26 Sad Steps

I’m still doing some initial processing of yesterday’s big revelation that henceforth libraries will be allowed to license eBooks from HarperCollins only for 26 circulations.  What does this mean for libraries trying to provide good  eReading experiences for their users?  What are the short- and long-term implications of this shot across the bow? 

There’s already been a lot of reporting and commentary about this bombshell, via tweets, blog posts, and news articles.  Here are a few more random thoughts, written in haste early on a Saturday morning, in no particular order:

  • Boycotting eContent from HarperCollins may be a good short-term strategy to let HC know librarians are not happy about this, and it may cause HC to “cave” (change the new policy or abandon it altogether), but I think librarians should focus on the long-term implications and opportunities.
  • I have no idea why this new policy was leaked through a sanitized message from Steve Potash at OverDrive.confused  Why didn’t HC senior management be more up-front about this?  Whatever the reasons, I don’t think OverDrive should be blamed.  Over the years Steve Potash has mentioned to me several times that obtaining rights from publishers and other rights holders to distribute their  eContent has been one of the most difficult aspects of OverDrive’s overall business.  Let’s face it:  Most publishers never have liked the library lending model, but they had to tolerate it when printed objects (printed books, tapes, CDs, DVDs) were the norm.  Now that we are entering an era where the eText is shunted about (downloaded, transferred onto and off of various PP ICEs – Personal, Portable Information, Communication, and Entertainment devices), it appears that some of the big publishers want to either control library lending or squash it completely. 
  • It’s time to finally drop this charade that eContent should be treated like printed content.  Publishers and librarians both are guilty of playing this game of denial.  This is one of those “mind-forged manacles” (a great phrase from William Blake) that is preventing everyone from realizing the true affordances of eContent and the eReading era.
  • So what are these “true affordances” of eContent?  Simply stated:  With eContent it’s possible to make an unlimited number of perfect copies of a work, then distribute them at the speed of light to just about anywhere on the earth.  In theory at least, there’s no reason why anyone should have to wait, place a hold on, or be denied access to any bit of eContent.  If you can discover it, you should be able to access it.  Obviously, this cluster of basic affordances has some serious legal and economic implications, as well as huge social and cultural implications, that are hard to wrap one’s mind around (even after you’ve shed those mind-forged manacles), but if we call continue to play this little game of pretending that eContent should be treated and used like printed content, we’ll continue to wallow in this awful state of group denial.
  • The right of first sale may be over.  I cannot think of a way to carry that concept over to the eReading era in a healthy manner.  Other commentators, such as Mike Shatzkin and Sarah Houghton-Jan, seem to agree that at this point in time the right of first sale is on life-support.  The basic problem, it seems to me, is that the right of first sale works really well when what you purchase is a content object where the content (say, a novel) and the container (say, a masterfully designed and produced cluster of paper, ink, cardboard, glue, and cloth) are more or less wedded for the life of that content object.  When the text and the text-bearing device have a static relationship, it’s easy for the seller and buyer to agree that the buyer “owns” that static combo for the life of that object.  I can write in that printed book, tear out each page as I read it and feed it to a goat, lend the book to a friend, give it to my local library, whatever.  In the eReading era, however, the fundamental relationship between texts and text-bearing devices is dynamic, not static.  Think of all those copies of eContent moving around us at the speed of light.  We move eContent onto and off of a increasingly wide array of useful PP ICE’s all the time, sometimes without the aid of conscious volition. 
  • What we need to move toward as a cluster of stakeholder groups (authors, publishers, booksellers, tech companies, libraries, library vendors, readers, etc.) is some sort of distribution system that realizes the fundamental affordances of eContent, that never denies access to any eContent to anyone (I know, that’s quite an ideal state, but let’s dream large for a moment), and yet has considerable consensual cultural, social, legal, and economic support.  Clearly, this silly 26-step program that HarperCollins has implemented is not a first step toward that promised land.  We may, however, be headed toward an era where access to most eContent will be licensed, and the idea that libraries and individual readers own anything (other than their PP ICE of choice) will atrophy.  Personally, I think a licensing structure based on time, rather than on the size of the population served or the number of licensed uses, will be better for everyone in the long run.  As a librarian and as an individual consumer of eContent, I’d like to be able to decide if I want to license access to an object or cluster of objects for a year, or 10 years, or until I die, or perhaps even after I die, so that I can pass on some of my favorite digital objects to my heirs. 

Rather than take 26 sad steps down the thorny path prepared for us by HarperCollins, let’s try to find a way to realize the full potential of the eReading era. 


Do Readers Want Library eLending?

There are two things of which I am reasonably certain:

  1. Librarians want a viable, robust library lending model for the ereading era.
  2. Publishers don’t. 

But what and authors and readers?  Do they want a viable library lending model?  I have a hunch that many authors think that obscurity – not having their works come to the attention of potential readers – is a greater threat than being denied a maximum revenue return on their writing activities because of some piracy, the loaning of copies to friends, and the lending of library-owned copies.

When it comes to readers, I assume that most want a robust library lending model for the ereading era, but a 2010 survey and resulting research report and market analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) is cause for concern.  The survey was administered to 1,000 citizens in each of four countries:  U.S., U.K., Germany, and the Netherlands.  (The researchers also interviewed 40 experts.)  All survey respondents were between the ages of 18 and 65.  According to the methodology section of the PwC report, “The consumers were selected in a census-representative manner with regard to sex, age, and profession.” 

library stacksOf the respondents who indicated that they already owned a portable ereader or were interested in getting one (either through purchase or as a gift, I assume), they were asked in one of the survey questions how important a list of 21 features and affordances of ereaders were for them personally. 

The list of 21 features was a good mix of aspects of the hardware, software, and content.  The feature that the most respondents indicated was very important to them was long battery life.  Approximately 74 percent of the American respondents indicated this.  The second most important feature (about 68 percent for U.S. respondents) was a wide range of ebooks.  Other features that were very important to the Americans included:  damage resistant/easy to clean (60 percent); user-friendly operation (59 percent); display size (54 percent); and an integrated ebook store (54 percent). 

Well down the list of very important features was the concept of a lending service from a library.  About 33 percent of the Americans who respondent indicated that this was a very important feature, and only about 24-25 percent of the Brits, Germans, and Dutch rated this as a very important feature. 

While these survey results are disappointing from the standpoint of this librarian, we need to bear in mind that this is just one survey, conducted over half a year ago in May 2010. Most people who are already ereading or seriously considering it may be focused on selecting a portable ereading device and integrating it into their reading lives.  After they’ve purchased a few eBook titles at $10 to $15 per unit, they may develop a greater appreciation of the value of a robust library lending system for the ereading era. 

I also don’t really know how the survey question that led to the results presented in Figure 10 on page 21 of this report was framed and contextualized.  I don’t even know how the respondents were instructed to respond.  Was there an opportunity to indicate other desired features that were not on the list presented to them?  Were they presented with this list of features and asked to select the, say, five that they considered the most important?  If so, the fact that one in three of the American respondents included library lending as one of their must-have features may be a positive indicator of a bright future for libraries and the library lending model in the ereading era.  I’ll try to get answers to these questions from the research team and report back.  

UPDATE (Jan. 26, 2011):  Dr. Christina Mueller, a member of the research team, responded to my email inquiry with some clarifying remarks.  She gave me permission to post her remarks here.  This additional information from Dr. Mueller actually warms the cockles of this librarian’s heart, because so many respondents – nearly 3 of every 4 Dutch and American respondent — listed library lending either as very important or important.  This topic is still not in the same league as battery life, but, over time, I think it will grow in importance to readers who engage in portable eReading.

Here is the core response from Dr. Mueller:   

We asked the survey participants, how important the specific features of eReaders were for them. We gave them a list of 21 items and asked them to rank them as ‘very important’, ‘important’, ‘less important’ and ‘not important’.

We found out that of those respondents owning an eReader or who could imagine buying an eReader, 25.9% indicated that lending services from a libary were very important, for 45% it was important, 22.8% less important and 6.3% not important. When looking at the country differences, we found out that Dutch and US-American respondents regarded this functionality more highly than respondents in the UK and Germany: 73.9% in the Netherlands and also 73.9% of respondents in the US ranked lending services from a libary as imprtant or very important (US: 31.7% very important, 43.2% important).

We did not ask participants to indicate their top five features they desired from the list, but rather evaluated the most important features based on the percentage of respondents indicating the features as most important. We did not ask participants to write in other desired features that were not on the list presented to them, either. Nevertheless I hope that this gives you some further insights on our survey.

The Bodies and Soul of a Book

joe espositoEarlier this week Joseph Esposito whipped up an interesting blog post over in the Scholarly Kitchen.  He really ladled it on thick.  He argued that the current way of thinking about books as some spirit or essence that can be plopped into any of a growing number of bowls (printed, PDF, ePub, Rocket, Pocket, Kindle, Spindle, etc.) is mistaken, misguided, and unpalatable.  He suggested that most authors write for a certain type of vessel.  Evidently the author, while writing, imagines not only an ideal reader, but also the ideal finished product, the spirit of the text instantiated in a very specific dish.  We must recognize and respect, Esposito cautions, the authority of the author to select the best vessel for the spirit of his or her utterance. 

Esposito argues that it is erroneous to distinguish the text from the text-bearing device. “Text” and “text-bearing device” are my terms, not his.  I’ve been using them for years to differentiate the aspect of a book that is the text – the ideas, arguments, narrative, sentiments, style, etc. — from the book as a physical object – so much paper, glue, and ink, or, now, plastic, glass, and gossamer digits.

Bobby RiggsEsposito asserts that such dualism is false and misleading thinking.  The text is not the spirit, nor the text-bearing device the body, the “mere mortal coil.”  What medieval rubbish.  For Esposito, the text-bearing device informs the text, rather than the other way around.   “…the creation of a text is a dialogue between the ideas and words of the author and the limitations imposed by its container.”  Writers are like tennis players, ever mindful of the net and the boundary lines.  The reader, evidently, is Bobby Riggs, pandering to the crowd and belittling the game.  Esposito asserts that changing the container of the text changes the text. “The problem with getting books out of their containers is that books are their containers.”

I don’t buy his argument.  Reality intrudes.  Think of all the texts that appear in multiple containers, perhaps first as a series of chapters in some periodical, then as a published thingy, then, perchance, anthologized, which must be either the Elysian Fields or the Tartarus for any self-respecting text.  Dickens wrote most of his “novels” as monthly serial installments of usually three chapters each, with a big dessert of six chapters as the final course.  All these years we’ve been thinking we were reading his novels, when really we were reading his serials.  Which container shall rule?

DickensBy the bye, I once read Bleak House with a friend via the installment plan.  It took two years, as I recall.  We read an installment, then chatted about it, then waited a month before reading the next installment.  It was a completely different experience than reading a Dickens thingy more-or-less straight through.  And, of course, Eric and I reading the installments still did not experience Dickens’ text the way he probably envisioned, because we had the whole thing in our hands all the time, not some slim thing on cheap paper, and the society in which we lived while we read was not all abuzz about that unfolding text.  No one at the club (to which I’d belong, if I weren’t unclubbable) ever sauntered over to me with a glass of sherry in hand and inquired, “I say, old chap, what do you make of the most recent number of that thingy Chuck Dickens is writing?” 

Alas, the author can imagine any container he or she wishes, but, once the text has been released into the wild, we readers, publishers, aggregators, anthologizers, hackers, movie producers, made-for-cable movie producers, and librarians will knead, pound, and extrude that text into whatever darn dish we jolly well please. 

Charles PortisAs a reader, I chafe at Esposito’s characterization of the relationship between the text and the text-bearing device, between the soul of the book and its bodies.  One of my favorite books is Norwood by Charles Portis.  I’ve read it auditorily as a narrated audio book, as well as visually as a printed paperback.  (I steer clear of the 1970 movie version starring Glen Campbell, because evidently it’s tasteless.)  While these were two different, distinct reading experiences, at some level I still felt that I was experiencing the same text.  The soul shown forth.  I laughed at the same parts, Joe.   Re-reading digitally the picaresque adventures of Norwood Pratt probably is in my future, and it will be a good experience, and I’ll recognize the text as an old spiritual friend. 

I agree with Esposito that over time the technologies of the containers for books affect the types of books we write. This is a form of technological determinism against which I want to rebel, but must acknowledge and cannot argue away.  The economics and legal structures underpinning disseminated writing affects how we write and read, too.  Esposito’s argument hasn’t motivated me to rethink the way I understand the fundamental relationship between texts and text-bearing devices, but it has reinforced my growing appreciation for the nuances and varieties of text-bearing devices – of the body types these wonderful souls can inhabit and inspire. 

mark twainEsposito stirs Frost several times into his post, so I’ll spread a little Twain as some frosting for this muffin.  During the print era, when the printed goblet ruled supreme in our minds and in our hands, we erroneously imagined that all writers were writing in the same dialect and not really succeeding.  In the digital era, a veritable smorgasbord of tasty text-bearing dishes will emerge.  I’m with Huck.  “In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.” 

While Esposito’s basic thesis causes me concern, I relish some of his details.  For instance, he offers a good tentative classification of six types of ebooks that the new ereading technologies seem to afford.

  1. “The Institutional Book is a record of a text; the aim is to maintain in digital form all that we have come to expect from print.” In other words, an institutional book is just a printed book digitized, with as little alteration in conception and execution as possible. Reading an institutional book on a PP ICE (personal, portable information, communication, and entertainment appliance) is familiar and comforting, but an institutional book does not really capitalize or realize the affordances inherent in ereading on a PP ICE.
  2. The second type of digital book Esposito enumerates is what he calls the Classic e-book. “An e-book is a Classic when it embodies the primary virtue of a printed book — namely, it mostly disappears from our awareness as we become immersed in the text.  This was one of the declared goals of the Kindle, and in my view, Amazon has been very successful at this.  A Classic E-book provides a reading experience that is just a tad different from a familiar printed book.”  So, when the reader becomes immersed in a good ebook, it flies free of its institutional, pulpy status and becomes a classic.
  3. An Enhanced e-book introduces other elements, such as audio, video, and computer simulations, into the text. As Esposito sees it, with the emergence of the enhanced e-book, “…all the affordances of computers are now at the disposal of the creator.”
  4. The fourth type of ebook that Esposito outlines he calls a Muscular e-book, a phrase used “…to describe books that invite an almost aggressive reading style”  He seems to have textbooks, technical manuals, and such truck in mind, although I can imagine many possible muscular reading experiences of philosophical and religious texts.  I’ve been challenging Plato to a best two falls out of three match for decades.
  5. The Social book will be communal in some ways, from a simple wrapping of comments and commentary from various individuals around the primary text to a truly communal text, such as a wiki.   Gentle reader, please don’t run for the hills at the mere mention of a wiki.  Some people see this type of ebook as the future for ereading.  The old-fashioned way of reading silently alone will die off with the current generations as the new age of a reader’s paradise of communal reading dawns. 
  6. The sixth and final type of book Esposito envisions is the Staccato Book. The cell phone novel – short and pithy like a string of text messages that would make Hemingway suicidal – is a good example of the Staccato Book as a type.

Willa CatherEsposito seems to suggest that the better writers of the ereading era with think long, hard, and creatively about how these new containers and affordances will shape and sway what they utter and how they utter it. “…understanding the nature and affordances of the container are very much a part of the creative act of writing a book in the first place.”  Rightly so, but the author doesn’t always get what he or she imagined.  I’ve heard tell that Faulkner wanted to have the text of The Sound and the Fury presented in different colors, but his publisher (Grady Fring, no doubt), ever mindful of costs, nixed the idea.  Evidently Willa Cather was very attentive to fonts and page layouts, but I imagine subsequent printings of her works have drifted away from her original intentions. 

Maybe we should embrace the idea of authors’ cuts of their works.  Perhaps a few years hence, as we flip digitally to the verso of the title page on our ultra slim and sleek portable devices, a hologram of the author will rez and announce with august authority, “I’m the author, and I approve this institutional, classical, muscle-bound body for the soul of my book.  If you mess with it, you mess with me.” 

Taking a Look at the Vook eBook

Get Naked FastOne of the big questions about the current portable ereading revolution is how all these new devices, distribution systems, and opportunities for eReading will affect the content we read.  How will non-verbal images (static and moving), audio clips, spur of the moment social networking opportunities, and other things be woven into the eReading experience?

The Vook is an interesting initial foray into these uncharted waters.  It’s been around for almost two years, but is still struggling to get some attention.  Tomorrow’s article by Virginia Heffernan in the NY Times Sunday Magazine should help.


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