Two news reports over the past week together demonstrated just how fragile “ownership” of digital books is for consumers. Of course, alert readers will know that they don’t actually own e-books anyway, they license them, usually under terms that give readers very little actual control over the content. However, it would be pretty to think that I could at least move the e-books that I have purchased from one location to another, or reload them on a new device with ease. That would make it simple to buy books from any vendor that I choose, instead of feeling like I have to go to Amazon, the biggest vendor available, which uses its own proprietary format. But that’s not the case. Continue reading
At the American Library Association meeting in Philadelphia this week, I was asked to give a talk with Ginger Clark of Curtis, Brown on the author-library relationship for ALA’s Digital Content Working Group. I enjoyed our panel; after Ginger covered the basics of what agents do for authors, we both wound up discussing the boom in self-publishing, particularly in genres with avid readers such as romance and science-fiction. Continue reading
A couple of weeks ago, the science fiction writer Hugh Howey wrote a pair of pugnacious “Here’s what I would do” posts on how to reform “Big 5″ trade publishing. Most of his suggestions are fist-pumping common sense to industry observers: e.g., release formats as soon as they are ready, don’t window e-books or paperbacks; eliminate the returns system for bookstores; ditch “do not compete” clauses in contracts which hinder adjustment of digital royalty rates; and generally speaking, “GIVE READERS WHAT THEY WANT.”
These blog pieces are terrific reads and highly recommended, though there are impediments to adopting some of these changes. And there’s one presumption that seems like a real doozy: Knowing that a large portion of book sales are still in paper, Howey assumes the continued existence of bookstores. Continue reading
Sometimes you have to let time pass before you can critique your assumptions. Recently, I reconsidered the unanimity of the goals of the content industry after Derek Khanna reprised the motion picture association’s war on the VCR in TechCrunch. Derek Khanna is the ex-Republican staffer who managed to forge his own retirement by drafting a white paper extolling the virtues of copyright reform.
In short, Khanna’s piece recalls how the major motion picture studios fought the introduction of Sony’s Betamax, the first consumer video recorder. Convinced that home video taping and viewing would debilitate the movie industry, Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) famously vented that “the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” Continue reading
Books in Browsers IV – the 2013 edition – has finished, and at least for me it marked an clear change in focus from the past. Convened by Hypothes.is and the Frankfurt Book Fair, and with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Internet Archive, swissnex San Francisco, Safari Books Online, and many additional sponsors – BiB IV was as nearly complete a contrast to the initial BiBs as could be imagined. Continue reading
One of the things that happens when you move publishing from print to digital is that you are suddenly able to measure everything. It’s not just a matter of knowing what books or articles someone buys, but how much of them they have read; what illustrations they have enlarged; what they have tweeted or “Liked” or posted in their blogs; the number of annotations and comments a text receives; mentions in online forums; pretty much anything imaginable. Continue reading
Metadata is a much-discussed topic these days, thanks to the efforts of the National Security Agency to acquire as much telecommunications information as possible. NSA actions have made it obvious that petabyte-scale aggregation of metadata is increasingly possible. What is less clear, particularly for cultural institutions, is the extent of intellectual property rights in metadata and their impact on sharing at a time when data are increasingly susceptible to enhancement via linked open data and semantic description. A recent meeting convened by the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, under the direction of Professor Pamela Samuelson and with the assistance of Dave Hansen, assisted by an Alfred P. Sloan grant, explored some of these contours. Continue reading
The end of summer and the start of school; a last round of easy dinner parties and sleepovers for the kids. Such times lead me into conversations about ebooks, ereaders, and why things are the way they are, instead of some other way. Explaining to friends that no, they can’t lend an ebook to their wife in most cases; no, there’s no easy way to set up a shared or group account; and yes, they might be able to get a book from their library, but the selection is incomplete and the process sometimes difficult – it all seems like an old refrain at this point. Continue reading
Recently, Eric Hellman of Unglue.it has begun advocating for future-dated Creative commons licenses to provide greater access to digital books. The idea is that a publisher would specify a future date at which the title would be made available through a Creative Commons license; MIT Press, and a few others, have experimented with this approach This is a solid point for elaboration and experimentation. Eric has iterated the idea for his startup Unglue.it, adding the possibility for individual purchases to incrementally shorten the windowing period. Continue reading
In May 2013, three large ebook retailers and e-ink reading device manufacturers – Amazon, Kobo, and Sony – filed a petition with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission asking it to “waive the accessibility requirements for equipment used for advanced communications services (ACS) for a single class of equipment: e-readers.” In other words, dedicated e-ink devices are difficult to use for the blind, visually-handicapped, and reading disabled, so the manufacturers are asking to be relieved of the need to make them accessible. I find nothing in this pleading which will “advance the public interest.”
At first glance, it seems like it might be reasonable request. The petition observes that e-reader devices are typically low-powered to preserve battery life, have relatively low resolution screens with slow refresh rates, lack sound capability such as microphones and speakers, and cannot support full-featured web engines. As the counsel for the manufacturer coalition states, although these devices “have a similar shape and size to general-purpose tablet computers, e-readers lack many of tablets’ features for general-purpose computing, including ACS functions.” As some on Twitter caustically noted, these devices “suck” too much to support accessibility.
I can’t help but find the arguments of these retailers pathetic and depressing. As the retailers note, “This Petition demonstrates that e-readers are devices designed, built, and marketed for a single primary purpose: to read written material such as books, magazines, newspapers, and other text documents on a mobile electronic device.” I assert that the affordance the blind would most like obtain from increasingly powerful mobile technology is exactly this: to read text on a simple device. For ebook retailers to set up a straw man argument between blinged out retina-resolution tablets supporting complete software stacks and e-ink devices is poor logic and shameful conduct. The choice is not between a Model T and a Tesla – a Kickstarter project could likely find a happy engineering medium if large corporations cannot manage it.
This is an amazing market opportunity gone missing, and as many advocates of accessibility have noted, helping the blind also means helping a rather large number of individuals who have various incapacities, many of which inevitably arise or increase with age. Vast numbers of the blind do use smartphones and tablets to read – they are a vast improvement on the expensive, dedicated accessibility devices of years past. But they are often overkill, and their complexity frustrates as much as it aids, despite Apple’s long dedication to accessibility support. Building an e-reader device that is not a tablet or smartphone but which does support accessibility would be a huge boon to literally millions of readers whose reading is sharply restricted today.
Furthermore, as law professor James Grimmelmann noted in Twitter, this is not a war that ebook retailers should be fighting. If publishers want to disable text-to-speech and other accessibility functions, then they should petition the FCC, not Amazon, Kobo, or Sony. A cynical observer might think that despite Amazon’s recent acquisition of high-end text-to-speech (TTS) technology, the removal of TTS capability from the Kindle Paperwhite series – when it was present on prior Kindles – might suggest that they are simply forcing consumers upstream to tablets. Gasp: could it be possible that the petition to the FCC is motivated by their own financial interests, and not those of the public?
There is one other omission to note: the complete silence from the International Digital Publishing Forum. The IDPF has spent years working on its new EPUB3 standard, with a stated goal of enhancing accessibility. The EPUB3 specification document calls out: “It is important to note that while accessibility is important in its own right, accessible content is also more valuable content: an accessible Publication will be adaptable to more devices and be easier to reuse, in whole or in part, via human and automated workflows.” Even the American Association of Publishers’ newly launched EPUB3 Implementation Project notes that “Through EPUB 3’s innovative assistive features, people who are blind or have other print disabilities will have access to the same titles, at the same time, as all readers.”
Paradoxically, two of the members of the “Coalition of E-Reader Manufactures” – Sony and Kobo – are members of the IDPF. Although the BISG’s EPUB3 compliance table documents only partial readiness from reading system providers, both Sony and Kobo have publicly indicated more complete EPUB3 support by the end of 2013. Unfortunately, that endorsement seems to falter at one of the format’s core design features. Despite the manufacturers’ naked disrespect for the EPUB3 specification, as far as I can tell the IDPF has yet to issue a press release on the request for FCC waiver, or submit a filing in response to the petition. That is unfortunate if true; the board of a not-for-profit must carry some responsibility.
More fundamentally, corporations able to advance access to knowledge through innovative technology should take gracious pride in the opportunity to open horizons as a fortunate reciprocity for their charters. Instead, in this petition, I see hubris. Make your voice heard: the last date to submit comments to the FCC is September 3, 2013.