Pirates in the House

I think someone in the House needs to have a Crucial Conversation with the IT department.

Today I learned via BoingBoing that Torrent Freak had done some research into what the good folks over at the U.S. House of Representatives have been downloading on BitTorrent.  Yes, that’s right.  While drafting legislation to prevent piracy on the internet, some folks who work there were downloading books, movies, and porn.  Yes, porn.

But I’m not going to talk about the porn.  Much as I would love to get into that.  I want to focus instead on the books again.

The first one that TorrentFreak posted was Crucial Conversations. For those unfamiliar this is a popular business/management book that teaches people how to hold conversations when the stakes are high and they probably need to explain why something is happening that people don’t like.  You could imagine why people in Congress would need this book.

As I mentioned the other day, there are numerous publishers who are backing SOPA.  One of those publishers is McGraw-Hill, the publisher of Crucial Conversations.

Similarly, Do Not Open: An Encyclopedia of the World’s Best Kept Secrets and the How Things Work Encyclopedia were downloaded in the House.  Both of these titles are published by DK Press, a division of Penguin.  Penguin, is also backing SOPA.

Now, I’m not going to spend time going combing through the all the IP addresses of the House of Representatives on YouHaveDownloaded.com, but if anyone else does, and they find more pirated books please let me know.  Especially if those books are from publishing companies that are supporting SOPA.


Piracy Is The Symptom, Not The Problem

Icon for Germany's Piratenpartei*

There have been several stories in the news lately that have been hammering away at the concept of internet piracy. The primary concern in the US being the two pieces of legislation currently winding their way through the House and the Senate, the former being known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the second the PROTECT IP Act (and yes, all the letters in “protect” are acronymic).  SOPA being the craziest of the two, in that it would lead to blocking websites via a US Firewall, not unlike China. As I mentioned in my post on this blog a few days ago, it’s easy to contact your Representative and Senators and tell them that you don’t want this to go through.

But all of this legal wrangling doesn’t get to the root of why there is a glut of internet piracy.  It follows the same train of logic that has been trotted out time and again, that people are stealing these things because they don’t want to pay for them. So Congress must combat these thieves so that publishers, record companies and film studios can protect their supply chain.

So, why do people pirate content online?  It isn’t just because they can.  And it isn’t just because free and they don’t want to pay for it.  People pirate electronic media because they love the content, and they want to get it in a digital format as fast as possible.

In a recent article for the Guardian, Cory Doctorow wrote about why people turn to internet piracy, specifically here for films.  In a study conducted by the UK Open Rights Group they found that:

though close to 100% of their sample were available as DVDs, more than half of the top 50 UK films of all time were not available as downloads. The numbers are only slightly better for Bafta winners: just 58% of Bafta best film winners since 1960 can be bought or rented as digital downloads (the bulk of these are through iTunes – take away the iTunes marketplace, which isn’t available unless you use Mac or Windows, and only 27% of the Bafta winners can be had legally).

That’s a pretty bleak statistic.  But similar or even bleaker statistics could be said of any other type of digital content online.

Ultimately, the problem is supply restrictions, which are a result of the rights holder bottlenecking the product in an effort to attempt to drive up sales. The thing is, if the items that the users actually wanted to have were available via digital download the people who are currently pirating these files are 10 times more likely to purchase them.  In 2008, for the first time ever, mp3 sales outpaced CD sales.  Since 2006 US digital music revenues has increased nearly a billion dollars a year.  Worldwide it’s been increasing 2-3 billion dollars a year.  BILLION.  Also, when provided with a service that allows users to stream content over the internet, piracy tends to decline.  In Sweden piracy dropped 25% thanks to services like Spotify which allows users to access a vast library of music files and listen to music from friends for free.  The larger the collection being accessed, the less necessary it becomes to go seeking alternate means of acquiring the object of one’s desire.

When presented with a venue where people can access the content they want they will flock there.  They will even pay a fee, within reason to access that content.  Netflix is a prime example of how it can work, and how it can fail.  Netflix provides digital streaming access to movies for a nominal, per month fee (about $8.00).  They were able to get a great big bunch of content through a partnership with the Starz cable network.  However, in September Starz and Netflix announced that they were going to part ways, and that means that the Netflix catalog is going to drastically drop in scope.  Now, the Atlantic ran an article back in July, before the Starz deal breaker was announced.  In it they claimed that content was not in fact king, and that it was the service that people wanted from a highly trusted brand.  Well, when you squander your brand capital on splitting your services (then not doing so) and then you lose a bunch of content… Well, that’s going to lead users down the road to search for other methods to meet their demands.  When a distribution channel like that dries up, it leaves people in the lurch.

The same thing that’s happening to Netflix with movies is happening to libraries with eBooks.

Recently library land has been all up in arms about eBooks, and how publishers are looking to crack down even further on what libraries are allowed to have in eBooks, and continually scaling back what they’re willing to give.  The first big fiasco was Harper-Collins, who decided to put in a a DRM bomb that would make their ebooks automatically delete from the library’s collection after 26 uses.  Most recently Penguin has decided to pull its content out of Overdrive, a library ebook lending service, because of a dispute that they’re having with Amazon.  This decision was reversed yesterday, thank goodness, but this illustrates the kind of bottlenecking that I’m talking about.  These are two separate parties, whose dispute led to having the content, which is legitimately purchased by libraries, to be removed without warning.  Libraries no longer actually own the materials that we purchase, it’s just access, subject to termination at will.  And that’s an environment that content users, who want to get materials, and try new things out, are not going to be willing to tolerate for very long.  eBooks are in an infancy period, and with usage growing, problems like this can and will probably lead to pirating of digital books.

Pirated comic books have been a major problem for a while, but again they’re a problem of timeliness in the distribution chain.  Specifically there have arisen a number of fan translation sites, where they scan Japanese manga and translate the text into English before the publisher releases an English edition.  This process with the publisher takes a long time, because they want to do it well.  The fans however are willing to take right now over done right.  A friend of mine who just attended an anime convention was complaining about folks who had just watched something that they had torrented online.  Something not yet available in English, and not available in Japanese with official subtitles.  These kids saw the film with a fan subtitle, just because everyone they know had been talking about online and anticipating the release.

In today’s culture, media of every type can be delivered instantly.  When a publisher tells a consumer that they have to wait, or they have to buy the DVD, or the need to go through this complicated series of applications to download the legitimate version of a thing it just stonewalls the consumer.  Piracy is a symptom of a failure of industry to meet consumer demands for online access to content.  So, rather than legislating to crack down on piracy, which is directly attacking the consumer who desperately wants a product, we need to instead invest in changing the culture of the suppliers.

And now for some unsolicited advice to publishers.  Here are some handy guideposts to how a company could change their practices for online content distribution, that would be positive for users, positive for business, and create a better culture on the internet.

  • Stop attacking your consumers

Nothing turns people off from buying your products like a million dollar lawsuit.  Stop suing people for ridiculous sums of money because you already have billions of dollars.  Clearly, you can afford an army of lawyers and these people often cannot.  Its greedy and creates a poor image of industry.  Stop pursuing further methods of legal action to crack down on piracy, because you are the one who isn’t adapting.

  • Provide services where users can demo an item, sample it, and then choose to purchase it or not.

This is what happens with Spotify.  You can listen to an unlimited amount of music, and chances are, you’ll buy some of it if you like it.  And then you’ll listen to it again, and again. Sample chapters of an ebook may lead to reading the whole book or purchasing a copy of the physical book.  It’s called browsing.  People do it every day.

  • Create timely distribution of content online, simultaneous with physical releases.

One of the major reasons why things get pirated is that the legitimate distribution services have a delay from the time of broadcast or release dates.  A user can watch something on television, but it takes a day for it to hit Hulu.  There’s no need for that.  It shouldn’t matter if you’re watching it on TV or online, it’s a broadcast.  If a DVD drops, there should be streaming and downloadable copies on the same day.  No question about it.

  • Global releases should be simultaneous.

Another reason why things get pirated is that they may be released in one country first, and then users in another country have to wait from a day, a week, or up to months before it could ever see the light of day somewhere else.  The internet as a distribution channel means that everyone is waiting for that comic to hit the shelf, or that television show to air.  Consumers, and rabid fans especially, are savvy to time zones.  People will wait up to 4:00 a.m to watch a television show in a foreign country.  World Cup anyone?

  • Once it’s out, it’s out.  Make your complete backlist fully available.

As it was in the British Film example, people go looking for what they can’t find through normal distribution channels.  Many of those things are older titles and things that have gone “out of print.”  There is no longer such a thing as “out of print.”  Once something has been published, it is made a part of a permanent body of human work.  You can’t stifle the movement of that item, nor should you.  Take advantage of people’s desire for hard to find items and make your entire body of work available digitally.  If there is a legitimate means to acquire it, people will do so.

  • Simplify the access method

Make the item readable or viewable through software that comports to generally accepted industry standards.  You don’t need to slap a ton of DRM on something, or use some unique proprietary software when you’re making it as widely available and purchasable as possible.  Let your audience buy your product through as many different venues as possible, and on any device they want.  Also, if at all possible to make that content available in multiple devices at once all the better.

  • Set reasonable price points

Users are willing to pay, but not extortionate prices.  Reasonable cost for the product in a timely fashion will lead to sales.  Overly high prices will push users away.  You’re in business, you should know that already.

  • Encourage distribution partners

Don’t quash partnerships that close off distribution channels.  When you pull service from a place it makes the consumers angry.  Instead find multiple venues to promote and sell your product and people will buy it where they go normally.

  • Let your items go

With movies, music and books end this practice of licensing content for use.  It’s a product, people buy it, or they don’t.  It’s not an ongoing service. Once a consumer has purchased an item, the producer/publisher needs to get out of the picture.  Your continual involvement in the product is more than an annoyance, and has crossed over into the realm of mind games.  Will it still be around? Will I know if its deleted?  Do I have to buy it again and again?  Just stop that.  It’s like psychological torture.  Let a person buy a book, and move on with life.  My purchase doesn’t need to be the focus of your life to follow what happens with these items.  It’s intrusive and disingenuous.  A sale of goods is a finite transaction.  Let it be.

  • Allow and promote sharing

People are social creatures, and we like to share things.  Not usually with the whole world at once, but often times with friends that we know in our daily lives.  When you make sharing easier, it spreads word of mouth about your products.  And that’s the strongest link to creating brand awareness, having a trusted friend recommend something.  I like sharing books with friends and I should be able to do that electronically as well as with a printed book.  It’s no different, and shouldn’t be treated as different.

* In Europe a major response to political involvement in digital content has arisen in the form of the Pirate Parties.  Their entire platform revolves around restructuring copyright and patent law.

Slow Your Roll

A friend of mine shared this link on his Facebook page to a Time commentary piece on the supposed uselessness of cursive writing.  As someone who has never properly mastered cursive handwriting, I can understand the frustration one has at trying to get all those loops and swirls together.  I had to sit down with a tray filled with salt and practice drawing the cursive letters out with my fingers over and over, because my handwriting was so poor.  I eventually gave up that struggle and found some homegrown midway point of block letters with occasional connectivity and some bizarre ligatures of my own design (my most common being an ng smashed together).  If there’s anything I have taken away from the salt tray in elementary school, it’s that cursive letters are awesome when creating unique gestures in your touch screen browser.

But this isn’t about my problems with cursive, this is a larger question about the value of handwriting in general.  The author is quick to dismiss physical handwriting for the expedience of the typewritten word.  True, the ability to write a tremendous amount in very little time is a huge selling point.  But what is lost in the quest for speed?

Memory retention.

Lifehacker, one of the prominent blogs about getting things done swifter, better, and often using technology to that end, back in January had a great writeup about why handwriting is better than typing.  They cite a number of studies that show how handwriting activates different parts of the brain than typing does and how students who took handwritten notes are more apt to perform better on exams.

One of the big scares that I heard years ago was that due to the prominence of the Pinyin transliteration system Chinese nationals were losing traditional writing skills.  If my recent trip to China is any evidence, there is no doubt that handwriting is alive and well, if not even more prominent than ever.  All of the students I spoke with had phones with a stylus to input characters, as did both of my American friends.  It’s just easier to do that than to try to use the keys to go through Romaji input to find the right character.  If anything, technology is making handwriting even more important.  Sure the PRC has simplified the character system but they’re not giving it up, and they’re not losing their handwriting skills.

But handwriting is only the beginning.

In an article in Psychology Today author Art Markman posits that the act of talking out loud also leads to memory retention.  I know that PT is not on the high list of credible sources, especially with their recent ridiculously racist screw-ups.  That said, I think there’s something here.  Speaking aloud is much slower than what one can think, and reading aloud from a page is substantially slower than reading solely in your head.

At the recent TEDxLibrariansTO conference I had the privilege of hearing researcher John Miedema talk about the importance of slow reading.   His thesis is that reading a text slowly leads to greater retention of the material and a greater comprehension of the content and context.  Among the comments he made were how poorly eBooks are suited to complex and dense material.  I couldn’t agree more.  While I blazed through Justin Cronin’s The Passage on my Kindle app for Android on my phone, I have yet to conquer James Gleick’s The Information  or Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants.  The content is just too difficult for me to really get via the eBook.

Part of the problem I have with reading these complex works on my phone, or even on my laptop, is that I’m missing an element.  Back in May I wrote, completely without any research to support my hypothesis, that the physical book is a memory aid in a number of ways.  eBooks are a new technology, one that is still rapidly evolving, and perhaps they will eventually find ways to simulate the memory aids of the physical book in the virtual environment.  Until then, I think I’m going to consciously make the choice to purchase physical copies of complex subject matter and leave the eBooks to novels only.

But am I supposed to ditch the digital and go back to pen and paper?  Not necessarily, in fact I think some folks are doing us one better.  In the sphere of handwriting I feel there is some progress for the person looking for the longhand simulacrum.  LiveScribe is awesome, because it is so comprehensive in its approach.  It is not only a pen, but an audio recorder, and it uploads to the internet or a desktop client for digital search capabilities.  It is engaging the brain in at least three different ways, and all of them together create an amazing package as a memory aid.  On the other side of this is NoteSlate, which at this point is still kind of vaporware, but a brilliant idea.  It’s sole function is as a handwriting tablet, from which you can upload your work online.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about convergence devices, which is why I love my Android phone, and if Steve Jobs wasn’t so anti-stylus I would be all about an iPad for its multi-functionality. But I’ll take a $99 NoteSlate, if and when it exists. If only for meetings.

Romance Novels and DRM

There is a kickass article in this month’s issue of Fast Company on Harlequin eBook impresario Angela James.  There are two things in this article that are awesome (apart from the fact that eBook romance is awesome anyway).  The first was the quote from Harlequin’s Executive Vice-President for digital books Brent Lewis.

It’s not surprising that Harlequin would get there first. After all, the company pioneered mail-order as well as drugstore and supermarket book distribution. “Wherever women are, however women want to read,” is how Brent Lewis, executive vice president for digital, puts it. Online and direct-to-consumer sales (to readers on Harlequin’s website) weren’t major jumps.

Emphasis mine.  This motto broadly applied to all readers is something that Libraries are just finally starting to understand.  With the Contra-Costa County Library and their book vending machines, libraries putting QR codes in the wild on city buses, and just generally making eBook downloads available via mobile apps and eReaders with Wi-Fi or 3-4G connections is just starting to get there.  This also speaks to the value of embedded librarians out in the world outside of the reference desk environment, connecting with users via social media and active chat clients and, being able to provide library service however it is our public needs it.

The second critical point here is regarding the sale of eBooks with DRM and without.

Carina’s biggest departure from other major publishers — including its owner — is that its books are sold without digital rights management, the technology embedded in many electronic media to thwart pirates. Spooked by what happened to the music industry, most book publishers have embraced this set of access controls, but readers chafe at it. On AllRomance.com, DRM titles comprise half of inventory but only 4% of sales in 2010, says chief operating officer Lori James. (All books purchased on the Nook have DRM, no matter the publisher’s policy.)

“Our theory is that it doesn’t prevent piracy because any pirate can strip DRM in about 30 seconds,” says James. “DRM instead inhibits casual sharing, an important part of the reading process — and the purchasing process.”


Look at that.  Sales are showing, hands down that people are choosing non-DRM protected titles the vast majority of the time.  96% of sales.  How can you argue with numbers like that?  Seriously.  They also clearly understand how women read and share romance novels.  I can tell you from the days when I watched my mother, aunts and friends in their romance novel reading heydays, that they would get grocery bag loads full of books, swap them back and forth among each other and tell each other which ones were good and which ones were bad, which had steamy scenes and which were sweet.  It is a vigorously social reader behavior that DRM restricted eBooks would change, for the worse.  Also, these women who read Romance novels read them in volume, and the price point and publishing rate needs to support that.  And this woman is making it happen.  Kudos to you Angela James for understanding how romance novel readers read and share, and pushing a business model that supports that rather than hinders it.  Awesome.

The Library’s Future

Note: This was originally published on my LiveJournal and in the blitz of cross posting content over to WordPress I neglected to bring this over.  So I have backdated it to precede the post entitled TEDxLibrariansTO, because the content from this article is referenced in there. –ESR

The Library in America is in a state of evolution, and has been for decades, but more so now than ever.  The role of the library is the same as it has always been, to provide access to information and entertainment resources to the public.  But how that happens has been evolving and rapidly as a result of the internet.  Right now libraries across the country are in this very bizarre situation of having massive increases in usage and dwindling budgets.  That increase in usage stems from the volume of digital media that our society is pumping out, and people’s ability to access the online world.  This is not only changing the way we do our jobs at the library, but the services that we need to provide to the public.  In order to meet that challenge Libraries need to have the foresight to adapt or be considered superfluous to a municipality’s budget.  It’s that serious.

The American Library Association Office of Information Technology Policy released a policy brief for libraries entitled Confronting the Future: Strategic visions for the public library.  It identifies four spectra that every library needs to consider when in the process of strategic planning.  They are as follows:

Physical Libraries – Virtual Libraries
Individual Libraries – Community Libraries
Collection Libraries – Creation Libraries
Portal Libraries – Archive Libraries

All of these are a continuum between two extremes.  I can’t imagine a single library in the country, or any other country, that is wholly one side or the other on any of these continua.  We all fall somewhere in the middle to one side or the other.  But I think the trend lines for each of these has serious consequences in terms of what we do as a profession.  And the implication of this policy briefing, whether they explicitly stated it or not, is that most all libraries are moving to some degree from the left to the right of these spectra.  It’s a slow process, but this is really the vision of the future.  Take it as you will.

I believe that much of the work that I’m doing in the library is in keeping with this vision of the future.  So here’s a chunk of what I believe needs to be done.  These are kind of a list of ultimatums, but I think that they are critical issues that need speedier resolution than more people would imagine.  This is what’s happening NOW, and needs to be done NOW.

We need to train or fire tech-deficient librarians.  Period.

I hate to be harsh, but you cannot be useful to anyone if you cannot operate a computer at a level to help someone do the basic things that we need to do every day.  Everyone from the lowest paid cashier at the grocery store to the upper level management of the federal government require to post their resumes and job applications online.  If you can’t sit down and walk someone through a web form, and be able to on the spot diagnose problems with the computer hardware and software, then you are not serving our patrons.  But we’re not just talking about simple users; we’re also talking about complex user situations: using various forms of hardware (phones, game consoles, ebook readers, music players) in conjunction with a computer.  You’ve got to be able to explain all of that, and walk someone through the complex issues surrounding creating and modifying content for use online.  The folks who developed the 23 things are awesome, and I praise them for the work that they did.  But it is no longer just fun, or optional.  This is our world, and to not know these things is to be functionally illiterate.  I would go so far as to say that librarians should be required to have continuing education credits in order to maintain their professional standing.  Numerous other professions require it, and we should too.

The Digital Divide is Getting Worse, We Can’t Forget That

We’ve nearly stopped using the phrase “digital divide” in our daily conversations, but the reality is that it is even more problematic than ever.  As libraries make crucial budget decisions between purchasing physical and digital copies of books we are making decisions about which class of people can access this content.  This means that we are making class decisions about who can read something and who can’t.  Unless the library begins purchasing eReaders for people then there is no way that we can make this an equitable situation.  This is why we can’t move to a wholly virtual library any time soon.  Even if we were to give people the opportunity to load this content on public computers, the time spent on them is limited because computers themselves are limited resources that are valuable pieces of real estate.  Yes, more people have access to computers than before, but not necessarily high speed internet access.  So their ability to interact with the online world is limited even more.  Perhaps if we were able to combine this with print on demand then we could bridge the divide a little more concretely, but under current copyright law we’d be going to jail for that.  But don’t get me started on DMCA.

People Want to Connect and Play

People still crave company, and in today’s socially networked world, there is still a desire to see people face to face.  Lots of people talk about the “third place” that is neither home nor work where people can connect or disconnect as they wish.  The Library is one of those places.  However, what people are looking for is changing as well.  Sure there are people who are interested in learning how to use computers, but that’s not the heart of what people are looking for.  Entertainment outside of the mainstream is where it’s at, and probably where it’s going to stay. There are plenty of places that people can go and read, but there are fewer places where people can go and learn how to salsa dance, or knit, or write a novel, or learn about local history.  People are increasingly interested in niche things, and the library has always been a place to explore obscure ideas.  It is also becoming a place to explore those things with other people.  They need a place to experiment and play with things socially.

People Want to Contribute, and We Should Let Them

If Wikipedia has taught us anything it’s that people love to contribute to things.  There are 14.8 million Wikipedia users and 3.6 million articles.  It is the largest encyclopedia that has ever been created in history.  Wikipedia proves that people love sharing their information and their wisdom with other people, and they will do it for free, without hesitation.  Hell, they may even donate millions of dollars to support it!  People are posting millions of tweets a day.  People are sharing articles and photos on Facebook by the billions.  I don’t understand why so many libraries are resistant to the simplest things like allowing people to comment on their blogs or contribute reviews to the catalog.  By allowing users to add content to the library’s site and catalog gives them a sense of belonging more than ever.  They are a part of various online communities already. This increases the library’s value to the community and guarantees that when the choice for funding comes up that they will say absolutely yes.  We also need to realize that we don’t know everything.  There is a body of knowledge out there that is only available via crowdsourcing and to ignore it keeps us in the dark.

Libraries Need to Provide Value Added Content

There are zillions of content providers out there, but none of them have the kinds of resources that we have to provide perspective on the world we live in.  Our staff are content experts of various stripes, and we all know it.  Every library has a website, and that website needs to push content out to the world.  Through our own value added content we can promote the materials in the collection, shed light on little known resources, dredge up amazing bits of history and all without the burden of being beholden to advertisers, corporations, or political partisanship.  The New York Public Library is going so far as to creating interactive apps showcasing library resources from archival collections that people can play with on the iPad.  This is only the beginning of what we can do with what we have at our disposal and the experts that we have on staff.

Libraries Need to Lead the Fight against EULAs and DRM on eBooks

Anyone who has ever worked in purchasing academic journals knows that publishing companies are ruthless, money grubbing bastards.  Academic journal companies continue to jack up prices, making journals unaffordable in volume, which limits access to information to only those institutions who can afford to pay the blood money required to keep them.  And then we have to turn around and pay for the content again in database form! Why are we still perpetuating this bullshit?  And now, on the brink of the eBook revolution we’re getting into these questions about how much we can control the use of eBooks with our patrons, thus limiting the “damage” to the publishers bottom line.  Harper-Collins decided to pull a slick move and limit their DRM on their eBooks to have them self-destruct after 26 uses.  Not to mention that during contract renewals prices are going up. Well, the Kansas State Librarian called bullshit on that and pulled their contract with Overdrive entirely.  We need more people who are willing to stand up against this kind of poor business behavior, and flip the script.  She’s now looking to get the eBooks onto a new service of her own.  The more that we allow other companies to control the content that we’re providing our users, the more they will extort us for money that we don’t have, and then we have to start cutting content.  We’ve been down that road before.  We need to control our own eBooks, just as we control our own physical books.

I’m sure that after tomorrow I’m going to walk away with about a dozen more things that we need to be doing.  I’ll make sure and let you know.

The Value of Content

The other day Faster Times posted an article from Oliver Miller about his time at AOL writing bullshit articles for their bullshit news, and the maddening pace at which they pump out crap.  I see nothing different between this and the crazy shit happening on Kindle with eBooks being used to spam people.  The content is itself useless, except as some vain attempt to drive traffic through advertising. Seth Godin shared his thoughts a few days ago about starving bullshit news people by not paying for crap content.

I don’t understand why people are playing at a losing game like that at all.  As content becomes less and less valued it just drives down the quality of the product and nobody will trust the content producer any more, thus perpetuating a downward spiral of their product.  I’m not an economist and I can tell you that.

As I was writing a few weeks ago, content value is being recalibrated these days.  The disconnect is between the vast overhead of the older content production systems and the new distribution model via the internet.  Older fatter companies are hemorrhaging money and don’t know how to staunch the flow.  The Atlantic had a great article about why Netflix is cleaning house and movie production companies are failing.  The simple factor is that Netflix understands how to capitalize on internet distribution, has an order of magnitude lower overhead than movie production and provides content at a price point that is damn near impossible to pass up.

News providers have been playing this game of advertising, sales price, and content for a long time.  We’ve also pushed ourselves beyond the realm of necessity for news as well.  We have multiple channels running 24 hours full of talking heads, there are thousands upon thousands of websites providing all sorts of news at the drop of a hat, many of them doing it because they feel passionately about it.  And that’s changing the news game.  There are people who are providing more valuable content than traditional news sources, and they’re providing it for free or next to free via targeted advertising.

The best story about embracing internet culture and making a successful go of it is The Atlantic.  Like most magazines that have been around for a while The Atlantic was losing money and losing subscribers.  But they turned it around and started to turn a profit for the first time in a LONG time.  And they have some of the best articles online.  They are high quality writing, not cranking out filler, and getting more and more people to read all the time.

Sure there is a tension between content development and sales.  But there are ways to make it work without being a spammer or a vapid click-through link wasteland.

Books and Spatial Memory

This week Seth Godin was extemporizing upon the state of libraries and where we’re going.  This got a lot of play in library land, and rightly so.  I very deeply agree with him on most everything he’s saying here.  Yes, we need to be involved in the act of content creation with people in a meaningful way. We should be the nexus of development that shares our people and their voices with the world.

There was also an article on BoingBoing where he was talking about the nature of books, and their purpose.  Again, I agree with him that eBooks are great for getting an idea out there, and that books themselves may become something akin to souvenirs.  I know that much of the reason why I maintain a personal collection is as a visual aid to the development of my own mind.  But there is something else going on in the use of the physical that the virtual has not been able to emulate successfully, and that is spatial reference.

The Three-Dimensional Nature of Books

When holding a physical book, codex, scroll, what have you.  Your mind is mapping this object.  You develop points of reference within the physical document that you retain when important elements come out at you.  One of the amazing things that we can do is remember within a book where a passage lies.  There is something about the spatial reference within the pages, the shape of the words on the page and the power of the words being conveyed to the reader that create these landmarks.And I’m not even talking about page numbering.  Numbers on pages are almost irrelevant in this context.  It’s things like the thickness of the book between the left and right hands, pages that are dogeared or marked, and how things like illustrations that break text create visual landmarks within a book.eBooks in contrast have little in the way of spatial reference, by their nature they are virtual constructions. They are the information of the book distilled into a multi-platform, personally adjustable format. Attempts have been made to create spatial references within eBooks, using percentages, creating “bookmark” spots, having little visual cues on the home screen showing how many dots you’ve read through in any given book. But, like pagination, none of these carries the same kind of spatial information that is gained from having a physical copy. We are given the general “feel” of flipping through pages in a virtual environment, but unless bookmarked or tabbed you can’t easily flip to a passage in a book without a finding aid like a search engine. The reader requires the mediation of the device to find what he is looking for, and those finding aids are only as good as the folks who develop them.

Multi-Sensory Engagement

Physical books engage our senses of touch, sight, smell, and if you chew the foil on a “Little Golden Book” you get the taste (one which I will personally never forget). Those trigger different parts of the brain, and create wildly different sensations. Different shapes and sizes and feelings are important to us developmentally.  Cover art is colorful and memorable. Looking at the spine of book one can instantly recall its content, if not its name. One of the most persistent reference questions is “I don’t remember the title, but it was about spies and it had a silver color and it was over there…”  Yes, I can usually answer those questions.  I walk this floor daily, and look at the content.  I know the books on the shelves to varying degrees based on the amount of buzz that things have gotten and the frequency with which I see it.

eBooks on the other hand are undifferentiated from each other.  They are just blank text files for the most part, and though eReaders themselves do have physical sensory input, there is no difference in the reading experience between War and Peace and the latest Danielle Steel novel.  Ostensibly they look, feel, smell and taste identical.  There is nothing to make these books special from each other, other than their content.  In the physical world you could differentiate between them from the cover art, the height, thickness, density of text on the page, etc.  In the virtual world everything looks and feels the same.  The content is the only difference.  I think this makes us less discriminating when we select eBooks, but then again that has given rise to successful authors like Amanda Hocking who never would have seen the light of day in print publishing world.

Mapping Collections of Books

Books on a shelf function in our brain in the same exact way as the physical book, especially when well organized. Librarians can zoom into an area they frequently use without having to check a catalog, not because the Dewey numbers say that’s where a book is, but because we have mapped the information content of the space in our minds.  Each shelf is combination of colors, shapes, thicknesses, words, ideas and the organizational method all working in tandem with each other.  It’s not just title and author.  It’s so much more than that.

When dealing with eBooks you’re dealing with a file structure, much like what you have on your desktop.  At this point, few people have massive collections of eBooks, such that they would need to differentiate between collections of them.  So most eReaders only have lists of titles that you’ve amassed in a big long string.  Usually in the reverse order in which you purchased it, or, God help us all, an alphabetical list.  Anyone who works in a shared drive with more than two people knows how quickly this becomes a mountain of useless content.  Just looking at file names tells you nothing about a document.  Especially if you have more than one of the same type of thing sitting on your hard drive.  Similar to searching within an eBook, you will need a finding aid to get to your books, again a mediated experience created by your eReader provider.

Some virtual systems have attempted to recreate the “looking at the” shelf experience, like Shelfari where you have a visual representation of the official cover art for your books.  Again, this just gives us the cover art, not the feel or touch or shape or size.  The fact that Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar is shown as the same height as Tom Clancy’s Dead or Alive doesn’t convey that Carle’s book is only about 40 pages where Clancy’s is like 500.  Sure you can tell from the cover art that one is a children’s book, but nothing else about it.

Browsing and Serendipity
Another feature that gets lost in the virtual world is serendipity.  While browsing a bookstore or library we wander, aimlessly through the shelves our senses taking in the variety of what’s going on around us.  But what we’re doing is we’re exploring, and very quickly at that, the visual and physical medium before us.  We begin with areas of familiarity and then take in what else may be happening in our surroundings.  We’ll process entire bookcases in a matter of seconds.  Titles we may have heard recently will leap out at us, and the other titles in the environment will start to seep into our subconscious mind.  And as we wander through those rows, we will encounter things that connect with our previous body of knowledge, our lingering interests, the topic we may have frequented as a child but have forgone for more serious matters, and they will draw us back in to explore anew.
The virtual world on the other hand is like browsing a catalog of our most recent purchases.  Amazon has some amazing things in its “people who bought this” algorithm.  Their suggestions are rarely outside of something I wouldn’t normally purchase.  But that’s the problem. Eli Pariser in his new book The Filter Bubble explores how these customized serendipity engines are leading us down a hole into a recursive loop.  We read what we read and this asks us if we want to read more and more of the same thing.  Unless you’re actively diversifying your book selections then you will only see the top sellers (an elite few at that) and those special recommendations for you.  It is an information oubliette.
Pure Information

This is where I feel this social conversation is going.  The eBook is a method for conveying pure information.  Its role is to be that method of data input for the human mind where we can experience something fleeting and move on to the next thing.  Surely we are building data repositories of eBooks that rival mankind’s wildest dreams.  We can do unbelievable amounts of cross-sectional informatics that were unthinkable just a few years ago.  There will come a time, in our lifetimes, when the entirety of written communication is going to be available online.  And It will be the most cacophanous mess anyone has ever seen.  Hell, it already is.  Just try searching for anything in the canon of English Literature. You’ll find at least 20 identical copies with tiny little variables in the text.  I dare you to go look for something that was brought up from the middle ages.  Chaucer, Shakespeare.  Yeah.  There’s a few hundred different copies.  If you’re a philologist it’s a goldmine, but if you’re just an average reader, it’s a dizzying array.
For numerous reasons, many of them enumerated above, I’m not one of those people who feel that the death of the book is imminent.  On the contrary.  I feel that eBooks are an addition to the world that are both remarkable and bland at the same time.  They cannot by their nature function within the human experience in the same way as a printed book.  But that’s okay.  They can deliver the pure content.  But there is a deeper experience with the physical world that they just cannot mimic.  We are creatures who exist in multiple dimensions and our brains are geared to work that way.  Maybe when we have hard light books, we’ll revisit this conversation.