Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Is there a place for readers' collectives in the bright new world of eBooks?

The transition costs of migrating from the world of books-as-physical-artefacts-of-pulped-tree to the world of books-as-bitstreams are going to be non-trivial.

Current attempts to drive the change (and by implication apportion those costs to other parties) have largely been driven by publishers, distributors and resellers of physical books in combination with the e-commerce and electronics industries which make and market the physical eBook readers on which eBooks are largely read. The e-commerce and electronics industries appear to see traditional publishing as an industry full of lumbering giants unable to compete with the rapid pace of change in the electronics industry and the associated turbulence in business models, and have moved to poach market-share. By-and-large they've been very successful. Amazon and Apple have shipped millions of devices billed as 'eBook readers' and pretty much all best-selling books are available on one platform or another.

This top tier, however, is the easy stuff. It's not surprising that money can be made from the latest bodice-ripping page-turner, but most of the interesting reading and the majority of the units sold are outside the best-seller list, on the so-called 'long tail.'

There's a whole range of books that I'm interested in that don't appear to be on the business plan of any of the current eBook publishers, and I'll miss them if they're not converted:

  1. The back catalogue of local poetry. Almost nothing ever gets reprinted, even if the original has a tiny print run and the author goes on to have a wonderfully successful career. Some gets anthologised and a few authors are big enough to have a posthumous collected works, when their work is no longer cutting edge.
  2. Some fabulous theses. I'm thinking of things like:, and
  3. Lots of te reo Māori material (pick your local indigenous language if you're reading this outside New Zealand)
  4. Local writing by local authors.

Note that all of these are local content---no foreign mega-corporation is going to regard this as their home-turf. Getting these documents from the old world to the new is going to require a local program run by (read funded by) locals.

Would you pay for these things? I would, if it gave me what I wanted.

What is it that readers want?

We're all readers, of one kind or another, and we all want a different range of things, but I believe that what readers want / expect out of the digital transition is:

  1. To genuinely own books. Not to own them until they drop their eReader in the bath and lose everything. Not to own them until a company they've never heard of goes bust and turns off a DRM server they've never heard of. Not to own them until technology moves on and some new format is in use. To own them in a manner which enables them to use them for at least their entire lifetime. To own them in a manner that poses at least a question for their heirs.
  2. A choice of quality books. Quality in the broadest sense of the word. Choice in the broadest sense of the word. Universality is a pipe-dream, of course, but with releasing good books faster than I can read them.
  3. A quality recommendation service. We all have trusted sources of information about books: friends, acquaintances, librarians or reviewers that history have suggested have similar ideas as us about what a good read is.
  4. To get some credit for already having bought the book in pulp-of-murdered-tree work. Lots of us have collections of wood-pulp and like to maintain the illusion that in some way that makes us well read.
  5. Books bought to their attention based on whether they're worth reading, rather than what publishers have excess stock of. Since the concept of 'stock' largely vanishes with the transition from print to digital this shouldn't be too much of a problem.
  6. Confidentially for their reading habits. If you've never come across it, go and read the ALA's The Freedom to Read Statement

A not-for-profit readers' collective

It seems to me that the way to manage the transition from the old world to the new is as a not-for-profit readers' collective. By that I mean a subscription-funded system in which readers sign up for a range of works every year. The works are digitised by the collective (the expensive step, paid for up-front), distributed to the subscribers in open file formats such as ePub (very cheap via the internet) and kept in escrow for them (a tiny but perpetual cost, more on this later).

Authors, of course, need to pay their mortgage, and part of the digitisation would be obtaining the rights to the work. Authors of new work would be paid a 'reasonable' sum, based on their statue as authors (I have no idea what the current remuneration of authors is like, so I won't be specific). The collective would acquire (non-exclusive) the rights to digitise the work if not born digital, to edit it, distribute it to collective members and to sell it to non-members internationally (i.e. distribute it through 'conventional' digital book channels). In the case of sale to non-members through conventional digital book channels the author would get a cut. Sane and mutually beneficial deals could be worked out with libraries of various sizes.

Generally speaking, I'd anticipate the rights to digitise and distribute in-copyright but out-of-print poetry would would be fairly cheap; the rights to fabulous old university theses cheaper; and rights to out-of-copyright materials are, of course, free. The cost of rights to new novels / poetry would hugely depend on statue of the author and the quality of the work, which is where the collective would need to either employ a professional editor to make these calls or vote based on sample chapters / poems or some combination of the two. Costs of quality digitisation is non-trivial, but costs are much lower in bulk and dropping all the time. Depending on the platform in use, members of the collective might be recruited as proof-readers for OCR errors.

That leaves the question of how to fund the the escrow. The escrow system stores copies of all the books the collective has digitised for the future use of the collectives' members and is required to give efficacy to the promise that readers really own the books. By being held in escrow, the copies survive the collective going bankrupt, being wound up, or evolving into something completely different, but requires funding. The simplest method of obtaining funding would be to align the collective with another established consumer of local literature and have them underwrite the escrow, a university, major library, or similar.

The difference between a not-for-profit readers' collective and an academic press?

Of hundreds of years, major universities have had academic presses which publish quality content under the universities' auspices. The key difference between the not-for-profit readers' collective I am proposing and an academic press is that the collective would attempt to publish the unpublished and out-of-print books that the members wanted rather than aiming to meet some quality criterion. I acknowledge a popularist bias here, but it's the members who are paying the subscriptions.

Which links in the book chain do we want to cut out?

There are some links in the current book production chain which we need to keep, there are others wouldn't have a serious future in a not-for-profit. Certainly there is a role for judgement in which works to purchase with the collective's money. There is a role for editing, both large-scale and copy-editing. There is a role for illustrating works, be it cover images or icons. I don't believe there is a future for roles directly relating to the production, distribution, accounting for, sale, warehousing or pulping of physical books. There may be a role for the marketing books, depending on the business model (I'd like to think that most of the current marketing expense can be replaced by combination of author-driven promotion and word-of-month promotion, but I've been known to dream). Clearly there is an evolving techie role too.

The role not mentioned above that I'd must like to see cut, of course, is that of the multinational corporation as gatekeeper, holding all the copyrights and clipping tickets (and wings).