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The Reading World

EFF seeking authors concerned about reading privacy

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is recruiting authors for a class action intervention in the Google Book Settlement, because the titles offered by Google under the agreement have no protections for the privacy of readers. This is a pressing concern, one the consequences of which were demonstrated by the recent Amazon Orwell debacle, which I discussed here. A book is or, rather, can be used to police the limits of citizens’ thought by linking reading of words with endorsement of the ideas those words represent. Here’s the nut of the EFF challenge:

The agreement has no protections in it for reader privacy or anonymity. None. Neither the Author’s Guild, the publishers nor Google has taken any steps in the context of this landmark agreement for the future of books, to ensure that the fundamental right of readers to privacy and anonymity of their reading habits are preserved. Our goal is to remedy that by asking Google and the others to enter into an enforceable agreement to implement those protections, or if that attempt fails, to ask the court to disapprove the settlement until it has sufficient protections for authors and their readers.

For years, the FBI and other national police forces in other nations have attempted to, and have, collected reading records from bookstores and libraries when seeking nonconformist and radical citizens. What we read becomes a brand of shame used by the police and government, as well as institutions like the church, to justify punishment. If Google’s book search and display technology creates a record of one’s personal reading, it can be subpoenaed. That represents a grave new threat to personal privacy and freedom of thought, for if we cannot explore ideas without becoming wed to them by police judgments of our reading, we can no longer safely explore controversies and decide for ourselves.

If you are a rights holder, consider joining the action.

UPDATE: Inside Google Books blog responded to the EFF call with a privacy-related posting. The Google privacy policy is inadequate in a variety of ways, because it allows Google to build very deep personal portfolios on which it builds ad-placement profiles for individuals. The posting is correct that a library terminal user would not be exposing any data, if they did not log into their own Google Books account, but the fact remains the service will constantly encourage logins in order to provide personalized services and access to one’s own library of books. The company’s data can also be subpoenaed by governments and, in some cases, Google has business agreements in place with governments limiting what information it may display and, conversely, it must be assumed, what information it must share with the government.

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Author & Publisher Strategies The Reading World

Pricing guru: “price cannibalization should be the least of a book publisher’s worries.”

Rafi Mohammed, a specialist in pricing, has an interesting posting at TheWrap about the reasoning behind the pricing of e-books. Well worth a read. A critical statement, one that points to changes needed in publisher thinking is Mohammed’s comment that “Since e-book sales were somewhat of an afterthought, in most book contracts today, authors receive a lower royalty for an e-book compared to a hardcover sale.”

E-books cannot be an afterthought. The publisher needs to be engaged with the author’s interests, as well. If more can be made from e-books, because the production and returns costs are so much lower, it is time that this new format and channel become the focus of profit-making decisions. Price the e-book to sell profitably, make deals with authors that move physical books based on actual demand, which can be impacted by the availability of e-book versions.

Typically, publishers and authors think of e-books as cannibalizing trade paper and hardcover books, but Mohammed points out that the resale of hardcover books, which does cannibalize sales, is not an issue with e-books. Therefore, you can price an e-book lower without diminishing sales. Instead, those early readers can become evangelists without simultaneously competing with new sales of the book.

I continue to believe that, once the e-book is established, a wide range of prices will be acceptable, based on the audience for information and the services that can be embedded in books that raise their value to readers over time.

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Book and Reading News

Amazon strikes UofMichigan reprints deal

Amazon’s BookSurge print-on-demand (POD) service has agreed to make up to 400,000 out-of-copyright titles in the University of Michigan library system available for sale as reprinted POD books.

“This agreement means that titles that have been generally unavailable for a century or more will be able to go back into print, one copy at a time,” Paul N. Courant, U-M librarian and dean of libraries said in a statement. Books will be produced in softcover and delivered directly to buyers by BookSurge. Interestingly, books scanned as part of the library’s Google Book partnership will be made available through the Amazon service—the “war” anticipated by so many is merely an early skirmish to establish the terms of partnership in different fulfillment settings, if you ask me.

This is a phenomenally interesting announcement, since it anticipates a completely new market for out-of-copyright books and, potentially, library revenues. POD systems are, as I’ve explained elsewhere, more likely to be offsite services that fulfill orders than to be located at bookstores or libraries. The economics and the practicality of serving more than a few customers an hour in high-demand times make this clear.

With a library of 400,000 books, the typical sales for any given title will be ones and twos a year, but could, as U of Michigan director of scholarly publishing Maria Bonn said in the press release, reach 100 copies for “bestsellers.” The prospect of so many older books being available again makes my bibliophilic skin tingle and shows that digitization is also a path to increased paper-based reading.

UPDATE: In related news, Harvard University Press seems to be headed toward distributing e-books on Scribd.

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Book and Reading News

Plastic Logic e-reader will feature AT&T 3G

AT&T will provide broadband connectivity to the Plastic Logic e-reader, the companies announced today. Details about the way customers will pay for broadband service, however, were not announced. In the past week, Plastic Logic has filled out key components of its ecosystem, announcing that Barnes & Noble’s e-bookstore will be the exclusive seller of books to the Plastic Logic device (though it will support books acquired in other channels, the BN.com store will be the built-in source of e-books) and this alliance with AT&T, which is also the provider of data voice and data services for Apple’s iPhone.

This is s win for AT&T as much as for Plastic Logic, as Sprint and Verizon had also been discussed as potential broadband providers.

Plastic Logic’s device is being pitched as a business tool that has the benefit of providing e-book, newspaper and magazine subscription access. That’s a very different point of entry than the Amazon Kindle, which has come to market as a pure “consumer device” designed for the typical reader. It suggest the device will be priced higher than the Kindle when fully configured, but the low-end configuration will probably come to market at or below the Kindle 2’s price.

Since the Plastic Logic device also features Wi-Fi connectivity, it could be the case that 3G service will be available only on a monthly subscription basis through AT&T, similar to the iPhone data plan. If that is the case, and I get the strong feeling it is as I look at the positioning of the Plastic Logic device, then we can probably expect wide-area 3G networking to be a checklist item among the upgrades available for a monthly fee discounted to unlimited AT&T data service for the PC (which costs about $70 a month on average). The iPhone data plan, which is $30, is the likely model.

The question is, how much data will the Plastic Logic device be using on a typical day. If most subscriptions are fulfilled over Wi-Fi when the device is charging, wide-area service would be trivially inexpensive—unless the device is more oriented toward Web surfing than currently described. A Plastic Logic data plan could be less than the iPhone plan.

A Plastic Logic spokeswoman said details of wireless pricing will be released closer to the early 2o1o launch date.

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Book and Reading News

Barnes & Noble moves, embracing Google and Plastic Logic

barnes-noble-e-books-oBarnes & Noble, which introduced its iPhone e-reader back on June 29, launched a vastly expanded e-book store today. The announcement of the “world’s largest bookstore” is actually a combination of several existing catalogs, Barnes & Noble’s previous e-book listings, the ereader.com site and the Google Book Search catalog for a total of 700,000 titles, which may be read on iPhones, Blackberry, PC and Mac client software.

The application, largely a re-skinned version of the Fictionwise e-reader application it acquired, is useful (the user agreement references the ereader.com site as the source of user support). BN.com will store books for repeated downloads. There is no information about limits on simultaneous devices or download limits on the site.

The big news is that Plastic Logic has signed on to link its e-reader device that will ship in early 2010 to the BN.com bookstore, a relationship that BN executives described as “exclusive” during a conference call. This means we can probably expect format conflicts between Kindle and Plastic Logic. Oddly, there was no comment from Plastic Logic about this partnership, which draws a significant battle line in the e-book market.

While B&N has endorsed the $9.99 price point for frontlist titles and bestsellers, the store features books ranging in price from a dollar (including many $4.99 books from Barnes & Noble’s imprint, which has specialized in cheap editions of classic literature) to much more expensive e-books discounted from the hardcover or trade paper price, but well above $9.99. Flexibility in pricing will likely be one of B&N’s competitive strategies with publishers.

DRM is prominent in the application. The manual deals immediately with how to enter an “unlock code” for DRM’d titles.

Usability note about the app on most platforms (iPhone version pictured at right): Once installed, the application displays the title page of the user manual, but doesn’t explain it is a user manual or provide any navigation cues. They should fix that. It would be better if the first thing the app displayed was an “add books” dialog that walked the user right a reading experience of their own choice. Manuals, even good ones, are so 1990s. If your app isn’t intuitive, it needs more work. The PC version of the application opens to the user’s library, which is prepopulated with Last of the Mohicans, Sense and Sensibility, Merriam-Webster’s Pocket Dictionary, Dracula, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice and the user manual.

Strange bargain alert: Windows PC users who download and install the B&N e-reader app get six e-books (all pre-selected by BN.com-described above) free, but the offer apparently isn’t available for Mac users.

In the irony department, the fact that Chris Anderson’s book, Free, which is free on Amazon and Google Books, doesn’t appear in the B&N e-books search suggests that while the site is operating it is not being actively managed with the care one would expect. Either that or it’s a judgment by Hyperion, Anderson’s publisher, that B&N’s store won’t have a material impact on one of its important titles of the season.

There’s no way of telling whether BN will get great traction with the e-book initiative unveiled today. We know free reader applications get a novelty bump in downloads, sales from those downloads aren’t guaranteed. BN may benefit from launching the first business day after Amazon bungled the Kindle 1984 “refund,” but was anyone really waiting for another e-reader before jumping into this kind of reading? No.

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Book and Reading News

DRM isn’t dead, it is always regrouping

Several triumphal postings that the RIAA has declared DRM “dead” have been proved wrong. It turns out the Recording Industry Association of America’s spokesperson was not speaking emphatically, but ironically, in reply to a question, “DRM is dead, isn’t it?” The anti-DRM crowd rushed to affirm the truth of the statement, but, unfortunately, DRM isn’t dead. It’s regrouping. The simple fact is that most people, when offered a convenient form of playback with lock-in at the device level, so that they see playback on a particular device as a benefit, are perfectly content to have DRM content.

iTunes continues to encrypt movies and many songs, for example. Amazon’s movie and TV downloads are locked to an application for untethered playback but can be streamed in a browser, making it’s DRM a compromise that splits the difference for most buyers—Mac, Linux and smartphone users can’t play an Amazon movie when disconnected from the store, but the Windows crowd is happy. Amazon’s Kindle is a DRM system that interoperates with its e-books, as are various applications running on the iPhone. DRM is everywhere, often presented as a compatibility benefit rather than a anti-copying system.

I am not arguing for DRM, so please don’t assail me for doing so. The point is that when anti-DRM activists crow about the RIAA’s slowly having learned that treating customers like criminals is a “victory” for open access, they create the impression customers no longer need to ask the question, “Will this play on any device?” In the book world, DRM is so deeply engrained that it is likely most of the e-books sold in the next five years will become inaccessible due to changes in devices and supported formats, DRM being just one of several factors that will change as the market matures.

Compatibility, particularly forward compatibility, should be the key benefit sold to readers. If you are going to sell an e-book today, make sure you are prepared to make it work on future platforms or be prepared for customers to drop your brand and books like hot rocks when they learn others do provide forward compatibility. The easiest way to ensure that compatibility today is to avoid using DRM. Enough said.

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Author & Publisher Strategies The Reading World

PW to host Google Settlement webinar

I’ll be listening in when Publishers Weekly‘s Jim Milliot, AAP board members Richard Sarnoff (Bertelsmann) and John Sargeant (MacMillan), and the Authors Guild talk turkey about the Google Books Settlement on July 29 at 2 PM Eastern time. The conference call will be held online, you can sign up here.

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Author & Publisher Strategies Book and Reading News

Challenge to Chris Anderson: Put some substance behind “Free”

Chris Anderson posts over at the Inside Google Books blog about his decision, along with publisher Hyperion, to give away free copies of his new book, Free. He suggests that selling hardcover and paperback copies will be helped by his promotional use of free copies, and that may very well be. He reports the book will hit the New York Times Bestseller list at #11 this week, which suggests that some physical copies are selling, too.

Okay,that sounds good, but it is necessary to back the argument up with hard facts, which I found the book did not provide, but the book’s sales could. I challenge Chris and Hyperion to release a full accounting of the book’s budget and resulting sales, as well as Anderson’s indirect earnings from the book, so that all of us who have read Free with interest and some skepticism can see for ourselves the financial results of this grand experiment. If the free Free release is not simply a marketing stunt, this disclosure should demonstrate that there is a profitable model and one that, when compared to Anderson’s earlier books, resulted in more sales revenue than when he was not giving away free digital copies.

One important point to echo from Chris’ post: He argues that everyone loves physical books and that they won’t go away, pointing to his own children’s love of the page. “My very digital kids feel the same way: they may never read a printed newspaper, but they love physical books as much as I did when I was their age.” My daughter has repeatedly told me she dislikes the Kindle compared to reading a book, because of her enjoyment of the tactile and visual pleasures of the page. I agree with Chris and his  kids and my daughter that paper books are here to stay. The question is whether digital books will augment the author’s ability to focus on writing new works rather than simply marketing and milking old ones.

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The Reading World

Amazon and Apophenia

TeleRead‘s Paul Biba has a useful critique of Amazon’s repeated poor handling of e-book and Kindle-related customer issues. I think, though, that he has gone from suggesting improvements to exercising the tendency people have toward apophenia. His conclusion that Amazon’s failure to staff its organization with publishing industry veterans is the cause of all these issues results from aggregating disparate events and imposing an overriding pattern to explain them. It’s not an accurate portrayal of Amazon’s organization. While few on the team have previous experience with e-books and e-readers few of those people exist (though Amazon hasn’t hired several legitimate e-book vets I know who have applied), the company’s problem is not that there is no publishing industry savvy on board.

However, the teams that run the Kindle business are split between the book sales side of the company, the book acquisition team and the Kindle development team. Contending perspectives and responsibilities that seem to be at cross-purposes sometimes result in the isolated and apparently boneheaded decisions Biba correctly identifies, all of which Amazon ultimately learns from and generally does not repeat.

Amazon could use some more experience with rapid innovation and publishing generally, but that’s the same challenge faced by every company that has stepped into a yawning chasm of opportunity to find early success.

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The Reading World

Making a paper book e-lectric: Selected great histories of the book

Bill Hill, who has been part of the digital publishing world for decades now, tells about his reading of Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, one of the definitive texts about the evolution of books. Throughout his studious reading, he turned to his computer to find more information:

In other words, my printed book became an interactive multimedia experience which was far bigger and richer than the original. It took me a lot longer to read – but it made the book come to life, and I learned a lot more.

This raises some interesting questions. For instance, I would have liked to have had Eisenstein as an eBook on my Kindle. It’s such a heavy, awkward monster to handle – especially when reading in bed.

However, on Kindle as it is today, that would have made for a much poorer experience – no Web browsing for links… And I’d have hated to see the mess that Kindle’s small screen and poor graphics would have made of the title page of De Fabrica…

Not only the small pages, but the lack of citable references within the book (word location is relative) and the poor graphics, among other features, would make the book less than it is in paper if forced into the Kindle. Yet, this is exactly what a great e-book will be, something that, while enclosed within the logical arrangement we call a “page” has pathways to deeper and contradictory studies, so that the book becomes an argument and extended discussion. Eisenstein’s challenge to traditional scholarship is vastly engaging and impressive, as Hill notes, but reading only within her perspective becomes, to paraphrase Albert Camus, a trip within the writer’s efforts to justify their limits.

Eisenstein’s book, particularly the two volume version, is excellent. Also consider these titles as must-reads for, combined with Eisenstein’s astute analysis, a fuller picture of the evolution of the book: