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For eccentric book-lovers with beards and cats
April 9, 2013 10:29 AM   Subscribe

"..it is refreshing to see Jason Merkoski, a leader of the team that built Amazon's first Kindle, dispense with the usual techo-utopianism and say, “I think we’ve made a proverbial pact with the devil in digitizing our words.”
"Amazon, Apple and Google are a bit like medieval fortresses in their own ways. They’re secretive like China or Japan before they opened up to Westerners, or like Tibet or Mecca, closed to foreigners... There are two issues about secrecy here: social responsibility and intellectual property. As far as social responsibility goes, let me just say this: These companies have entire buildings filled with lawyers. They aren’t there to come up with new lawyer jokes. They are there, in part, to keep people like me from even answering this question.

If push came to shove, I think most of these execs would rather pull e-books from the store, effectively censoring them, if that would avoid bad press. These are major retailers, not your quirky corner bookstores. They’re manned by former management consultants in clean shirts and pressed Dockers, not eccentric book-lovers with beards and cats.

When it comes to book recommendations, retailers have the literary sensibilities of a spreadsheet — they’ll just recommend the most popular books to me, or books that other people also bought, but they know nothing of the soul and sparkle of a great book.

In 20 years, the space of one generation, print books will be as rare as vinyl LPs. You’ll still be able to find them in artsy hipster stores, but that’s about it.

Working at Amazon was like getting an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. at the same time. It was an incredible education. These were the smartest people I ever worked with. But Amazon had a dark side as well, as if it were the mean stepmother in a fairy tale. There was this push to get great products out to consumers. It makes a lot of teams very haggard. Amazon is held together by adrenaline, spreadsheets and people running around like crazy.
From his new book Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading, available on Amazon Kindle of course.

Scott Turow has a piece in the Times also The Slow Death of the American Author, saying that a number of forces are making it difficult for authors to make a living, prophesying among other things:
millions of copyrighted works are stored online [Google Books], one hacker away from worldwide dissemination for free.
posted by stbalbach (90 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Scott Turow has a piece in the Times...prophesying among other things:

millions of copyrighted works are stored online [Google Books], one hacker away from worldwide dissemination for free."

Ha! Points and laughs.

How do you manage to get published in the NY Times if you are ignorant to even the most basic facts of what you are writing about? Jesus what an idiot. This is the kind of stupidity that makes me glad newspapers are being killed off.
posted by Keith Talent at 10:36 AM on April 9, 2013 [12 favorites]


With digital media we are going to have to take the good with the bad, learn how to use it, know how we're being manipulated, fight to protect, encourage samizdat where necessary, learn to live with pirates, capitalists, PR flaks, &c. The publishing "industry" will both implode and explode, in slowish motion. There will be winners and losers and really big winners. There will be lots more to read, to catalog and store. There's plenty of downside, plenty of upside. Something for everyone.

Meanwhile: When it comes to book recommendations, retailers have the literary sensibilities of a spreadsheet — they’ll just recommend the most popular books to me, or books that other people also bought, but they know nothing of the soul and sparkle of a great book.

This is hardly a novelty of the e-book age; 'twas ever thus, with plenty of counterfactuals.
posted by chavenet at 10:39 AM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is hardly a novelty of the e-book age; 'twas ever thus, with plenty of counterfactuals.

Yeah, it's like, you think those islands and endcaps in B&N are filled with books hand-picked for "soul and sparkle?"
posted by Sokka shot first at 10:44 AM on April 9, 2013 [21 favorites]


Next you'll tell me the "staff favorites" are chosen with some kind of ulterior motive.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:46 AM on April 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


One advantage of digital books is that to some degree, it doesn't matter if the accountants take over the store. If a spreadsheet-type took over your neighborhood indie bookstore and dropped all the cool, quirky stuff, it would be a disaster. But because the cost of storing an ebook is so low, it's actually in their best interest to keep all the weird books - even if they sell only one copy a year.

I'd worry more about the book publishers doing the right thing than the book sellers. Of course, maybe in the long run, the publishers will die, and books with go the "bandcamp" route, with authors forced into essentially self-publishing. We'll see.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:49 AM on April 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


In 20 years, the space of one generation, print books will be as rare as vinyl LPs. You’ll still be able to find them in artsy hipster stores, but that’s about it.

Thank God - all the artsy hipster book stores closed down when the fucking Barnes & Noble moved in.

Oh the Schadenfreude!
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:52 AM on April 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is like that GMO thing. So many bad arguments against it that nobody will take time to listen to the good ones, build a terrible replacement to a good system and are poorer for it.
posted by DU at 10:53 AM on April 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


Fortunately, I have enough books in my basement now that I can comfortably read books I have not previously read until I die. Even if my death is years in the future.
posted by Billiken at 10:54 AM on April 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


One advantage of digital books is that to some degree, it doesn't matter if the accountants take over the store. If a spreadsheet-type took over your neighborhood indie bookstore and dropped all the cool, quirky stuff, it would be a disaster. But because the cost of storing an ebook is so low, it's actually in their best interest to keep all the weird books - even if they sell only one copy a year.

Unless the book makes the Amazon execs nervous:
Frankly, I don’t trust the executives at any e-book retailer when it comes to censorship. I know many of them. If push came to shove, I think most of these execs would rather pull e-books from the store, effectively censoring them, if that would avoid bad press.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:57 AM on April 9, 2013


Jesus what an idiot

I'm genuinely curious as to why you disagree with the gentleman mentioned.
posted by stbalbach at 10:58 AM on April 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


Would anything be different if it was the small bookstores closing now rather than ten years ago? They would still need to make money at the price amazon sells books for.
posted by shothotbot at 11:00 AM on April 9, 2013


Fortunately, I have enough books in my basement now that I can comfortably read books I have not previously read until I die. Even if my death is years in the future.

One of the things I love about living in the digital book era is that I can finish reading a book and think "what book in the entire history of pre-copyright published literature do I feel like reading now" and pretty much no matter what answer pops into my head I can be reading it 30 seconds later. Unless your basement was retrofitted by Borges Library Construction Inc, I know I'm happier with my e-readers than I'd ever be with your basement.
posted by yoink at 11:00 AM on April 9, 2013 [20 favorites]


Frankly, I don’t trust the executives at any e-book retailer when it comes to censorship. I know many of them. If push came to shove, I think most of these execs would rather pull e-books from the store, effectively censoring them, if that would avoid bad press.

This is a good point, but it's still one where the book is likely to be more readily accessible to more people in the digital age than it would ever have been in the pre-digital age. I mean, if you think Amazon would be queasy about selling this hypothetical book, don't imagine that mainstream publishers of the pre-digital age would have leaped at the chance, either. Now, sure, you could probably find some offbeat little press that would publish your little bombshell--but now how do you get it into bookshops? Again, there'd be some quirky little store in NYC and another in Berkeley and another in Cambridge, MA etc.; but for the vast majority of people the book would be unavailable. In today's world, anything that anyone at all wants to say can be made available globally to anyone with an internet connection at a pretty low cost.
posted by yoink at 11:04 AM on April 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm genuinely curious as to why you disagree with the gentleman mentioned.

I dunno why Keith Talent might disagree, but my take is that if Turow thinks that millions of books aren't already floating around for free, he's....maybe not an idiot, but definitely ignorant. It's not one hacker he has to "worry" about - it's people who already have the ebook, acquired either legally or not, who share it online.
posted by rtha at 11:06 AM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I mean, if you think Amazon would be queasy about selling this hypothetical book, don't imagine that mainstream publishers of the pre-digital age would have leaped at the chance, either.

The bigger issue is that once I buy a print book, it's sitting on my bookshelf. After I buy a Kindle book, it's still sitting on Amazon's servers and they can remove my access to it at will.

Thus, Calibre.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:08 AM on April 9, 2013 [11 favorites]


I can comfortably read books I have not previously read until I die ...

/raises hand

Ooh, ooh ... I saw that episode of Twilight Zone!
posted by ericb at 11:20 AM on April 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


Mike Masnick shreds Scott Turow's NYT piece.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:21 AM on April 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


The bigger issue to me is that once I buy a print book, it's sitting on my bookshelf and I can do whatever I want with it, whether that be selling it, giving it away, or let whomever I wish borrow it to read and return. After I buy a Kindle book which is far too often the same price as the print version, it's still sitting on Amazon's servers and if my wife wants to read it, I either need to pirate it or have her buy her own copy.

Don't get me wrong - I love my Kindle and my wife loves hers - but I do not see an ebook as anything other than a convenience, an alternative to paper for what I call "junk food reading" - guilty pleasures, the latest in the series from Popular Author, the kind of books I plan to read once and probably never read again. It's also great for those out-of-print classics. But I don't know that the book as we know it will die any time soon. I'd expect to see more of a shift to print books as collectibles, but... really, a future without print books seems just kind of sad to me. How the hell does an author sign your Kindle, anyway? And the thought of my son's room without piles of books? It's possible to read on a device but I would hate to see it be the only option. Some texts just don't translate well. And I've seen any number of free classics on my Kindle that handle images really, really poorly.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:23 AM on April 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also I have both a beard and cats. FYI.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:23 AM on April 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Unless we go down the road of e-readers not letting you put content on them without it being sent through a proprietary method, it still looks to me like the modern world is better than ever at people being able to distribute content without gatekeepers' approval.

I don't trust the big players with censorship (I back up and strip DRM from anything I purchase), my privacy, or recommending books either. But I don't think they're doing any worse a job than a "you may also enjoy" page advertising a publisher's other books at the end of a paper book.

The codex has been a very durable format for text, and it has a lot of advantages. E-books don't have all of the same advantages, but they have some other pretty substantial ones. And print on demand will continue to get cheaper as demand for it grows as it becomes the only option for a physical book for more things.

DRM gone mad will continue to be a threat, but that's not an essential feature of e-books and e-readers.
posted by Zed at 11:25 AM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


After I buy a Kindle book, it's still sitting on Amazon's servers and they can remove my access to it at will.

An updated version of "those who own the presses etc." I'm hoping that there is one day an independent alternative to cloud services provided by Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, perhaps running open-source equivalents to AWS and like services. If there are alternatives (assuming lobbyists don't first get to write laws against them) then it is a tougher decision to pull controversial books, music and other media.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:27 AM on April 9, 2013


Thank God - all the artsy hipster book stores closed down when the fucking Barnes & Noble moved in.

Don't know about artsy and hipster, but the independent bookstore' inevitable decline appears to have been exaggerated. Fingers crossed, of course.
posted by BWA at 11:28 AM on April 9, 2013


Don't get me wrong - I love my Kindle and my wife loves hers - but I do not see an ebook as anything other than a convenience,

The thing that worries me about this discourse is the fact that we've somehow already ceded ground and agreed that all eBooks are Kindle Ebooks, bought from Amazon and read on a Kindle device.

I don't own a Kindle. The only ebook I've bought from Amazon was self-published (and that easily transferred to Calibre for use on my Sony device). Most of the time, if I'm buying eBooks, it is directly from the publisher. They can't take the book back, either.
posted by muddgirl at 11:31 AM on April 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


After I buy a Kindle book, it's still sitting on Amazon's servers and they can remove my access to it at will.

Calibre + DeDRM = Solved
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:36 AM on April 9, 2013 [34 favorites]


In 20 years, the space of one generation, print books will be as rare as vinyl LPs.

A variation on this sentence appears in every discussion of this topic and every time I want to say "Have you been in a music store lately? Vinyl lps are likely to outlive the CD."
posted by octobersurprise at 11:38 AM on April 9, 2013 [11 favorites]


Unless the book makes the Amazon execs nervous:

Yep, that is a concern, but digital distribution opens the door to a lot of content that would never have made sense in print. That controversial book Amazon pulled has the potential to attract enormous attention thanks to the Streisand Effect and can be distributed outside of the Amazon ecosystem. It's not a perfect outcome by any means, but compared to the print world where a title can be virtually extinct if the big print distributors and chain bookstores don't carry it, there's a lot more potential.

I will agree though that Amazon, Apple, and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, Google are perhaps not the groups that immediately spring to mind when it comes to responsible stewardship for Western society to entrust its entire corpus of books.
posted by zachlipton at 11:42 AM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Have you been in a music store lately?"

I figured that was exactly what he was going for. "They'll never completely die, but most people who read books won't use them and will never set foot in the stores where they're sold."
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:43 AM on April 9, 2013


"Have you been in a music store lately? Vinyl lps are likely to outlive the CD."

True. And they'll represent a tiny percentage of the audio being sold and published, most of which will be electronic. In fact, they'll be comparatively... rare.
posted by Zed at 11:43 AM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I looked for a discussion of the "pact with the devil" bit, but did not find it. Too bad; that's the thing I wanted to hear about.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:43 AM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I looked for a discussion of the "pact with the devil" bit, but did not find it. Too bad; that's the thing I wanted to hear about.

Bezos keeps the details under tight wraps.
posted by Zed at 11:44 AM on April 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


In fact, they'll be comparatively... rare.

Well, I wouldn't describe vinyl lps as "rare," but maybe that's just my arty hipsterness showing.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:46 AM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


...and, and, and... what if words are changed when we're not looking!!!!!!!!

I'm sure Marx's Comedy Manifesto used to be about something else...
posted by fairmettle at 11:46 AM on April 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


After I buy a Kindle book which is far too often the same price as the print version, it's still sitting on Amazon's servers and if my wife wants to read it, I either need to pirate it or have her buy her own copy.

Yeah ... and the law needs to catch-up and IMHO favor the consumer over the publisher, so that I can lend or resell my digital goods.

Two recent cases at cross purposes:
“Can I resell my MP3s?” redux—federal judge says no. -- "In Capitol Records v. ReDigi, the Boston digital music startup loses."

Supreme Court upholds first-sale doctrine in textbook resale case -- "Thai student's book-importing business was not a copyright crime."
posted by ericb at 11:51 AM on April 9, 2013


Christ, they have lawyers?
posted by Ad hominem at 11:52 AM on April 9, 2013


Well, I wouldn't describe vinyl lps as "rare," but maybe that's just my arty hipsterness showing.

Some kind of selection bias. Nielsen/Soundscan gives the 2012 stats at 450 million digital albums, 193 million CDs, and 4.6 million vinyl LPs. <1% of the total says "rare" to me.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:58 AM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I dunno why Keith Talent might disagree, but my take is that if Turow thinks that millions of books aren't already floating around for free, he's....maybe not an idiot, but definitely ignorant.

He acknowledged that already in the piece, please do read. However my experience with pirated books is there is somewhere around a million to two unique titles out there (more added daily). This is a lot, but it's still very small compared to what Google Books has on its servers should someone crack that nut. Remember that GB is mostly original scanned books, there are no digital copies elsewhere for people to pirate (unless they scan themselves, which is a very small percentage of pirated books, a niche).
posted by stbalbach at 11:59 AM on April 9, 2013


I'm an old guy without an iPod or e-reader - in fact, I don't feel like I'm reading a book when I use an e-reader. My experience with books is in one part of my brain; my experiences with looking at electronic screens is in another part of my brain. (Yes, I realize it is a little more complicated than that!)

However, my wife loves that damn Kindle I gave her for Christmas. Hey, if it gets her reading, great. I have a feeling I will prefer books as long as the world allows me to.
posted by kozad at 12:01 PM on April 9, 2013


Apple Bans SAGA #12 due to gay sex scenes
posted by Artw at 12:04 PM on April 9, 2013


Oh-- just proverbial? Not a literal pact with the devil? So relieved.
posted by herbplarfegan at 12:04 PM on April 9, 2013


By "proverbial" I mean "get your coat."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:06 PM on April 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


muddgirl: "we've somehow already ceded ground and agreed that all eBooks are Kindle Ebooks"

I didn't say that. I said that they are the ebooks I buy, and that my wife and I have Kindles, not that they were the only options. Some of the classics I have were pulled from Project Gutenberg, for example, and I've gotten others elsewhere. We chose the Kindle for a few reasons, primarily that I don't trust Sony at all, and I don't want to limit my reading options to a specific device. Amazon is the only ebook seller I can think of that lets me read the books I own on my iPhone, iPad, computer, or e-reader. Barnes & Noble have zero reason to allow me to read Nook books on my iPhone, and Apple has zero reason to allow me to read their ebooks on a non-Apple device. Amazon is in business to sell content. Sure, they'd prefer I buy a Kindle, but if I'm buying their books anyway they aren't going to force me to buy an Amazon-branded device first. And I will source most of my ebooks from Amazon, simply for the convenience of having them sync between my devices (as flawed as the sync is*, it works).

People say Kindle the way they say Google to mean web search, MP3 for any digital track, or Kleenex for any tissue, or iPod for any digital music player. The company with the first massively successful version of a thing gets genericized as the name of the entire class of things. This doesn't mean anyone has conceded that Kindle is the default. I'd personally be happier if all of the ebooks used a single, agreed-upon format, but it hasn't happened yet.

*Really, really wish there was a dead-simple way to reset position, so when re-reading a book it wouldn't try to skip to the end. Why sync to "furthest page read" by default? Why not sync to "last page read"?
posted by caution live frogs at 12:07 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


By "proverbial" I mean "get your coat."

And by "devil" I mean "Robot Devil." And by "Robot Devil" I mean "Jeff Bezos."
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:07 PM on April 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


However my experience with pirated books is there is somewhere around a million to two unique titles out there (more added daily). This is a lot, but it's still very small compared to what Google Books has on its servers should someone crack that nut.

ok, but... So what? Sure, piracy could get "worse," but the fact of the matter is that basically all bestsellers - basically very popular books - are readily available in pirated form. those million to two unique titles represent the vast majority of books that sell a lot of copies - your Harry Potters and Robert Ludlums and Fifty Shades of Greys. Someone cracking Google Books might add more to the "long tail" of piracy, but inasmuch as piracy represents an existential threat to books as a product/industry, we're well past the point where we should be starting to see piracy impacting everything like MP3s on Napster did to the music industry.
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:07 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


fairmettle: "...and, and, and... what if words are changed when we're not looking!!!!!!!!"

I confess to having had this feeling. It's usually something along the lines of "can this book really be this bad after I heard so many good things about it?" And then I get a bit paranoid that what I have downloaded isn't in fact the book it would be had I bought a physical version.

But then it passes.
posted by chavenet at 12:08 PM on April 9, 2013


About ebooks. I can buy almost any recent book that strikes my fancy with the click of a button, from my phone. How crazy is that, this shit is like Star Trek level technology except better because they were always carrying tablets all over the place for some reason. Yeah maybe Amazon can someday pull the plug on my digital copy of Song of Fire and Ice, but I don't care, I didn't buy an ebook because I wanted some kind of archival copy. If I wanted an archival copy I would have ordered one.

Am I somehow callously killing the printed word because I buy ebooks? Maybe, but people keep buying the paper versions cuz they like the smell or whatever so I doubt it.

I say this as someone who owns thousands of books, I already committed to keeping these things around, I am not taking on any more responsibility for preserving our cultural heritage.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:09 PM on April 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


He acknowledged that already in the piece, please do read.

I did, and his piece is terribly muddled and full of wrongness. He makes some good points, which he then obfuscates with his muddled thinking*. ChurhcHatesTucker linked to a piece that takes it apart much more effectively than I could.

* The bit that leapt out for me is his take on libraries lending out ebooks. He says authors support libraries because libraries nurtured them, but neglects to point out that libraries also nurture sales. He also says In this new reality, the only incentive to buy, rather than borrow, an e-book is the fact that the lent copy vanishes after a couple of weeks which ignores the reality that the only thing a library does if you decline to return a physical book in a timely manner is....send you a postcard (or an email, I suppose), asking you to return it. Wait for your annual amnesty period, and you won't even have to pay the fine.
posted by rtha at 12:12 PM on April 9, 2013


"These companies have entire buildings filled with lawyers. They aren’t there to come up with new lawyer jokes."

No, but we can dream, can't we?
posted by blue_beetle at 12:20 PM on April 9, 2013


Wait for your annual amnesty period, and you won't even have to pay the fine.

My what?

Anyway, even if you don't have to, arguably you should. Library fines are much like money in the busker's hat. It's in a good cause. Life ain't about how much we can get away with.
posted by BWA at 12:23 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I didn't say that.

My apologies, I was addressing the spirit of your comment, the original article, and other comments in this thread. I did not mean to imply that you overtly stated that the Kindle is the only eReader in town.

The company with the first massively successful version of a thing gets genericized as the name of the entire class of things. This doesn't mean anyone has conceded that Kindle is the default. I'd personally be happier if all of the ebooks used a single, agreed-upon format, but it hasn't happened yet.

That format is called ePub, btw, and every major eReader can read that format... except the Kindle. So unless we assume that the Kindle is the premier eReader, we can say that there is a single agreed-upon eBook format.
posted by muddgirl at 12:24 PM on April 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


I dunno why Keith Talent might disagree, but my take is that if Turow thinks that millions of books aren't already floating around for free

http://library-genesis.com/
posted by MartinWisse at 12:24 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anyway, even if you don't have to, arguably you should.

Agreed.
posted by rtha at 12:27 PM on April 9, 2013


I've had a Kindle Paperwhite for about a month and absolutely love it. It has really upgraded my reading experience. The e-ink display is close enough to paper than it doesn't feel like reading on a computer screen, it has a light so I can read more easily while I fall asleep, I never lose my place, it's much easier to hold in different postures and positions, and I can shift around the text size and font for more reading comfort. It rules.

(I do have more tolerance for reading on electronic devices than some though, I read the first four books of A Song of Ice and Fire on a friggin iPhone with the Kindle app)

I like that Amazon has used the iPod as a guide. They built a great device for a specific purpose and are making big money off a digital store while at the same time keeping the device open enough that pirates are getting in on the fun too. That means it is open enough that you don't have to be too worried about censorship. There are other legal and not so legal ways to get books on the device.

What confounds me though is how libraries are handling the transition. I know this is likely driven by the publisher requirements, but my local library is absolutely useless for e-books. Why exactly do they have limited copies of digital books to hand out? I understand the publishers want to make money so they can't let just everybody get easy free books legally, but do they really expect me to wait two months for one of the two available downloads of The Hobbit? If you need to limit it, limit me to a certain number of downloads a month, don't make the most popular books impossible to get.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:30 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I can buy almost any recent book that strikes my fancy with the click of a button, from my phone.

Yeah, last night I finished book 1 of a series while I was in the tub. In the old days, that would mean either getting out, drying off, dashing to the bookshelf, and hoping I'd bought the whole series in advance, or just being done reading for the night.

Instead, I bought book 2 right there in the tub and continued to read until the water had to be warmed up twice. Not only did the author make some cash off me that might not have happened, typically I'm lazy and I don't remember those book 2s that I mean to buy after the fact, but I got to continue reading longer than I normally would have.

Seriously, Star Trek level shit here and while I admit there are a few downsides to ebooks, I totally feel the advantages outweigh the drawbacks. And to be completely honest, 90% of the drawbacks could be alleviated with copyright law reform and a more rational concept of ownership.
posted by teleri025 at 12:31 PM on April 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


> Yep, that is a concern, but digital distribution opens the door to a lot of content that would never have made sense in print.

Yeah, but it might also close the door to a lot of "content" that doesn't make sense on an ereader. Last year I wrote
We laud the "long tail" of books that were not viable on paper, but become viable as plain text on an e-reader: the above-mentioned self-published and POD stuff. But what about the other direction: books that could be profitably produced on paper, but that won't turn a profit with current technology? What if it's just not worth the manufacturer's time to produce a device that is affordable and ubiquitous, but also capable of high-quality reproduction of this kind of content?

So let's imagine a future where the majority of bestsellers that are purchased and read are in e-reader formats and are no longer published on paper in any substantial quantity. Let's give that process 10-15 years. Printers (which are distinct from publishers) find it increasingly difficult to turn a profit. Many go out of business. Doesn't it make sense to suspect that in this impoverished environment, it will also become more difficult and more expensive to produce the kind of book that cheap e-readers struggle with?

Simply put, I fear that in trying to escape from the tyranny of publishers (it remains to be seen whether readers do end up escaping that one), we are subjugating ourselves to the tyranny of device manufacturers. In this transition, we are at risk of losing our existing printing capabilities, that are at least making it easier to produce complex printed content that is difficult to display on e-readers. I suspect that after the transition passes, we will end up with a more polarized "book market" where raw text with minimal editing and formatting is the primary product on e-readers, and other, more complex kinds of content are increasingly cloistered and marginalized due to growing costs and production difficulties.
posted by Nomyte at 12:31 PM on April 9, 2013



Yep, that is a concern, but digital distribution opens the door to a lot of content that would never have made sense in print. That controversial book Amazon pulled has the potential to attract enormous attention thanks to the Streisand Effect and can be distributed outside of the Amazon ecosystem. It's not a perfect outcome by any means, but compared to the print world where a title can be virtually extinct if the big print distributors and chain bookstores don't carry it, there's a lot more potential.

I will agree though that Amazon, Apple, and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, Google are perhaps not the groups that immediately spring to mind when it comes to responsible stewardship for Western society to entrust its entire corpus of books.


The thing is, Amazon or Apple or Google don't add anything to the distribution of ebooks. They are just brokers who have a oligoopoly on information. You could just as easily require every copyrighted work be deposited at the Library of Congress and downloadable for a uniform or waivable fee, much like the LOC sets reimbursement for playing audio works on the radio.

There's just no reason for Amazon for ebooks, even the bandwidth is negligible (hello whispernet). The problem with the whole Amazon/self-publish model is that it disrupts the brokers who should be making money: editors of small publishing houses. There will always be egotists who will publish their novel/self help book/memoir, but a literary culture is built on editors and there is no money in this putative future for them.
posted by ennui.bz at 12:32 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, last night I finished book 1 of a series while I was in the tub

Do you bring your eBook reader in the tub? I have tub books I read when I am reading something on my phone.
posted by shothotbot at 12:37 PM on April 9, 2013


Ziplock.
posted by Artw at 12:39 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


He also says "In this new reality, the only incentive to buy, rather than borrow, an e-book is the fact that the lent copy vanishes after a couple of weeks" which ignores the reality that the only thing a library does if you decline to return a physical book in a timely manner is....send you a postcard (or an email, I suppose), asking you to return it. Wait for your annual amnesty period, and you won't even have to pay the fine.

In this brave new world we live in, both Amazon and Adobe DRM have been hacked, and library books can be both saved and returned, preserving that precious library card.

Of course, I've never intentionally stolen a library book, nor have I "stolen" a library eBook, so really getting books on my eReader just means that returning library books is another chore that I've gratefully turned over to a computer.
posted by muddgirl at 12:44 PM on April 9, 2013


Step 1: Crack google books.
Step 2: Load out the books onto a big solid-state hard drive, maybe with a bunch of redundancy.
Step 3: Shoot a solar-powered transmitter to the moon that just sits around and beams ebooks back to earth all day.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:47 PM on April 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Do you bring your eBook reader in the tub?

A quart sized ziploc bag is my second best friend, besides the kindle.
posted by teleri025 at 1:11 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


We laud the "long tail" of books that were not viable on paper in manuscript, but become viable as plain text on an e-reader when printed: the above-mentioned self-published and POD stuff most things that aren't the Bible.

(etc.)
posted by doubtfulpalace at 1:14 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Amazon is the only ebook seller I can think of that lets me read the books I own on my iPhone, iPad, computer, or e-reader. Barnes & Noble have zero reason to allow me to read Nook books on my iPhone

What? They may have as little reason as Amazon does, but they do, in fact, allow it. I have the Nook app on my phone and my tablet, along with many other reading apps, so that I can read whatever I want without much hassle.
posted by rewil at 1:32 PM on April 9, 2013


For eccentric book-lovers
Well, I am taking a train to an antiquarian book fair this weekend...

with beards
Check.

and cats
Alright, cool! This all checks out. I'll see you guys in the next book thread.
posted by clockbound at 1:46 PM on April 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


We laud the "long tail" of books that were not viable on paper in manuscript, but become viable as plain text on an e-reader when printed in image macro form: the above-mentioned self-published and POD stuff most things that aren't the Bible cat fiction.
posted by Nomyte at 2:14 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


What confounds me though is how libraries are handling the transition. I know this is likely driven by the publisher requirements, but my local library is absolutely useless for e-books. Why exactly do they have limited copies of digital books to hand out?

This is entirely the fault of the publishers and how they've chosen to manage library titles. For example:
"Tuesday, April 2, will begin allowing libraries to purchase and lend ebook titles the day that hardcover editions are released, according to The Associated Press. Previously, Penguin had placed a six month embargo on new ebooks, requiring libraries to wait half a year before purchasing....

With the purchase embargo lifted, Penguin’s other lending terms remain the same. Libraries can purchase titles at prices comparable to retail, and circulate each purchased copy to one patron at a time for one year. After one year, the titles will expire, regardless of checkout frequency."
They have limited copies because they pay the retail price for those copies, and they all disappear in one year anyway. And this is an improvement! And Penguin actually lets libraries distribute ebooks! So anyway please let the publishing companies know that it sucks; your librarians are undoubtedly well-aware.
posted by jetlagaddict at 2:29 PM on April 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, that was a cryptic interview.

If push came to shove, I think most of these execs would rather pull e-books from the store, effectively censoring them, if that would avoid bad press.

This doesn't make sense to me. Pull books that have bad press? What kind of bad press? Bad reviews? Controversial content?

And why would they do that? It's not as if Amazon carries a finite amount of books and needs to make room for more books. People don't boycott Amazon for carrying certain books. So in what scenario would censoring a book make financial sense?
posted by murfed13 at 3:22 PM on April 9, 2013


@murfed13 : So in what scenario would censoring a book make financial sense?

When the Chinese government says you cannot do business in our country if our citizens can buy book X.
posted by sien at 3:42 PM on April 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


they know nothing of the soul and sparkle of a great book.

Ah, essentialism: last refuge of the damned.
posted by smoke at 3:55 PM on April 9, 2013 [2 favorites]



When the Chinese government says you cannot do business in our country if our citizens can buy book X.


Sure, but I was talking about censoring in the terms that Merksoki is describing. In other words, he is saying that what would historcally be available at the corner bookstore might not be available on Amazon because of "bad press." I am trying to imagine what scenario could possibly lead to that situation.

Presumably, if you are in China, the censored book wouldn't be in the "quirky corner bookstore" either.
posted by murfed13 at 4:18 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


When the Chinese government says you cannot do business in our country if our citizens can buy book X.

Yet again, the damn dirty pirates have your back.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:02 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I got a Nook a while back and like it way more than I thought I would. It’s really a nice reading experience. I didn’t even consider a Kindle, fuck Amazon and anything to do with them.

That said, it’s going to go to shit. It’s not going to affect me, I already own more books than I could ever read in the rest of my life (it’s not pretty), and I don’t have any children. So everyone that thinks it’s just going to be great when the information is finally free; good luck with that. Enjoy the classics that have been written up until now, and the mountains of fanfic that follows. As with music, we are entering the age of the talented amateur. Pretty good is the new great.

My prediction; live entertainment will come back in a big way. It will be the only way for talented people to make money, and for fans to sort through the crap.
posted by bongo_x at 6:03 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


If a book is being prevented from being copied it's locked in some vault somewhere. Because once you distribute even a paper copy there is a chance for it to be pirated. The more copies the greater the chance and anyone making money as an author is going to be distributing enough copies that their book will be pirated.

I love the hell out of my e-ink Kobo. It's weighs less than half the books on it. The back light means I don't need to have a light on while reading to sleep (and it automatically shuts off after a period of inactivity). The battery lasts for weeks even with constant use. It integrates with Calibre well. And I've been able to read dozens of books that have been out of print for decades. Books that I would have to spend hundreds of dollars (or even thousands) on the secondary market to access (IE: never).

Plus having a huge chunk of my library with me while camping is just brilliant.

I can see the downside and authors not getting paid is a problem (though a lot of that is the gutting of the magazine market because of the internet) but I think it'll be a win overall. Cripes just think of all the GHGs that haven't been emitted because dead trees haven't been shipped from place to place.
posted by Mitheral at 6:05 PM on April 9, 2013


My prediction; live entertainment will come back in a big way. It will be the only way for talented people to make money, and for fans to sort through the crap.

Bands making money off of performing rather than selling discs? That's crazy talk!
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:09 PM on April 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bands making money off of performing rather than selling discs?

That’s the upside, in my opinion. But much interesting music has had nothing to do with live performance. It’s easier than ever to make that and distribute that now (another upside) but it will just be a hobby. I guess authors could try it, Dickens did alright.
posted by bongo_x at 6:30 PM on April 9, 2013


Writers will never be short of Internet folks telling them they don't really need to get paid - sadly you can't really eat those.
posted by Artw at 7:41 PM on April 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


Last count: no beard, 6 cats, no e-reader, thousands of physical books. I figure I'm doing my part.
posted by Ber at 8:35 PM on April 9, 2013


For the military, e-books are amazing. E-books just allow me to read more books in more situations faster and with less weight, especially while I'm out at sea.

I consult my list of "books I want to read" a few weeks before we head out; I load up on a few long sci-fi series, several non-fiction items related to my interests (historical, adventure, women's rights), a decent amount of "trashy" books for when I don't feel like thinking too hard, make sure I have some old favorites from my Amazon cloud for when I need to be comforted, throw in some best sellers (while crossing my fingers), include some books recommended to me by the Navy about military history, and pick a few subjects to load up on that I'm interested in learning about. It really is some Star Trek shit for me to have 50 books on my phone and a few hundred other books on my Kindle, plus a quick way for me to add notes or utilize my phone's Notepad for items I want to research when I get back to the Land of WiFi.

This is kind of the norm for most military members who read as far as I can tell. Sometimes you'll see someone with a large hardcover or a couple favorite paperbacks (often fellow geeks with battered copies of Ender's Game and other sci-fi novels) that they bought partway through cruise, but you either have to give it away to another member, throw it away, or prepare to add even more weight to the stuff you carry on and off ship.
posted by DisreputableDog at 9:36 PM on April 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


Regarding the censorship, the problem is if there are only a few vendors it is much easier to censor things.

But there are scenarios where it could make commercial sense for Amazon, Google or whoever to censor a book.

But as pointed out, book piracy gets around this and makes distribution a lot easier than using your own printing press.

Book piracy is fascinating in its own right. The sheer number of releases per year against the ease of duplication once DRM is broken.
posted by sien at 11:24 PM on April 9, 2013


Enjoy the classics that have been written up until now, and the mountains of fanfic that follows. As with music, we are entering the age of the talented amateur. Pretty good is the new great.

Is it possible that the quality of writers and musicians hasn't changed, but that the ruthless curation of monied gatekeepers gave 'good' creators an illusory halo of greatness?
posted by forgetful snow at 5:23 AM on April 10, 2013


Pretty good is the new great.

Project Gutenberg is full of pretty good books that were lauded as brilliant in their time. There's also just a lot of plain awful up in there, too.
posted by rtha at 6:33 AM on April 10, 2013


Writers will never be short of Internet folks telling them they don't really need to get paid - sadly you can't really eat those.

True. There is massive shift occuring across many intellectual property businesses because it is becoming increasingly hard to charge for making copies or distributing physical media. The reality is this may mean the demise of the professional author. Sucks if you've always wanted to be or are currently a professional author. This is what technology does and short of resorting to ludditism I'm not sure what we can do.
posted by Mitheral at 8:34 AM on April 10, 2013


Sucks if you've always wanted to be or are currently a professional author. This is what technology does and short of resorting to ludditism I'm not sure what we can do.

I’ve said this before, but it’s not just about the artist. People don’t produce great books, music, or movies by themselves most of the time, and not anywhere near to the extent that the average person thinks they do. It’s not like painting. But most people don’t see this, they have this myth of the solitary genius. An author might be good, but would produce something great with the right people around them. The author might even work for free, but the others won’t. So you only end up with the pretty good instead of the great.

There is also a kind of myth that righteous artists will produce works no matter what. That may or may not be true, but some of the great works are produced by assholes. Assholes who won’t work for free, and even people who are in it for the money. Anyone who’s worked in any sort of artistic field can tell you about all the really great people who produce mediocre work. Related to a recent Ask question; "He/She is a really nice person" is sort of jokey shorthand with people I know for "their work is not all that great".
posted by bongo_x at 10:02 AM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, and as to the last part; I don’t think there’s anything we can do. In a Capitalist system that’s what we’re going to get. State sponsored art has a whole host of other problems of course.
posted by bongo_x at 10:05 AM on April 10, 2013


An author might be good, but would produce something great with the right people around the

Whilst I agree that editors can be very helpful, it's worth remember that so far as the history of writing goes - even the history of novels - they are a relatively recent invention, and their necessity is refuted by a quick look through most of Project Gutenberg's best books.
posted by smoke at 4:31 PM on April 10, 2013


You’re talking about the very best.
posted by bongo_x at 4:59 PM on April 10, 2013


In this new reality, the only incentive to buy, rather than borrow, an e-book is the fact that the lent copy vanishes after a couple of weeks which ignores the reality that the only thing a library does if you decline to return a physical book in a timely manner is....send you a postcard (or an email, I suppose), asking you to return it. Wait for your annual amnesty period, and you won't even have to pay the fine.

You know what's annoying? I just rented a popular e-book from my library after a bit of a wait. I've decided it isn't for me and want to return it early so someone else can download a copy. As far as I can tell, it is impossible for me to do this.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:57 PM on April 12, 2013


Okay, actually there was. I just had to go though my Amazon account rather than the library site which was not explained anywhere prominently and I had to Google for. Most people are not bothering I assume which is just slowing it down for everyone. No need to do this with digital items.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:08 AM on April 13, 2013


I don't feel like I'm reading a book when I use an e-reader. My experience with books is in one part of my brain; my experiences with looking at electronic screens is in another part of my brain.

MIT Technology Review: This Is Your Brain on E-Books -- "When we read on dead trees, do we retain more?"

Scientific American: The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens -- "E-readers and tablets are becoming more popular as such technologies improve, but research suggests that reading on paper still boasts unique advantages."
posted by ericb at 12:59 PM on April 14, 2013


It looks like all the studies referred to are comparing book reading to computer monitor reading; putting "e-readers and tablets" so prominently at the top of the article strikes me as sloppy editing.
posted by Zed at 9:48 AM on April 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


It'll be interesting to see a comparison of kids who are now 6-8 years old. They will have grown up with ebooks so it could significantly effect how well they retain things.
posted by Mitheral at 9:55 AM on April 15, 2013


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