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October 29, 2012 2:05 AM   Subscribe

The book publishing world is merging into behemoths in order to better negotiate with Amazon. Rupert Murdoch (HarperCollins) has made an offer to buy Penguin for $1.6 billion. This just hours after Penguin said it was in talks to merge with Random House to create a 'Random Penguin' with nearly 25% of all English-language book sales. Either way the reputation of Penguin could soon be in tatters. As one agent said, "Authors have told me they are frightened by a Random House takeover, but terrified by a HarperCollins one."
posted by stbalbach (77 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 


Well, this seems to be a complete fucking disaster.
posted by PinkMoose at 2:17 AM on October 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


Rupert Murdoch (HarperCollins) has made an offer to buy Penguin

Fuck.
posted by pracowity at 2:18 AM on October 29, 2012 [25 favorites]


"If News Corp. were to buy Penguin outright, by contrast, it could give Pearson cash it could use pursuing its strategy of expanding in educational publishing, a person familiar with the situation said."

New Corp expanding into educational publishing would seem to be of far greater concern than the impact of this takeover on novelists and their agents. Indeed, News Corp expanding into educational publishing would seem to make many exciting, new opportunities available for writers of fiction.
posted by three blind mice at 2:28 AM on October 29, 2012 [37 favorites]


Penguin and Random House to merge

The owners of Penguin and Random House have announced a deal to merge their publishing arms to create the world's biggest book publisher.

(...)

The announcement scuppers the hopes of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation to crash the merger plans.

posted by moody cow at 2:33 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh good, more corporate mergers! Just what the media needs!
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:49 AM on October 29, 2012 [12 favorites]


Imagine my deep joy, as an author published by Ace, an imprint of Berkeley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin USA.

(Luckily I am also published by Tor, and by Orbit in the UK. Eggs, baskets, plural. However, I'm worried about my editor at Ace and the other folks I know there; this sort of merger usually leads to consolidation and down-sizing of staff.)

Note, however, that if you're a member of the public worried about books by your favourite authors, the publishing schedules for 2012, 2013, and the early part of 2014 are already pretty much finalized. Publishing changes slowly.
posted by cstross at 2:54 AM on October 29, 2012 [11 favorites]


Well, at least it wasn't Murdoch eh.

The office is full of disgust that the moniker "Random Penguin" was overlooked.
posted by ominous_paws at 3:00 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


this sort of merger usually leads to consolidation and down-sizing of staff

Well, they're explicitly saying that they're trying to gain efficiency, which means they're planning layoffs, guaranteed.

Now that we have the Internet, I'm not worried that my favorite authors will have trouble reaching me, or getting money from me. Those are very easy, nowadays. Those are the fundamental problems that these huge companies were created to solve, and now they've been solved in a completely different way, rendering many of their functions obsolete. No matter how efficient they get at printing paper books, they can never get as efficient as copying a few hundred K over a network, in exchange for a Paypal transaction.

My real worry is editorial quality.... authors typically don't like being edited, but they usually need it. If authors end up in the driver seat in the overall relationship, which I think is probably inevitable, writing quality seems likely to decline.

Another thought is that editors might end up with a credit... 'edited by J. Biblio Phile' may end up being a sign of quality that authors can use as a selling point. Or, possibly, 'edited by Small Editing Company, Inc', if they have a pool of editors. The author will pay the editor, instead of the other way around. But that could get messy, because what if the author disagrees with an edit? Editing companies would probably need final say over whether the author is allowed to attach their name to a work, which could lead to some nasty disputes. ("No, you can't put our name on the book if you include the chapter about George McGovern being the Antichrist.") Editors will have a very strong desire for books they edit to be as perfect as possible, so that their branding on a book has real meaning, and authors won't want to take all their advice. With the authors in charge....I just don't know how that's going to play out.

This industry is going through massive change, and I can't help but think that these mergers may be a gigantic waste of money. They intend to get more efficient, but they're getting more efficient at doing the wrong thing. The lack of need for a huge physical printing press to make books is a permanent shift in the balance of power. It moves the center of gravity away from corporations, and toward authors, but the corporations are changing with the idea of making themselves more important, and more central, not less. I suspect this may not work well at all for them.

It seems to me that if you don't like the behemoths that result from these mergers, you'll be able to largely ignore them, both as a customer and as an author. This has never been true before; you always needed a publisher to reach more than a few hundred people, typically. In, say, 1972, you took the deal you got, or you didn't get published, period. But in 2012, if you don't like the terms, you won't be dead in the water if you refuse to sign. It'll be harder to generate readership and sales without the backing of a major publisher, but unlike 40 years ago, it's possible.

As a customer, you can just buy directly on someone's website. Lots of small developers are doing just fine that way, and books are much easier to host on a small web site. If you do come up roses, and need to move a whole bunch of books, you can probably sell ten or twenty thousand a week on a $100 web hosting account. If you get to the point of selling hundreds of thousands of books, the cost of upgrading your hosting to handle it will be the least of your worries. Publishing online is so astonishingly cheap that the barrier becomes almost 100% mindshare and word of mouth.
posted by Malor at 3:32 AM on October 29, 2012 [41 favorites]


Narrowly avoided.
posted by louche mustachio at 3:38 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Totally right, Malor. I'm counting on editor-as-seal-of-approval to be the driving force of the publishing industry in the future.
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:44 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, and of course, the customer is in the driver's seat even more than the author is. Almost by definition, any customer of an e-book will also have a factory that can make exact duplicates, by the million, nearly for free.

The people with the money and the factories are fundamentally in charge of any relationship that involves the use of those factories. And, in the case of ebooks and music and movies, that's YOU. No matter what bullshit and bafflegab the various *IAA entities deploy, their old business models are breaking down, and will be broken entirely before too much longer. You, the end user, will ultimately determine what will replace it.
posted by Malor at 3:49 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm counting on editor-as-seal-of-approval to be the driving force of the publishing industry in the future.

Yeah, that's working out pretty well for us over here in academia.




(cough)
posted by erniepan at 3:52 AM on October 29, 2012 [7 favorites]


What are the problems you see with the model, erniepan? Does it not work well in actual practice?
posted by Malor at 3:55 AM on October 29, 2012


Publishing may change slowly but 5000 books on this nice little oh-so-adjustable tablet that also connects to the Internet and shoots video to boot is blowing my mind at double warp speed.
posted by telstar at 4:06 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Endless consolidation results in decreased overall employment. But Random Pengiun is a pretty rad name, so I guess it all works out.
posted by 1adam12 at 4:25 AM on October 29, 2012


Oh, and of course, the customer is in the driver's seat even more than the author is. Almost by definition, any customer of an e-book will also have a factory that can make exact duplicates, by the million, nearly for free.

The people with the money and the factories are fundamentally in charge of any relationship that involves the use of those factories. And, in the case of ebooks and music and movies, that's YOU. No matter what bullshit and bafflegab the various *IAA entities deploy, their old business models are breaking down, and will be broken entirely before too much longer. You, the end user, will ultimately determine what will replace it.


Well, um, no. The ability to pirate and mass-produce the end product of a creative process is not really "being in charge of the factory," especially when it comes to intellectual creation. Let's say to take a well-designed shirt and set up a factory to make knock offs. You are limited by the original design, but you can make changes to the fabric, color, etc, if you think you will sell more units. However, with a book, you just have that book. You can produce as many copies of that articular book as you like, but you have no ability to create a different book (well, I suppose you could use Find and Replace to swap out characters' names and elements of the setting, but that won't work for long, if at all).

Essentially, you have hijacked part of the distribution network, not built a new factory.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:26 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


What are the problems you see with the model, erniepan? Does it not work well in actual practice?

Well to be fair, at least writing outside of peer reviewed research there is actually some money that someone might want to throw at you, some time.

I write a paper for a journal. If it's accepted, I sign the copyright over to them, and pay them for each page I'm getting published (more for colour illustrations!). Then they charge people $35-per-article to read individually (my cut: 0%), and charge individuals hundreds, and institutions thousands of dollars for a subscription (my cut: 0%). Then they ask me to review the next sucker's paper (for which I'm paid $0). And if I don't churn out five or six of these a year, my career's over.

On the other hand, I guess if we play along with the system, we get a source of income besides writing papers, so we're luckier that way. Carry on. This Random Penguin sounds like fun!
posted by Jimbob at 4:26 AM on October 29, 2012 [7 favorites]


There is almost zero editing done by editors in academia, Malor. An editor simply issues the seal-of-final approval. All the actual editing gets assigned to referees, basically anonymous wiki-gnomes. Any editorial staff employed by the publisher does more harm than good. I suppose the "please shorten it" editorial requests are ultimately made by arbitrary looking page count restrictions, but occasionally those harm the journal's impact factor when serious people cite only the full result.

There is good reason for the editor not to issue the seal-of-approval today anyways though, namely these large publishers love manipulating the seal-of-approval. Instead, we should consider the editor as offering a second opinion about what readers really want, ala popular version vs. director's cut.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:33 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Derail aside, I've been worried about these mergers, which have been going on for quite some time. IN the 90s, a spate of mergers reduced the number of publishers, and, as far as I can see, the big effect was to kill the midlist -- works by established authors that paid for themselves but generally didn't generate a ton of extra money. The publishers seemed increasingly interested in only publishing material that was going to be "best-sellers," which is kind of a ridiculous concept, when you think about it. The small press couldn't keep up with the process, and many of these authors just seemed to stop publishing (the days of effective electronic self-publishing being a decade or more in the future). Concentration of distribution of creative works in a few hands always seems like a bad idea to me. There are economies of scale (which rarely seem to filter down to the customer), but there are also "tyrannies of scale" that have a whole host of unintended (at least to the consumer) consequences (e.g what if there are only three publishers, and none of them want to take a chance on you while you develop an audience?).
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:37 AM on October 29, 2012 [13 favorites]


'Random Penguin', sounds like the next release of Ubuntu.
posted by KaizenSoze at 4:45 AM on October 29, 2012 [12 favorites]


What about Dobby, the random House-Penguin?
posted by blue_beetle at 4:47 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is almost zero editing done by editors in academia, Malor.

Maybe in math. In political science this can vary from almost no editing to the editor(s) personally doing a pretty thorough copy-edit of everything coming through the journal.

Any editorial staff employed by the publisher does more harm than good.

This varies too. The guy at Sage I deal with fairly frequently for journal articles is pretty with it. And the full-time editor at Legislative Studies Quarterly, who works for the (technically) publisher, is as sharp as a sharp thing.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:49 AM on October 29, 2012


Look, can we just fast forward to the point where I can just give party X some money and receive a non-encrypted version of the latest Iain M Banks novel, safe in the knowledge that the author and editor are receiving the lion's share of that cash? Because I'm getting really fucking tired of not reading for pleasure. I don't want more dead trees and I don't want DRM. So right now, I'm basically fucked.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:52 AM on October 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


What about Dobby, the random House-Penguin?

See what happens in the thrilling world of random house-to-house House-Penguin sales!
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:54 AM on October 29, 2012


I don't think anything in the academic publishing model -- evil though it is -- can really be used to illustrate the situation in the popular press. It's only tolerance of the people paying for research, and tolerance of the funding sources for academic libraries, of the status quo that allows it to be a rent-extraction machine for the publishers, and they've gotten greedy enough that you're seeing little revolutions already.

Okay, so both models are set to go through a pending apocalypse, so I suppose that's similar.

Would love to chat but now I have to get back to spending taxpayer money to do minute dicking around with a PDF file to make sure all the right fonts have the right size and embedding to make it past an unnamed publisher's camera-ready autochecker...
posted by Vetinari at 4:58 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


There is almost zero editing done by editors in academia, Malor.

This has not been my experience at all in humanities publishing; this generalization probably varies widely by field and/or publisher.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:10 AM on October 29, 2012


New Corp expanding into educational publishing would seem to be of far greater concern than the impact of this takeover on novelists and their agents. Indeed, News Corp expanding into educational publishing would seem to make many exciting, new opportunities available for writers of fiction.
In terms of publishing there's hardly an industry more fat, bloated and rent-seeking then then the college textbook industry. They charge students upwards of $100 for books that contain widely available information.

They're absolutely ripe for disintermediation, with stuff like Khan Academy, all kinds of things.

Their newspaper properties have already taken a big hit. If newscorp gets into this, one can only hope that this investment will be the next Myspace for them.
posted by delmoi at 5:37 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Totally right, Malor. I'm counting on editor-as-seal-of-approval to be the driving force of the publishing industry in the future.
Given the success of 50 shades of grey I'm kind of guessing that's not going to be a major factor. Maybe for non-fiction books or something.

Do most readers really care that much? And the thing is, with something like amazon, you can always just go with the "crowdsourced" average score. If a book has 4 stars, 4.5 stars and it's in a genera you're interested in, you can probably assume that it's going to be good relative to the average quality in that genera, right?
posted by delmoi at 5:41 AM on October 29, 2012


" If a book has 4 stars, 4.5 stars and it's in a genera you're interested in, you can probably assume that it's going to be good relative to the average quality in that genera, right?"

No, people buy reviews. And a surprising number of reviewers are total morons. I read a lot of small-press and self-published e-books and unless you are lucky enough to find a well-written review with specifics, star rating has little relationship to book quality.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:11 AM on October 29, 2012 [10 favorites]


Boy, I know it's only marginally germaine to this thread, but the number of books I love that is not (yet?) available in electronic form is longer than my arm. All those people gloating about seizing the means of production should give some thought to what is lost if everyone just gives up on physical books tomorrow because of some imagined worker/author paradise. Publishers need to be more assiduous about converting their back catalogs, if they really want to fulfill the commitment they made to their authors. Readers need to be more vocal about pushing for converting their favorites to digital, if they are going to be preserved.

It's not just books that were published in the last X number of years that have value. Also, consider all the truly gigantic authors (looking at you, dead Mr. Bradbury) who are simply refusing to participate. We would be truly impoverishing ourselves and our children if we just drew a line and said "Meh. Who needs all those older books, when we could all have Fifty Shades of Harry Potter?"
posted by newdaddy at 6:18 AM on October 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm counting on editor-as-seal-of-approval to be the driving force of the publishing industry in the future.

GAH! There are any numbers of good books, by great authors, that could have been great books, had an editor had the force and authority to push a little good editorial advice. Look at your own bookshelves and count all the books that fit that category.
posted by newdaddy at 6:21 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Publishers need to be more assiduous about converting their back catalogs, if they really want to preserve the commitment they made to their authors.

This is making the rather extreme assumption that publishers feel they have a commitment to their authors. Generally, they feel they have a commitment to their shareholders. Editors, at least some of the time, show commitment to authors, but, as you may notice, these mergers reduce the number of editors.

Readers need to be more vocal about pushing for converting their favorites to digital, if they are going to be preserved.

Of course, if the loudest voices calling for this are the ones who are also vocal about how easily they can copy and redistribute electronic material, one wonders why the publishers would even bother...
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:24 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Random penguin --> Horse eBooks Corp.
posted by ennui.bz at 7:01 AM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Malor said exactly what I was thinking. I've not bought *paper* books from my three favorite authors in 2-3 years (except to have additional, autographed paperbacks). Two of them are with Baen so I just buy DRM-free .mobi files from Baen; the third (Mr. Stross) I buy his titles from Amazon. I'm sure that in a very-worst-case scenario Charlie could switch to selling his works directly.
posted by mrbill at 7:03 AM on October 29, 2012


a surprising number of reviewers are total morons

I disagree strongly with this statement
posted by ominous_paws at 7:03 AM on October 29, 2012


We would be truly impoverishing ourselves and our children if we just drew a line and said "Meh. Who needs all those older books, when we could all have Fifty Shades of Harry Potter?"

This always seems to be a prevalent attitude in discussions like these. I mean, Malor's already eagerly looking forward to buying—or not buying? Stealing, trading for whuffie? I can't tell—the work of unedited vanity writers, which are, in economic terms, pretty much the publishing equivalent of reality television.

So, to sum up; in Malor's future, readers will pay the authors—except when they don't—and authors will pay the editors—except when they won't—and editors will pay the international content conglomerates who will be nibbled to death by Anonymous.

In happier news, Rupert Murdoch is 81, so he won't be with us much longer; unless he really does live off the industries he relentlessly absorbs and turns to shit.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:04 AM on October 29, 2012


Genera --> genre?
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:09 AM on October 29, 2012


I've not bought *paper* books from my three favorite authors in 2-3 years.

We live in the leafy suburbs and each year get the local pool pass. Summer of 2011 the non-swimmers were all reading ebooks. Summer 2012, they were all back to paperbacks.

Just an observation, make of it what you will.
posted by BWA at 7:12 AM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


I just want to mention that my local supermarket chain (you can think Tescos or Wal-Mart) had crates of 50 Shades at the entry for less $10<.

Publishing is broken, and that is why, but it can be better.

And I am sad that the back room people who make the books we read suck less are being phased out.
posted by Mezentian at 7:21 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


In happier news, Rupert Murdoch is 81, so he won't be with us much longer

Except his mother Elizabeth Murdoch is still alive at the age of 103, which says unfortunate things about the longevity of the Murdoch line. And Rupert's kids don't appear to be much more enlightened than their very old man.
posted by JHarris at 7:37 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


GenjiandProust: "Of course, if the loudest voices calling for this are the ones who are also vocal about how easily they can copy and redistribute electronic material, one wonders why the publishers would even bother..."

Because most of us pay for most or all of the content we consume for which payment is expected? And we'd like to have eBooks of many older out of print books?

The basic argument that you can't abuse your customers too badly because they can just get your content elsewhere and make as many copies as they like is spot on. I don't consider $10-$12 for a recently released book to be abusing me, though. Some of the back catalog stuff would have to be less for me to be interested, though. What I do find to be galling is when I am asked to pay as much or more for the eBook as I would for a hardcover. I don't expect a large discount, but I do expect some discount. Schlepping paper around has to cost something.

I don't like hassling with finding and downloading books anyway. The eBook store is just easier. If I really don't want to pay, I'll check it out from the library. (much harder now that it interfaces with iBooks) Finding illicit copies is just too much of a hassle. I'd rather be reading. That said, I will absolutely crack your goddamned DRM and not feel the least bit of remorse. I paid for the book, so I'll read it on whatever device I damn well please.

TBH, the DRM and format fragmentation are my biggest complaints (as a consumer) about the eBook market as it exists now. I would like to not have to mess with offloading the files from my reader and stripping the DRM just so I can be sure I won't have to re-buy the book (unless I decide I want a paper copy, anyway). It brings the level of effort and thought I have to expend that much closer to the level of effort and thought involved in obtaining and loading illicit copies.
posted by wierdo at 7:54 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's worth keeping in mind that previous industry-dominating mega-mergers have rarely worked out well for the companies involved. Often they actually result in value destruction; i.e., the value of the merged company is less than the sum of the values of the two companies before the merger.

Off the top of my head, I can think of AOL/TimeWarner (which is the worst, most destructive corporate merger in history), but also a lot of intra-industry mergers like Vodafone/Mannesmann and QWest/USWest that were terrible deals for virtually everyone concerned.

My personal theory is that these huge mergers are as much about ego as they are about actual rational business decisionmaking. It's about empire expansion, and if that means breaking things in the process, "oh, well".

If the Random Penguin deal goes through, my guess is that the resulting company will end up serving both RandomHouse and Penguin's current markets more poorly than the separate companies do now.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:08 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's worth keeping in mind that previous industry-dominating mega-mergers have rarely worked out well for the companies involved.

And consider the the threat-context in which this "mega-merger" takes place.

Apple, all by its lonesome, has a market cap of $567 billion dollars. Google's is about $221 billion, and Amazon is a bit shy of $110 billion right now.

By joining forces like this, Random Penguin will have a market cap of... $3 billion, or thereabouts.

So, yeah, good luck with that.
posted by mhoye at 8:22 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


But Random Pengiun is a pretty rad name, so I guess it all works out.


And it leaves "penguin house" open to be coined as a new musical genre.
posted by mykescipark at 8:22 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


And it leaves "penguin house" open to be coined as a new musical genre.

Oh god it could be like Witch House but with cute penguin silhouettes instead of all the triangles
posted by ominous_paws at 8:28 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Boy, I know it's only marginally germaine to this thread, but the number of books I love that is not (yet?) available in electronic form is longer than my arm. ... Publishers need to be more assiduous about converting their back catalogs, if they really want to fulfill the commitment they made to their authors.

Roughly 110 million books have been published. Many of these have no digital representation. In the future, most books that are purchased will be ebooks. So let's pretend we're publishers and this is our problem for a minute. (Or at least, that it's our problem to convert the portion of those books that we hold copyright to and someone might conceivably want to read.)
  1. So take a book off the top of the stack.
  2. Have your lawyers figure out whether you can convert it to digital and sell it.
  3. Scan and OCR it.
  4. Have an outsourcing company try to proofread it and convert it to some kind of usable semantic format.
  5. Have someone in-house take another stab at proofreading and formatting.
  6. Convert the cover art and assets.
  7. Run some software to generate .mobi, epub, iBooks files, etc.
  8. Check the resulting files for the dozen or so most popular devices and OS versions. Oh, they don't have reliable simulators? You have to literally upload the book to the store and then purchase it to see how it works on that new device? Hilarious!
  9. Huh, it turns out each device implements epub differently, because they're at the level of sophistication browsers were in 2003, and your outsourced file conversion people used three different styles to indicate "bold" that all render differently, and the art files are too big for one of the stores and aren't showing up at all for another one, and some of the stuff that looked fine as a book is unreadable on smaller screens. Call up your proofreader, designer, programmer, etc., figure out whose fault it is and repeat steps 5 through 8.
  10. Manually upload your finished files because they're still treating you like a software vendor with a couple of apps to manage instead of a back catalog with thousands of titles.
Did you have a good time? Great! Now do it for the next thousand books, while you keep publishing digital versions of your new titles, while you also keep doing all of the work publishers were doing before ebooks took off. Oh yeah, your revenues will be declining every year, so see what you can do to cut down on staff requirements, OK?

    11. Oops, while you were doing that there was an iOS update. They changed the font rendering so half your ebooks have to be checked by hand to figure out which embedded fonts need to be replaced. Those books were generated by four different processes over the last four years, so have fun with that.

I'm not taking a stance on how good a job publishers are doing with what's on their plate right now. I just think this whole story is more interesting if you think about what it's like to be in an industry going through more change in a decade than it has for hundreds of years.
posted by jhc at 8:34 AM on October 29, 2012 [17 favorites]


It sounds like the publishers need to fire some of their customers, at least until they get their shit together.
posted by wierdo at 9:37 AM on October 29, 2012


Hey - this is uncannily like You've Got Mail. You know - the version where Rupert Murdoch stars as Tom Hanks' scrotum.
posted by gallus at 10:34 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Because most of us pay for most or all of the content we consume for which payment is expected? And we'd like to have eBooks of many older out of print books?

Well, as jhc points out, retrospective ebook creation is not cost-free. Frankly, I find this frustrating myself -- there's a lot of stuff I would cheerfully have on ebook, but I kind of doubt that it will be released any time soon, if ever.

Which makes the university administrators who take the line "soon the library will be online and it will be super-cheap, because the internet is free!" Wrong on an additional count, but it's really hard to get them to see it. Even if every book published from this day on was electronic, we would still have millions of titles that exist only in paper, and which no one sees a sufficient market to digitize.

And, yet, the "everything on the internet is free" drum keeps beating through the land. Joined by the mournful trumpet solo of "the internet will make us all rich." It's a strange duet.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:44 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


JHC, we have had computers capable of displaying text for decades. It is amazing that we are still messing with functionality of the written word.

It seems like it is time for a open-source e-reader that uses plaintext. The next stage is to get it to convert other epub formats to plaintext.

I can't really see any reason for these competing formats beyond making a pretty wrapper to put the DRM into.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 11:29 AM on October 29, 2012


psycho-alchemy: I don't really understand exactly what you're asking for. EPUB is plaintext (in the sense that it is standard text-with-tags that's put in a plain jane ZIP file with the file extension renamed). EPUB is paginated HTML with some supporting XML documents and maybe some asset files like JPEG. Full stop.

Frankly, I can't think of a more open, simple, stress tested, supported, and widely available format then basic HTML to exchange formatted documents. You need precisely three things to make EPUBs:
  1. A ZIP compressor
  2. A plaintext editor.
  3. Your brain.
Granted, you can get into some pretty kludgy high end extensions on EPUB (presented, it is a set of concatenated, paginated HTML documents, after all - so you can do crazy things with javascript) but you can do some very specific, finicky things with plaintext too (ASCII art reliant on non-proportional typefaces, hard-coded linewraps, unicode support, etc).

DRM schemes are implemented entirely at a different software layer and generally has nothing to do with the file format they're wrapped around. I saw this misconception all the time back in the early days of the iTunes store when people would call MP3 a DRM-free format and AAC a DRM format when, in fact, neither have any inherent support for DRM and either format can be put into a DRM container.
posted by whittaker at 11:44 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


My personal theory is that these huge mergers are as much about ego as they are about actual rational business decisionmaking. It's about empire expansion, and if that means breaking things in the process, "oh, well".

I recall talking to an economist who dealt with pharma merges and concluded that over a 10 year period, all large mergers negatively impacted both profitability and drug development pipelines for the companies involved.

Mergers are a great opportunity for executives to make short term gains and then jump ship.
posted by benzenedream at 11:51 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


8.Check the resulting files for the dozen or so most popular devices and OS versions. Oh, they don't have reliable simulators? You have to literally upload the book to the store and then purchase it to see how it works on that new device? Hilarious!
posted by jhc at 10:34 AM on October 29


Good list of steps, but #8 isn't right - you can put the file directly onto the device without purchasing it from a store. Here's what I do for my press: I create the mobi or epub (I only do mobi, epub and pdf so I don't worry about devices that won't accept any of those) and then I test the mobi on several Kindles and the epub on a bunch of devices. For all of them, I plug the device directly into the side of my Mac and drag and drop the file onto their document listing, eject the device, open the file, check it, and then repeat as I fix errors, fight with whatever weird thing Amazon has decided they won't let me do, or whatever. Usually I upload 50 or 60 versions before I get it right, because I am exacting and because html/css were not really created with poetry in mind, and about half of what I publish is poetry, which gives me some pretty interesting challenges.


It seems like it is time for a open-source e-reader that uses plaintext. The next stage is to get it to convert other epub formats to plaintext.

I can't really see any reason for these competing formats beyond making a pretty wrapper to put the DRM into.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 1:29 PM on October 29


All the competing formats are indeed irritating and unnecessary, but plaintext isn't the best solution for anything with illustrations, graphs, tables, figures, etc, and also for anything with odd formatting (like poetry). From my perspective, what would be great would be if everybody agreed to use epub without drm, which would give me the freedom to have hanging indents and lines that pick up where the one above them left off and so forth, and non-fiction books could still have graphs and charts and things, and children's literature could be illustrated... and would also mean I could stop using mobi which is a hot mess.
posted by joannemerriam at 12:03 PM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Three of the books that are currently at the top of my recommendation lists are from smaller publishers with a heavy focus on electronic distribution. It definitely is an interesting time for publishing at the moment.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:50 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh god it could be like Witch House but with cute penguin silhouettes instead of all the triangles

I'm about to embark on writing Dreams In The Penguin House, where the triangles are all wrong!!!

So let's pretend we're publishers and this is our problem for a minute.

Yeah boo hoo, Google already offered to do a lot of that. Furthermore, the idea behind EPUB is that you don't worry about the vagarities of the formatting, it's supposed to free you from that, not make you hyper obsessive-compulsive about it. Publishers U R doin it rong.
posted by JHarris at 1:49 PM on October 29, 2012


we have had computers capable of displaying text for decades.

Outside of electronic typesetting systems, we have only had computers capable of displaying text that is actually comparable to stuff you read in books or magazines for about 15-20 years, and frequently only then with aftermarket software. There's only been widespread adoption of things that printers have known about for centuries (decent kerning, ligatures, directional quotes) for far less than that; in some cases we're still working on it (webfonts).

It's only been in the last few years that I've heard people stop saying that reading on the computer makes their eyes hurt or gives them migraines. And that is mostly due to kludgy solutions built on top of systems that were never designed to handle them.

The "text" displayed by computers (outside of those used for DTP, which until recently basically meant Macs and various proprietary systems, and TeX) was unbelievably shitty and in some respects still is. Plain ASCII is a miserable, least-common-denominator minimum of what it takes to represent English on a printed page in a legible way; it's not much of a goal to shoot for.

I don't think it's coincidental that e-reading didn't really take off until many of the original shortcomings of the 7-bit world had been corrected, sometimes via ugly hacks that nobody would imagine if in a path-independent scenario (e.g. HTML entities, kern.js, etc.).

If you want to start casting about for people to blame for the state of electronic text display, a fair bit of it ought to go to those folks who thought that the fucking typewriter (rather than the printer's type case) was the be-all and end-all of written representations of the English language, or for that matter all languages. That's a decision that we're still backing away from, decades later.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:36 PM on October 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


JHarris: I wouldn't say ePUBs were specifically made to be designless, although you can certainly release ePUBs that leave most style decisions up to the reader software. ePUBs pretty much follow the best practices for HTML development:
  • keep content and presentation information separate
  • mark up the content semantically
  • assume the content may be displayed or transformed away from your original intention (voiceover for the blind, night reading mode, legible or dyslexia-assistive typefaces, etc)
It seems like a solid 90% of the complications having to do with releasing back catalogue titles have to do with conversion software or designers who don't follow these rules. It would be like somebody making websites by typing out the pages on an old Selectric, scanning them in and OCRing them into a Word 97 document and then choosing 'Save to HTML'—of course you're going to encounter formatting issues and inconsistency because Word saves the content marked up with a massive amount of tag soup with no consideration of the actual semantic structure.

Now I realize many, many publisher's don't really have a choice because of historical or budgetary circumstances, but these problems don't really have much to do with the ebook format itself.
posted by whittaker at 2:37 PM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nooooooooooooooooooooo.
posted by Chuffy at 3:25 PM on October 29, 2012


In the future, most books that are purchased will be ebooks.

it may not be the best idea to put all your civilization's information into a format that needs electric power to be read and can be ruined or rendered completely inaccessible/indecipherable with relative ease

also i can't afford an e-reader
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 4:04 PM on October 29, 2012 [7 favorites]


it may not be the best idea to put all your civilization's information into a format that needs electric power to be read and can be ruined or rendered completely inaccessible/indecipherable with relative ease

In the Grim Future of Literacy, There Will Be Only Burned-Out eReaders!
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:34 PM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't see print editions going away anytime soon. But a large volume of literary content is equally doomed by cheap mass-market paperback printing. A reduction in the volume of pulp that gets pulped, combined with an increase in readership surely is a good thing.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:48 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you want to start casting about for people to blame for the state of electronic text display, a fair bit of it ought to go to those folks who thought that the fucking typewriter (rather than the printer's type case) was the be-all and end-all of written representations of the English language, or for that matter all languages. That's a decision that we're still backing away from, decades later.

Well, remember that when these systems were first being built, the computers were impossibly slow. Coming up with even TrueType wasn'r really feasible until right about the time it shipped, in 1991. On the computers in use at the time, font rendering was a very visible slowdown, a substantial speed hit. It was hard just to draw a bitmap representation of a TrueType outline font... and this was thirty-five years since the dawn of computing, with many Moore's Law doublings in processor power already under our belts.

Those early designers had to support tens of users with less CPU power than a pocket calculator. When you've got maybe hectohertz per user (as opposed to kilohertz or megahertz) even simulating a typewriter is a great deal of work.

If they HAD written good text-handling systems that scaled well into the modern era, it wouldn't have run on any hardware anyone could afford. Hell, maybe they even DID -- there were a lot of very powerful ideas in early computing that died, because they were too expensive to generate a market to fuel further improvements. See: Xerox Star. See: Apple Lisa.

Unix has a lot going for it, but probably the single biggest reason it won the early computing wars was because it was cheap, not because it was good.
posted by Malor at 4:50 PM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Readers need to be more vocal about pushing for converting their favorites to digital, if they are going to be preserved.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you mean by preserved but, if not, I'd point out that books printed on decent paper are among the very best methods of preserving text ever invented. Perhaps the single best method. A decent quality hardcover book printed today will last almost indefinitely as long as it doesn't get wet or whatever. And you don't need to worry about converting the format or electricity or whatever.
posted by Justinian at 5:34 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Furthermore, the idea behind EPUB is that you don't worry about the vagarities of the formatting, it's supposed to free you from that, not make you hyper obsessive-compulsive about it. Publishers U R doin it rong.
posted by JHarris at 3:49 PM on October 29


Well, no. Granted poetry is a special case, but even with prose, I definitely notice the publishers who aren't caring about formatting, because it can render the text unreadable. I have a non-fiction book with tables, for instance, and they didn't trouble themselves to think about how the tables would look in a variable-width-page environment, and consequently you can only see the first two columns, with the rest of the content run off the side of the page and simply not displayed.

Formatting considerations are different because the reading environment is different, but that's not the same as not having any formatting considerations at all.

So, for example, take a relatively simple left-justified poem. I have to define my lines to have hanging indents, because otherwise, when the poem displays on a screen that is narrower than the poem's longest line, the line would wrap around and the poet's intended line breaks would be lost. Happily we have a pre-ebook tradition that I can fall back on. But I have to mess with the formatting to do that - there's no "hanging indent" element in html. So I need to define the margin of the poem as, say, 30px and then define the lines as having a -30px line indent. That's not complicated, but it's a little fiddly. So then let's say the poet wants different indents for different lines (say, something like this) - well, so now each line has its own definition so the indent will look right (in the example poem, I'd have three different kinds of lines). So that's a little more complicated but still not really that crazy, but still, hardly format-less. In the anthology I'm working on now, I have one poem that has seven or eight different depths of indents, plus lines that are indented to start exactly below where the previous line ended. This formatting all means something. It's not just there to make the poem look pretty. So I do have to figure out how to translate it from a fixed-width to a variable-width paradigm, but I can't just ignore it.
posted by joannemerriam at 5:42 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I used to be an academic. I specialized in postmodern American literature and love me some Susan Howe, Clark Coolidge, and other authors who make serious fusses about meaning communicated through typography.

But in the face of the outright COLLAPSE of the restrictive conditions that make such art art, it surprises me there are people who seriously believe anyone is going to keep paying attention to this shit in, say, 5 years except for the 5 remaining biblio-savants who are apprenticed to Marjorie Perloff (a wonderful person and esteemed scholar, but hopefully you get my point).

I know, that's a completely ungenerous thing to say. I do think art is important and, were I a good person, I would be completely ashamed at scoffing at artists dedicated to their art. I suppose a part of me is.

But another part of me wants to hasten the demise of all that sentimental bullshit.

In the end, it's easier, and I believe better, to think " It's your funeral if you choose it. Better you than me."

The durability of most paper books is not a feature but a big fat bug that shoulda oughta been squashed a long time ago.
posted by mistersquid at 9:24 PM on October 29, 2012


Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you mean by preserved but, if not, I'd point out that books printed on decent paper are among the very best methods of preserving text ever invented. Perhaps the single best method. A decent quality hardcover book printed today will last almost indefinitely as long as it doesn't get wet or whatever.

Yeah, all that is true, but I'm not sure how relevant it is given how few books are being printed on decent paper. I've seen five-year-old hardcovers whose margins are already thoroughly yellowed.
posted by Zed at 10:02 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


joannemerriam: "So I do have to figure out how to translate it from a fixed-width to a variable-width paradigm, but I can't just ignore it."

Do the ereaders not support measurements in ems?
posted by wierdo at 10:04 PM on October 29, 2012


The durability of most paper books is not a feature but a big fat bug that shoulda oughta been squashed a long time ago.
what
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 12:24 AM on October 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Do the ereaders not support measurements in ems?
posted by wierdo at 12:04 AM on October 30


Sure, but you still have to figure out how to translate the fixed-width formatting to a variable-width environment. Ereaders don't all have the same size screen, and some people use the tee-tiny screen of their phone, and some readers (especially people with vision issues) will bump up the default text size. So if a line in a poem has an indent of about half a U.S. Trade book (6"x9") page, then the indent may well create its own line - how do you deal with that? There's no one right answer, but that's the type of issue I think a lot about.


But in the face of the outright COLLAPSE of the restrictive conditions that make such art art, it surprises me there are people who seriously believe anyone is going to keep paying attention to this shit in, say, 5 years
posted by mistersquid at 11:24 PM on October 29


Of course my job would be vastly simpler if all poets just switched to prose poetry, but I think that's unlikely to occur and is certainly not going to happen in the next five years. I think instead what's going to happen is that some poets (especially but not exclusively older poets) are going to rail against the change in conditions and continue to print on paper (because it's not like that's going to entirely go away) while other poets (especially but not exclusively younger poets) are going to bring that sense of play to the new variable-width environment. I don't know yet what that will look like (I wish I was smart enough to be the pioneer I can envision) but it's going to happen.
posted by joannemerriam at 5:44 AM on October 30, 2012


Well, and I realize I'm on the cresting wave of a derail here (a day later though) - I don't know what the answer is, but letting random third-world dudes scan books at will and then stick them up pell-mell (sans TOC, sans paragraph breaks even) on some scuzzy download site without any editorial oversight or even proofreading is not the solution.

Even Nebula and Hugo award winners, to pick something close to my heart, are more often or readily available (not a scientific statement - just my suspicion) illegally than legally. The digital version is eventually going to be the record that remains. Why should we allow this all to happen by chance? This speaks to our shared cultural heritage.

This period of time will be thought of as worse than the burning of the Library of Alexandria, if we don't take some larger responsibility for what we choose to pass forward over what will be seen from future days as a yawning chasm, a vast disconnect. What would you pay today for the contents of Alexandria then?

Maybe, if you want to make a point that free markets don't always make all the best decisions, this is a forceful example. It's easy to find books that are massively important from a historical or cultural perspective, but whose readership is so narrow as to nearly guarantee they won't be digitized anytime soon. Copyright law, the digital revolution, and the free market are aligned to prevent a lot of important works from being converted just at the moment we should be thinking about what is really important to us.

Here's a question - is it legal to scan and convert a copyrighted work, if you then hold the resulting digital files in an absolutely private vault, a kind of intellectual escrow, until the copyright runs out?
posted by newdaddy at 12:56 PM on October 30, 2012


Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you mean by preserved but, if not, I'd point out that books printed on decent paper are among the very best methods of preserving text ever invented.

Yah, I totally get that, but I'm suggesting that all the supporting structure around the book is so obviously vulnerable now. There's less and less support for libraries, bookstores that sell actual books are a dying breed, what libraries exist are being pressured to adopt digital, and individual readers can see, from their individual points of view, that digital books are more convenient and (marginally) less expensive.

A real, for-the-ages hardback is a wondrous thing, and I do love them. (There are many books I'd like to buy in that format but are currently only available in a mass-market paperback edition.) I expect that in a hundred years' time, very few new books will be printed.
posted by newdaddy at 1:10 PM on October 30, 2012


Good list of steps, but #8 isn't right - you can put the file directly onto the device without purchasing it from a store.

You usually can, but not always. Turns out when I said "that new device" I was actually thinking of fixed layout Kindle books on the iPad, which are supported but can't be side-loaded or simulated. The only way to test is to push it to the store and download it to your iPad. Admittedly this is a small point, but it kind of illustrates the random potholes you hit in an immature, fast-moving industry.
posted by jhc at 2:02 PM on October 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's a question - is it legal to scan and convert a copyrighted work, if you then hold the resulting digital files in an absolutely private vault, a kind of intellectual escrow, until the copyright runs out?

That's called format shifting, and I believe that it's fair use.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:27 PM on October 30, 2012


also i can't afford an e-reader

I'm looking to my right at a stack of Pandigital Novel e-ink ereaders that I picked up for about $25 each brand new, to give out as gifts to friends who don't already have one of some sort. Want one? MeMail me a shipping address.
posted by mrbill at 11:01 PM on November 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Some people are so nice. :D
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:26 AM on November 4, 2012


I've found that the majority of books are available online only as scanned PDF or DjVu files, i.e. non-reflowable formats that many readers handle poorly. I'm mostly talking about textbooks of course, not fiction ebooks, which usually exist in reflowable formats.

Any Android based reader presumably lets you install applications that read DjVu files, but many traditional eInk based readers refused to support DjVu, unless you replace the firmware with OpenInkPot. You could always convert DjVus into PDFs assuming the reader liked such bulky PDF files though.

posted by jeffburdges at 6:05 AM on November 5, 2012


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