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.
For the past year, to the rising horror of publishing-industry insiders, the federal government has been on a campaign to stamp out price fixing in the e-book trade between the last remaining major publishing houses and Apple, which sells e-books for its iPads and other devices. On Wednesday, Denise Cote, a federal judge in Manhattan, ruled that Apple had indeed colluded with publishers to raise prices of e-books — in the process giving aid and comfort to Amazon, the single strongest monopolistic force in the book business.
The case is far from over. Apple is one of the world’s largest corporations, and it is in a knife fight with Amazon and others over the future of digital content, so you can count on it to carry on its appeals as long as it can. But Wednesday’s ruling follows an earlier decision by the major publishers to settle with the government rather than fight the case, so in some ways we are already living in the economic environment Justice Department lawyers believe is best for the book business. It isn’t pretty. Borders is gone, Barnes & Noble is on the ropes, and with the recently approved merger of Random House and Penguin Books, the already absurdly conglomerated Big Six publishers have become the Big Five.
As a matter of law, it is altogether possible that the government is right that Apple and publishers conspired to set prices higher than Amazon would charge, which would have forced consumers to pay more for e-books in the short term. But to see this case in this narrowly legalistic light is to completely misunderstand how the book business actually works, and, more dangerously, to undermine its ability to find and publish books people want to read.
The government’s case suggests that it views book publishing as essentially a commodity business. Publishers, this line of reasoning supposes, produce these things called books, consisting of several hundred pages of printed matter and a cover, each of which is more or less interchangeable with any other. A book then is like any other commodity, such as soap or motor oil, and the only legitimate concern for consumers is the unit price of the commodity. Any increase in the unit price beyond the absolute minimum the free market will bear is an injustice to the consumer.
But books are not bars of soap. When you go online to buy a book, you are not merely paying for a file full of random ones and zeros. You’re buying the original ideas and stories contained within that book, and frankly nobody has any idea how much those ideas are worth until people start reading them.
This is the crucial point the government missed in bringing this lawsuit: book publishing is in essence a vast, bumbling R&D operation — a sort of pharmaceutical company churning out stories rather than mood-stabilizing drugs. Like pharmaceutical companies, publishers are constantly testing out products of unknown efficacy to find the one in a thousand that works, and, like pharmaceutical companies, publishing houses have to charge above-market rates for their successful products to amortize all those failures. If you limit their ability to do this, books will indeed be cheaper, but they also will be lower in quality and variety because publishers will have less ability to finance experimentation.
This was what was at the heart of the publishers’ negotiations with Apple: publishers wanted to be able to set their own prices. Put simply, when it comes to e-books, Amazon sets the price — for a time, the standard unit price was $9.99 — and then pays the publisher a royalty per unit sold. Often, Amazon was actually losing money on its per-unit sales, but that was fine with Amazon, because what Amazon really wants to sell is not so much e-books as the delivery system of those e-books, called a Kindle.
Apple was offering a wholly different deal, called “the agency model,” in which publishers would set the price for an e-book and then Apple would take a cut — usually 30 percent of the list price. In other words, Apple was offering to once again give the publishing industry the freedom to overcharge for all those e-versions of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey flying out the virtual doors to make up for the risks it is taking on thousands of other titles that may have literary merit, but won’t sell nearly as well.
It is easy to see the Apple antitrust suit as merely a clash between multi-billion-dollar corporations, but at heart the case asks a fundamental societal question: what, legally speaking, is art? Is it a thing, a commodity like a bar of soap or a can of motor oil to be bought and sold in an unfettered free market, or is it something else, deserving of special allowances? If you see a work of art, in this case a book, as a commodity, then there is no question that Judge Cote’s ruling is correct. As a society, we long ago decided that when people sell things, the consumer is best served when the government allows the free market to work its magic on cost control.
But the framers of our Constitution recognized that ideas aren’t things and should occupy a special place in our laws. In enumerating the powers of Congress in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, the framers noted how important it is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” and thus created copyright protection for authors and inventors. I am not suggesting copyright law has any direct bearing on the Apple case. I am merely saying the framers were onto something. Books and other works of art aren’t widgets, and art does not now nor has it ever flourished in a truly efficient market.
As a matter of law, the Department of Justice might be right that Apple conspired with publishers to raise e-book prices, but as a matter of governance, the DOJ did not have to bring this suit, which everyone understood from the start would hurt publishers and help Amazon. The full effects of Wednesday’s ruling remain to be seen, but this much seems clear: if the government prevails, it may bring down prices of e-books, at least in the short term, but in doing so it will have created a far less genuinely competitive and vibrant book business.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
With the launch of Apple’s iPad, some of the literary web is focusing on the impending doom and loss that the e-book revolution will bring. Though some of the major publishing houses have welcomed the iPad with open arms, others are less eager to sign on.
Yet beyond the publishing houses, there’s a whole group — the consumers of books — that is very much concerned with the way in which e-readers will change how we read. It’s the readers of books, after all, that will be affected most by a switch from print to digital. Lost will be the days of curling up with a yellowed and musty book adopted from your local library. Farewell to those nights when you, on an impulse, run to your local bookstore and return with more than you ever intended to purchase and sit up reading until the wee-hours. Adios to those cookbooks with grandmama’s annotations, sprinkled with splotches of her world famous pasta sauce. While these moments have the potential to be lost to modernity, they will be replaced by new experiences with the written word — albeit, perhaps less fragrant
And yet still, there are those who are now, as in Mokoto Rich’s article in the New York Times, lamenting another loss, the culture of reading. You know the scenario, but here’s my anecdote. I’m sitting on the shuttle to my gym. The girl sitting across from me is about my age, she’s dressed similarly to me, wearing glasses, and she has a yoga mat strapped to her bag. In other words — she could or could not be my future best friend. In her lap is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I think to myself, “I wonder if that book is any good.” Maybe I go home and read reviews of the book. Maybe I take a leap of faith and purchase it right away. But regardless, I’m now seeing the book as something of interest to me because I see myself in its readers.
These types of encounters happen all of the time in the culture of reading, and yet as e-books are clearly the way of the future, the likelihood of the scenario happening will certainly decrease. Years (maybe even months) from now, the others on the shuttle will be immersed in their e-readers — much in the same way that many of them are currently focused on their iPhones or Blackberries. And I, looking at each of them, won’t have the slightest idea of what they are reading or looking at. The yoga mat will be there, and the clothes will still be similar, but the only cue I will gather is that I too should be looking down at a device.
But of course, we don’t just get our book recommendations from random people on public transportation. Amazon has virtually changed the way we can browse and buy books, and online communities such as Goodreads have sprouted up to connect forlorn readers to other like-minded folks on the internet. If you are a supporter of the independent bookstore movement, you know that a good bookstore is like a great wine store — its shelves are curated by experts (or maybe just people with a lot of time to read) you trust. And there will always be the world of web reviews.
“Yes,” you say, “all of this is true. But what about when I am on a bus?” With some certainty I’ll say that we can look to the iPhone to get an idea of the possibility for the iPad. Though there are far too many applications available for the iPhone than one could ever keep track of, one category has been getting lots of attention — location-based social networking apps. Gowalla, Foursquare and Whrrl are the big three, but I’m sure there are others out there. What these apps all provide is the ability to know where your friends are and let others know where you are by “checking in” to restaurants, bars, bookstores, etc. The apps also identify your location and then tell you “What’s Trending” near you. Right now, for instance, the coffee shop up the street from my office is trending (10 people have checked in).
So what does all of this have to do with the iPad and the culture of reading? Currently, when I search ‘Literature’ or ‘Books’ or ‘Reading’ in the App Store, I come up with pages and pages of apps. Many of them help you read e-books or listen to audio books. Some of them are actual compilations of certain types of literature (Classics, Shakespeare, etc.). And there are others, such as Electric Literature or Small Chair that operate like magazines, feeding subscribers weekly or monthly exclusive bits. From my cursory view, only one of the apps, the Goodreads app, actually has a community element baked into it. There is potential here and I’m not a product person so I can only imagine a sliver of the myriad, though I will try.
What if there were a way to know what people near me were reading? What if I could find out what other books they’ve read to know better if they’re a compatible recommender of books? What if I couldn’t judge a book by a yoga mat? Would I find better matches, or perhaps more accurate ones? Because though the girl across from me might look like my type of friend, I may actually hate The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and let’s be honest, what 20-something girl in San Francisco doesn’t practice yoga. Certainly not all of them share my literary tastes. Perhaps, even, my taste in literature is more compatible with the quinquagenarian sitting at the back of the shuttle.
While it sounds like a huge invasion of privacy to know that someone near me named Ed is reading the Twilight Saga, if Ed wants me to know, then I could potentially learn from Ed by knowing that not just is he reading New Moon, but he’s also a huge fan of Poe and just finished a collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates that I didn’t even know existed. By not judging Ed for the fact that he is a fifty-five-year-old male wearing tube socks, I transcend the shackles of whom I imagine I can identify with — as a reader and beyond. I can identify with anyone, and that’s really the point of technology: to open up the world.
We are social creatures by nature and we like to observe the people around us — public transportation sometimes gives us no other choice. But just because technology will change the way we read does not mean that a new culture of reading won’t be born of it. Indeed, our constant has always been change. Though seemingly scary now, I’m confident that whatever amount of visual transparency we lose from going digital we will gain in learning a bit more about ourselves and the world outside of our walls of judgment.
[Image credit:Bruce Clay]
With each new holiday season the reach of ereaders expands, as a new crop of Kindles, Nooks and iPads are fired up. The first thing to do is download a few books.
Just a few years after ebooks and ereaders first emerged as futuristic curiosity, they are fully mainstream now. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, old-school readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are very popular. Looking at the statistics that Amazon provides us, just over a third of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links this year were Kindle ebooks. Last year, it was one in four, and now this year one in three books bought by Millions readers were ebooks.
So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going.
For starters, here are the top-12 most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2012. You’ll notice that these aren’t all that different from the overall Millions favorites. Of course, this list also favors ebook originals, some of which appear in the “Kindle Single” format and are bite-size books available for lower prices. Meanwhile, publishers appear to still be having luck pricing ebooks pricing above the magic $9.99 number that has been a focus for many in the industry.
The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett ($2.51)
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava ($5.13)
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace ($3.99)
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan ($9.99)
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson ($9.99)
The Bathtub Spy by Tom Rachman ($1.99)
This How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz ($12.99)
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max ($14.99)
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn ($12.99)
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon ($9.99)
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt ($9.43)
An Arrangement of Light by Nicole Krauss ($1.99)
Other potentially useful ebook links:
And in this fractured ebook landscape, you’ve also got your NookBooks, Google ebooks, Apple ibooks, and the IndieBound ereader app that lets you buy ebooks from your favorite indie bookstore. Finally, don’t forget Project Gutenberg, the original purveyor of free ebooks (mostly out-of-copyright classics) available for years.
In December, I wrote about HarperCollins’ plan to host digitized copies of their books on their own Web site rather than make them available to Google’s book search. Now the AP is reporting that HarperCollins has unleashed its first offering in this format, Go It Alone, a business book by Bruce Judson. The book is available, in its entirety, at Judson’s Web site. As Google does with its book search, HarperCollins has surrounded the book with contextual ads and provided a link to buy the book. The article points out the supposed irony of using Google ads, but I see Yahoo ads in there too and anyway, HarperCollins isn’t trying to screw over Google, they’re trying to maintain control over the process. HarperCollins has mostly gotten good reviews for their efforts primarily because they’re not using any sort of Digital Rights Management (DRM) to “protect” their intellectual property. To some, this approach is nothing new. As is noted in the article, marketing guru Seth Godin and science fiction author Cory Doctorow (to give two examples), have both made their books available in this way. The news here is that a major publisher is doing it.Based on this article, though, HarperCollins doesn’t seem to understand that by allowing easy, free access to the book, they are, in effect, using the book as marketing for itself in much the same way that one can flip through a book at bookstore before buying. Instead they view the ads displayed next to the book’s pages as a “new revenue stream.” That’s why you shouldn’t expect to see any fiction as a part of this program. According to Brian Murray, group president of HarperCollins, “I don’t think advertisers are clamoring to place ads around literary fiction.” Hence, no literary fiction.