Archive for the 'ebooks' category

On the evilness of the emerging ebook app ecosystem

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:

14 responses so far

ScienceOnline NYC: Enhanced eBooks & BookApps: the Promise and Perils

I'll be speaking at the upcoming Science Online NYC event on September 20th.

Enhanced eBooks & BookApps: the Promise and Perils
Tuesday, September 20, 2011 from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM (ET)
New York, NY

Weiss 305
Rockefeller University
E66th and York Ave.
New York, NY

Enhanced ebooks and tablet apps clearly offer new ways to present material and engage readers. Yet some of the software restrictions and rights deals that these ebooks, apps and their platforms use can make them unfriendly to librarians, archivists, and future users. How can authors, designers, and publishers best exploit these new opportunities while avoiding their current and potential downsides?

Some questions that the panel will discuss include: How do we develop AppBooks or enhanced eBooks that make the most of the technology without locking the contents in proprietary formats that may be hard to crack open in 5 or 50 years? How can we reconcile the desires and agendas of authors, app developers, publishers, librarians, archivists, and readers?

September's panel includes representatives from all these groups and promises a lively discussion around one of the hotter topics from the ScienceOnline e-book session last January.

Panelists:
David Dobbs, moderator (As well as an author, blogger, and ebook experimentalist).
John Dupuis
Evan Ratliff, co-founder and editor, The Atavist.
Amanda Moon, senior editor, FSG/Scientific American Books.
Carl Zimmer, author, journalist, and blogger.

This can be thought of as a kind of sequel to the ScienceOnline 2011 ebooks session.

It's a free event. The tickets are going fast, get them while they're hot!

One response so far

Issues in Science & Technology Librarianship, Spring 2011

As usual, a wealth of interesting articles in the latest ISTL:

No responses yet

More thoughts on a workable library ebook business model

A while back I posted some semi-coherent ramblings inspired by the HarperCollins/Overdrive mess concerning how libraries were able to license ebook collections for their patrons.

I'm not sure my ideas have changed or solidified or evolved or what, but I've certainly come to a slightly different way of articulating them.

Here goes.

At a certain level, libraries -- public, academic, institutional, special, whatever -- lending ebooks makes no sense at all.

If a library acquires a digital copy of a book there is no good reason why every person in that library's community (school, town, city, province, country, planet) couldn't all read that book at the exact same time. Bandwidth is really the only limitation.

That's what makes sense. Any attempt to limit that access is really just an attempt to impose an artificial scarcity on an abundant digital object.

And we all know how well it works when you try and impose an artificial scarcity on abundant digital objects. Just ask the music business. And it's something I think the nascent ebook business is starting to get a handle on.

As Aaron Saenz says,

Which brings us to the 600 pound gorilla in the room - why are people going to pay for something that is free to copy?

If people really don't want to pay for ebooks, ultimately, they won't. Just like if people really don't want to pay for recorded music, they won't.

But that doesn't mean it's free to the creators to record that music or write those books. Far from it. And those creators have bills to pay, both incurred in the act of creation and just in living life.

Libraries always have been and always will be willing to pay a fair price for access or ownership of quality content. But why should we pay scarcity prices for stuff that should be abundant? The whole structure is artificial, isn't it?

The incremental cost of each person in a large community getting access to a digital object is effectively zero.

The cost of getting that first copy to the first person in that first community isn't zero, of course, far from it. The creator wants to be paid as do publicists, editors, copy editors, technical support and HR and finance to look after making sure everyone gets paid and hired and such.

But how do you bridge the one to the million? How do you convince the millionth to chip in a little, just like the first? Publishers (and authors?) certainly would like to monetize each reading transaction but libraries would greatly resist that plan. We want something that's predictable from a budgetary point of view.

Cory Doctorow's recent Guardian article, In the digital era free is easy, so how do you persuade people to pay?, gives some insights into motivations for paying scarcity prices for abundant digital content, and some of those motivations that might just apply to libraries more than individuals.

In this article, I take a first cut at a taxonomy of "value propositions for the purchase of digital goods" - that is, reasons you should spend money on digital files that you can get for free - and of the market strategies that enhance or undermine each strategy. Different companies and products need different value propositions, but whatever your strategy is, your stated case for buying your products should be supported by those products. And if your sales strategy actively militates against your value proposition, you're doing it wrong.

Although Doctorow is skeptical about how these have played out in the mainstream media business of getting consumers to pay directly for content, a couple of them apply to the business of why libraries would want to pay for content for their communities

  • Buy this because it's the right thing to do. Paying creators for the work that they put into their creations is the right thing to do. And creators is broadly defined here to include not just the artists and scholars who directly create the work but the broader ecosystem that supports their endeavours.
  • Buy this because you're supporting something worthwhile. The artistic, cultural and scholarly discourse ecosystems deserve to exist and it's worthwhile for libraries to support those ecosystems.
  • Buy this because it is convenient. It's a good thing for libraries to mutualize their communities' resources to pay for content because it's not possible or convenient for the members to do so individually.

Which gives us a structure around why libraries should be willing to pay for ebooks: to connect being able to pay for that first community access to not having to pay for the millionth.

But what are some of the nuts and bolts of the situation. How to actually make it work for everybody involved: creators, libraries, publishers, readers. What are some possibilities for the mechanics of the business models we'll all agree on? That'll be for next time, I guess.

2 responses so far

Around the Web: HarperCollins library ebook linkdump apocalypse (#hcod 'r us) (Updated!)

For my own purposes I've been collecting various ebook-related posts for a while now and in particular the whole HarperCollins/library/ebook/Overdrive thing is a valuable source of lots of speculation and information. What I have below no doubt only represents a fairly small percentage of the total number of posts and articles about the issue.

My attention over the last few weeks has been a bit inconsistent too say the least so I'm sure I've missed a bunch of important posts. Please let me know in the comments about ones I should include. And I encourage people not to be modest and to let me know about their own posts.

I'm not particularly looking to add a lot of stuff from the popular media, more analytical or opinion pieces rather than reportage.

Like I said, please tell what I missed so I can update my list.

Update 2011.03.17. Added a few newer posts and some also based on recommendations on Twitter or Friendfeed. Thanks to those that made suggestions. I've also added my own relevant posts which I left out before out of a misplaced sense of false modesty. While I really can't fairly judge their actual significance compared to other posts, I at least attempted to advance the conversation. And that was more-or-less the criteria I used for inclusion on my list. The posts I added on this update: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14.

No responses yet

Friday Fun: H.P. Lovecraft's 10 favourite words

Mar 04 2011 Published by under ebooks, friday fun

Over on the Tor.com blog, mysterious librarian blogger RuthX tells us the story of how she created a free ebook (downloaded!) with all the public domain stories that were published by noted horror author H.P. Lovecraft.

In the course of compiling the book, she was able to analyze the word usage patterns of the famously overwrought and verbose Lovecraft. And it's hysterically predictable what she came up with.

The post on the Tor blog is here: H.P. Lovecraft's 10 Favorite Words and a Free Lovecraft eBook.

A more complete analysis is here: Free Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft for Nook and Kindle and Wordcount for Lovecraft's Favorite Words.

And the countdown is:

  1. Loath (ing/some)
  2. Accursed
  3. Blasphem (y/ous)
  4. Abnormal
  5. Madness
  6. Singular (ly)
  7. Antiqu (e/arian)
  8. Nameless
  9. Faint (ed/ing)
  10. Well, you'll have to check out the original post for this one!

Update 2011.03.04: Added link to more word count information: Wordcount for Lovecraft's Favorite Words.

6 responses so far

HarperCollins and The Capitalist's Paradox

I saw this just after I published my previous post and think it really encompasses what I'd like to say to HarperCollins and its fellow travelers.

This is from The Capitalist's Paradox by Umair Haque.

So here's my question: Does what you're doing have a point -- one that matters to people, society, nature, and the future?

Beancounters, listen up. To paraphrase Shakespeare, I come not to praise you, but to bury you. I don't care about your "strategy," "business model," "campaign," "product," or "deliverables" (sorry). All that stuff is focused on outputs. What matters to people, in contrast, are outcomes: did this bring a tiny slice of health, wealth, joy, inspiration, connection, intellect, imagination, organization, education, elevation into my life, that lasted, multiplied, and mattered to me -- or was its final result merely to make me just a bit fatter, wearier, unhealthier, disconnected, dumber, duller?

What I care about is whether you can change the world, radically for the better -- whether you can attain deep significance, and matter in human terms. Why? Because the world needs, wants, is crying out for changing -- and if you can't change the world, a rival who can is going to make your latest, greater so-called blockbuster look mediocre, the people formerly known as customers are going to tune you out, communities are probably going to self-organize against you, and, when all is said and done, you're probably going to end up at the mercy of hurf-durfing "investors" whose idea of "long-term" is speed-dating on steroids.

That's it, HarperCollins. Create more value than you destroy.

3 responses so far

Towards a library ebook business model that makes sense

Over the last week or so a huge issue has sprung up in the library and publishing world, which I touch on in my eBook Users' Bill of Rights post.

The publisher HarperCollins has restricting the number of checkouts an ebook version of one of their books can have before the library needs to pay for it again. The number of checkouts is 26 per year. Bobbi Newman collects a lot of relevant posts here if you're interested.

There was a comment on my post by William Dix:

Publishers are shooting themselves in the foot on this issue. As well as alienating a lot of the potential market with idiotic proprietary formats and frustrating DRM schemes. I do wish that more publishers would follow the example of Baen Books with their no DRM multiformat approach to epublishing.

I responded over on that post but I thought it would be worth expanding on what I said here.

Some more-or-less thought out thoughts and impressions.

The way I see it, HarperCollins' decision merely reflects the the book publishing industry's fears that the napsterization that hit the music industry a decade ago is immanent. They fear that their current business model based on selling physical objects will be undermined by the web without anything to replace it.

And with good reason. This is definitely a rear-guard action that is part of the publishers' long term losing battle to impose the same kind of monetization structure on digital content as for print.

The print business model grows out of scarcity. Physical objects cost money to produce and are by definition limited in numbers. The last time I checked, there was no scarcity of text to read online.

The only scarcity that is potentially exploitable in the online world is of good text and publishers need to find a way to insert themselves into the equation by convincing people that filtering the wheat from the chaff and organizing and curating the good stuff is worth paying for.

Libraries potentially blow up the scarcity of digital content by mutualizing community resources to share purchased or licensed digital content. In other words, we use the pooled monetary resources of a community to buy stuff for that community that most individuals wouldn't be able to afford on their own. With digital content libraries can basically share digital content with everyone without the same kinds of per unit costs that pad the bottom line for publishers.

If I have a digital file and I say I want to share it, that's great. But to somehow to say I can only share it with a certain number of people for a certain period of time is absurd. It's not like a physical resource that has a real, concrete scarcity attached to it. The scarcity that DRM tries to impose is completely artificial in the case of digital files. It tries to graft the limitations of a physical format where it doesn't belong.

Publishers fear and mistrust the kind of sharing libraries are committed to for precisely that reason. It exposes the absurdity of their false scarcity.

Let's say Harry Potter 8 comes out some day. Great. California's public library systems buy a few thousand copies of the physical book and pay some sort of fair price for it, say $20 dollars per copy. The people of California get to read those copies one at a time for as long as they last. When they wear out, California will buy new ones. If they get less popular at some point, they'll be weeded and probably sold off at book sales.

Now, those very same public libraries want to provide digital copies to their citizens who happen to have one of a range of devices that can read ebooks. How many copies do they buy? Well, just one, really. They only need one copy on their servers (or on a publisher's server) to share with the millions of people of California.

Of course, thousands or millions of people from California or even the whole world can actually read that one copy simultaneously because that's the way digital works. When I want to read something you have, I just make my own copy. The marginal cost of making that one copy is essentially zero.

That's where DRM comes in. Because that kind of arrangement doesn't work for the publishers or authors very well. They'll want to impose an artificial scarcity on the digital copy they "sell" to California so only a limited number of people can read it. In effect, even though California only really buys one copy, they'll want the transaction to look like they've really just purchased a bunch of paper copies that people just happen to be read on electronic devices. Publishers want to monetize every act of reading.

It's not hard to see parallels to the music industry here in the way that the publishers want to hide from the implications of digital rather than embrace them.

What's the answer? What should California pay for one digital copy of Harry Potter 8? $20? $20,000? $20,000,000? Maybe ten cents or a dollar for every time it's downloaded?

What's the business model that properly compensates content creators, that gets enough cash flowing to allow a book/ebook ecosystem to flourish and grow and expand. Most importantly, what's the business model that gets the content into the hands of the people that want it and that makes piracy irrelevant? That monetizes the reading transactions that need to be monetized and leaves alone the ones that don't?

I have some ideas, and I think they'll flow from the same kind of arrangement that companies like Morgan & Claypool, O'Reilly and others have forged in the academic and technical content spaces, a set of business model that libraries can work with, that often frees content, that trusts readers, that sees libraries as partners rather than adversaries.

Even business models that use DRM like Books 24x7 or Safari can be library-friendly.

When I talk to publishing people or authors and they get all worried about how libraries are denying them sales, the one thing I tell them is this: Think of libraries as the one partner in the content ecosystem that is actually willing to pay good money for quality content. Always has been, always will be.

Or I could be all wrong.

(All of this is as true for public libraries as for academic libraries. But I think that kind of speculation might be for another post.

And I'm still thinking of doing a giant link dump of all this HarperCollins/Overdrive/ebook mess.)

3 responses so far

The eBook Users' Bill of Rights

Feb 28 2011 Published by under ebooks, education, scio11

This one is via Christina Pikas, Bobbi Newman and Sarah-Houghton-Jan, who originated it.

It's released under a CC0 license, so please feel free to repost, remix and whatever else strikes your fancy.

This arises from the current controversy in the library world (and beyond) about a particular publisher restricting the number of checkouts a library ebook can have before the library needs to pay for it again. Bobbi Newman collects a lot of relevant posts here if you're interested. I may post about the situation in more detail later this week.

The eBook Users Bill of Rights:

Every eBook user should have the following rights:

  • the right to use eBooks under guidelines that favor access over proprietary limitations
  • the right to access eBooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software the user chooses
  • the right to annotate, quote passages, print, and share eBook content within the spirit of fair use and copyright
  • the right of the first-sale doctrine extended to digital content, allowing the eBook owner the right to retain, archive, share, and re-sell purchased eBooks

Houghton-Jan further comments:

I believe in the free market of information and ideas.

I believe that authors, writers, and publishers can flourish when their works are readily available on the widest range of media. I believe that authors, writers, and publishers can thrive when readers are given the maximum amount of freedom to access, annotate, and share with other readers, helping this content find new audiences and markets. I believe that eBook purchasers should enjoy the rights of the first-sale doctrine because eBooks are part of the greater cultural cornerstone of literacy, education, and information access.

Digital Rights Management (DRM), like a tariff, acts as a mechanism to inhibit this free exchange of ideas, literature, and information. Likewise, the current licensing arrangements mean that readers never possess ultimate control over their own personal reading material. These are not acceptable conditions for eBooks.

I am a reader. As a customer, I am entitled to be treated with respect and not as a potential criminal. As a consumer, I am entitled to make my own decisions about the eBooks that I buy or borrow.

I am concerned about the future of access to literature and information in eBooks. I ask readers, authors, publishers, retailers, librarians, software developers, and device manufacturers to support these eBook users' rights.

These rights are yours. Now it is your turn to take a stand. To help spread the word, copy this entire post, add your own comments, remix it, and distribute it to others. Blog it, Tweet it (#ebookrights), Facebook it, email it, and post it on a telephone pole.

Amen to that!

3 responses so far

ScienceOnline 2011 Debrief Part 1: ebooks, blogs and stealthy librarians

Yeah, I'm talking about you, #scio11. The conference that still has significant twitter traffic three days after it's over. I've been to conferences that don't have that kind of traffic while they're happening. In fact, that would be pretty well every other conference.

Every edition of ScienceOnline seems to have a different virtual theme for me and this one seemed to somehow circle back to the blogging focus on earlier editions of the conference. Of course, the program is so diverse and the company so stimulating, that different people will follow different conference paths and perhaps sense different themes or perhaps no theme at all.

This post will contain some fairly disconnected thoughts, mostly directly connected to the program sessions themselves. I'll have another post up soon concentrating on the non-panel parts of the conference.

  • Stealthy Librarians. In the past, the sessions that the library invasive species contingent have organized have often been a bit sparsely attended by non-librarians. Even though we've tried to orient them towards a broader audience, they've usually had the L-Word in the session title. Unfortunately, there's nothing that'll turn off a bunch of savvy online science types faster than the library stuff. They'll tend to feel that it's stuff they've already mastered -- and most of them are certainly self-sufficient in their online activities.

    But, along comes librarian superheroes Molly Keener and Kiyomi Deards and scientist superhero Steve Koch to organize a session on Data Discoverability: Institutional Support Strategies. Essentially the session was about scientists and librarians collaborating to find a way to manage and make accessible large amounts of research data. And it was really well attended, provoked very lively discussion on a lot of important issues. To make things better, I think it got a lot of people thinking that the library is a natural ally in open science.

    By far, this was the best and most successful "library" session at any ScienceOnline. Bravo!

  • eBooks & the Science Community. This was my session, which was organized by Carl Zimmer and also included Thomas Levenson and David Dobbs. Once again, this was a case of a stealthy librarian (i.e., me) getting into a session that's not really about library issues and, I hope, getting some good points in about the things we worry about. Like sustainable business models that work for both content creators and consumers, preservation, open standards and, of course, the mutualized community sharing that are the whole point of libraries when it comes to the content we license and purchase.

    I somehow seem to recall referring to the emerging app ecosystem as "The Dark Side." I may have gotten carried away. Anyways, it was a great session and I'm really glad to have been part of it. Carl Zimmer and Christina Pikas have good summaries of the main points and Christina also has a post with some very kind words of commentary.

  • ScienceSeeker. Dave Munger and Anton Zuiker gave a session introducing the successor to Scienceblogging.org, ScienceSeeker.org. It seems like a fantastic project about aggregating science blogging content. Run on over and submit and/or claim your blog now.

    It's corrects the main fault with ScienceBlogging.org in that in accepts independent blogs and not just network-affiliated ones. My only hope is that they ultimately release the data they aggregate under a CC0 license, which seemed to be a point of some discussion in the session itself. At very least, they should make the data freely and openly available to those that wish to use it for research purposes.

Of course, there were a ton more sessions that I attended and they were mostly all very good. Watch the conference site and blog as a bunch of them were steamed live and will be made available for viewing.

All in all, this conference just gets better and more successful every year. Here's to #scio12!

3 responses so far

« Newer posts Older posts »