The theme at the upcoming Science Online NYC panel is Enhanced eBooks & BookApps: the Promise and Perils and I guess I'm the perils guy. The purpose of this post is helping me to get some of my thoughts down on pixels and, as a by-product, I guess it's tipping my hand a little bit for the other participants on the panel.
This session and my role as skeptic comes out of the Science Online session on ebooks in North Carolina this past January. I believe I may have refereed to the emerging ebooks app ecosystem as "The Dark Side."
My point was not to explicitly demonize app developers or book authors, just as my somewhat over-the-top title for this post isn't meant to demonize anyone either. My beef isn't with the authors, publishers and developers themselves -- they're are understandably acting in their own self-interest. It's the ecosystem that's arising from that multitude of self-interested actions that I have a problem with, that I'd prefer not to evolve into a tragedy of the commons situation.
My hope was -- and is -- to more-than-gently prod people to think of some of the perhaps hidden downsides of relying on the app model for distributing and monetizing ebooks. In other words, the kinds of marketplaces we see emerging in the iTunes and Android app commercial developer ecosystem and which is epitomized by the app The Elements.
The idea is that apps are easy to monetize because they're tied to the platforms they're explicitly developed for and as such they are extremely difficult to pirate and share illegally. In other words, if you want to read The Elements, you more or less have to buy it for your iPhone or iPad. You can't download it illegally, you can't borrow a copy from a friend or from the library unless your friend or your library are also willing to lend you their device. (Like my library, for example. We have an iPad loaded with The Elements and other apps that we lend out.) (And no offense meant by using The Elements as my example, it's just a good exemplar.)
Which is great. For developers, the sky is the limit creativity-wise and for the owners of the content the business model is very easy to understand. It's just like physical books except there's no pesky first sale rights to ruin it for everyone.
Plus, the people who buy your app don't really own it in any meaningful way. Like I said, they can't easily resell it, lend it, donate it or share it. In fact, it could break and be unusable for the "owners" at any time due to an operating system upgrade or if some online piece stops working.
In the longer term, it's not clear how apps such as The Elements could follow their owners to new platforms or new devices. Certainly the content for something like The Elements could have a very long lifetime, say even fifteen or twenty years. If you bought it today what do you think the likelihood is you'll be able to access it in that time frame. It's like if book publishers could make you use their proprietary glasses to read their books.
We have print books in our library that are hundreds of years old and are just as readable today as they were back then. Similarly, many digitization projects have uploaded public domain (and other) content into the cloud. These books have a long life ahead of them -- many of them exist in stable archives in formats that can be preserved over a very long term. It's hard to see how the apps that are being created in such a rush today will have the opportunity for such a long life.
Will someone be able to read and study The Elements five years from now? Ten? A hundred? Five hundred? And not just the content, of course, but as a artifact in the evolution of books over time.
So, what would I like to see in an ebook ecosystem?
- Standards-based development, concentrating on HTML5 and browser-based development giving content at least a measure of device-independence.
- Archivability and preservability, which will be much more practical in a standards-based environment.
- A business model for library ebook purchasing that's built with library budgets and budget-cycles in mind. I'm not sure we have a definitive example of this yet, nor do I really think it'll be a one-size-fits-all model, but there certainly is a lot of work to do here. We'll probably need a set of business model.
- A recognition that ebooks need to partake of an open cultural commons in the same way as print books did -- and it fact should be able to partake in such an open cultural commons in ways that print books never could.
And for those of you attending the Science Online NYC session, please don't think of this as me showing all my cards.
Some further comments.
First of all, I have no problems with content creators being fairly rewarded for their efforts. Authors, editors, publishers and production people should get paid. My beef is not with getting paid, it with the apparatus.
Also, I realize that we're in a transition period and that apps will not go away anytime soon. I'm actually OK with that as a way to get people used to paying something for digital content.
And most of all, my own ideas are evolving and changing. There isn't one answer to any of the questions that are floating around the publishing industry.
Some of my older posts which are relevant to this topic: