Sense and nonsense on eBooks: consumers and patrons

Peter Brantley and Ben Vershbow run excellent blogs that anyone interested in digital libraries should follow. They have some insightful postings on the recent Amazon (Kindle) and Google (MyLibrary) developments: Ben here and Peter on Google’s MyLibrary. But they also contribute some frankly dumb and thoroughly misleading ideas to the discussion. Item: after some shrewd analysis of the shortcomings of the reported/conjectured spec. for the Kindle, Ben Vershbow asks us to:

…… project forward a few years… this could develop into a huge money-maker for Google: paid access (licensed through publishers) not only on a per-title basis, but to the whole collection—all the world’s books. Royalties could be distributed from subscription revenues in proportion to access. Each time a book is opened, a penny could drop in the cup of that publisher or author. By then a good reading device will almost certainly exist (more likely a next generation iPhone than a Kindle) and people may actually be reading books through this system, directly on the network. Google and Amazon will then in effect be the digital infrastructure for the publishing industry……[e-book developments at amazon, google]

Wait a minute, doesn’t Ben realise that people are already reading books on the network? Reminder: the scientific, medical, technical and legal literature has largely migrated to the web already. In universities, the reading matter for most of the technical subjects studied, is accessed almost entirely through the web. The brute fact is that when people go on to the web what they are doing most of the time is reading. Often what they read is literature, extended text. Most of this literature that has gone on to the web already, a lot of it out-of-print or scholarly periodicals but some of it the very latest research, has migrated in the form of PDF files, or print repurposed as HTML. Those texts are ‘books’, however inadequate their file format and however proprietary their publisher platforms. It is a complete nonsense to suggest that “actually reading books directly on the network” is any kind of innovation or step forward. There is nothing futuristic about people reading on the net.

On the contrary, the embarasment of the publishing industry is that people spend most of their time on the web reading and commercial publishers have so far failed to provide an adequate way for web users to read, search, consult, cite, snippet, bookmark, share, savour etc…. most of the 100,000 new books published each year (scholarly periodicals excepted).

Because there is so much literature already available and more or less directly usable on the web, it is most improbable that any new hardware or software eReader environment is going to establish a proprietary format. There is not going to be a better eReader than the omni-purpose web browsers (although Mozilla, IE, Safari etc will of course be improved in ways which may help readers and searchers). Also, because so much of what we read on the web is now freely accessible (all those out of copyright texts, self-published theses and reports) Ben’s hypothesis of a largely commercial jukebox, pay as you go, Googlised network for literature is implausible. There may be a lot of paid for network-based reading in five/ten years, but there will remain vast acreages of freely accessible (advertising-led) literature available to us all. Subscription-based publishing, as it evolves, is going to have to be very well integrated with all the free and immediately accessible literature that is already on the web. And with the vast amounts that will be pouring out of Google Book Search and similar projects.

Commenting on this paragraph of Ben’s, Peter Brantley sees a fork in the road:

This is a critical cognitive and more importantly business development split – will ebooks be consumed over the network, or will the older model of downloadable and packaged books into dedicated readers persist? [What Books? Where Books?]

OK, its pretty clear that we will take the first fork in his disjunction — downloadable books and dedicated readers are clearly a no-no. But hold your horses, what does Peter mean by using the phrase “consumed over the network”? ‘Consumed’ is exactly the wrong word to use. It is already taking us in the wrong direction, down the second fork. Books are going to be accessed over the network. ‘Consumed’ suggests that the resources are scarce, that issues are to be delivered, that books will be downloaded, that readings are rivalrous not collaborative and interpretative, that we are talking products not services.

The key issue in all of this is not eBooks, but how digital libraries will be accessed and how individuals will have rights to search, read, use and enjoy the books that will be in them. Will they be public or commercially run libraries? Will they support institutional or individual access or both? We never consume libraries, we patronise them. The ways in which digital books will be patronised and supported is a topic worthy of serious investigation.

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