In programming languages, there is a crucial concept called a “pointer.” A pointer is a reference to a location in memory where the value of an object, such as a variable or constant, is stored. One often chooses to perform operations on memory locations rather than on objects directly; one can even manipulate pointers to arrays of pointers. I struggled to grasp this concept when I was introduced to programming languages that relied on pointer logic, such as C. Working with older Fortran compilers, I didn’t understand why one might want to reference a variable’s contents instead of operating directly on it. Eventually, I intuited how insanely powerful this tool was, and I never questioned it again.
In the world of e-books, we are still living in the age of Fortran 77. We’re fixated on directly handling ebooks on our dedicated readers or mobile devices – irrespective of whether they are truly owned or only licensed – and we wrestle with the novel control the retailer exerts over digital books even after we purchase them. That’s understandable, given the basis of our prior experience with print books; it certainly suits ebook retailers, who want to continue to own the online relationship with the user. For libraries as well as individuals, having the option of putting one’s hands on the object – even if it is digital – reflects the emotional priorities of ownership as well as the presumably concomitant ability for libraries to preserve content as part of their mission.
The genesis of new companies like Bookshout point us in a new direction. Bookshout provides users with a vendor-neutral bookshelf where a reader can aggregate their content from different retailers onto a common platform. While there remain a lot of questions about how Bookshout will work at scale, it has the support of many publishers who endorse the ability of readers to move their books to a location of their choosing. The retailers – Amazon, Apple, and others – may be less thrilled at the potential circumvention of their heretofore proprietary relationship with purchasers of e-books.
Bookshout focuses a user’s relationship with their books through a user-managed bookshelf, and severs the binding relationship with an online retailer. Operationally, Bookshout doesn’t actually physically relocate Kindle book files by moving them to a new location. Rather, it verifies what books a user has purchased (through account access) and then – with publisher support – permits users to access those works in their Bookshout account. Although this is not as ornate a solution as ReDigi in music – which is interested in creating markets for reselling content versus establishing retailer-neutral, user-controlled media libraries – both of these services are working with models where content is referenced but not directly manipulated.
These services suggest a world in which readers manage bookshelves, and not e-books per se. In other words, readers will purchase pointers – or references – to books from retailers, which they can deposit in an online bookshelf of their choosing. This achieves several things. First, it enables publishers to manage a license or provision content directly to users, instead of being mediated through a retailer’s user license or TOS. Secondly, it forces retailers to compete on a broader range of book- and media-related services than just selling – a trend which is already in place through annotation and recommending support, but could be easily turbocharged. Finally, it empowers a reader – or a library – to manage their content for their own behalf, taking advantage of services they care most about. I might choose to maintain an academic bookshelf with the Internet Archive, and a romance bookshelf with Amazon; perhaps my historical nonfiction bookshelf rests with Bookshout. It also permits user-managed – or at least user-participative – versioning of e-book editions.
The primacy of bookshelves, and thinking of books as pointers, was one of the guiding principles behind the development of the Open Publication Distribution System (OPDS), which in its first incarnation was developed by Lexcycle – now owned by Amazon – to permit users to manage books in their Stanza iPhone application. With catalyzing support from O’Reilly, Adobe, Feedbooks, and the Internet Archive, OPDS enables a simple, lightweight retailer-neutral and user-managed library of content through an open specification.
Regardless of how bookshelves are implemented, books-as-pointers is a potentially liberating model for readers, as well as libraries and publishers. It re-asserts the primacy of a critical relationship between the content creator and publisher on one hand, and the consumer on the other. Whether retailers will permit their proprietary-DRM protected books to go quietly into that good night is a struggle we may yet have to witness.