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
Last week librarians, educators, publishers, booksellers, and bookworms alike joined together to celebrate Banned Books Week. The celebration took on many forms: Twitter parties, YouTube read-out-louds, Google hangouts and more. The most important way to commemorate the seven-day event happens to be the simplest: read a banned book.
As someone who works in publishing, I always look forward to Banned Books Week—maybe because the best books tend to be the most frequently banned. Yet indulging myself in The Catcher in the Rye for the fourth or fifth time seems hardly commendable. I understand, of course, that it’s important to promote these titles for younger generations and doing so really does make a difference, as we saw in North Carolina when the Randolph County school board overturned the ban on Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.
But as an adult with a computer and a bank account, not only have I read The Invisible Man but if I felt so inclined I could literally download it right here at my desk and start reading now. The same goes for Captain Underpants; it’s not exactly a revelatory activity.
After all, digital media has thrown censorship for a loop. On the one hand, the internet makes it easier for us to circumvent traditional barriers—if a two-year old can purchase a car on Ebay, then they probably can buy Lady Chatterly’s Lover online too. And it is not all that often you hear about religious leaders burning Kindles at the stake. On the other hand, the ways in which we encounter digital media are shifting, allowing new, more subtle forms of censorship. Rather than individuals or institutions serving as gatekeepers of information, algorithms filter content to fit our personal interests. These filters help sift the otherwise overwhelming universe of content and information by catering to our own interests, feeding us information likely to reflect our own world views. These filters work through our newsfeeds, our Google searches—the suggested reading we encounter regularly. Eli Pariser calls this phenomena the “filter bubble”—a term he uses to describe “your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. What’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are, and it depends on what you do. But you don’t decide what gets in — and more importantly, you don’t see what gets edited out.”
Banned Books Week is intended to celebrate the freedom of speech and our right to pursue ideas that are different than our own–even if they are unorthodox or unpopular. It’s an opportunity to read outside the comfort zone, to encounter new or different ideas which in turn will define own our opinions, to enable us to think critically about the world around us.
So as tempting as it is for me to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved just because it appeared on 2012′s list of most frequently banned books, basking in the rich language is not exactly in the spirit of the week. I need to read something I have avoided, something I have cast as outside my own interests/views or dismissed on account of the author—even if I don’t enjoy it.
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.
The e-book vs. physical copy debate in publishing is for the most part, frankly, kind of a boring one. Some people like their e-readers, others—like myself—don’t care about them, and I’m sure there are others who like both for whatever reason(s). So, yes, there are 3 kinds of people in the world. Most talk from the consumer end tends to be about how one format is better/easier/more-papery/more-electrical than the other and that’s fine. Industry conversations seem to be about money, which to me is largely uninteresting, but I suppose if you have a financial stake in this it matters.*
Now I have a musician friend who basically only reads e-books these days. He asked me one day why publishers/presses weren’t offering a bundled physical copy and e-book package. I didn’t have an answer because, well, because it seemed so obvious that I couldn’t figure out why nobody was doing that either. In the music world, or at least in more “underground” scenes, it’s fairly common for bands/artists to offer free album/track downloads when you buy a physical copy, particularly if it’s vinyl. It’s standard practice on sites like Bandcamp, and I’ve even bought band t-shirts that come with an album download code.
So, yes… why aren’t more presses doing this? I get that the big houses probably aren’t going to be trendsetters here, but what about small/indie presses?
I took a cursory look into it and found that only Angry Robot has done something like this (through certain UK bookstores) and, geez, I can see why nobody followed suit, since it only tripled their sales on those bundled titles. That linked piece from TechDirt gets to most, if not all, of the salient points that my friend and I could think up: people like free stuff, you can lend a physical book while retaining an e-copy for future use, and—a big point that larger houses tend to miss—that you can’t monetize everything just because you think you’re leaving money on the table. (As far as that last point in concerned, that’s money you were probably never going to make in the first place since people aren’t generally going to buy both physical and electronic versions of the same book. It’s incredibly easy to pirate electronic versions of anything, whether it be games, music, books, etc.) It seems like an incredibly shortsighted strategy, IMO, but what do I know? This has only been been under discussion for several years now. Hey, even Nicholas Carr gets it.
Mostly right now I’m curious as to why publishers haven’t done this yet (and it’s been three years since B&N apparently tried doing it in their stores). Do the “numbers” just not pan out? Are there structural reasons that bundling doesn’t work?
*Please keep giving Publishers Weekly all your money. Thanks!
When I was about 15 years old, I purchased a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook by mail. I’m not exactly sure why I did that; it was being heavily advertised back then in the progressive magazines I read, and I probably thought it was the cool, geeky thing for a young boy to do. I remember trying to plow through it, but it was sloppily written and I didn’t think much of it; the author has strongly disavowed it, and wants it off the market.
Even in the late 1970s, I didn’t agree with the sentiments; my parents were smart not to intervene or counsel caution. It was a very liberal household for reading, and my father, a professor of literature, also kept a “teaching copy” of The Story of O in a place that was probably a little too accessible — or just accessible enough. My purchase of the Cookbook was primarily about personal semiotics: a (failed) attempt to signal to myself, something about myself.
It was an innocent act. Now, I am not so sure that it would be. With the hands of the NSA clearly deep in international personal and organizational communications traffic, along with presumably any other national security agency around the world worth its salt, tracing that kind of information might well be worth their while. Why not? Storage is affordable at scale, and computation is pervasive.
The government now clearly understands that the most critical internet infrastructure – freely flowing information – doesn’t actually flow that freely, but is usually routed through the application silos maintained by a small number of companies that include Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo. As citizens, it is our responsibility to consider the ramifications that control over the data we generate as individuals offers for surveillance. Regardless of how ferociously companies have fought to protect user information – e.g., EFF has applauded Yahoo, and Google has apparently given ground only reluctantly – these companies remain data honeypots for government infosec query.
Our reading takes place, overwhelmingly, in those silos, within Apple, Amazon, and maybe Microsoft. With the apparent slow withering of Barnes & Noble’s business, it becomes ever more likely that Microsoft’s strategic investment of $300MM in the Nook Media unit might well become the vehicle to majority ownership. With a new reorganization under its belt, Microsoft is clearly interested in entertainment and mobile hardware platforms, and content is a critical component of hardware based business offerings.
Microsoft has drawn significant attention in the NSA scandal as being eager to please government inquiries, being accused of providing low level access to Outlook and Skype services, among others. Although Microsoft has strongly refuted these allegations, it hedges carefully by noting, “Looking forward, as Internet-based voice and video communications increase, it is clear that governments will have an interest in using (or establishing) legal powers to secure access to this kind of content to investigate crimes or tackle terrorism.”
And so whatever protections progressive States like California have been able to secure to protect reader privacy, it is not at all clear they would work against FISA orders on the national level. With our books in the hands of a few very large internet application hosts, and even assuming the best efforts by those companies to protect their users, we can not purchase ebooks, much less read them, with any sense of privacy or confidentiality.
It was a privilege to read the Anarchist’s Cookbook as a teenager and not worry about it; even to have a reasonably decent chance of not having anyone know about it. But no era is innocent, and the 1970s certainly weren’t. I would later take a university political science class on terrorism, studying the tracts and tactics of Black September and Baader-Meinhof; I would read with some fascination Marighella’s manual on urban guerrilla warfare; the Munich Massacre occurred in 1972, and hijackings continued apace through the decade.
We read in a political and social context. It is far too easy for the knowledge of which books we buy, and what we browse online, to become imbued with a deeply and profoundly political cast by organizations with great power, regardless of the intentions and free thoughts of the individual.
For now, the privilege of reading privately, digitally, has been lost. The Internet needs new architectures for distributing and securing data, using encryption that remains in the hands of the users, creating a very different kind of cloud based architecture for data storage and computation. Until then, assume that someone else has a set of keys to your bookshelf.
In the midst of revolutions, ideas which initially seem inscrutable, or fantastic, suddenly become the building blocks of a new world. This week, Professor Robert Glushko, of UC Berkeley’s Information School and a leading pioneer in hypertext, dropped by the offices of Hypothes.is to discuss his new textbook, The Discipline of Organization. The conversation ranged from notes, to annotations, to transclusion – bringing an early concept of Ted Nelson‘s back to the fore. Continue reading
There’s been much recent attention paid to the addressability of book content on the web, with a “Publishing Hackathon” in New York, and HarperCollins’ creation of an API-fueled hackathon “Programming Challenge“, both of which received a mix of criticism and praise; nonetheless they are a good start. But in the rush to try to entice a more technically savvy element, I think publishers are missing a more elemental approach – borrowing simple and well-established web standards. Continue reading