Archive for Distribution

The Season for Giving

“As my bishop would say, I’m livin’ because of my givin’.”
—Rev. Run

‘Tis the season for giving, and in the spirit of the season I’m giving away free downloads of The Late Age of Print.

Well, maybe “free” isn’t exactly the right word. The download will cost you a tweet, or a post on your Facebook wall. But hey—that’s a pretty reasonable price for something that took me more than five years to research, write, and publish, wouldn’t you agree?

I’m managing the release with a new social downloading system that I’m excited to tell you about. It’s called, appropriately enough, “Pay With a Tweet.” I discovered it via the 40kBooks blog, whose editors recently released a collection of their best interviews for 2012 (including, ahem, one with me) using the social payment system. I was really intrigued, and even more intrigued once I got it up and running here on this site.

A free, Creative Commons-licensed PDF of Late Age has been available since the physical book was published back in 2009. But truth be told, I grew somewhat frustrated by what I perceived to be the unevenness of the exchange. That’s why I’m so taken with the idea of paying for the book socially: you help me get the word out about the book, and in return you get a free digital copy. If you’re interested in giving back even more, you can also write a review of Late Age or like the book’s page on Facebook.

Of course, none of that should preclude you from buying a physical copy of the book. The paperback edition contains a new foreword that does not appear in the free e-edition, so if you want my most up-to-date thoughts about the late age of print, that’s where you’ll want to go.

Happy holidays, dear readers. Thanks for all of your support, this year and beyond. I’ll see you again in early 2013.


Ambivalently Scribd

You may remember back in March my announcing that The Late Age of Print was available on the document sharing site, Scribd. I was excited to see it there for many reasons, chief among them the Creative Commons license I’d negotiated with my publisher, Columbia University Press, which provides for the free circulation and transformation of the electronic edition of Late Age. The book’s presence on Scribd was, for me, evidence of the CC license really working. I was also excited by Scribd’s mobile features, which meant, at least in theory, that the e-book version of Late Age might enjoy some uptake on one or more of the popular e-reading systems I often write about here.

Lately, though, I’m beginning to feel less comfortable with the book’s presence there. Scribd has grown and transformed considerably since March, adding all sorts of features to make the site more sticky — things like commenting, social networking, an improved interface, and more. These I like, but there’s one new feature I’m not feeling: ads by Google. Here’s a screenshot from today, showing what The Late Age of Print looks like on Scribd.

Screenshot of Late Age on Scribd

Note the ad in the bottom-right portion of the screen for a book called, Aim High! 101 Tips for Teens, available on (Clearly, somebody at Google/Scribd needs to work on their cross-promotions.) You can subscribe to an ad-free version of Scribd for $2.99/month or $29.99/year.

Now, I’m not one of those people who believes that all advertising is evil. Some advertising I find quite helpful. Moreover, on feature-rich sites like Scribd (and in newspapers and magazines, on TV, etc.), it’s what subsidizes the cost of my own and others’ “free” experience.

Here’s the problem, though. The Creative Commons license under which the e-edition of Late Age was issued says this:

This PDF is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License, available at or by mail from Creative Commons, 171 Second St., Suite 300, San Francisco, CA 94105 U.S.A.

“Noncommercial” as defined in this license specifically excludes any sale of this work or any portion thereof for money, even if the sale does not result in a profit by the seller or if the sale is by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit or NGO.

I’m pretty sure the presence of advertising on Scribd violates the terms of the license, albeit in an indirect way. It’s not like Late Age is being sold there for money. However, it does provide a context or occasion for the selling of audience attention to advertisers, as well as the selling of an ad-free experience to potential readers. Either way, it would seem as though the book has become a prompt for commercial transactions.

As of today, the site has recorded close to 2,000 “reads” of Late Age (whatever that means), which would indicate that Scribd has managed to reach a small yet significant group of people by piggybacking on my book.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to do about this.

In software terms I’ve always considered the e-edition of Late Age to be more like shareware than freeware. That is, my publisher and I are comfortable with some folks free-riding provided that others — hopefully many others — go on to purchase the printed edition of the book. The e-edition is not, in other words, a total freebie. Columbia has invested significant time, money, and energy in producing the book, and if nothing else the Press deserves to recoup its investment. Me? I’m more interested in seeing the arguments and ideas spread, but not at the cost of Columbia losing money on the project.

In any case, the situation with advertising on Scribd raises all sorts of vexing questions about what counts as a “commercial” or “non-commercial” use of a book in the late age of print. This became clear to me after finishing Chris Kelty’s Two Bits: The Cultural Politics of Free Software (Duke U.P., 2008). Kelty discusses how changes in technology, law, and structures of power and authority have created a host of issues for people in and beyond the world of software to work through: can free software still be free if it’s built on top of commercial applications, even in part? can collectively-produced software be copyrighted, and if so, by whom? should a single person profit from the sale of software that others have helped to create? and so on.

Analogously, can the use of an e-book to lure eyeballs, and thus ad dollars, be considered “non-commercial?” What about using the volume to market an ad-free experience? More broadly, how do you define the scope of “non-commercial” once book content begins to migrate across diverse digital platforms? I don’t have good answers to any of these questions, although to the first two I intuitively want to say, “no.” Then again, I’m pretty sure we’re dealing with an issue that’s never presented itself in quite this way before, at least in the book world. Consequently, I’ll refrain from making any snap-judgments.

I will say, though, that I recently ported one of my wiki projects, Differences and Repetitions, from Wikidot to its own independent site after Wikidot became inundated with advertising. In general I’m not a fan of my work being used to sell lots of other, unrelated stuff, especially when there are more traditionally non-commercial options available for getting the work out.


Cory Doctorow on the E-book Price Wars

I’ve been within Cory Doctorow’s “orbit” for awhile now, mostly as a follower of his personal blog, Craphound, and his collective endeavor, BoingBoing.  Only recently have I begun reading his novels and published non-fiction works.  (Little Brother was my go-to for the first few weeks of my infant son’s life, when I couldn’t fall back to sleep after late-night feedings and diaper changes.)

Well, anyway, this video came to my attention as something that Late Age of Print readers might be interested in.  It’s a recording of a talk Doctorow recently gave at Bloomsbury, the UK publisher of the Harry Potter novels, in which he discusses the vexed matter of e-book pricing.

What I admire about Doctorow is the fact that he’s a successful print author as well as someone who’s unafraid to experiment with publishing’s longstanding economic and technological paradigms. It’s hardly a stretch to say that his success in print owes a great deal to his willingness to push the bounds online.  I should acknowledge, moreover, that the free, Creative Commons-licensed PDF of Late Age wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for him and others who are similarly committed to the belief that book publishing is at its best when it refuses to rest on its laurels.

Anyway, enjoy the video.  I’d be curious to hear how you would weigh in on his proposals.


Pirate Pedagogy

On February 10, 2010, a German court began what may well be the start of the book industry equivalent of the dismantling of Napster.

Earlier that month, six global publishing firms — John Wiley & Sons, McGraw-Hill, Macmillan, Reed Elsevier, Cengage Learning, and Pearson — filed suit against RapidShare, seeking an injunction against and damages from the file-sharing service for having violated the publishers’ copyrights.  At the center of the suit were 148 e-books that the publishers alleged had been uploaded to the site and subsequently distributed without compensation to the rights holders.  RapidShare, they claimed, had become a pirate vessel teeming with all sorts of illegal e-book booty.

The question I want to raise here is this: does it make sense at this particular juncture for book publishing to go the way of the music industry in chasing down websites that facilitate digital piracy?

I began pondering this question last week as I drove from Indiana to the University of Illinois, where I delivered a lecture at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.  The extended car travel gave me the chance to listen to the audiobook of Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price, which I’d downloaded gratis shortly after the book’s release last July.

I was deeply intrigued by Anderson’s discussion of Microsoft’s anti-piracy strategy in China, where the illegal trade in the company’s products reportedly runs rampant.  In the 1990s, Microsoft took a hard line against Chines software pirates — publicly, at least.  Behind the scenes, however, company executives secretly understood that while software piracy may hurt them financially in the short-term, it had the positive effect of locking the Chinese market into its proprietary platform over the long-term.  With China’s growing economic prosperity, Anderson reports, more and more people there have begun purchasing legitimate Microsoft products.  “Piracy created dependency and helped lower the cost of adoption when it mattered.”  In other words, it was piracy that significantly helped seed the ground for Microsoft’s present dominance in China.

Now, it seems to me that there’s a similar case to be made for e-book piracy.  A little over a year ago, the Guardian’s Bobbie Johnson offered a pro-piracy argument for e-books, suggesting that publishers will only move into the digital realm in earnest once they realize there’s sufficient piracy going on there.  Until they discover they need to control the e-book market, Johnson argues, there’s little incentive for them — and by extension, readers — to make the shift.

While I’m persuaded by Johnson’s thesis in principle, he doesn’t take it far enough.  I’ve already commented on his amnesia about printed book piracy, which over the years has fueled many e-book initiatives.  Now I realize there’s something else going on here, too.  Johnson claims that the music industry embraced digital downloading only after pirates dragged the industry kicking and screaming in that direction.  And where music publishing goes, says Johnson, so too book publishing must go.

The problem with this claim stems from the rather different material histories of sound recording and book publishing.  Wax cylinders, forty-fives, LPs, eight-tracks, cassette tapes, CDs, mini discs, digital audio tapes: the fact is that music formats have changed significantly — indeed, regularly — over the last 50 or 100 years. Music lovers have long understood that “music” is not equivalent to “format.”  Even before the introduction of digital music downloads, listeners were well disposed to format change.

The same isn’t true for books.  With the exception of relatively minor disturbances — chapbooks and paperbacks come most immediately to mind — bibliographic form hasn’t changed all that much since the introduction of the codex.  The result is that book readers are much less inclined to embrace format change, compared to their music-loving counterparts.  And this inertia is, in part, what has held up widespread e-book adoption.

All that brings us back to RapidShare.  What the presses who sued RapidShare don’t seem to understand is that if e-books do indeed represent the future of publishing, then you need to provide readers with significant incentive to embrace the change.  That’s exactly what RapidShare and other file-trading sites have been doing: educating would-be e-book consumers in the virtues of digital reading.

It isn’t stealing.  It’s pirate pedagogy.


A Big Week for Books (Week in Review)

I’ve been racking my brain for the last several days trying to figure out what to post next here on The Late Age of Print. The problem isn’t there there’s a lack of material to write about.  If anything, there’s almost too much of it.  And the fact that there is so much reveals one simple truth about books today: however much they may be changing, they’re hardly a moribund medium.

Consider, for example, Wednesday’s debate in the New York Times, Does the Brain Like E-books?”  The forum brought together writers and academics from a variety of disciplines (English, Child Development, Religious Studies, Neuroscience), asking them to weigh in on the question.  Most intriguing to me is Professor Alan Liu’s contribution, in which he distinguishes between “focal” and “peripheral” attention.  E-books, it seems, dispose readers toward the latter type of engagement.

In some ways the distinction Liu draws harkens back to the difference between “intensive” and “extensive” reading.  The intensive mode refers to the deep reading of a small amount of texts, often multiple times, while the extensive mode designates a more cursory type of engagement with a significantly larger amount of texts.  The claim among book historians is that the coming of print ushered in a new age of extensive reading, which in turn  set in motion a mindful, but ultimately thinner, relationship to books and other types of printed artifacts.  Could it be that in emphasizing “peripheral” attention,  e-books are not breaking with but rather carrying on the legacy ushered in by print?

Next, Fast Company reports from the Frankfurt Book Fair on Google’s latest big announcement.  The search engine giant (it seems silly to even call the company that anymore) will be launching an online e-book store called Google Editions, beginning in early 2010.  What’s great about the service is that the e-titles won’t be device-specific, as in those created for the Amazon Kindle.  The initial launch will include a half-million e-books, and presumably more will be added as the months and years go by.

I’m still trying to determine whether the the texts that Google will make available via Editions will include those that the company has scanned for its Google Books project.  If that’s the case, then talk about the privatization of a public resource — practically all of the volumes having been housed originally in public libraries!  And even if that’s not the case, isn’t it strange that the company will essentially be subsidizing its book scanning efforts by hocking electronic texts published by the very same outfits who are suing them for scanning?

Finally, we have an intriguing post from Nigel Beale over at Nota Bene Books: Authors Claim Google’s Ability to Track Readers Puts Privacy at Risk.”  Evidently the Electronic Frontier Foundation is contesting the proposed Google Book settlement, on the grounds that the search engine giant cannot protect the privacy of individuals who choose to read e-books through its burgeoning service.

I’ve been raising similar concerns recently in my speech about the Amazon Kindle. The device automatically archives detailed, even intimate, information about what and more importantly how people read on the Amazon server cloud.  This kind of information is subject not 4th Amendment/search warrant protections but can instead be subpoenaed by prosecutors who are anxious to dig up dirt on suspects.  The question I raise in the speech, and the question that also seems to emerge in the case of Google Books and the coming Editions service, is, what happens to a society when privacy is no longer the default setting for reading?

Whew.  What a week for books indeed!


Is the ISBN Still Necessary?

My inner distribution nerd was thrilled to discover (via José Afonso Furtado) Michael Carins’ recent reflections on the death of the international standard book number, or ISBN, over on his blog PersonaNondata.  The argument goes something like this.  Over the last several years there has been a noticeable movement away from the ISBN, particularly in the case of e-books.  Leading the way has been, which refuses to assign ISBNs to any of the Kindle books it sells.  With book digitization there has also tended to follow dis-aggregation, or the chopping up of books into smaller, component parts that can be sold separately.  How do you assign a single ISBN to what’s fast becoming an exploding whole?

Cairns clearly knows his stuff.  As a former President of Bowker, he was chin-deep in the trenches of the recent effort to rework the ISBN for the 21st century.  The result was the shift from a 10-digit to a 13-digit standard, which went into effect on January 1, 2007.  My question is this: is the ISBN still necessary?

Anyone who’s read The Late Age of Print will know that I do not ask this question lightly. I devote the better part of Chapter 3 to the ISBN’s history, and to tell you the truth, in the process of doing the research I developed something of a crush on this smart little product code.  Personally I’d be sad to see it go.  But as an historian of technology it seems clear that the ISBN has just about exhausted its usefulness.

It’s important to bear in mind what computing and online communications looked like when the ISBN was first conceived, back in the late 1960s.  Processing power was paltry by today’s standards.  Broadband was barely an inkling of an idea.  The ISBN was developed within the context of these technological constraints, as a concise and thus highly efficient way in which to convey extremely detailed information about the language, publisher, title, and edition of any given book.

Today computers are capable of processing much more complex data strings, which need not be limited to numerals or the occasional letter X.  Furthermore, broadband has resulted in much faster electronic communications and consequently obviates the need to “keep it simple” and to the point (Twitter notwithstanding).  In other words, the constraints under which the ISBN was created hardly apply today.

The ISBN was designed not only to facilitate “back-office” communications about books.  It was also designed to facilitate their distribution.  And in this respect Amazon’s move away from the ISBN with its Kindle editions is telling.  Time and again the company has shown that it, and only it, wants to control the distribution of Kindle books.  Indeed they are digitally rights managed so as to forestall their circulation beyond anyone besides the reader/customer/end-user/licensee (I’m not entirely sure what to call this person anymore).  Amazon is moving us away from an era of more or less unfettered book circulation, and its slow abandonment of the ISBN is a manifestation of this.

It’s also worth remembering that the ISBN grew up at a time when the book industry showed perhaps its sharpest division of labor.  There were authors, agents publishers, typesetters, printers, binders, distributors, booksellers, and certainly a whole host others all working in concert in disparate places on a single product.  Now consider Amazon. With Kindle the company effectively becomes an extension of the publisher, typesetter, printer, and binder, all while acting as book distributor and seller.  If Amazon has its way then we are likely to see a further breakdown in the book industry’s division of labor.  What’s the point of an industry Esperanto when centralization is fast becoming the order of the day?

Incidentally, this is precisely why the answer to my question, “Is the ISBN still necessary?” is still a “yes,” despite all that I have had to say about historical contexts and the like.  The ISBN was more than just a product code.  It was an accomplishment — a testament to an industry’s ability to achieve unity despite the pressures of competition, corporatization, and globalization.  Disturbingly, the waning of the ISBN signals the opposite trend: the growing hegemony of a single player who holds disproportionate sway over the industry as a whole.

with thanks to p.