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
Whoa, I thought, on hearing the news that Amazon’s publishing operation was beginning a Christian imprint. Let me check in with my Christian publishing pals and see what they have to say about this.
I’ve already heard some choice words in various publishing and bookselling circles about the Seattle behemoth/innovator/dreamer-of-drones. (Here’s a nicely typical roundup of diverging opinion from a panel at London Book Fair 2013, and this year’s worries expressed at DBW 2014.) So I was a little surprised when opinionated, intelligent, and articulate publishing executives responded with very loud silence.
On reflection, I shouldn’t have been. I remembered a time when I’d been at a gathering of publishing executives that also included a lawyer who was there to make sure any statements made about Amazon couldn’t be construed as, heaven and DoJ forfend, collusion or antitrustworthy. I had to think about questions I was going to ask. I also had to laugh.
There’s prudence in public and candor in private, always a challenge for a reporter but always negotiable. I’m a big fan of measured public speech; I prefer precision over fightin’ soundbitin’. But after a certain point, if there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room, you have to wonder (and if you’re a journalist you get paid to wonder): Is somebody going to say something? Or is the gorilla perhaps chilling the conversation? After all, a lot of people do business with the gorilla, even if they don’t like his behavior or how much they must feed him to get help selling their books. Maybe it’s not a good idea to annoy or, worse, argue with the gorilla, since he’s a lot bigger than you.
I’ll stop with the gorilla analogy; those who argue for the adaptability, innovation, and fresh air that has been forced on a trade too enamored of hidebound ways and hardbound editions will find the comparison pejorative or prejudicial. But I won’t back away from my point that this is worth discussing in public.
It’s worth saying, as did Mark Kuyper of ECPA, the Christian publishing trade group: “Amazon’s decision to launch a Christian imprint is not surprising given the expansion of their publishing program over the last few years. Of course, this continues the bifurcation of our publishers’ relationship with them as a key retailer and a publishing competitor.” Kuyper rightly and politely points to tensions this imprint launch exacerbates, and perhaps there are special problems that bear revelation. Aside from competition, exactly what are the publishers afraid of? What dark Amazon plans are afoot?
There are, of course, more benign things to be said about Amazon’s new venture:
- There’s money to be made in this healthy market segment;
- The more the merrier; greater competition can benefit some players (authors, for one);
- Heads up! A major player is gearing up for more activity in a market segment; and
- It’s complicated.
So no, I’m not complaining about an article I didn’t write because no-comment does not a scintillating story make. I got this blog entry, which allows me to be more candid, and that’s the point to be made here and about countless other matters that rightly ought to prompt lively discussion among stakeholders. Speak up! Is that a gorilla I see, or does he just need a haircut? And please, hold the drones.
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
Last week PW covered the news that Night Shade Books contracts with authors were up for sale. Skyhorse and Start Publishing offered to take over print and digital contracts, respectively. Many people were skeptical of the deal as originally offered (see Tobias Buckell’s excellent and thorough roundup of links). Skyhorse and Start revised it, and response to the revision has generally been positive, including from SFWA (which has been criticized heavily for its secrecy around Night Shade–related matters) and critics of the original deal, such as agent Joshua Bilmes. So it looks much more likely that the sale will go through, which at least broadly takes care of Night Shade’s back payments to authors.
However, authors aren’t the only people who would really like to see some of the money that Night Shade owes. In a blog post comment, artist Todd Lockwood wrote:
Not only authors were harmed by their business practices.
I love Jeremy Lassen and really wanted Nightshade to succeed. I have a soft place in my head for underdogs. I cut my rates in order to paint covers for them. It took over a year and a half to be paid for one. Another dribbled in in bits, the last check bounced, and I have never received full payment. I understand that other cover artists were never paid at all. I would be surprised if Skyhorse & al felt any need to make those repairs, but I’d love to know what, if any, plans were made in that regard…?
And editor Marty Halpern emailed me to add:
There has been absolutely no mention, nor commitment made, to all the artists, designers, editors (including myself), and others who are owed tens of thousands of dollars — and seem to have been forgotten in all this “discussion” over the authors’ deal.
…now that NS is essentially closed and in “escrow” for this potential sale, the money that is owed to me (for invoices dating back to October of last year) — and all the other production people — may never get paid.
There would be no books to speak of if there weren’t editors, artists, and designers willing to work continuously for Night Shade for just the promise of pay. We are a dedicated lot and deserve to have our story told — and responded to — as well.
I’ve reached out to Night Shade to ask whether the revised Skyhorse/Start deal going through would make it possible for Night Shade to make payment to freelancers. If they reply, I’ll revise this post to include their comment. EDIT: NSB co-owner Jeremy Lassen wrote back declining to comment on this matter.
I also called up Jarred Weisfeld at Start Publishing to ask whether Start and Skyhorse would be taking on the responsibility of paying Night Shade’s non-author creditors. He told me, “Night Shade is responsible for paying those debts, but all creditors of Night Shade will be taken care of if the sale goes through, and freelancers who are owed money would be considered creditors. Nobody’s going to be left high and dry. The deal is contingent on those individuals getting paid.” So that’s a sign of some hope for Lockwood, Halpern, and everyone else in their shoes. EDIT: Weisfeld called me back to clarify that if the deal goes through, settlements for creditors will likely be in the 30%–50% range. Not ideal, obviously, but better than zero.
Weisfeld sounded like he’s been talking for a week straight, which is probably not far from the truth. Before we got off the phone, I offered him a sincere welcome to the genre publishing community; for better or worse, he’s going to be one of us now, especially if Start and Skyhorse do end up not only taking over Night Shade’s contracts but publishing 90 new titles under the Night Shade name over the next few years. It will be very interesting to see how that changes the local landscape. In the meantime, as a frequent freelancer myself, I really hope that all of Night Shade’s creditors do get paid one way or another.
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
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. Continue reading
The Chronicle of Higher Education has released its first ebook, appropriately enough an expanded version of its Rebooting the Academy series, which examines changes in the practice of research, teaching, and institutional management in the midst of technological change. Nearly simultaneously, on the occasion of John Siracusa’s exhaustive review of the new Apple operating system Mountain Lion, Condé Nast’s Ars Technica will soon make available a Kindle ebook for those wishing to absorb all 26,000 words in a digestible format. And, in September, the New York Review of Books will release their first title in their new ebook only imprint, NYRB-Lit.
That digitally facile publishers such as the Chronicle and Condé Nast are able to quickly produce and sell ebooks is simultaneously exceptional, and increasingly mundane. Ten years ago, publishing an ebook from a lengthy periodical series would have taken months of preparation; today, as the tools for publishing on the internet enter the mainstream book trade, anyone who can run a blog can produce an ebook. That’s not necessarily terrific news if you are an established publisher; with each news release about self- and independently-published ebooks, the value proposition of large, integrated publishing firms seems less obvious. When Los Angeles media entrepreneurs like Barry Diller and Scott Rudin see the virtue of starting up their own high-brow literary publishing endeavors, midtown real estate in Manhattan starts looking particularly expensive.
The presence of active tumult in a prominent economic sector makes it especially troubling when government agencies listen uncritically to entrenched publishing multinationals for advisement and consultation in areas of high-impact policy formulation. For example, there has been significant worldwide interest in negotiating a WIPO treaty that would make require countries to allow published, in-copyright print works to be converted into an accessible format for the blind and others with reading disabilities, and permit accessible works to be shared around the world without permission from the copyright holder. However, the United States has wavered in its support for a binding treaty, and is instead seeking softer, non-binding recommendations or guidelines.
This U.S. reluctance to finalize treaty language echos the concerns of the American Association of Publishers, as evidenced in a videotaped interview with the AAP’s vice president of policy, Alan Adler. Adler voices concerns that a binding international treaty will introduce a precedent that will make negotiations over copyright exceptions and limitations more likely for educational, library, and archival uses. Adler, and by extension the AAP, seem to forget that copyright is itself a set of specially codified grants that are carved out from public access for a limited duration, and that exceptions and limitations simply return to the public the access to creative works that is society’s baseline.
However, the rapid influx of Internet-based publishing tools, and the blossoming of a rich diversity of new self- and independent publisher services, along with new mixed media entrants taking advantage of mobile content platforms from companies like Google and Apple force us to raise a more fundamental issue: who can speak for publishing-related policy issues? Surely today we must listen not only to the large publishing combines, but also to new companies like Smashwords, Aerbook, Vook, Byliner, and The Atavist in order to understand the perspective of publishers. And equally, as publishing becomes an integral part of the firmament of the internet, the government must consult and evaluate the competing aims of Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft.
The time in which the AAP can speak authoritatively for publishing is over. Formulating policy over intellectual property issues that heretofore was considered the domain of a few specific industry and interest groups is instead the domain of all internet users, including readers and authors, as well as a wide range of new publisher entrants. Ours is a economy undergoing network industrialization, and if the federal government wants industry consultation, it will need to listen to the wider array of people and firms who are engineering and empowering the future of expression, instead of a handful of companies fighting the U.S. Justice Department after colluding to maximise their interests at the expense of consumers.
I have been following the lawsuits against trade publishers and Apple over agency pricing for the last several months. The legal actions against publishers are complicated by their number: there’s a civil class action; a complaint brought by 31 U.S. State Attorneys; and a Department of Justice lawsuit. That’s not to mention the foreign investigations. Some of the originally named publishers – HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster – are either in settlement discussions or have concluded them. Macmillan and Penguin continue their active legal defense. With the denial of a bid for dismissal by publishers involved in the class action, things are not looking good for the defendants, at least for the remaining publishers.
As is my want, I’ve been trying to figure out what, if anything, this will mean for libraries and the demand for ebook lending services. This is not a straightforward question by any means; for one thing, all of the Big 6 agency publishers, with the exception of Random House, are not making their frontlist books available to libraries anyway. If agency pricing practice is halted, either by injunction prior to final ruling or through settlement and contract re-negotiation, obtaining cheaper prices from retailers for e-books from these publishers won’t have any direct impact because these they can’t be purchased at any price, anyway.
As a relative outsider to publishing, I am still often surprised by how difficult business transformation can be for some organizations. I am a member of the Project Muse Advisory Board, and I’ve just emerged from their board and publisher meetings. Project Muse is a journals publishing platform; it aggregates journals in digital form and sells content packages to university and college libraries, research centers, and similar organizations. Muse is also making a significant entry into the higher education ebook market by providing access to publishers’ lists. Our meeting was energetic, and focused at a conceptual level on the challenges of delivering new types of services while transitioning away from more traditional aspects of journal publishing.
What was striking for me was not my anticipated discussion of content management systems that supported a wide range of data queries, might be more semantically aware, and capable of supporting a wide range of interactive media; indeed, these are today’s currency of the realm. Rather, it was the more basic conundrum of being caught between different kinds of customers: publisher suppliers, who are also customers, in a sense; and institutions, who buy their product.
The core conundrum for Project Muse, as with all platform providers, is that they can easily come into conflict with the priorities of the university presses and scholarly societies that provide them with content. For example, one opportunity discussed widely today in academia is creating “push to publish” services that are much closer to the user, often utilizing approachable tools such as WordPress; these services would be at home in library publishing units. If an existing platform provider tried to deploy such a lightweight and configurable publishing system, it could siphon audience away from constituent publishers. In fact, most new services that leverage internet technology and network-scale data sharing and computation end up being ones under consideration as well by university presses and scholarly societies.
The underlying issue is that the suite of possible new publishing services is within reach of multiple levels of the publishing field: university presses could make a go at putting broad net-scale services like PLoS One out of business just as easily as Muse or JSTOR, which operate at a higher level of aggregation. If a small press or society is willing to go through the significant tumult of re-inventing itself, it can reach the global community of scholars just as easily as Elsevier.
What that made me realize is that if you designed a publishing enterprise to support scholarly communication de novo, aggregating content from a range of sources but also developing direct publishing and reader/writer services, you could do it with very different constraints than Muse, JSTOR, and other platform providers have to grapple with. A new entrant, not unlike the Public Library of Science, could actually turn its back on existing publishing practice and design a direct-to-faculty or direct-to-discipline infrastructure that was wholly divorced from existing players.
That kind of disruption hasn’t happened much yet outside of science, technology, and medicine, but it is likely that it will, unless existing platforms quickly manage to figure out ways of innovating themselves into a new content environment while bringing their publishing contributors and constituents along with them, benefitting from the same new services platforms are designing for a broader audience. There may even be some unique advantages in sustaining those relationships, if they can be successfully leveraged.
The coming change in how we publish the humanities and social sciences, and in fact, what we can publish, could be even more transformative than the re-invention of STM. Building a new digital humanities infrastructure will mean interacting with visual interpretations of historical sites, hearing ancient or less common modern languages in linguistic treatises, and grappling with philosophical quandaries in a gaming environment with virtual goods. Ultimately this may reshape how faculty think about doing their research, as well as how it is communicated.
Last weekend I was invited to pull together a library panel at this year’s Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) meeting, the IBPA University, in downtown San Francisco. I quickly enlisted two of my favorite local library friends, Sarah Houghton (aka, the Librarian in Black) of the San Rafael Public Library, and K.G. Schneider (aka, the Free Range Librarian), of Holy Names University’s Cushing Library.
Our panel was “Marketing to Libraries” and amazingly, we had a packed room of engaged and attentive publishers in the first session of the morning. After introductions, I led off with a 10 minute explanation of the issues arising from agency pricing, and then we really got cracking. Questions from the audience on how publishers can better engage with libraries started rolling in even before we could say our opening piece, and they never stopped until we ran out of time.
This is one of the most lively panels I have ever been attended, and for its focus on how publishers can most effectively sell to libraries, I think it is unique. In addition to agency pricing, we cover how library lending works, how to get a library director’s attention, how to get your books noticed, and more.
Despite the difficulties of listening to a recorded open discussion, it’s pretty fun — and sometimes funny (particularly as I attempt to speak clearly with a deficit in both sleep and coffee).
The audio is freely available for streaming, and can also be separately purchased. Thanks to Florrie Binford Kichler, the President of the IBPA, for wrangling me in, and to @TheLiB and @KGS for a morning as bright as the sunny San Francisco day.