In a short piece at silicon.com “futurist” Peter Cochrane talks about a potential business idea that I’m surprised doesn’t already exist: digitizing personal book collections. As I’ve said in the past, I support the various book digitization efforts from Google and others for these projects’ potential to make the sharing of knowledge easier, not because I want to read all my books (for free or otherwise) from my computer. However, I am intrigued by the option of digitizing at least some of the books I own – perhaps books I’ve read and don’t intend to read in full again. It would be nice to have searchable, digital copies of these books to refer back to, but there are some books that I could never trade in for digital doppelgangers.
If you visit a book-focused startup online these days, chances are Amazon owns a part of it. On August 1st, the online bookselling behemoth snapped up yet another, the online used book marketplace AbeBooks, perhaps the service most widely used by online booksellers putting their wares online, also bringing into the fold two smaller and very visible book-related sites that AbeBooks owns.It's a very smart move by Amazon, whose profit margins are higher for its Marketplace third-party sales as compared to its traditional business. While it may seem counter-intuitive that Amazon happily lets used book sellers "compete" with it by offering cheaper copies of almost every book it sells, it's actually an amazing business. Whenever a used book sells on the site, Amazon gets 15% of the selling price plus additional fees amounting to a bit more than two dollars (and less if you sell a lot). The only thing Amazon has to do is kick back a "shipping credit" to the seller, $3.99 for standard domestic shipping. (Incidentally, this is how people get away with selling used books for a penny on Amazon; what profit there is in that case comes from the shipping credit.) What this means is that Amazon uses its existing infrastructure to let people sell books on the site. All that extra revenue comes at very minimal cost - in fact, less cost (and thus more profit) than if Amazon sold you the book itself. The purchase of AbeBooks brings as many as 110 million books from AbeBooks into Amazon (though in practice, probably a fair amount fewer, since many used booksellers listed their inventories on both sites.) All in all, a very shrewd buy for Amazon.But Amazon doesn't just get AbeBooks. AbeBooks also owns bookfinder.com, easily the most comprehensive used book search out there, aggregating results from dozens of used book listing services. Perhaps even more interesting, AbeBooks was also a minority investor in LibraryThing, the very successful book cataloging community, and that stake will pass on to Amazon. Like many in the online world of books, LibraryThing, its founder, and its users have aften looked somewhat warily at the bookselling giant, and so it will be interesting to see how LibraryThing adjusts to its new big investor (if it adjusts at all).One of the big selling points of LibraryThing is its impressive recommendation system, which plumbs the community's vast array of individual libraries to come up with book suggestions. The unique element of LibraryThing's recommendations has been that they are based on what you own versus Amazon's, which are based on what you buy, which can be very different things. I would imagine that Amazon would be very curious to dig into those recommendations, and it will be very interesting to see if it ever has the opportunity to do so. For the time being, it won't, and it may never. LibraryThing founder Tim Spalding wrote on the LibraryThing blog, " Abe gets only anonymized and aggregate data, like recommendations, and they can only use it on Abebooks sites. Nothing has changed here."Amazon's reach doesn't stop there, it is also an investor in LibraryThing rival Shelfari.Finally, while we're on the topic of Amazon, there has been much speculation on how many Kindles the company has sold, blog TechCrunch did some digging and was able to come up with a number, 240,000.Doing a little back of the envelope math, that brings total sales of the device so far to between $86 million and $96 million (the price of the device was reduced to $360 from $400 last May). Then add the amounts spent on digital books, newspapers, and blogs purchased to read on the device, and you get a business that has easily brought in above $100 million so far. (Each $25 worth of digital reading material purchased per Kindle, add $6 million in total revenues).
At Slate, Paul Collins points out that Google Book Search heralds a new era of outing plagiarists. The searchable database of many thousands of books is a boon to researchers, but it also greatly eases the discovery of co-opted passages. Collins mentions a couple of examples and posits that "given the popularity of plagiarism-seeking software services for academics, it may be only a matter of time before some enterprising scholar yokes Google Book Search and plagiarism-detection software together into a massive literary dragnet, scooping out hundreds of years' worth of plagiarists - giants and forgotten hacks alike - who have all escaped detection until now." He also predicts that "in the next decade at least one major literary work [will get] busted."
The result isn't that flashy, but Google's addition of Maps to its Google Book Search points to the promise of digitizing books. As we have seen with the layers of data that Amazon has added to its database - things like Statistically Improbable Phrases and Capitalized Phrases - digitization of books makes it easy for people to draw connections between books. But digitization also allows for layers of explanatory and reference data to be made easily accessible.Of course, there have long been annotated editions of many books, but in those cases we are limited by the editors' decisions on what material deserves greater explanation and what material stands on its own. With the Internet placing a universe of information at our fingertips, it is now easy for readers and scholars (especially those with access to library databases) to supplement their reading with background information and to find related texts. But sites like Google Books promise to make this process even easier and more fruitful by allowing the books themselves, in their digitized form, to be analyzed and enhanced.In its own modest way, adding Maps to Google Books is an example of this. Have a look at the Google Books page for Around the World in 80 Days (scroll down to see the map). Having the map there adds something to the experience of this geography-centric novel, and it's not much of leap to wonder if a similar system might be able to pull in related images (say, hot air balloons of that era) or contemporary newspaper reviews of the book. The possibilities are almost endless, and, though one must always make the point that such technology is meant to enhance and not replace our beloved paper books, further exploration down this road would be a great thing for literature and learning.On the subject of maps, specifically, as a map lover, I'm excited to see Google trying this out because, like Jerome Weeks, I believe that nearly every book would benefit from the addition of a map or two.
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As the saga surrounding digitizing books gets ever more convoluted, the Wall Street Journal is now reporting that Google is interested in offering book rentals. Apparently, Google has approached publishers about offering to rent digital versions of books for a week at 10% of the cover price. According to a News.com article (the WSJ article is subscribers only), an unidentified publisher said that 10% was too low. It sounds like an odd idea to me. I can't imagine paying to rent a book, when I could "rent" it for free from the library, but I'm also somewhat astonished that a publisher would say that 10% of the cover price is too cheap. Google would be able to rent out an infinite number of each title, and people - if they are so inclined - would be paying for something that they can get for free. The upside here seems huge for the publishers.(via)See Also: Amazon's digital book initiative: paying by the page and The publishers' big blunder
Google has put together a special page on its "Books" site devoted to frequently banned books in recognition of "Banned Books Week," the American Library Association initiative to protect intellectual freedom and raise awareness about attempts to ban books. This year, the event takes place from September 23 to 30.The Google tie in to this, I think, illuminates the importance of the company's efforts to digitize books and make them accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. In this way, even if a frequently challenged book like Lolita or Beloved is made inaccessible to a curious reader, it will always be available online. (via)
It was a battle between an evangelizing visionary and a sage defender of the past, perhaps the first big tussle in the great sorting out of publishing's new look in the digital age.This was 2006, when Wired Magazine technology evangelist Kevin Kelly wrote about the helter skelter future of books in the digital age. In the New York Times Magazine, Kelly looked at then still nascent book scanning efforts, and extrapolated a future that sent a shiver through writers, editors, publishers, and many readers:Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.Later he added:[Authors] can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions - in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the "discovery tool" that markets these other intangible valuables.At the annual Book Expo, keynote speaker John Updike responded, heaping scorn: The economic repercussions of this paradise of freely flowing snippets are touched on with a beguiling offhandedness, as a matter of course, a matter of an inexorable Marxist unfolding.Everyone reveled in the literary throwdown at the time (Gawker called it a Crossover Nerdfight). There was no "winner," however, and neither Kelly nor Updike was proven right, but there are some interesting new developments to contemplate.When Kelly wrote of "remixed" books, many were aghast, envisioning zombified, soulless collages, based on the desecrated works that had been co-opted for profit. They may have been right about the zombie part: At least one book remix has caused quite a stir this year. According to Publishers Weekly, there are "more than 600,000 copies in print of... Jane Austen mashup, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." A graphic novel version is in the works, as is a sequel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Even though this recent example looms large, when you start thinking about it there is a rich history of literary remixes. At the Vromans Bookstore Blog, Patrick Brown recently compiled a thorough exploration of the topic in response to J.D. Salinger's lawsuit over an unauthorized sequel to his novel The Catcher in the Rye. Though that remix is not looking particularly auspicious, Patrick notes the many venerable and successful remixes that have come before it, from James Joyce's Ulysses to Gregory Maguire's Wicked to a pair of recent books by Maile Meloy. Brown doesn't mention it, but you can even go all the way back to the "first" novel, and look at Don Quixote's second part as an inspired calling out of unauthorized "copycat" versions of the book. It's entirely plausible to make the case that literary history is in many ways a history of literary "remixes," and, as Kelly has suggested, current, ever-stricter copyright regimes are an artificial impediment to this free flow of ideas.Returning to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, silly as it may be, one wonders if the book's success doesn't prove there is an appetite - in our heavily remixed, mashed up culture - for freer rein to be afforded writers who want to experiment in this vein. It's also clear that the public domain offers an unending font of material for those inclined to use it (for a more highbrow example, think of the relationship between Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare). Meanwhile, the Salinger case would seem to indicate that when it comes to books under copyright and the cross-linking, clustering, and reassembling that Kelly prophesied, we are still very much at the whim of the copyright holder.Kelly's other point - that of a new business model for writers that relies not on selling the book but on using the book to sell "access" to the writer, has been taken up enthusiastically by another Wired guy, Chris Anderson, who has written an entire book on this topic, Free. Anderson is "selling" (read: giving away) the book under this model and his ideas have caused media types quite a bit of heartburn.Interestingly, the backlash to Anderson's book seems to be resonating (to me, anyway) much more than the book itself. The unfortunate revelation that Anderson had lifted substantial passages for the book from Wikipedia suggests that in a world where writers don't get paid for writing and information wants to be free, the writing itself is almost beside the point as compared to the ancillary, profit-making schemes that can surround the "author as brand" idea. This criticism would only seem to be confirmed by Anderson's explanation that there was an oversight in citing the copied passages properly.With a new novel coming soon from our greatest literary recluse, I wonder too whether a flourishing of the idea that authors make money from selling "access" and not books would mean that we could never have another Pynchon or McCarthy or DeLillo whose works alone tower above any notion that they might experiment with alternative revenue models.In the end, there are some elements out of the Kelly/Anderson view of the future of publishing that remain compelling. The remixed book is an important idea that need not be villainized or trivialized, particularly as digitization provides new opportunities for experimentation. The notion of "free," meanwhile, seems far more potentially damaging in that whole swathes of literary culture are not particularly compatible with the "authors selling access" model. However, if you believe that good writing is always worth something to somebody, you don't have much to worry about.