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.