googlezon and the publishing industry: a defining moment for books? 03.22.2006, 5:08 PM
posted by ben vershbow
Yesterday Roger Sperberg made a thoughtful comment on my latest Google Books post in which he articulated (more precisely than I was able to do) the causes and potential consequences of the publisher's quest for control. I'm working through these ideas with the thought of possibly writing an article, so I'm reposting my response (with a few additions) here. Would appreciate any feedback...
What's interesting is how the Google/Amazon move into online books recapitulates the first flurry of ebook speculation in the mid-to-late 90s. At that time, the discussion was all about ebook reading devices, but then as now, the publish industry's pursuit of legal and techological control of digital books seemed to bring with it a corresponding struggle for control over the definition of digital books -- i.e. what is the book going to become in the digital age? The word "ebook" -- generally understood as a digital version of a print book -- is itself part of this legacy of trying to stablize the definition of books amid massively destablizing change. Of course the problem with this is that it throws up all sorts of walls -- literal and conceptual -- that close off avenues of innovation and rob books of much of their potential enrichment in the electronic environment.
Clifford Lynch described this well in his important 2001 essay "The Battle to Define to Define the Future of the Book in the Digital World":
...e-book readers may be the price that the publishing industry imposes, or tries to impose, on consumers, as part of the bargain that will make large numbers of interesting works available in electronic form. As a by-product, they may well constrain the widespread acceptance of the new genres of digital books and the extent to which they will be thought of as part of the canon of respectable digital "printed" works.
A similar bargain is being struck now between publishers and two of the great architects of the internet: Google and Amazon. Naturally, they accept the publishers' uninspired definition of electronic books -- highly restricted digital facsimiles of print books -- since it guarantees them the most profit now. But it points in the long run to a malnourished digital culture (and maybe, paradoxically, the persistence of print? since paper books can't be regulated so devilishly).
As these companies come of age, they behave less and less like the upstart innovators they originally were, and more like the big corporations they've become. We see their grand vision (especially Google's) contract as the focus turns to near-term success and the fluctuations of stock. It creates a weird paradox: Google Book Search totally revolutionizes the way we search and find connections between books, but amounts to a huge setback in the way we read them.
(For those of you interested in reading Lynch's full essay, there's a TK3 version that is far more comfortable to read than the basic online text. Click the image above or go here to download. You'll have to download the free TK3 Reader first, which takes about 10 seconds. Everything can be found at the above link).
Chris Armstrong on March 24, 2006 3:21 PM:
I'm working through your article - the first thing that strikes me is the limiting effect of your definition of an ebook. I would have to agree that the majority of ebooks currently available are replications of print books, but there are also a lot of born-digital titles. The defining feature of an e-book is the fact that it is designed to be read on the screen (that is, the computer is not a delivery tool for print-on-demand) and that it is essentially book-like. In 2003, the International Encyclopedia of Information and Library Science offered this definition, which uses the book-analogy:
"The result of integrating classical book structure, or rather the familiar concept of a book, with features that can be provided within an electronic environment is referred to as an electronic book (or e-book), which is intended as an interactive document that can be composed and read on a computer."
ben vershbow on March 24, 2006 3:55 PM:
Fair point. Reading it again, I see I was not clear. I meant more to comment on the sort of values embedded in the word "ebook" -- a term that bears the indelible stamp of a certain period of technological speculation and corporate dealing. Now that the word has become common parlance, it certainly does refer, as you say, to all sorts of screen-based books, both transferred from print and born-digital.
The definition you quote above is clear and functional: "integrating classical book structure, or rather the familiar concept of a book, with features that can be provided within an electronic environment."
This "familiar concept of the book" as a vessel to take us to places unfamiliar (and unfamiliar structures) is how we like to look at things here. I guess I recoil slightly at the word "ebook" because it's a little too tied to the past (like "the horseless carriage") and to a strikingly unimaginative stratum of the publishing industry. But I don't want to split hairs. It's the underlying kinds of definitions, and the way they encourage or restrict creativity, that concern me most.
bowerbird on March 24, 2006 6:23 PM:
i think it's counterproductive to view
e-books as "fundamentally different"
the "book" is the underlying content.
it's not the vehicle used to convey it...
indeed, increasingly i simply cannot recall
if i read something on-screen or off-paper.
i think you are asking the right question
by saying "how does having the book in
electronic-form change the experience?",
because that _is_ an important difference
in the way that we encounter the content.
freeing books from the physical container
is likely to have a huge impact on us, and
it behooves us to examine what it might be.
but playing semantic games with "book"
doesn't appear to me to be meaningful...
is a "song" different when delivered via c.d.
than when it came on vinyl or on a cassette?
ben vershbow on March 24, 2006 6:53 PM:
I don't entirely agree that you can divorce a text from its reading environment and still call it a book in the fullest sense. Project Gutenberg "ebooks" are basically just enormous blocks of unformatted vanilla ASCII text. I challenge anyone to do any sustained reading in this environment.
But I agree that quibbling too much over terms gets us nowhere. Books are fundamentally about what's inside of them. But there's also the crucial matter of what you do with them. This discussion started with an analysis of Google's new online books, which restrict you from doing just about anything other than flipping through the pages and searching the contents. I guess the most vital thing about a book, apart from its content, is a well designed environment and freedom of intellectual movement for the reader (which includes commentary, quotation, derivative works, discussion, parody etc. etc.). So far, Google offers neither.
I do find intriguing what you said here: "increasingly i simply cannot recall if i read something on-screen or off-paper."
bowerbird on March 24, 2006 8:04 PM:
> Project Gutenberg "ebooks" are basically just
> enormous blocks of unformatted vanilla ASCII text.
> I challenge anyone to do any sustained reading
> in this environment.
my viewer-app is designed to ascertain the structure
in those "enormous blocks of unformatted text" and
display them as a powerful fully-functioning e-book.
but you'll get no argument from me that google's
user-interface offers little worthwhile to us from
the standpoint of engaging with a book's content.
and i agree with bob's position that this is due to
the fact that google is mired in a capitalist system.
so for me, the question becomes, how should we
_liberate_ books from the clutches of that system?
Tim Bulkeley on March 28, 2006 3:10 AM:
I'm just puzzled by the comment that the TK3 version "is far more comfortable to read than the basic online text" on my screen the font is tiny, really seriously minute, now with plain vanilla HTML and either sensible design or Firefox as browser I can resize text to suit my screen, but not (as far as I can see with the one size fits all TK3). Ugh, I've seen the future and it (still) doesn't work!