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.
Andrew Savikas of O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing has a very interesting post about the feedback he’s getting from Scribd.com, including email every time a copy of one of his books is sold. This kind of give-and-take allows a very high degree of engagement by the publisher or self-publisher with their audience, something that most booksellers do not think of, let alone build into their sites.
To some degree, bookseller sites need to approach the level of interaction between publishers and bookbuyers that people are increasingly used to in sites like Facebook or Twitter. Reading, however, is deeply associated with privacy, for psychological and political reasons. Auto-subscribing a customer to an author may be too presumptuous but it may be perfectly acceptable for an author or publisher to be auto-subscribed to a reader’s feed, if the reader chooses to disclose it. Then, of course, the challenge is how to use all that information and connectivity to do something meaningful.
Savikas mentions the Digital Sales Report Format, an XML standard for delivering book sales information and David Marlin of MetaComet, who contributed to the standard chimes in to say that it will be the focus on more adoption in coming years. It’s a solid foundation for transparency in bookkeeping, though not a social engagement platform in any sense.
Ultimately, that engagement will take place through the book. It requires more than shared annotations, since some notes and reading need to be kept to the reader, but still be shareable in appropriate situations. Privacy, not total transparency, contributes to thoughtful reading.