E-book Future

by Tina Holmboe 1th of April 2012 (archive)

We Norwegians are a quaint lot at the best of times, and when the topic turns to e–books we become downright peculiar.

While the folks over in the US–of–A embrace their inner Amazon, we are hum’ing and haw’ing and in general dithering along at our own pace. For the most part, our ability to examine an issue from several angles, and then some, is an asset. This time it might lead us to lose the battle for our own cultural heritage.

Grandiose, isn’t it? Let’s have a look at the issue on a broader scale, taking what some call a «helicopter view» of the situation. There’s no conclusion to this piece, but hopefully it can clear some minds up. Mine, in particular.

First, a simple question.

Why E–books?

This one isn’t difficult — but the answer depends on the person in question. Even those, like me, who prefer paper can acknowledge that carrying textbooks or reference manuals is a lighter chore indeed when in electronic form.

People with vision problems will appreciate the fact that very nearly every e–book reader allow you to re–scale the text, or, indeed, listen to it read out loud by way of TTS (Text To Speech) mechanisms. One could even imagine Braille rendering with the proper haptic technology.

The avid traveller will no doubt be thrilled to learn she can suddenly carry all thirteen volumes of the Wheel of Time trilogy without having to pay extra for luggage.

A child in the poorer parts of the world, be it the US or Africa, can collect books — even free books — with access to nothing more than a cell phone and an Internet connection, and can easily take them along even under the most dire of circumstances, stored on SD cards or even in the cloud.

Censoring literature has never been harder. Burning a stack of SD cards are just not as impressive — and how the heck do you burn the backups? Take that, Culpeper County.1

Expats like myself are happy not to pay extra for half–way–around–the–world shipping, and if someone would be so kind as to release Azur as EPUB to replace my read–to–pieces copy I would be quite content to pay for that as well. Out of print books can gain new life with surprisingly little effort. My hat goes off to Projects Gutenberg and Runeberg equally.

Claim: Electronic books will grow in popularity, for a number of entirely subjective reasons, and the publishing industry has no choice but to accept it.

Now on to something more complex.

How?

The concept behind e–books is not at all complicated: an electronic text is printed onto a screen in page–sized chunks, and buttons or other mechanisms allow you to turn the visual pages.

Reality, however, is a little bit more tricky — for a variety of reasons. Each e–book, traditionally, is a file; the file is often a compressed archive of many more files.

Several formats exist; Wikipedia list 28 major forms, with several minor. Some are reflowable — as you change your screen– or font size the pages will «reflow», adapt to the new size. Some are fixed. Some allow for rich typography, some for only plain text, or even merely images of text.

Several devices exist for reading e–books — you can do so on your desktop computer, a mobile phone, a tablet, a laptop or even a dedicated «electronic ink» reader. Some devices support multiple formats; some only one, perhaps two.

We have one standard format — EPUB — and one defacto format — MOBI – today. Few readers support both. We have no standard devices, although here too Amazon comes close with the Kindle.2

Claim: Even in the future, a number of different reading devices will exist. Publishers and authors must consider using standard formats to target as many readers as possible.

Back home, in Norway, where this blogpost got inspired — we’ve experimented with various solutions. I’ll get back to Amazon later.

One is the traditional: log into your online e–book–store, select your book, pay for it, and download to your reading device.

Another is the Amazon–style, where the bookstore is your reading device; yet another offer solid–state SD cards that you can buy at gas–stations and supermarkets.

These days there’s much talk about «streaming» — a concept that so far is a technical conundrum held by a single company.

And, of course, there is «Bokskya», an attempt to build a «digital bookshelf» across a number of e–bookstores in Norway, and once described as «worse than nothing» by one reviewer.3

Claim: The more standardised the format, the more people will be able to read what you publish; the easier the bookstore, the more people will buy from it.

Why don’t Norwegian publishers push their ’wares through Amazon, you might ask? Well, opinions differ, but according to some reports they, the Big A, simply don’t allow — couched in the term «support» — books submitted entirely in Norwegian. Besides, there’s that pesky standard. When you start with a small audience, you don’t want to lock yourself into one format. In other words: you want a delivery system which is platform agnostic.

That isn’t to say there are no attempts worth the name in Norway; far from it. They often spring from small publishing houses and independent actors. That is not where the money and clout lay.

The world ain’t ever that easy.

Who publish?

Traditionally the Publisher was an important actor: it picked which books to publish, contracted authors, signed illustrators, hired editors, negotiated with booksellers, arranged ISBN numbers, and purchased printing time — among a myriad of other tasks. Some publishers had all these services in–house; some hired out. Most had a mix of skills, did good and bad deals, and acted as a go–between.

For better or for worse, the Publisher was for many years almost as important as the Author. This position meant the Publisher often made more money than the book creator; from time to time the latter lost all rights to his work, got no money, even had their creativity hijacked and altered.

At the same time most authors are middling illustrators, poor lawyers, half–baked printers, near–sighted editors and not very good with pastries and tea–carts. The Publisher, however maligned, had a solid place and an important role.

In the new, happy electronic world, however, there are no walls — so who need gates?

It is theoretically possible for any author to self–publish today. Each step of the process can be completed with free tools, and a separate deal agreed to with a distribution of e–books. More and more people try their hand at this.

And yet authors are specialists. They are good at writing. They excel at it — well, hopefully. Illustrations? Editing? Marketing? Typography?4 Perhaps not so much — and more importantly: the actual process of publishing will take time, no matter who does it.

Which bring us back to the fact that as part of the creation of a book, the publisher’s task is the same today as it always was: a middle–man between a number of specialists: the author, the illustrator, the editor … you get the drift.

Any author who does not wish to spend three years writing a book, followed by another couple of years trying to get all the little pieces assembled into the finished product, will likely want to hire a publisher.

And the Publisher cannot eat cake alone. They want paid. Perhaps the future finds single–person companies acting alone to deal with all the tedious details for an author, instead of the gargantuan publishing houses of today. And still they want to get paid — they have no choice, really. Their landlord wants his money. The bank want theirs. Taxes take a share, and that ruddy grocer down at the corner doesn’t give away bread.

Claim: A realistic estimate of publishing cost will show that in the majority of cases part of the price of a book will be fees of various kinds to gobetweeners.

By some odd fluke of nature, publishers can from time to time be right b’tards. More often than not this spring from the good intention called «copyright». When an author sign on with a publisher, the traditional method is for the former to be a subsidiary of the latter, and not, as one would expect, the latter be a consultant to the former. This create tricky situations, and tend towards less income for the author, as well as quite insane problems with rights.

I shall mostly pass over the interesting fact that Cabinet of Curiosities is the only Pendergast–novel not available in the Kindle format to European customers. At a guess the authors wouldn’t mind me buying it — if Preston or Child read this (yeah, RIGHT), do correct me if you’d rather I didn’t give you more money…;)

Jumping onto the self–publishing bandwagon must seem tempting after a number of fights over covers, content, rights and pricing.

Claim: The future will have room for more than one publishing concept, from the do–it–yourself type to the very traditional.

But, of course, it isn’t that easy either.

To protect their rights, publishers — more often than authors – insist on attaching DRM (Digital Rights Management) mechanisms to the books. Amazon’s version of MOBI — AZW — has their own type; EPUB is mostly protected by Adobe ADEPT. Each of these are trivial to remove, and in practice worthless. The howto is so easily found on the ’net that I’ll avoid describing the methods in detail.

Not all publishers do this, however — many small houses stay well away from DRM, as do some of the big’uns: O’Reilly, Black Library, Baen Books.

Claim: DRM will, sooner or later, be considered an archaic measure which didn’t work in practice and simply added cost and complexity.

Now onto the even more complicated.

The Politics

As I look at this from a European — a Scandinavian — perspective, I cannot ignore the politics involved.

Back home in Norway we view books, and by extension publishing, as a part of culture. With that follows a desire to somehow keep capitalism’s grubby fingers off of our literary heritage. The «somehow» is tempered by the knowledge that neither capitalism nor socialism function perfectly in a society with pesky humans, so we accept that publishers want money.

But we also want books to be part of us, so we have free libraries. They buy the books, of course; yet again we’re pragmatists.

Here it gets tricky. Norwegian isn’t a big language no matter which way you slice it; the market for books written in it even smaller. So, for various complicated reasons we practice a «fixed price» scheme.

With a «free price» scheme, the market are free to price a book as they wish. This leads to bestsellers — more often than not translated works — selling, well, best, and subsequently becoming a very hot commodity for not only bookstores, but supermarkets, gas stations and so forth — and they can sell them cheaper than the specialists.

More expensive books, often written in Norwegian to start with, perhaps with heavier topics, more dense prose, less easily accessible topics, sell less well. No surprise there at all.

They don’t sell at all at the supermarket. The fixed–price scheme is partially there to protect «high quality» literature; a discussion for a different time. Mostly it is there in an attempt to protect the width of literature.

It’s a philosophical riddle: if only those thing sell which people want to read, then only those things people want to read is written and published. And what’s the problem in that? From time to time it is important that people read things they don’t want — 1984 is such a classic example I need hardly mention it.

The riddle will likely never be solved, and opinions vary as to the effectiveness of the scheme.5

Claim: A majority of Norwegians will, in the future, wish for Norwegian authors and Norwegian publishing to still exist, not only for prose, but for other genres.

It gets better. In order to increase reading, VAT — normally 25% — is scrapped on books6. Except on e–books, since they are not what one traditionally call books. That has led to several discussions of what is, and isn’t, a book7.

To top it all up, the publishers own most of the bookstores in Norway. You just can’t make this up. Bose–Einstein is simple in comparison.

Claim: The politics surrounding culture and in particular publishing will be cleaned up. It has no other way to go, as it is far too complex and expensive in its current form.

Some will assert that the phenomenon of crowd–funding will save «narrow» books. This is not very likely, seeing as how the funding comes from a crowd — presumably a crowd that want to see a specific book written. That’s all well and good for drumming up support for Angels and Demons II: The Revenge, but would likely not go so well for Tuntematon Sotilas — The Next Generation. It is worth remembering that even a work which initially is thought a gamble may turn out to be highly popular — and important.

Claim: If a wide range of different types of publications is important to a culture, it cannot be entirely exposed to raw capitalism; conversely the publishing industry must have freedom to act in the market.

Now, then?

All of the above boil down into a cauldron of toil and trouble.

Several parties are involved — authors and other content creators, publishers and other distribution expert, readers, government officials, politicians and philosophers.

Most of them want different things, even if interest overlap. We, the readers, want good books. Preferably free. Publishers want money. The authors want money and recognition. Politicians want money — and occasionally politics. Philosophers wonder why.

And yet the topic isn’t a particular complex one. We’ve published literature since, oh, the bronze age or so; roughly 5,000 years. Throughout that time, the method of publishing has changed – from clay tablets to electronic files.

But the principle has not changed. There’s no reason to think it will. Some authors, and many publishers, fear piracy. It’s a realistic fear; copying has also likely happened since the first clay was baked.

So the question to be asked is not «will a book be pirated?». We can be pretty sure that it will, unless it is bordering on insanely obscure. DRM doesn’t work to prevent this, and some folks will torrent the book content just for the sheer hell of it.

The question to ask is rather «What are the consequences of such piracy?»

I’m mostly going to stay away from the inane comparison with music and movies. The day a regular book gets the same treatment as the latest Hollywood remake, or an author is given a motorcycle just to show up for a reading I’ll reconsider.8

Claim: The book biz is, when compared to the music and movie industries, decidedly non–glamorous.

Copying an e–book today is as easy as copying any other file on your computer. The reason is simplicity itself: in order to present the information to the reader, the content must be un–encrypted. What can be un–encrypted can be un–encrypted and copied.

There is absolutely no way that an electronic book can be sent to your reading device, and read by you, without it also be un–encrypted somewhere along the line. Once un–encrypted…. I need not repeat, I think.

Claim: The only, ONLY, way you can prevent someone from copying a book is by never, ever taking it out of your head and writing it down.

What happens, then, after you’ve spent weeks, months and years writing your book; after your publisher — be that yourself or not — have spent months getting everything just right, and the e–book is ready for download?

With a bit of luck it’ll get noticed in an increasingly fractured market. It’ll be bought at least once. And now I need your imagination. For your inner eye, study the scene: the stereotypical 16–year old boy in his parent’s basement who diligently buy and un–DRM the latest Henry Sienkiewicz thriller so that he can put it up as a torrent — for free.

Got that image fixed in your mind? Try this one: the friends who run around school and swap e–book readers with each other, so they can copy down the very latest biography of Jacobus Henricus van ’t Hoff.

Now attempt the experiment on really obscure authors — the Norwegian ones. Don’t get me wrong: authors from Norway are as good, if not better, than those from any other country you care to name, but there are only five million of us who read the language.

Claim: The complexity and wibbly–wobbly work so far achieved by publishers in Norway on the topic of e–books have caused more harm for authors, and, by proxy, the publishers themselves, than piracy could ever manage.

Book piracy is, overall, not particularly glamourous either. Write a book about quantum dots and you’ll neither sell nor have pirated millions of copies. Write the book in a language read by some 0.063 per cent of the Earth’s population, and you are far better off making sure they can all read it than making sure they can’t copy it.

Claim: The consequence of piracy is minor compared to the consequence of DRM, vendor lock–in, and user–unfriendly solutions.

The Ideal According to Me

Here, then, after scratching the surface — if that — of a topic far more complex than it looks, is my five–step plan for making it less so.

First make certain that a standard format is used. I recommend EPUB, preferably EPUB 2 as HTML 5 is such a frightful mess. One windmill at a time, however. The use of a standard format will ensure that as many people as possible can read what you write — and publish. EPUB give you good, reflowable content with fairly good typographical possibilities. It is very likely that you’ll also need MOBI, but conversion can be automated. When, as mentioned above, your target audience is small, aiming at a subset of it makes no sense what so ever. Not everyone have Kindle; not everyone think the iPad can be used for books.

Second, forget DRM. Yes, I know where you are coming from, and I too would frown mightily on my hitherto unpublished works being copied without compensation to thousands upon thousands of people. Not because I don’t want thousands upon thousands to read it, but because I too have invested something in what I write: effort. And money.

It is, however, time to accept one simple fact: DRM doesn’t work. It’s trivial to circumvent and 90% of your readers — that’s a guesstimate — will never know it is there, what it is for, and what it doesn’t do until they need to switch devices, at which point the DRM is gone in a point–and–click. It certainly doesn’t slow the pirates down. Cut costs, and cut annoyance.

Third, make it easy to buy. Keep in mind that a large number of people who may want to buy e–books may not want to buy a desktop machine just to sync their devices with aStore. Create good, accessible web shops. Why not put units in libraries? Technical solutions exist to deal with the security issues, and I’m sure the libraries won’t mind more people in the least.

Four, cut your prices. I am, to quote the Doctor, so very sorry, but while I agree and would happily pay today’s prices for Norwegian e–books, most people won’t. You need to streamline your production, stop using point–and–click tools on every single book, and place more money into the hands of authors, so they can afford to create further. This’ll cut into your profit, yes, but you don’t have the kind of market Amazon does.

Five — and this one go directly to the government — cut the blasted VAT. Yes, a book is a book by any other name, but e–books won’t magically go away. The reason for no VAT on books is to ensure people read. They’ll read e–books. Hamsun and Ibsen will be no less Hamsun and Ibsen in EPUB. It will cost us, but if reading is important to Norway, Norway can afford it.

In the future, I suspect, the number of bookstores will go down. The number of publishers will go up, but each will be smaller. Illustrators and editors will do more work as independent contractors, and rights management could cease to be regional. Authors will multiply, and the overall quality of that produced will take the same route as music and film.

And the P–book? It’ll keep going for a while yet.

References

Footnotes

1 As if censoring dictionaries was not bad enough, one lot wanted to get rid of Anne Frank: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/29/anne-frank-uncensored-dia_n_442093.html

2 On Amazon’s Kindle platform, the AZW file format is predominant. This e–book type is based on the older Mobipocket format, MOBI, and in general compatible with it.

3 As I have not myself tested it, I can neither agree nor disagree. See also http://nrkbeta.no/2011/04/05/bokskya-er-verre-enn-ingenting/

4 Oh, yes. Typography matter to electronic books too. If you are inclined to disagree, try removing every single piece of typography from this article and re–read it as one, huge, uninterrupted block of text. There you go.

5 The debate isn’t limited to Norway. See http://www.aftenposten.no/meninger/Fastpris-gir-ikke-mangfold-6790281.html#xtor=RSS-3 and http://www.dn.se/dnbok/dnbok-hem/fast-pris-delar-bok-sverige which both attempt to discuss the topic.

6 A discussion on the topic can be found at http://kulturpolitikk.no/2010/06/23/moms-pa-b%C3%B8ker/

7 A discussion by the Norwegian author’s association on the definition of «book» can be found at http://www.forfatterforeningen.no/v2/content/moms-tvinger-fram-definisjon-av-b%C3%B8ker

8 Not that I envy them much or anything, but somehow I doubt we’d ever see Shakespear(e) treated in quite this fashion — not even in Dr. Who — http://victorymotorcycles.se/index.php?id=5017