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What Books? Where Books?

My friend Ben Vershbow over at the if:book blog zeroes in on one possible outcome of the growth of digital book availability: conjecture sparked by several news stories about the imminent release of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, and renewed speculation on the possibility of using an iPhone as an ebook reading platform.

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

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

Whether Apple, Amazon, or Google wind up defining the predominant consumption infrastructure for published works, the impacts on publishers — and libraries, for that matter — will be profound, even if publishers retain a valued production and marketing role in the genesis of reading material. [Note the excellent comments by Barbara Fister and others on the if:book blog on the importance of editorial roles, and the value of the circulation and transferability of book content and information even, or particularly, in pre-digital environments].

Fortunately, I suspect public, community libraries will somehow always wind up with a ticket for the merry-go-round, as the last refuge of unimpeded access for the network abandoned and underprivileged. However, definitions of content ownership, and the normative expectations of privacy in browsing, much less reading, will be thrown into a churning fray.

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  • Adam Hodgkin

    OK – I am probably being a bit harsh on you here over the use of one word (‘consumer’):

    http://exacteditions.blogspot.com/2007/09/sense-and-nonsense-on-ebooks-consumers.html

    But what really matters is the direction we are going in, and we are heading towards a space where all books will be accessed and none will be consumed.

  • http://diglib.org Peter Brantley

    Adam – :), yes, I think this is a tad overly critical. The words in this case mean something more to you than I had intended, or perhaps perceived, but I think we do agree, actually. Consumed, to me, in the emotive sense, of enjoying reading, which is itself a linguistic betrayal of the commodification of how we understand our actions, regardless of their motivations.

  • http://barbarafister.wordpress.com Barbara Fister

    The idea that each reading is expected to generate revenue – and, therefore, books will be read on a pay-as-you-go basis (licensed rather than owned? no sharing allowed?) is scary. Thanks for pointing out the implications for libraries – and for your faith in libraries that we could overcome the barriers and provide the “tickets to the merry-go-round.” I hope so! Though public libraries are closing due to lack of funding/public support. (Jackson County, Oregon, still has all of its library doors locked after closure last April.)

    I happened to read this just while browsing comments on a long post on publishing by a bookseller, Jim Huang. In the comments, a writer bemoans the fact that the used book market is now so efficient the backlist is no longer a viable concept. She wishes her books were printed on paper that self-destructed after three reads.

    My feeling is that she’d have a very tiny audience, even smaller than now, because there would be little opportunity to develop an audience for her books. But the incredible efficiencies of the used book market online have really challenged publishers to a degree that is rarely taken into account in thinking about digital futures. Bennett Cerf likened the backlist to “picking up gold off the sidewalk.” Now readers can pick it up – for cheap. I don’t think publishers have totally grasped it yet, that there ain’t much free gold still in them thar hills.