPS in your phone when it is near a specific location, could be used to share pertinent quotes, and even be cross-referenced to give directions to the nearest locally owned bookstores. Essentially, each quote would double as an educational, life-enhancing service, and a billboard to advertise the book and local bookstores to any of the 1.7 billion people with a GPS in their phone.
We imagine a yet-to-be-created widget displayed side-by-side with the “Buy it at Amazon” tool, where readers would be presented with a “Buy it local” option, clearly listing the true benefits of buying local—food, music, couches, laughter, readings, camaraderie, community learning—that Amazon will never have. Even with social reading site GoodReads, which Amazon acquired in 2013.
With such a widget, readers would be able to clearly see what they are missing by not buying local, as well as directions on exactly how to get there. Instead of feeling like they’re saving money buying at Amazon, they’ll feel like their losing a valuable experience. With further integration to point-of-sales software solutions like Anthology, Booklog, and Wordstock, it will someday even be possible to automatically check the inventory of those bookstores from within the widget.
After watching as over 1,000 bookstores closed between 2000 and 2007, according to Federal statistics cited by USA Today, the industry is already well on its way to recovering, even without any major technological development. According to the American Booksellers Association, since 2009, independent bookstores have increased 20 percent from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,094 in 2014. Last year the total U.S. publishing industry generated $27 billion in revenue.
Imagine walking down the street. As you enter the setting in the real world where a quote occurred an app you’ve already told your reading preferences sends you a push notification with a quote from your favorite book, or a book its software determines you might like. Imagine forgetting you downloaded that app. For the rest of your life you’ll serendipitously discover excerpts from inspiring works of literature when you least expect them, as well as culturally important local bookstores where you can buy them. The literature enters your day-to-day activities, as your life enters the literature like it never could before.
Now imagine these literary maps integrate with wearable technology like Google Glass, capable of augmenting reality by highlighting the exact window your favorite author looked from as she put the finishing touches on your favorite book. Imagine using technology similar to Microsoft’s Photosynth mobile app to easily capture an immersive 360 degree image of the exact location where your favorite character stood as she ran between the lions Patience and Fortitude at the New York Public Library, and instantly reading or hearing the words from the passage whether in real life, or on the other side of the planet, in virtual reality.
This is the future we believe Okuda, Williams, and Literary Manhattan are helping to create. LiteraryMap.NYC and Placing literature have both already proved ways such technology can become self-supportive, which is necessary if this work is to continue. But by integrating Literary Manhattan’s precise data on the coordinates of locally owned bookstores, and yet to be created data about locally owned bookstores around the world, together, with your help we could help build a platform that not only generates revenue through Amazon’s affiliate program, but helps locally owned bookstores compete against the major players in the publishing industry.
If you’re already involved in similar work or would like to join us, follow us on Facebook or Twitter to let us know what you have in mind. New York bookstore owners who want a more detailed profile on our site or would like to participate in a conversation about the future of independent operations like their own can tune in on Twitter with #BookstoreRenaissance.