the book is reading you, part 3 03.20.2006, 7:24 AM
posted by ben vershbow
News broke quietly a little over a week ago that Google will begin selling full digital book editions from participating publishers. This will not, Google makes clear, extend to books from its Library Project -- still a bone of contention between Google and the industry groups that have brought suit against it for scanning in-copyright works (75% of which -- it boggles the mind -- are out of print).
Let's be clear: when they say book, they mean it in a pretty impoverished sense. Google's ebooks will not be full digital editions, at least not in the way we would want: with attention paid to design and the reading experience in general. All you'll get is the right to access the full scanned edition online.
Much like Amazon's projected Upgrade program, you're not so much buying a book as a searchable digital companion to the print version. The book will not be downloadable, printable or shareable in any way, save for inviting a friend to sit beside you and read it on your screen. Fine, so it will be useful to have fully searchable texts, but what value is there other than this? And what might this suggest about the future of publishing as envisioned by companies like Google and Amazon, not to mention the future of our right to read?
About a month ago, Cory Doctorow wrote a long essay on Boing Boing exhorting publishers to wake up to the golden opportunities of Book Search. Not only should they not be contesting Google's fair use claim, he argued, but they should be sending fruit baskets to express their gratitude. Allowing books to dwell in greater numbers on the internet saves them from falling off the digital train of progress and from losing relevance in people's lives. Doctorow isn't talking about a bookstore (he wrote this before the ebook announcement), or a full-fledged digital library, but simply a searchable index -- something that will make books at least partially functional within the social sphere of the net.
This idea of the social life of books is crucial. To Doctorow it's quite plain that books -- as entertainment, as a diversion, as a place to stick your head for a while -- are losing ground in a major way not only to electronic media like movies, TV and video games (that's been happening for a while), but to new social rituals developing on the net and on portable networked devices.
Though print will always offer inimitable pleasures, the social life of media is moving to the network. That's why we here at if:book care so much about issues, tangential as they may seem to the future of the book, like network neutrality, copyright and privacy. These issues are of great concern because they make up the environment for the future of reading and writing. We believe that a free, neutral network, a progressive intellectual property system, and robust safeguards for privacy are essential conditions for an enlightened digital age.
We also believe in understanding the essence of the new medium we are in the process of inventing, and about understanding the essential nature of books. The networked book is not a block on a shelf -- it is a piece of social software. A web of revisions, interactions, annotations and references. "A piece of intellectual territory." It can't be measured in copies. Yet publishers want electronic books to behave like physical objects because physical objects can be controlled. Sales can be recorded, money counted. That's why the electronic book market hasn't materialized. Partly because people aren't quite ready to begin reading books on screens, but also because publishers have been so half-hearted about publishing electronically.
They can't even begin to imagine how books might be enhanced and expanded in a digital environment, so terrified are they of their entire industry being flushed down the internet drain -- with hackers and pirates cannibalizing the literary system. To them, electronic publishing is grit your teeth and wait for the pain. A book is a PDF, some DRM and a prayer. Which is why they've reacted so heavy-handedly to Google's book project. If they lose even a sliver of control, so they are convinced, all hell could break loose.
But wait! Google and Amazon are here to save the day. They understand the internet (naturally -- they helped invent it). They understand the social dimension of online spaces. They know how to harness network effects and how to read the embedded desires of readers in the terms and titles for which they search. So they understand the social life of books on the network, right? And surely they will come up with a vision for electronic publishing that is both profitable for the creators and every bit as rich as the print culture that preceded it. Surely the future of the book lies with them?
Sadly, judging by their initial moves into electronic books, we should hope it does not. Understanding the social aspect of the internet also enables you to cunningly restrict it, more cunningly than any print publishers could figure out how to do.
Yes, they'll give you the option of buying a book that lives its life on line, but like a chicken in a poultry plant, packed in a dark crate stuffed with feed tubes, it's not much of a life. Or better, let's evaluate it in the terms of a social space -- say, a seminar room or book discussion group. In a Google/Amazon ebook you will not be allowed to:
- make notes
- make reference
- build upon
This is the book as antisocial software. Reading is done in solitary confinement, closely monitored by the network overseers. Google and Amazon's ebooks are essentially, as David Rothman puts it on Teleread, "in a glass case in a museum." Get too close to the art and motion sensors trigger the alarm.
So ultimately we can't rely on the big technology companies to make the right decisions for our future. Google's "fair use" claim for building its books database may be bold and progressive, but its idea of ebooks clearly is not. Even looking solely at the searchable database component of the project, let's not forget that Google's ranking system (as Siva Vaidhyanathan has repeatedly reminded us) is non-transparent. In other words, when we do a search on Google Books, we don't know why the results come up in the order that they do. It's non-transparent librarianship. Information mystery rather than information science. What secret algorithmic processes are reordering our knowledge and, over time, reordering our minds? And are they immune to commercial interests? And shouldn't this be of concern to the libraries who have so blithely outsourced the task of digitization? I repeat: Google will make the right choices only when it is in its interest to do so. Its recent actions in China should leave no doubt.
Perhaps someday soon they'll ease up a bit and let you download a copy, but that would only be because the hardware we are using at that point will be fitted with a "trusted computing" module, which which will monitor what media you use on your machine and how you use it. At that point, copyright will quite literally be the system. Enforcement will be unnecessary since every potential transgression will be preempted through hardwired code. Surveillance will be complete. Control total. Your rights surrendered simply by logging on.
Posted by ben vershbow on March 20, 2006 7:24 AM
tags: Copyright and Copyleft, DRM, books, copyright, ebooks, google, google_book_search, privacy, publishing, reading, search, social_software, the_networked_book, trusted_computing
Bob Stein on March 20, 2006 7:33 AM:
ben, this is a wonderful piece. in one fell swoop you've given the best explanation to date of why the "networked book" of the future engenders fear and loathing in the traditional publishing industry AND called out those who would be the "new publishers" -- Amazon and Google -- for the profoundly reactionary way they are going about things. the question you haven't addressed is why Amazon and Google, understanding the potential of the network as they do, have taken this course. my guess is that they will both claim "we do it this way because that is what the publshing industry demands of us." that is of course in part true. but the deeper reason is that while they as you say "understand the social dimension of online spaces" they also understand the vast social network of profit-making companies; their place in the soical/economic ecology of capitalism determines their actions.
Roger Sperberg on March 21, 2006 11:02 PM:
First, a tangent -- I know Cory Doctorow used the same 75 percent figure for books in copyright and out of print. But I think that's way too low. Copyright goes back to 1923 and yet you will be hard pressed to find more than a few dozen books from any pre-1990 year that are still in print now. And maybe it's "pre-1999".
I haven't done the math, but something over 90 percent seems more likely.
And I have to agree with you when you say (I've disconnected these thoughts):
"[Publishers] can't even begin to imagine how books might be enhanced and expanded in a digital environment,
"[They are] terrified ... of their entire industry being flushed down the internet drain -- with hackers and pirates cannibalizing the literary system.
"To them, electronic publishing is grit your teeth and wait for the pain. A book is a PDF, some DRM and a prayer.
"[T]hey've reacted ...heavy-handedly to Google's book project.
"If they lose even a sliver of control, ... they are convinced, all hell could break loose."
It's not clear to me that each of these true statements is connected in the way you indicate.
Publishers learned during the CD-ROM days that owning the content didn't make them experts at visualizing books, nor at making them interactive.
And if a book's IP -- its narrative, its tone, and to a lesser extent simply its content -- couldn't be monetized in-house (before publication! before anyone else had a chance to see it!), then protecting the one thing they owned became more important than ever. So publishers are pretty much united in trying to keep the words themselves from being copied because they all see themselves as standing on the precipice.
Thus your conclusion is absolutely on pitch: to lose control of the content-as-currently-delivered is indeed to see all hell break loose, from their perspective.
Does that mean in the future that editors will transmogrify from market-spotters into visualizers and interactivists? No, but publishers might use outside services, the way they buy copy-editing and typesetting outside today.
And that loosening up, that ability to see a niche where their predictive skills regarding what fascinates and entertains people can still be utilized, with enough of a barrier to stabilize their income, may be the only thing that shifts them from their current untenable position.
But I think a lot of firms will go under before the industry as a whole gets it.
ben vershbow on March 22, 2006 3:45 PM:
Thank you, Roger -- this is very helpful. You've articulated more precisely than I the causes and potential consequences of the publisher's quest for control. 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, publishers' 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. The term "ebook" -- at best a translation from print to electronic -- 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. 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. 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?
Gary Frost on July 4, 2006 12:16 AM:
This is a wonderful exchange! I certainly feel the urge to visualize screen reading in terms of conventions of print, but without strictures of print transmission. The way forward may be to leave the conventions of print....especially the book construct.
But, I suggest that print book publishers are not as backward as electronic reading enthusiasts suggest. The old publishers know they are on a ship on the ocean of communication. There are storms and you need to be on a boat and not in the water.