A “standard” assumes the features are already set

“Ultimately, the success or failure of the eBook and eBook reader market is going to depend on establishing a standard format,” writes Tony Bradley at PCWorld. He’s right to the degree that, once a format is ready to make reading on a digital device better, it must become a standard to ensure that readers can access the file on any device and that publishing involves managing as few formats as possible. But there is an assumption in the article that there is a viable format exists on which everyone should agree. We are very far from agreeing what an e-book is, except that, as a subset of that definition, it will display words on a page.

A first-generation standard will scratch only the surface of the problem, addressing the problem of getting words on the digital page. The industry and, more importantly, readers, need more:

  • An open annotation system, but one that respects personal privacy by keeping notes meant only for the book’s reader (and, by extension, anyone with their password, their heirs) separate from public notes and conversation embedded in/around a book title.
  • A privacy regime enforced at the document level, preventing tracking of personal reading.
  • A page-independent reflowing capability, so that ridiculous ideas, such as “books for the Kindle DX,” become the fossils they deserves to be. A book should never be dedicated to a device, though there are some bizarre collectibility plays that might go that way.
  • A page-independent citation system so that kids can use an e-book citation in their homework as easily as a scholar.
  • And more…. Such as the whole question of how to integrate networking into documents.

The challenge of establishing that first standard, which lets e-books be read on any device, including PCs and smartphones, will be choosing technology that doesn’t shut the door to these additional standard requirements of a book while preserving forward-compatibility.

UPDATE: As I was arguing the other day and in the previous posting, the conform-to-compete trend in e-books is indicative of a wave of destruction. Mike Cane argues an e-book bubble is already well underway and I would not disagree with him, except to point out it is a very small bubble, though one that could unfortunately hobble the market for another half decade if it pops just now. Having published an e-book in 1993, when these things were going to be big, big, big! I have no illusions about how small a market can be. Cane, however, uses his argument to conclude that components of current technology, such as E-Ink, will inevitably fail. He argues this for all the right reasons that e-books don’t do anything spectacularly different than books and often represent less-than-a-book—he’s right that it is a race to the bottom based on price. The individual components could succeed or fail, perhaps not even within the e-book industry.

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.