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
ReadersFirst, the international coalition of libraries seeking to reassert control of user discovery and access for digital content, turned out on a rainy, cold afternoon at Seattle Public Library during ALA Midwinter to discuss their goals with the library vendor community. Members of the ReadersFirst (RF) steering committee ran over the organization’s history and mission, and then elicited engagement with senior representatives from the companies selling services that often, at present, conflict with the goals of RF.
RF seeks a common, cross-content discovery layer in the library catalog so that users only experience the library’s own web services. RF’s goal is for content providers and platforms, such as Overdrive, to provide APIs that enable users to request and retrieve materials without additional vendor interaction. For example, ebooks could retrieved “under the hood” from Overdrive without the user needing to re-authenticate or encounter systems beyond the library catalog. Currently, because libraries are forced to subscribe to services from multiple vendors, the user’s experience of digital media use is fractured with multiple vendor accounts, and ebooks are then accessed through different paths ranging from download to cloud-based access. As steering committee member Christina de Castell of the Vancouver Public Library said, “We don’t need the reader to know where the library bought the ebook from.”
Tom Galante of Queens Public Library reinforced, “The reader should be able to look at their library account and see what they have borrowed regardless of the vendor that supplied the ebook.” Continue reading
San Antonio, Texas has a history of supporting mavericks; in fact, the word originates from a signer of Texas Independence, Samuel Maverick, whose grandson, Maury, also held true to his surname. Now that Bexar (pronounced “Bear”) County, San Antonio’s home, is committed to building a new public library, BiblioTech, that will be devoid of all printed books, County Judge Nelson W. Wolff stands to follow in hallowed South Texas footsteps. Judge Wolff is a progressive politician who was also the founder of Sun Harvest Farms, a natural foods grocery store chain. As an elected County official, the Judge is something of an overlord along with the County Commission over many essential County-wide functions and services, including taxes and infrastructure investments.
“BiblioTech,” a play on the Spanish word for library, biblioteca, will open up on the south side of the county as a test of the proposition that providing a mix of services centered on Internet access and access to e-books is a cost effective strategy for providing information resources and library services to far-suburban and rural communities. Although the city has been providing library services to the county, it recently upped the tab from $3.7MM to $6.7MM – the highest city-county bill in the nation. As growth in unincorporated areas outside the city limits continues, the city has found it increasingly expensive to provide library services to areas without much in the way of their own tax base.
BiblioTech fits into Judge Wolff’s pattern of encouraging the long-term development of San Antonio. The vision anticipates a multi-location facility providing community information needs, with the first site serving as a model; it would be open into evening hours, available to registered County residents, and would provide access to up to an anticipated 10,000 ebook titles, supported with a pool of up to 100 e-readers. On January 15, 2013 the County gave its permission to release an RFP for an e-reader provider, a RFQ for an architect to remodel some existing underutilized County space, initial budgetary capital and operations (for computers and ebooks, among other things), and the creation of an advisory board.
Taking advantage of a visit to San Antonio, I was able to sit down with the Judge to talk about this new initiative and its longer term goals. In a wide ranging interview that included senior staff, I was impressed with his awareness of the overall public library environment. Partly inspired from the local UTSA engineering library, which went bookless in 2010, and Stanford’s engineering library, Wolff is alert to the dramatic shifts in digital access. I raised the most obvious objection from other library directors – that no digital library can be comprehensive today because of publisher reluctance to license their books – and he readily acknowledged that not all literature could be presented to county residents through an ebook platform. Yet, he was hopeful that forward-looking demonstrations of community libraries such as BiblioTech would encourage publishers to enlarge their offerings, reaching readers that lacked any bookstore.
Judge Wolff sees BiblioTech as not just a model for Bexar County, but far beyond it. With great enthusiasm, the County’s staff is rapidly gathering information about e-book vendors and licensing models; educating itself about national initiatives such as ReadersFirst; and has contacted innovative libraries ranging from New York Public to Chattanooga. BiblioTech will have a strong children’s area, with dedicated technology support and a concentration on children’s e-literature. More broadly, as expected from a leader long engaged in State and local politics, Wolff is beginning to consider what mix of community information needs can be presented through its facility; citizen education is considered an important element. And, perhaps because of its newness and innocence, it seems everyone has leapt to provide assistance. Even praise on the layout, size, and staffing of Apple stores has brought offers of help from unexpected places.
The serious grappling with what future libraries will embrace extends well beyond how they will address books. The BiblioTech team is also considering digital access to music and movies. Although the Judge’s staff had little exposure to maker spaces and some of the other forms of technology engagement and education, they were eager to learn about the range of opportunities. Wolff has been instrumental in bringing large concerns into San Antonio, such as Toyota’s newest truck manufacturing facility – on the same side of the city as BiblioTech – and has formed strong ties to Rackspace, a native San Antonio startup. and powerful cloud storage and computing provider. The opportunity to reshape libraries in San Antonio is significant, and with it there is an opportunity to inform what libraries look like across the globe.
Thanks to a suggestion from David Riordan of the New York Public Library Labs, I got a quick introduction to Field Trip, a new augmented reality (AR) Android app that emerged out of Google last autumn. Field Trip comes out of an internal startup called Niantic Labs at Google headed by John Hanke, who created an early online mapping application called Keyhole. Keyhole was acquired by Google and turned into Google Maps under Hanke’s leadership. I think Field Trip points toward a new generation of geolocal story telling, enabling us to find stories and interact with narratives wherever we happen to be. Continue reading
As we start a new year, it might appear that the hurdles facing public libraries have never been greater. With financially burdened communities; ebooks, movies, and music increasingly delivered through walled gardens by technology companies that have no resonance with free-to-all service; and rapidly evolving modes of publishing, it would appear that libraries are in a tight corner. That may all be true, but there are signs of rescue, signs of hope.
One of the best things coming is the growing awareness that public libraries need to solve their own problems. That is not an easy proposition; public libraries come in all shapes and sizes, from Boston and New York research libraries to small town libraries in the American west. However, the internet bridges both vast distances and town/gown differences, and we are starting to see a whole new community of libraries emerge. A portion of this effort is being negotiated through the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), but the greater and more important aspect is being developed peer to peer.
A current example is the ReadersFirst initiative, a growing collaboration of libraries that has endorsed a straightforward set of propositions that seek to provide more seamless access to digital resources. ReadersFirst seeks simple but high impact goals: make content like ebooks more portable between providers, and more available to patrons; simplify integration into library discovery systems to ease access by patrons; and make content available in any useful format, whether EPUB, Mobi, or a website. And in this effort, amazingly, they may succeed.
The United Kingdom’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO) just released an extremely important announcement revising the UK’s copyright laws, bringing them more up to date with a digital age. “Modernising Copyright: A modern, robust and flexible framework” (pdf) formalizes permissions for a wide range of acts that in the U.S. are likely to be judged as Fair Use, but which have not obtained the benefit of explicit endorsement.
One of the IPO’s singular provisions in “Modernising Copyright” – that contracts cannot overwrite existing copyright exceptions and limitations – will have widespread repercussions. IFLA is helping drive similar discussions in international deliberations at WIPO focusing on libraries and archives. The U.S. Congress should give serious consideration to adopting a homologous principle. The UK, whose copyright framework is broadly similar to the U.S., now stands at the forefront of European thinking on copyright. Continue reading
Although it is not a popular opinion, I believe that library ebook borrowing erodes ebook sales, at least modestly, particularly of frontlist titles, net of whatever positive marketing effect libraries have in introducing new books and authors to readers. Obviously, it would be useful to verify this with solid data, but it is damnably difficult to construct a reliable instrument with control cases. Determining whether (and how) innovative, alternative models of ebook retailing might impact both publishers and libraries bears further examination, and recently I have started thinking about the possible impact of ebook subscription services.
Most considerations of library e-book lending take into account the potential commercial impact on digital book markets, as well as consumer expectations of the e-books we buy. Without question, there are gaping holes in ebook functionality that frustrate readers. For example, the inability to lend an e-book I’ve purchased to my wife is a maddening display of pecuniary greed that diminishes the overall value of the publishing sector.
When it comes to the market impact of library e-book lending, there are many factors to bear in mind. One is the suggestion that potentially losing some frontlist sales while profiting from reader introductions to more authors and books is a worthwhile trade, ultimately smoothing the revenue curve across publishers’ available inventory. Many publishers, however, believe that community services such as Goodreads already do a good enough job with recommendations, while delivering more efficient and stronger direct sales.
Brian O’Leary, meanwhile, has convincingly argued that libraries are the first, best defense against piracy, bringing readers into the market who would not otherwise buy copies, and that failure to accommodate the demand for borrowing a free e-book, however inefficiently, would engender far worse consequences in consumer behavior than losing a modest number of sales from library lending. But so far, the focus of the current discussion on e-books has failed to examine truly alternative measures, like subscription access.
A much-discussed option for publishers is a subscription service to a comprehensive set of books for a modest fee, usually near $10 a month for a base level membership, with streaming access to titles that are convertible to downloadable ebook sales. This “Spotify-for-e-books” approach has seen recent entrants including 24Symbols, Jellybooks, and most recently Oyster, joining stalwarts Safari Books Online in technical literature, Tor (to an extent) in scifi/fantasy, and Harlequin in romance. In a kissing-cousins effort, Bilbary is attempting to marry borrowing from public libraries with publisher compensation via an innovative, subsidized rental model. It is also worth recalling that Google was entertaining the idea of eventual consumer subscription access to the Google Books library in its defeated settlement proposals. And Amazon, of course, could enter this market with rather trivial effort.
Thus far, however, no general trade book subscription effort has emerged, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The obvious challenge is establishing a deep, broad-enough list of titles to induce a large enough number of subscribers to join, and the appropriate rights for older backlist titles may not be present. In addition, the revenue question gets sticky once readers have been converted to subscribers. The economics are not simple, and the only thing that obviates the same, exact problem that libraries now face (the belief that library lends lead to lost book sales) is if you can attract enough people as subscribers who would otherwise not be reading at all, or otherwise reading at the base threshold of whatever membership level you can up-sell them into.
Nevertheless, there is a growing realization by publishers that setting up consumer-facing retail relationships as an alternative to Amazon’s monopsony has its benefits. This is evident in the hard slog that start-up Bookshout is encountering as it attempts to provide a vendor-neutral cloud-based bookshelf for readers. It is also evident in the launch of the beta-status Ownshelf, which is similarly attempting to crack the proprietary media silos of Amazon, Apple, and to a lesser extent Google.
Quixotically, the existence of these start-ups is reliant on the platforms created by the technology giants whose retailing arms they seek to interpose: if it weren’t for iOS and Android, and the growing ubiquity of mobile phones and tablets, these start-ups would have no chance. Unless Apple, Amazon, and Google have the gumption to eliminate all alternative e-readers from their app stores (which just might warrant a wee bit of interest from the Department of Justice) there is some room to maneuver.
But therein also lies the catch: any subscription service from publishers can’t simply rest on the laurels of a compelling list with attractive membership levels, and effective marketing. They must be able to bridge the reader, device, and catalog. In the sector of technology literature, for example, it is not for nothing that Safari Books Online hired the Threepress team that developed the Ibis Reader web application. Look for more of this in the future.
For publishers, offering a subscription alternative would have another outcome: it would make library borrowing unattractive. In other words, an effective subscription book service would nudge one of the most attractive segments of the library population into a consumer market: heavy readers, who heretofore have accepted the hassles of library borrowing rather than face the monetary burden of having to purchase individual titles. By delivering these heavy readers into a marketplace, subscription models could potentially leave libraries serving as the public community hospitals of the ebook market.
The key question is whether creating this alternative market is worthwhile for publishers. Rational publishers might recognize the benefits of moving avid readers from libraries into the marketplace through subscription models, as well as opening up a narrow wedge against Amazon. A subscription could also alleviate some piracy issues, because if there are ready market options, consumers will flock to those in most cases, rather than deal with downloading non-reflowable PDFs or uncorrected OCR’ed EPUBs from rogue digital book sites. On the flip side, a subscription service might give final proof to O’Leary’s insight that there is a market for content whose price is zero, forcing that small sector into the grey net by removing the library option.
For libraries, the emergence of e-book subscriptions may not be good news. A thriving subscription market might enervate the viability of libraries in ebook lending. Or, it might not. Perhaps library markets could be effectively married with subscription models, despite the costs of managing the synergy. But that would take a degree of flexibility and nimbleness on both sides of the ebook aisle that I have yet to see.
On October 26 and 27—yes, just before Hurricane Sandy—New York Law School hosted In re Books, a “conference on law and the future of books.” A loose spiritual sequel to our 2009 conference on the Google Books settlement, D is for Digitize, In re Books was designed to bring together authors, publishers, librarians, scholars, and readers to think deeply about the challenges facing books in a digital age, and how law can help face those challenges. I’m happy to report that, following some post-Sandy cleanup, full video of the conference is now available online. (We will have downloadable versions ready soon.)
In my opening remarks, I tried to set a tone of good will for the conference:
We here in this room are joined by a common love of books. We are authors, publishers, literary agents, librarians, archivists, scholars and especially all of us are readers. And we are gathered together in a law school, for of all the professions, it is the lawyers who are the most devoted to the written word. Our task is to consider the future of books and law in a digital age. We stand at the crossroads of legal code, computer code, and the codex.
The legal system for books we have today is essentially the same one developed three hundred years ago to make cultural and economic sense out of the rise of a transformative media technology: the printing press. Today, we are living through—we are creating—another, equally transformative media technology: the computer. We are, I submit, still in the in incunabulum age of the digital book; the basic technology is clearly established, but the social outlines of what digital books will become are not. Determining the most appropriate laws to go along with them—whether it be the next iteration of copyright, or the Worshipful Company of Kickstarters, or the Deposit Library of Babel, or the inalienable moral right to have your wiki revisions properly attributed—we will not today or tomorrow finish the task, but we can perhaps help to advance it. …
It is early in the morning of the next age of books. Let us welcome in the day and see what it will bring. Continue reading
I just got back from the Charleston Conference – a lively mix of publishers and librarians discussing digital transitions in information access. It was the first time I attended, and I was struck by how many other friends in trade publishing were also there for the first time, ranging from Smashwords and Safari Books Online to the Frankfurt Book Fair. O’Reilly also organized a premier Tools of Change Charleston with Mitchell Davis, the local entrepreneur behind BookSurge and BiblioLabs.
One thing that immediately struck me was how much the conversation about trade publishing seems increasingly to leak into discussions about other sectors of publishing, including Charleston’s focus on academic and A&I resources. Part of that was intentional by the organizers, and part because it’s hard to open a newspaper without reading about the titanic shift towards Big 6 trade consolidation. The combination of Random House and Penguin seems inevitable to everyone, and most pundits and prognosticators agree that more combinations are on the way. Additionally, there seems to be strong concurrence that the merger’s primary achievement is to buttress a strong arm against the market power of Amazon, giving ever larger publishers more heft in negotiations, and heading off ultimatums from Amazon’s perceived monopsony power.
One critique of this trend is that there may be little benefit to making publishing businesses ever larger through M&A because internal coordination costs for larger firms grow faster than the benefits of output efficiencies. At Charleston, there was speculation that inevitably one would see a dissolution of the great houses, and a re-emergence of their imprints as stand alone publishers. In an age of networked production and ebook distribution, the strong countervailing argument against consolidation is that there is no better time for Alfred A. Knopf and Panthenon to take themselves out of megalithic houses and re-assert editorial and business independence. I must admit, as a literature geek I find this scenario romantically appealing, and I would love to see these noble brands born anew and ascendant.
However, I think that the opportunity for those organizations to resurface is gone. That’s not due to change in the brilliance of their staffs or their aspirations – it’s a result of wholesale changes in publishing. Once we start producing literature without traditional firms, even born-again, smaller and nimbler houses based on traditional publishing structures are not going to be successful. It will take an entirely different model of publishing to succeed – one that recognizes that the costs of literary production are plummeting; distribution occurs on the network; and that entry points into story-telling are growing increasingly diverse. New publishers are as likely to be independent videographers or game companies as trade houses, and a growing industry meme focuses on how likely it will be for film producers to commission books, rather than see traditional publishers managing 360 deals. With tools like Mozilla’s Popcorn, transmedia production is reaching the hands of technically unsophisticated creators.
Making strategic choices about optimal organizational form based on a desire to achieve effective market position against the dominant retailers of the existing industry will not be successful. Newly emergent publishing models are going to develop on the periphery of the existing publishing industry, often wholly independent of it, with both large and micro actors emerging to produce a wide range of new forms of content. The consultant Mike Shatzkin has persuasively argued that everything but traditional text narratives in trade is merely an experiment, and that’s a logical analysis. However, it’s not in trade that those experiments are going to be successful.
During the Charleston Conference, I grabbed a quiet morning and toured Fort Sumter, site of the start of the U.S. Civil War. One of the things I learned was that the war bridged a great transition in artillery technology, with field bombardments shifting to vastly more deadly and accurate rifled cannons. It seems a similar transition is amongst us within publishing. As armies in this war, Random House and Penguin have reached for a bigger musket to arm themselves in order to retain financial independence. Unfortunately, more innovative firms have started to adopt Kalashnikov AK-47s.
The Confederate Army abandoned Fort Sumter in February 1865, as Sherman swept his way through South Carolina.