Monday, February 28, 2011

What is a Limited-Check-Out eBook Worth?: Two Polls

There's now a "Boycott HarperCollins" website that's trying to channel the response of librarians to the change in license terms I wrote about on Friday. The website, put up by librarians Brett Bonfield and Gabriel Farrell, calls for libraries to stop buying ebooks and print books published by HarperCollins or any of its imprints, and to write letters to HarperCollins' management.

I take a more "dismal" approach to this brouhaha. I simply point out that a limited-check-out ebook is less valuable to a library than an unlimited-check-out ebook. I don't think that anyone would disagree with that. It would be a step forward if everyone involved had a better idea of the extent to which limited-check-out impairs an ebook's value. HarperCollins seems to think the impairment is not too large, while I've not heard any voices in libraries say that it's small.

So here's a poll for librarians designed to find out what unlimited checkouts would be worth compared to a 26 checkout maximum. If you are a librarian, imagine that you are offered two ebooks that your patrons need. An unlimited-checkout version is offered at a deluxe price; a 26-check-out version is offered at a discount. At what discount would you choose the limited version?





And here's a corresponding poll for publishers. Imagine that your standard ebook offering comes with a 26-checkout limit for libraries. How much of a premium would you need to be offered to also offer an unlimited checkout (no simultaneous use) version ?




Of course, the answers will depend on what book we're talking about, what the budgets looks like, etc. but try to imagine what you would do for a typical situation. [Note: It's been pointed out to me that the answer is very different for best-seller vs. reference vs. fiction vs. non-fiction, etc. For the current purposes, consider the range of books published by HarperCollins, i.e. mostly trade books.]

I'm offering these questions to try to help advance library-publisher dialogue, so please don't cheat, answer honestly, and try to get your colleagues to participate as well.

Update 3/5: I discuss the poll results in a new post.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Judge Denny Chin Says He's Working On It

It's been just over a year since the Fairness Hearing on the Google Books Settlement Agreement. A lot has happened since then. Google's place in the pantheon of companies that will revolutionize and/or destroy publishing has been taken by Apple. The judge presiding over the trial, Denny Chin, was elevated to the Circuit Court of Appeals, but because of the shortage of judges on the district court (Judge Chin's District is down 9 judges) caused by the political stalemate in the US Senate, Judge Chin has been forced to keep most of his cases, including the Google case.

Yesterday, Judge Chin was honored by Princeton University, his alma mater, with the Woodrow Wilson Award. This award is given every year to the alumnus or alumna of the undergraduate college  who best exemplifies Wilson's memorable phrase "Princeton in the Nation's Service". In the morning, I went to hear him speak to his fellow alumni about his career as a judge.

He talked about the confirmation process, saying "it went on far too long, and frankly it's a process that needs to be fixed." He was nominated by President Obama on October 6th, 2009. Things initially moved rather quickly. His Judiciary Committee hearing was in November, and the Committee sent the nomination to the full Senate in December. But due to a Senator's anonymous "hold" his nomination didn't get a floor vote until April of 2010. After that six and a half month wait, the vote was 98-0. Of 875 federal judgeships, approximately 12% are vacant.

Chin's talk was entertaining and full of good humor. He concentrated on his "fun" cases, including cases involving New York's "Naked Cowboy" who sued Mars Candy for trademark dilution and invasion of privacy, a toy case pitting the makers of Commando-bot against the makers of Command-a-bot, and of course the Anna Kournikova versus Penthouse case, in which he was forced to spend hours upon hours studying relevant photos. The case in which he ruled that Listerine was not as effective against gingivitis as flossing made him a hero with his dentist, and earned him the tabloid nickname of the "Listerine Judge".  Chin didn't like this except it was better the "the Pervert's Pal" moniker he had earned by ruling Megan's Law unconstitutional in part. 

His most serious remarks came in reference to the Bernie Madoff case, in which the swindler was sentenced by Chin to 150 years of prison. Symbolism played a large role in Chin's thinking, which brought him back to his law school training about the role of sentencing. "Helping the victims heal" was an important consideration in his decision, one that he never encountered in law school. After the ruling, the same journalist who had labeled him the "Pervert's Pal" started calling him the "Rockstar in Robes".

The most moving part of Chin's talk came as he talked about his heritage. He did his Senior Thesis at Princeton on the "Old Ones" of Chinatown, the elderly Chinese. A photo of his grandfather was at the front of his thesis. His grandfather lived in a building of "railroad" apartments, each of which was occupied by an old man who had been separated from his family by the exclusion laws that had severely curtailed immigration from China to the United States. His grandfather had been able to go back to China only twice, once in the '20's when he got married, and then in the '30's, when Chin's father was born. Chin's Grandfather worked as a waiter in a Chinatown restaurant for many years, and like all the other men who lived in the railroad apartments, he would go to the post office every month and buy a money order to send home to his family in China. Chin's grandfather took the oath of citizenship in 1947, in the same court where his grandson would preside as a judge. Because his grandfather had become a citizen, and because immigration laws had been relaxed, Chin and his parents were allowed to come to the US in 1956 (Chin was only 2 years old).

Chin's appointment to the Court of Appeals was important to many people, because he became the only active Asian-American federal appellate judge in the entire country. His appointment was not only important to lawyers, judges, and politicians, but also to ordinary people like those living and working everyday in Chinatown. The Federal Court in New York is located adjacent to Chinatown so when Judge Chin goes out to lunch, random strangers will recognize him and tell him how proud they are of his achievement.

Chin took a number of questions after the talk. I asked him whether, given the year long wait in the Google case, his decision in the case was going to be longer than his Senior Thesis. As this was an active case he immediately said he wasn't going to comment, "but obviously I'm working on it".
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Friday, February 25, 2011

HarperCollins and the Suspension of eBook Disbelief

A good business requires a good story. The customer needs to understand the story of how the business can help solve a problem or deliver a benefit. There are many ways of telling a business story. Some stories are utilitarian; others are romantic or inspiring. Many stories require the consumer's willing suspension of disbelief. This isn't dishonesty, but the customer has to benefit broadly from a business's services and not be harmed by bits of the story that aren't really true. Macs sometimes crash. Facebook sometimes leaks your personal information. The New York Times sometimes really gets the facts wrong.

What you can't do, if the details of your business don't line up with your story, is to create cognitive dissonance for your customers by flaunting the untruth of your story. That's what HarperCollins is doing with its new policy for lending its books through libraries. According to ebook platform provider OverDrive, which first told its library customers about the policy yesterday, the new policy takes effect on March 6, and does not effect licenses purchased before then.

The story that HarperCollins and other publishers have been using is that ebooks are just like print books. They want consumers to accept similar prices for ebooks and print books, and have fought for this using tools such as agency pricing. For the library channel, the fiction is that libraries can lend ebooks to patrons so long as they work sort of like print books. The libraries can only lend them to one patron at a time. I've been calling this the "Pretend It's Print" model.

There are all sorts of good things about this model. It's easy for all parties to accept because it only changes things where they really have to change. It allows the coexistence of print and digital distribution channels. Nobody has to go out of business, except maybe Borders. It's comfortable, and there's much to be said for comfortable. The genius of this model is what has fueled the success of companies like OverDrive.

But if you're using a Pretend It's Print model, the one thing you can't do is stop pretending that it's print without a really good reason. You can't say all of a sudden that your ebooks should vanish into thin air once they've been lent 26 times. Your story about ebooks acting like print no longer makes sense, and all those customers who accepted your story have complete Twitter-fueled meltdowns.

Now, if there was a good reason to puncture the happy bubble of Pretend-It's-Print, that would be one thing, but a close analysis of HarperCollins' strategy suggests that the responsible executives wouldn't be able to pass a math quiz even if the class nerd was sitting in the chair next to them.

Let's review the possible motivations for the limited-check-out ebook.

Increasing revenue

 For ebook expiration to create increased revenue, the increased sales resulting from replacement of expired ebooks would need to exceed the lost sales due to customer rejection of expired ebooks. I'm guessing that less than half of libraries will be willing to buy limited-check-out ebooks. Based on the outrage that librarians expressed on Twitter, I'm guessing limited-check-out books might be avoided like the plague. Apart from the fact that they negate the collection-building motivation for ebook acquisition, the increased cost of managing newfangled things that automatically get lost by the 26th patron will be too much for most libraries. Although there will be indicators on the record in Content Reserve (OverDrive’s purchasing portal) to tell librarians which titles are limited-check-out, there won't be any indications of this on the MARC records that libraries use to include the ebooks in their catalogs.

 I'm guessing that the added sales will be approximately zero. There are two reasons for this. Libraries can set the circulation period for their items; 1-3 weeks is a common range. That means that the expired books will be at least six months old and more often a year or more old when they would need to be repurchased. Most books are discounted heavily once they've been out that long, and the value proposition of the ebooks won't look very good.

 The other reason that added sales will be minuscule is that libraries will erect elaborate countermeasures. Once half a book's checkouts are used, the libraries will artificially reduce its availability. They'll hide the catalog record. They'll restrict access. HarperCollins will be lucky to get crumbs from a bake sale.

Table of Integrals, Series and Products I'm sure you're thinking, "but what about the years and years of residuals?" 75 years from now, HarperCollins will be getting those ebook renewals. Well, dream on, and if you sum the infinite series of geometrically decreasing yearly revenue, you'll find it isn't as big as you think. Unfortunately for HarperCollins , that sum is almost calculus, and even their high-priced management consultants couldn't do an integral even if they were stranded on a desert island with a copy of Gradshteyn and Ryzhik.

Protection of the retail market

 As I wrote just yesterday, if the library channel loses its friction, then there's a significant risk to a publishers retail revenue. If the limited-check-out ebook introduces the sort of inconvenience that would deter a possible book purchaser from using the library instead, the changed policy might be justified. But a limited-check-out ebook will look exactly the same to a patron as an unlimited-check-out one, so this possibility seems remote. Once the book expires, of course, the library option goes away. So there might be some depreciating value there.

The current library situation, however, does a great job of erecting an availability barrier. eBooks are so popular that in most libraries, many books have long waiting lists. Patrons are pushed towards less popular titles, which is a huge benefit for publishers, because the titles and authors that would not be selling are effectively marketed to new readers. It's hard to argue that anything on the list of most popular ebook downloads at OverDrive has suffered even a tiny bit!

 The only way that market segmentation will be affected by  the new policy is that OverDrive's engineers will be distracted from improving user experience by the need to modify systems to accommodate HarperCollins. OverDrive, I feel your pain!

 If a publisher is truly concerned with sales lost to libraries, the honest thing to do (as Macmillan and Simon & Schuster have done) is to not provide books to libraries at all.

Other Models

 What bothers me the most about the HarperCollins move is its lack of imagination. I wouldn't mind the check-out limit at all if it was part of a tiered price structure. The limited-check-out feature reduces the value of the book; this could have been a low-priced option alongside the full-priced unlimited check-out model. I'd also like to see experimentation with other lending models. For example, an unlimited simultaneous user, limited time license. A library could get its whole community reading a book together. Or packages of single use licenses that libraries could use to supplement a permanent license for a popular title. Or "explorer" packages allowing a fixed number of total checkouts across titles from a backlist. Experiments like these could be designed to bolster both libraries and publishers.

 HarperCollins may be inept, but it isn't being evil. Pricing for digital products is really difficult. Once you drop the pretense of print, you run into new issues of fairness. Does it make sense to charge the same for an ebook to a small library that you charge to a large consortium? Of course not. Does it make sense to charge for a blockbuster what you charge for a work by an unknown author? Of course not. It's easy to poke holes in a pricing strategy; it's much harder to come up with a regime that works for everybody.

I said it a year ago, and I'll say it again:
Now is the time for publishers and libraries to sit down together and develop new models for working together in the ebook economy.
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Thursday, February 24, 2011

OverDrive and the Library eBook Convenience Paradox

The OverDrive iPad App, released just last week, is nice. Luckily, it's not TOO nice. Let me explain.

But first- a bit about OverDrive. OverDrive, the leading provider of ebooks in public libraries, has been battling some user experience issues. At last week's Tools of Change conference, librarian Katie Dunneback (@younglibrarian) went through the twenty-one steps a patron needs to take before they can read a library ePub book on their ebook reader. Kirk Biglione joked on Twitter that "it's actually easier to make an ePub file than it is to check one out of the library".

Once the initial configuration process is done, however, it's not so hard to start reading library stuff in the Overdrive App (actual name: "OverDrive Media Console"). I find Overdrive's discovery interface- which is a website and not part of the app- to be a bit mystifying. For my local library, which gets Overdrive books through the "ListenNJ" consortium, the main problem is finding an ebook I want to read that hasn't already been checked out.  The growing popularity of ebooks  is such that most of the ebooks are checked out, and since these use the "Pretend-It's-Print" model, I can't read them when someone else is doing so. Worse, the Overdrive website doesn't let me browse just the books that are available. Do people really exist who want to browse books that are checked out?

The browse interface also mixes up audio books with ebooks. I think most users want one or the other. It lets you sort by "creator" (Do real people know what a "creator" is?) but it doesn't provide a list of creators to browse. Granted, most library websites don't do much better, but isn't that why they still have stacks to wander?

Luckily, Overdrive also distributes public domain books from Project Gutenberg. These have the magical property that a new copy appears on my library's e-bookshelves as soon as one is checked out, like the milk cartons that get restocked from the rear in my grocer's refrigerator. If there were Creative-Commons licensed "unglued ebooks" in the library, they would behave the same way.

Although the public domain ebooks are a real godsend, the Overdrive website handles these clunkily, too. When I first searched for "Moby Dick" I found only a Penguin "enhanced" ebook version that was already checked out. I had to do a separate search in the Project Gutenberg section to discover the public domain Moby Dick that's always available.

Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: OmenThe OverDrive iPad app itself delivers a nice reading experience. There's a single app that works on both iPhone and iPad - if you already had the iPhone version, you just need to update it. It's not as slick as some e-bookstore apps, but pretty good for a first version. And the books are quite readable. I borrowed Christie Golden's Omen, a Star Wars novel. The reading experience is on par with the Kindle App; I particularly liked the positional indicators: OverDrive's "7 pages left in chapter" is much more helpful than the Kindle App's "Location 3013-3019 --- 44%". The best part of the process was I was sitting in a ski lodge 259 miles away from my library.

Despite the the website issues, this whole lending thing seems great all around. Library patrons like me get to read books from the library in our preferred environment. We're exposed, without risk, to a variety of books we might not have considered acquiring on our own. And apart from feeling obligated to support our library when the friends group asks for money or raising our voices when the municipal budget gets cut, it doesn't cost us anything.

So what's the problem? Why am I going around showing demand curves and mathematical inequalities, claiming that lending ebooks doesn't create economic value like it's some mathematical proof or something?

In doing that, I'm guilty of some oversimplification. So now I'm going to show you yet another demand curve and recomplexify everything for you.

Remember print books? Let's review the book industry's method of squeezing every last dollar out of a book's demand curve. It's done by segmenting the market. When a hot new book comes out, it's a hard-cover that costs maybe $30. The people who buy the book are those that value it the most and the truly impatient. If the book is successful as a hard cover, then maybe a year later it comes out as a softcover priced at $12.95. A whole new wave of purchasers buy and read the book. The hardcover and softcover markets are segmented because they attract a different audience. Consumers perceive this as fair because the softcover feels like an inferior product, even though the manufacturing cost differences are quite small.

Consumers who don't even want to pay for a softcover are served by libraries and used book stores. Although it doesn't cost anything to borrow a library book, you may have to wait for it to be available, you have to get yourself to the library, and when you're finished with it, you have to take it back. Instead of the cover price, you pay the price of time and inconvenience.

Another form of market segmentation is accomplished by splitting regional rights. A book might be priced lower in India than in the US (and higher in the UK) because consumers in each country have somewhat different expectations as to what a book should cost.

Market segmentation is harder to achieve with ebooks. You can't put a hard cover on an ebook, and price differences are harder to sustain across national boundaries when the commodity is purely digital. A publisher can drop the price of an ebook with time after publication, but this can be hard to do because of supply chain issues, author royalty contracts, and consumer perceptions of value.

The library ebook distribution channel presents another opportunity for market segmentation. Libraries "buy" the ebooks, resulting in revenue for rights holders. Consumers can read the books without paying for them, but they have to be willing to put up with 21 step configurations and account IDs, and face the possibility that a book might not be available right away and may have a long lending queue. At least with ebooks, there's not the inconvenience of going to the library again to return the book at the end of the lending period!

But imagine if the Overdrive website made it as easy to find and borrow a book  as Amazon's makes it to get a Kindle Edition. Imagine that you didn't need an Adobe ID separate from your library card number. What would happen to the inconvenience barrier that allows publishers to still capture the high end of the price curve at full price? It seems clear to me that without the inconvenience barrier, publishers would quickly remove their desirable content from library lending programs to protect their retail sales.

So here's the paradox: libraries can only be successful at ebook lending if they do a bad job of it.

While I don't think it's tenable over the long term for libraries to specialize in inconvenience, I still think it's very important for libraries to be offering ebooks through services such as Overdrive. Even if the lending models of today turn out to be transitional, they help everyone involved become comfortable with library ebooks. Once the library ebook experience becomes embedded in our everyday lives, readers, publishers, authors and librarians will be able to recognize the novel digital distribution models that benefit everyone.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How Apple May Inadvertently Boost eBook Linking

"The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." John Gilmore, 1993
The official word from Apple finally came out today, in their press release announcing in-app subscriptions.
In addition, publishers may no longer provide links in their apps (to a web site, for example) which allow the customer to purchase content or subscriptions outside of the app.
Assuming that this limitation will be applied to the Kindle App, it means that the "Shop in Kindle Store" button will disappear, and similar features in other ebook reader software, such as Nook, Sony, and Kobo will disappear as well.

You can go elsewhere if you want to read apocalyptic whining about Apple's imperious ways. What I want to focus on is how the net will route around this damage. The net will route around this damage by making more links.

At O'Reilly's Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, I was able to spend some time with Keith Fahlgren, a partner at ThreePress Consulting. He's part of a group that has worked on the improvement of linking capability in EPUB 3. A Public Draft of the specification was released today by IDPF.

Since EPUB3 is based on HTML5, all the outbound linking that you would expect from a web page is already built into EPUB3 (as well as earlier versions of EPUB). Ebook reader apps available on iOS and Android use the "Webkit" webpage renderer for ebooks in EPUB. (Kindle devices use Webkit to render web pages and WebKit is used by Amazon to render Kindle ebooks (in mobi format) on  hardware other than their own.) So it's clear to me, at least, that even if ebook reader apps can't have "Kindle Store" buttons, the apps will be able to present "Kindle Store" links inside the ebook content. I'll bet you anything that Amazon is loading up ebook content with Kindle Store links: "If you like this book, perhaps you'd like this one". They'll even have specialized shop-books containing Kindle store links available for free. Ditto the others.

Publishers aren't going to like Apple's power-play. But neither will they like having their content getting hijacked to promote individual ebook stores. There will therefore be a great deal of pressure for the creation of vendor-neutral, customer friendly ways to link to ebooks from within ebooks, one that Apple can't ban because doing so would break Safari.

Here's where it gets tricky. If a customer has already purchased the linked-to book, it's pointless to send them out to a ebook store, they should connect their copy of the ebook. But figuring out whether a consumer already has the book is messy, given the state of ebook identification. There are many other use cases for linking to a specific chapter or paragraph inside an ebook.

Unfortunately, doing this sort of linking is not a solved problem. EPUB3 adds one tool that will help. A new required metadata property, dcterms:modified,  will help identify the epub in the case where it has been modified- in the past it was poorly specified what should happen to the epub identifier if the file was modified. With EPUB3, it's now clear that EPUB documents are identified internally at a level above the ISBN (different DRM wrappings of the same EPUB file often require different ISBNs) but below the "work".

There's still a lot of apparatus that will need to be built, both inside and outside of EPUB, for linking to work the way it should. Being able to decide which ebook to target will require external mechanisms. Perhaps some linking organization along the lines of Crossref be formed; perhaps a more wikipedia-ish database collaboration will suffice. In any case something like xISBN supercharged for ebooks will be needed. Fahlgren told me that without a strong use case to drive the solution, the EPUB group has had a hard time going very far in their linking development.

A true ebook linking solution would need to include Amazon, of course, and since they've not been using EPUB, it seems to me that ebook linking won't get done by the EPUB group itself. Amazon hasn't had much use for EPUB in the past, but now Apple may have handed the ebook technology community a giant use case for interoperable ebook linking.

Happy Day-After-Valentines-Day, EPUB!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Why (Code4) Libraries Exist

"We have one more talk left and we'll see how Eric Hellman manages to do the closing talk, and if he deserves the slot or not" was how Ed Corrado introduced me yesterday at the Code4Lib 2011 Conference. Thanks, Ed. A little pressure never hurt anyone. I suppose I had it coming. Here's the abstract I wrote for the talk:
Libraries have historically delivered value to society by facilitating the sharing of books. The library "brand" is built around the building and exploitation of their collections. These collections have been acquired and owned. As ebook readers become the preferred consumption platform for books, libraries are beginning to come to terms with the fact that they don't own their digital collections, and can't share books as they'd like to. Yet libraries continue to be valuable in many ways. In this transitional period, only one thing can save libraries from irrelevance and dissipation: Code.
Talks were selected by vote of Code4Lib participants, which increased my motivation to do a good job.

You can view the talk yourself via the excellent streaming video archive from Indiana University. (My talk starts at 171:24) I was told that at times, there were as many as a thousand people viewing the live stream, and having a twitter and IRC backchannel allowed remote users to join in the snark: "not sure why people voted for this presentation" and the inexplicable: "This presentation is good, but I would have expected multiple Celtic fonts."

I gave a brief intro to the trends in ebook adoption, and went through an explanation of the economics of book lending that I wrote about last year. I urged everyone to break the wifi by downloading Eli Neiburger's "Libraries are screwed" talk. Then I suggested that Code4Lib participants were the people with the power, placement and passion to drive the changes that libraries will need to survive.

Last week, I sent an email to the Code4Lib list, asking for information about how many people were developing or maintaining software (broadly defined) in libraries, and what fraction of the library staff they represented. The results are displayed in this graph:

Notes on the graph: Red dots are from Code4Lib respondents; the blue dots are taken from a peer group survey made available to me by one respondent of the "technology staff" in a cohort of mid-sized US Universities. The determination was made by title alone, without knowledge of actual job responsibilities. My own survey of job titles in libraries suggests that many job title terms such as "technical services" encompass responsibilities ranging from zero to full time involvement in software, even when broadly defined. One Code4Lib respondent reported that he was the only developer in his library and had only just been hired; the peer group survey indicated 2 technical staff for the same library. To place the data on the same chart, I've arbitrarily divided the technical staffing for the peer-group survey by 3.

One thing to remark in this graph is that most developers in libraries are very dispersed. Although they're embedded in library operations, they're often the only person at the location that does any coding at all. Many of my respondents reported that only a fraction of their responsibilities involved coding. As a result they tend to seek a peer group outside their institution, for example, in the various Code4Lib forums.

One reason that such a group is nonetheless well placed to effect change in libraries is the changing nature of software development. Today, software development is more and more about the use and deployment of software modules and connecting to APIs. The presence at Code4Lib of several vendor representatives promoting their APIs: OCLC, SciVerse, SerialsSolutions, Mendeley is testament to the importance of putting powerful tools into the hand of people who can see what to do with them.

To do this, libraries need to recognize the importance of code. Developers in libraries need time and support to develop their skills and focus on developing new ways for libraries to deliver value. Although I suggest a focus on Spaces, People, and Communities, I don't really know the answer. I just know that a lot of experimentation is needed.

I worry about public libraries. They are the data points at the bottom of the graph. I fear that publics will not have the technical capacity to do anything differently from what they've always done, except less of it, because of budget cuts.
Beer4Lib
Notes: In my talk, I mention a talk from earlier in the morning about how libraries are using software to improve their spaces. The talk I was referring to was by Jason Casdan and Joyce Chapman at NCSU. I should also note that a recurring theme of the conference was that the one thing that people most needed from mobile apps was the opening hours of the library locations. That's worth thinking about.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Libraries Creating Connections

"Libraries should stop focusing on their collections and start focusing on their communities" is something I've said before. Today, I learned that I may need to revise that. Two presentations today at Code4Lib 2011 showed how a library might do both at the same time.

Nell Taylor and Margaret Heller talked about the Chicago Underground Library, a grass-roots special collection that focuses on a specific place, Chicago.
The Chicago Underground Library is an all-inclusive collection of Chicago-specific media, produced by and for the community. Through our unique indexing of contributors and our open venue, we provide a space for individuals, organizations and ideas to come together, and creative connections to emerge.
They'll take anything into their collection, even a book of poems bought for a dollar made by a local guy Taylor met on a bus. Their goal is to use the collection and "obsessive cataloging" to create connections between people and places.

I'm guessing that a hot topic at Code4Lib 2012 will be Search Engine Optimization (SEO), but Taylor and Heller were the first and only to mention it this year. They make the metadata on their item pages easy for search engines to consume, and that's what drives the connections to people. People google themselves and their places, and lots of things happen and have happened that never enter the pages of The Chicago Tribune.

Whisper of the HeartThe Underground Library has a lot in common with the Chinatown Storefront Library project that I wrote about last year. They're running on a shoestring, living in borrowed space, and relying on volunteer labor. With some luck, they'll get some funding and some space of their own, but they have no shortage of courage and audacity.

The most surprising talk today came in the "lightning session". Haruki Ono, a student at University of Tsukuba in Japan, told us about project Shizuku. Shizuku is named after the heroine of Hayao Miyazaki's movie Whisper of the Heart. Shizuku loves reading books, and goes to the library every day. She notices that one other user has signed the checkout slip for many of the books she loves. To make a long story short enough for this blog post, they end up getting married.

Project Shizuku aims to use library circulation data to connect users, not to other books they would like to read, but to other users. When I wrote about "Biblio-Social Objects" in December, somehow it didn't occur to me how much local libraries could leverage their non-virtuality to create relationships and build community.

You learn something new and meet someone new every day, especially at Code4Lib.
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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Toys and Tools vs. the Enterprise at Code4Lib

© CERN
In 1991, the world's top researchers into hypertext met in a hotel in San Antonio, Texas. One poster presented there was entitled "An Architecture for Wide Area Hypertext", by a guy from CERN. Nine years later, I attended the same meeting in the same hotel. Attendees who had also been at the earlier meeting told me that the uniform reaction to the poster had been what what I'd describe now as "meh". It was too simple, not enough expressive power. There was nothing new, nothing interesting. Who could possibly care about about the physicist's stupid little toy hypertext system.

That physicist is now a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and Sir Tim's little toy system is the today's World Wide Web. Here's a few of the enterprise-ready systems that the conference organizers of HT 1991 thought were more important than "the web":   
  • Industrial Strength Hypermedia: Requirements for a Large Engineering Enterprise
  • Implementing Hypertext Database Relationships through Aggregations and Exceptions
  • Applications Navigator: Using Hypertext to Support Effective Scientific Information Exchange
You get the idea. If you make a list of the most important technologies for libraries and publishing today, your list will include a lot of things in addition to the web that started out as toys, and were derided as such for years after they became important building blocks. Linux, unix, mySQL, perl, ruby, apache web server, and so on. Even Google started out with Lego blocks as key components. The list of software technologies that began as enterprise-class applications is smaller and less loved.

This morning at the Code4Lib Conference in Bloomington, Indiana, Brad Wheeler gave a welcoming talk. He's a Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at Indiana University and Chairman and Co-Founder of the Kuali Foundation. He emphasized how important it is for libraries to submit to "volitional interdependence for macro solutions". I think he was trying to say that libraries need to pool their software development efforts and stop focusing on their local needs and peculiarities. But there was one thing he said that I strongly disagreed with. He said that libraries should stop move beyond building toys.

Wheeler's remark was in the context of a story about his impression of a Digital Library Federation (DLF) meeting two years ago. He thought the projects being reported there were too small and too focused on individual libraries. DLF has fresh new leadership in the person of Rachel Frick, and a new structure as part of CLIR, but I'm not sure that Wheeler's criticism of "the old DLF" is justified.

Libraries need to build more toys, especially in this time of tectonic changes in the ways that users interact with the information of the world. By toys, I mean simple experiments that do interesting things, or tools that focus on solving specific problems. The first day of Code4Lib was replete with examples of toy projects. Karen Coombs from OCLC showed 10 different toys, the most interesting a mashup of geocoded library subject headings with google maps. Josh Bishoff from the University of Illinois showed how the mess of links on his library's homepage could be distilled down to a nifty mobile webapp, complete with local bus schedules. Demian Katz showed how VuFind, a tool that has already made a transition from toy to essential tool is being pushed to be even more flexible. Jay Luker, from ADS, did the same with Blacklight and Solr.

For me the highlight was Scott Hanrath's report on Anthologize, a WordPress plugin designed to turn blogs into ebooks. The initial work on Anthologize was done using a "one week one tool" process, and his account of how 12 strangers banded together to produce a working product in one week was truly inspiring. They even included 4 user interviews in developing their user experience, and achievement which proved to be very difficult to pull off, because of the tight, parallelized development schedule.

The non-toy approach to software development was also on display. Tim McGeary of Lehigh University reported on the Kuali OLE project, which has attracted $5 million in funding from Mellon Foundation and others. OLE has an impressive, state-of-the-art, three tiered modular, buzzword-compliant software architecture and specification set. But after a year of work involving multiple committees, coding has only started last week. (Update 2/9/2011: Kuali's funding for writing code has only been in place for 6 months) It all looks very good, but I'm yet to be convinced that the end result will turn out to be what the market needs.

Development of things like OLE is expensive. Georgia PINES spent about a million dollars in its successful developing Evergreen, perhaps the most recent analog to OLE. The advantage to developing toys is that failure is not expensive. By spending so much on OLE, Kuali is putting a lot of eggs in one basket, and if their extensive committee work has failed to correctly predict what the market requirements in 5 years will be, they won't get another shot at it. In contrast, developing toys lets you try a lot of things out. Most will die, but the few of them that manage to solve sticky problems will get picked up and will grow into essential infrastructure.
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Friday, February 4, 2011

Co-Founders: Your Idea is Worthless. Show Your Chops!

On an entrepreneur's list I'm on, I recently saw this request from "JT":
My short-term goal is to produce a working prototype this spring to test the concept and to position the company for seed stage funding.  I have already done a lot of the preliminary work to define the product and to shape the business model, yet the project is now at a stage where a lot of the "real" work can begin.

I am looking for someone with the technological chops and the passion for [target market] to help me get this project off the ground.  Ideally, this person will be comfortable with both backend and frontend development, with the usual suspects in his programming tool belt (JAVA, FLEX, PHP, MYSQL, CSS, HTML, etc).
The "how can I find a technical co-founder?" thread seems to come up frequently in places like Hacker News and Quora (look at Finding Co-Founders, Technical Co-Founders, and especially  this one), and there are even "speed dating" events that aim to match technical founders with non-technical entrepreneurs.

As someone who's done a startup from the technical side (and working on another one), my response to the would-be entrepreneur was that he needed to approach the "technical cofounder" issue the same way he would approach an investor. Just as he's looking for someone "with the technological chops" he should be willing and able to show that he has the "chops" to fill one of the other roles in a startup team.

JT's idea- your idea- any idea- is completely worthless from this point of view. Anybody can have good ideas, even great ideas. As a result, ideas, by themselves, are very hard to monetize. The best ideas are also easy to copy, and patents notwithstanding, it's very difficult to own them. But the real reason that ideas don't qualify someone to start a business is that almost every innovative start-up gets it mostly wrong at the start. Successful start-ups frequently go through a "pivot" where they re-align their strategy with learned opportunities. Steve Blank has it right when he describes a start-up as being "an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model".

A strong founding team will have expertise in technology, sales, marketing, fund-raising/finance, and product management. There are others, of course, but let me focus on the skills a strong technical co-founder might look for in the rest of the team.

The chops:
  • If you really have sales chops, then you already have a customer ready to sign a check.
  • If you have fund-raising chops, then you've already raised a nice pot of money.
  • If you really have marketing chops, then you can make the idea sound irresistible, even though it's worth nothing and you'll change it completely six months into the company! 
  • Product management chops are more complicated, and some nice posts by Vinicius Vacanti and Kate Ray are relevant there. Being a good product manager means you have hands-on understanding of many issues, including domain expertise and technology. If you really have product management chops, then you should be able to define a minimum viable product that's so simple even you can implement a demo version, or perhaps a first iteration of the product, if you're willing to put some skin into it. It's not that hard.
My guess was that JT fell into the product-manager-founder category, and I urged him to try building something himself. Even if he falls flat on his face, he will have gained knowledge and skills that are sure to help him whatever he does.

I've been thinking about how to build a founding team a lot, because I'm trying to put together a business around the idea of "ungluing ebooks". Past experience tells me that the people are the most important factor in the success or failure of a business, and the stress of starting a new business is only tolerable if you enjoy and respect the people you're doing it with.

ChopsI'm doing seed financing myself-I'm putting the "serial" into "serial entrepreneur". I know my technology, so I don't really need a "technical co-founder". The new venture needs someone with some marketing genius- a big barrier to success will be finding ways to communicate what we're doing to laypeople. The business also needs someone with expertise in finance and the book business- we'll need to make sure that book rightsholders will feel comfortable working with us. We'll need legal expertise, with focus on non-profit tax law, intellectual property rights and creative commons licensing. We'll need someone to approach libraries and other non-profits to work with us, particularly during the concept validation phase. And to scale the operation, we'll need a talented operational manager. Ideally, all this complementary expertise will be wrapped up in one or two people in addition to me. And of course, unreasonable optimism is a required trait for anyone involved in the early stages of a startup. If you're interested, please contact me.

So, assuming the "ungluing ebooks" idea is worthless, what are my chops? Well, my Java is a bit rusty, but I know pretty code when I see (or write) it. I know enough to hire people who are better at things than I am. I know my way around bibliographic metadata, which will be important to my project, and I have wide-ranging contacts in the world of libraries. And I got you to read this far, didn't I?

Postscript, 2/5/2011: JT mailed the list to say he'd actually found a technical co-founder, and wouldn't have found him without emailing the list and listening to everyone's advice. Way to go, JT!
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