Thursday, April 28, 2011

Open Access eBooks, Part 1

No Shelf Required: E-books in LibrariesI've been working on on a book chapter for a book edited by No Shelf Required's Sue Polanka. My chapter covers "Open Access E-Books". Over the next week or two, I'll be posting drafts for the chapter on the blog. Many readers know things that I don't about this area, and I would be grateful for their feedback and corrections. Today, I'll post the introduction, subsequent posts will include sections on Types of Open Access E-Books, Business Models for Open Access E-Books, and Open Access E-Books in Libraries. Note that while the blog always uses "ebook" as one word, the book will use the hyphenated form, "e-book".

Open Access E-Books

As e-books emerge into the public consciousness, “Open Access”, a concept already familiar to scholarly publishers and academic libraries, will play an increasing role for all sorts of publishers and libraries. This chapter discusses what Open Access means in the context of e-books, how Open Access e-books can be supported, and the roles that Open Access e-books will play in libraries and in our society.

The Open Access “Movement”

Authors write and publish because they want to be read. Many authors also want to earn a living from their writing, but for some, income from publishing is not an important consideration. Some authors, particularly academics, publish because of the status, prestige, and professional advancement that accrue to authors of influential or groundbreaking works of scholarship. Academic publishers have historically taken advantage of these motivations to create journals and monographs consisting largely of works for which they pay minimal royalties, or more commonly, no royalties at all. In return, authors’ works receive professional review, editing, and formatting. Works that are accepted get placement in widely circulated journals and monograph catalogs.

In the late 1970’s and 1980’s academic libraries became acutely aware that an expansion of research activity had resulted in the growth of both the numbers of journals and the numbers of articles published in the journals. The combination of increased subscription prices and the number of journals needed to support research resulted in a so-called “serials crisis”. Libraries were forced to cancel subscriptions. The reduction in circulation forced publishers to raise subscription prices further to make ends meet, and the resulting cycle of cancellations and price increases led to a fear that the whole system would collapse. If few libraries could afford subscriptions, fewer scholars would be able to read the articles, diminishing the attractiveness of publishing.

The advent of web-based publications in the 90’s led many to believe that the solution to the serials crisis would be a shift of the scholarly publishing industry to so-called “Open Access” business models. Open Access publications are those that can be read at no cost to the reader or the reader’s institution. The traditional model of publishing supported by subscription fees was thus styled as “Toll-Access” publishing. It was hoped that the combined cost reductions from digital distribution and automation would stop the cycle of rising expenditures.

Perhaps the most successful implementation of Open Access has been ArXiv, a database of digital preprints and reprints (“e-prints”) originally focusing on the particle physics community. Originally started by Paul Ginsparg, a physicist at Los Alamos National Labs, ArXiv is now located at Cornell University and hosts more than 670,000 scientific articles in e-print form. Authors deposit articles they’ve written into the repository, and other scholars are free to search, browse and download articles without needing any sort of subscription.

One reason for the success of Open Access archives has been that they have grown up in a parallel coexistence with the traditional academic journals, which have mostly shifted onto the web. In the so-called “Green” model for Open Access, many journals allow versions of accepted articles to be made available via repositories. Authors can thus submit their articles to high-prestige subscription-supported journals without worrying about colleagues’ access, because scholars that need to read their works can always access versions from free sources.

Meanwhile, the shift of traditional journals onto the web has allowed the rise of secondary distribution channels. Most academic libraries today enjoy access to a much broader range of journals compared to 20 years ago because of the availability of article databases that aggregate content from large numbers of journals.

The past decade has also seen the rise of “Gold” Open Access journals. These journals leverage low cost Internet distribution to allow articles to be read universally with no subscription charges. Led by Biomed Central and PLoS, these journals cover expenses by charging publication fees to the submitting author. They build prestige  and avoid becoming “vanity” presses by establishing rigorous review processes.

The success of Open Access journals and articles has for the most part not yet been duplicated in the word of books. There are a number of possible reasons for this. The first is the matter of cost. Publication fees for Open Access journal articles are in the range of $600-$3000; editing and production expenses for a book published by a university press are estimated to range from $10,000 for a book that’s mostly text to much more for a book with figures, photos, equations and cover art. Author-funded publication fees this large are unlikely to be practical, even with significant institutional subsidies.

Another factor holding back Open Access books may be a preference for print books over e-books. Books are much longer than journal articles, and many readers are uncomfortable reading a book on a computer screen. It’s only in the past two years that dedicated reader devices such as the Kindle and tablet computers such as the iPad have improved the e-book experience enough to gain wide consumer acceptance.

The business environment for book publishers is another possible factor. The university publisher loses money on much of its catalog, but compensates for this by having one or two titles that cross over to be successful outside the academic environment. has bolstered this pattern, by providing wide distribution for small print-run titles that would never have been available in bookstores before. In contrast, journal articles almost never cross over into non-professional markets.

Nonetheless, there have been a few notable attempts to publish Open Access e-books. I’ll cover these later in a section on business models for Open Access e-books, but it wouldn’t be right to omit mention of Project Gutenberg at this point. Project Gutenberg (PG) produced not only the first Open Access e-books, it produced the first e-books, period. Started by Michael Hart in 1971, PG aimed to take the text of public domain works and make them available via the Internet. To date, PG has put over 34,000 works into its collection, entirely through the efforts of volunteers.

Distribution of Open Access e-books can be thought of as an enterprise separate from their production, since the costs involved are of a different nature. The scaling laws of Internet distribution favor centralization, and as a result, organizations such as the Internet Archive are able to distribute appropriately licensed e-books on a vast scale; businesses such as Google are able to search and organize them; libraries, blogs, and portal sites are able to select and “curate” them. To some extent, this type of distribution depends on the self-contained nature of the book; it shouldn’t require the context of a specific website to retain and accumulate value.

Open Access for e-books provides many benefits in addition to allowing people to read for free. Access to the full text of books makes for more complete indexing. The utility of Google Books, and the effort Google has put into digitizing books from libraries, even when they are unable to make the books available because of copyright, is testament to the value of indexing the full text. Long-term preservation of our cultural heritage is another public benefit of Open Access to e-books.

next post in series -> 

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Corollary to Raganathan's Third Law

What do you see when you walk through a deserted library crammed with books? Do you see a vast store of knowledge, just waiting to be tapped, or do you see a horribly inefficient use of resources? Do you think of what could be, or do you see what isn't? If you're a librarian with a limited budget, you might think of all the money that went into those books, and you'd be thinking about how to get people to use those books. That's how interlibrary loan came into being.

Now imagine if the books were digital. Interlibrary loan is problematic for ebooks, but librarians are anything if not pragmatic. Some books, though valuable, are unlikely to be circulated a lot. So instead of purchasing those books for the library, the library contributes to a consortium that buys ebooks for the use of all its members. This benefits library patrons, because they gain access to a large number of books they'd otherwise not have access to, and it benefits publishers, because they are able to sell a broader range of books, at higher prices, than they'd sell if the consortium didn't exist.

I haven't yet commented on the consortial aspects of the recent HarperCollins kerfuffle. Here's what Overdrive told its partner libraries:
Another area of publisher concern that OverDrive is responding to is the size and makeup of large consortia and shared collections. Publishers seek to ensure that sufficient copies of their content are being licensed to service demand of the library’s service area, while at the same time balance the interests of publisher’s retail partners who are focused on unit sales.    Publishers are reviewing benchmarks figures from library sales of print books and CDs for audiobooks and do not want these unit sales and revenue to be dramatically reduced by the license of digital books to libraries.
Let me translate this into English.

Publishers are aware that many of the books they sell to libraries are seldom used. (See my posts on Book Use for some quantitative information) They worry that they'll no longer be able to sell 10 copies of a seldom-used book to 10 libraries, because 1 electronic copy will meet the demand from 10 libraries in a consortium. They feel that they deserve the benefit of inefficient library purchasing decisions.

This sort of thinking is myopic. Libraries have responded to budget pressures by making their purchasing  more efficient and relying more on inter-library loan (ILL), a process which is invisible to publishers. Because inter-library loan is relatively expensive, publishers gain when ILL is replaced by consortial ebook lending because the money saved can be redirected to ebook acquisitions.

An efficient library channel will compete, to some extent, with ebook direct-sales channels. The optimum strategy for publishers, however, is not to force inefficiency in the library channel, but rather to optimize pricing to monetize increased efficiency.

The efficiency of library acquisitions can be increased by introducing more consortia. A library needing a collection specializing in medicine, for example, should bolster its collection by participating in a consortium with the corresponding specialization. In principle, there could be a consortium specialized for every book that gets published. Such a consortium could manage the number of copies it purchases to closely manage global demand. If the economics worked out it could even strike a deal for unlimited use of the book by consortium members.

The single-book consortium could even allow individuals participate. It could negotiate with rightsholders for global access.

So here's a corollary to Raganathan's Third Law of Library Science:
Every Book its Consortium
Mmmmm. That sounds like my business idea for Gluejar, un-gluing ebooks.
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Monday, April 11, 2011

In Defense of the Book as a Container

Podcasting has turned radio into a new medium. From the New York Times Magazine:
...the value of a media product does not come from being fast. It comes from being timeless. ...It wouldn't make sense, [Abumrad] said, to devote the effort to seduce, disturb and engage the listener if "Radiolab" epidsodes were merely broadcast once and disappeared.
Exactly, I thought, Radiolab is like a book.

Back in October, Brian O'Leary posted a rather long essay on his blog, called "Context First". The essay was well received, and he presented versions of the essay at conferences around the world. I excerpt:
my idea in a nutshell is this: book, magazine and newspaper publishing is unduly governed by the physical containers we have used for centuries to transmit information.  Those containers define content in two dimensions, necessarily ignoring that which cannot or does not fit.

Worse, the process of filling the container strips out context – the critical admixture of tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, audio and video background, even good old title-level metadata – that is a luxury in the physical world, but a critical asset in digital ones.  In our evolving, networked world – the world of “books in browsers” – we are no longer selling content, or at least not content alone.  We compete on context.

I propose today that the current workflow hierarchy – container first, limiting content and context – is already outdated.  To compete digitally, we must start with context and preserve its connection to content.
Something about O'Leary's essay has been gnawing at me ever since, but until reading yesterday's article on Radiolab, I couldn't put my finger on what it was that bothered me.

The implication of O'Leary's "Unified Field Theory of Publishing", is that in order to compete, print publishing needs to break away from the limiting forms of the print medium and become something new, in jazzy harmony with our contextually dynamic digital world, filled with links and metadata and APIs.

Bear in mind, O'Leary's [a consultant who's worked in both the magazine and book industries, is] dead right about magazines. But I've decided his implication is dead wrong about books. We need to understand what it is about the book that makes it a container of media that will persist into the digital world. It's NOT context. The wonderful thing about the book as container is the same thing that lifts Radiolab as podcast above Radiolab as radio. It's the timelessness.

So as we evolve the ebook, I think we need to be aware of and nurture its potential for timelessness. If we put the context first, as O'Leary urges, then all we have left is a website.

Long live the content container formerly known as the book!

  1. As we develop plans for the Gluejar business, we need to add some definition to the "containers" that get released as creative commons ebooks. One thing we might do to enhance "timelessness" is to add a digital signature that verifies that the content of the ebook hasn't been altered.
  2. [Update] This conversation has continued over on Brian O'Leary's blog. There's also a remarkable reflection, in French, at SoBookOnline, that does a great job of laying out the ideas and questions that Brian and I are wrestling over.
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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Public Broadcasting Model for eBooks

Imagine if Radiolab (my favorite radio show) were a book. It would be a best-seller, probably the kind you might buy at Target. It would sound good on your coffee table, and you'd have a shelf full of your favorite episodes. You'd also be able to get it for free at the library. Now that radio is becoming digital, you might even be able to buy it instantly at, or download it to your iPad from the iBookStore.

It's expensive to create fantastic programs like Radiolab. New York Public Radio, which produces Radiolab, produces other award winning programs and operates three of America top public radio stations, all on an annual budget of  just under 48 million dollars. That works out to $130,854 per day. If you spread that expense over the 19 million potential listeners in the New Yourk Metropolitan area, it works out to 0.69 pennies per day per person.

But it doesn't even cost that much to listen to WNYC or WQXR. Most people pay even less, zero pennies, to be exact. What's more, you can listen to the shows for free on the internet. On your iPad, even. And you don't even have to go to the library.

A relatively small number of us send money to become "members" of the station. The $120 my family contributed turned into a deduction on the tax return I completed yesterday. Most people who listen don't contribute, but they're never referred to as "pirates" or "thieves".

The reason this works anyway is that radio has large fixed costs and infinitesimal marginal costs. If the listenership doubles, the costs stay exactly the same. It's not like book publishing, which spends a lot of money pumping paper through a complex supply chain.

A book can cost a lot to produce, too. An author might devote a whole year to the writing of a book. Let's be generous and say the author deserves $200,000. There's an editor, a graphic designer, maybe an illustrator who also work on the book. Add some management overhead, tax accountants, lawyers, and it's easy to get over $300,000 in fixed costs, and we haven't even started promoting, printing and shipping the book. Many books, of course are produced for much less money. Some authors don't get paid a cent.

But EBOOKS ARE NOT BOOKS. They're just bits, and typically not so many, compared to a radio show. The cost of making a copy is negligible. It needn't cost anything to distribute the ebook. eBook distribution is even cheaper than radio, because you don't have to pay for transmitter power, and you don't have to own a frequency license. It's the monetization machinery that costs money: the ecommerce systems and the DRM. If the producers of ebooks had some way of covering their fixed costs (with profit to make it worth their while), ebooks could work just like free radio. Three million people contributing a dime would do quite nicely. 30,000 contributing $10 would work, too.

A public "bookcasting" system would work somewhat differently from public radio. Audiences and patrons would be assembled around individual books and authors, which would be much more numerous than radio stations. People would be motivated to help make the books they love public by the virtuous cycle of receiving books supported by other public book patrons.

In case you haven't been paying attention, this business model is what I've begun working on as Gluejar, Inc..  The Internet presents an incredible capability for assembling audiences around a common purpose. The business will bring together people to pay for the fixed costs of producing ebooks, reward the best producers with profits, and to make these ebooks public, free to read, free to copy, to everyone, everywhere in the world, using Creative Commons Licensing.

This can work. I can see it now. The pledge drive will take up pages 40-50.
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Friday, April 1, 2011

The Threat to Book Publishing From Long-Dead Authors, and a Solution

The US constitution empowers Congress
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
ToysBut the framers could never have anticipated the threat to our civilization posed by the unholy alliance of long-dead authors and electronic books.

In the print world, long-dead authors compete fairly with the living and the recently departed. James Patterson, whose every word is dearly paid for, is offering his hardback "Toys" for $27.99 (list). Steig Larsson's heirs are saved from poverty and Swedish taxes by $27.95 per copy from "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest". They compete for the book buyer's dollar with works such as "The Count of Monte Cristo" by long-dead author Alexandre Dumas, offered by Penguin for $15. That's a fair competition; I mean even at half the price, how many readers really want to read about vegetable shortening math?

But when it comes to ebooks, even James Patterson has trouble making a buck. He has to compete not only with Dumas, but authors like Mark Twain, James Joyce, Agatha Christie, H. G. Wells, Leo Tolstoy, Herman Melville, and even William Shakespeare. Though dead, these authors are brazenly flogging their books, nouns verbs and adjectives all included, on sites like Project Gutenberg, where they have the chutzpah to be selling the ebooks for $0.00. That's right, they're giving these ebooks away! For zilch! Nada! That's an umpteen gazillion factor less than Larsson's Hornet's Nest, which sells for a paltry $11.99 on the Kindle.

How is a living, breathing author to compete with free? Living authors need money to eat; long-dead authors don't. They don't need to pay support for their illegitimate offspring. Shakespeare doesn't need to pay lawyers to defend against infringement suits from Francis Bacon. Dostoyevsky doesn't need a shrink. Joyce doesn't need to buy whiskey, Twain doesn't need cigars; James Fennimore Cooper doesn't need to pay for a writing coach. The Bell brothers are just as dead as the Brontë sisters, whose sickly father is no longer needing medical care.

This unfair competition needs to be stopped! Luckily, the US Supreme Court is on the case. In Golan v. Holder, the Court is considering whether Congress may remove works from the public domain. A crybaby Conductor of music, Lawrence Golan, is complaining that his free-speech rights were taken away by a law that removed the works of Igor Stravinsky, a composer currently bereft of life, from the public domain in the US. Stravinsky has been trying to compete unfairly (though unsuccessfully, I might add) in the free-music marketplace with the likes of Rebecca Black.

The SecretClearly modern authors need protection from unfair competition out of the hereafter. A favorable ruling for America's creative industries will pave the way for Congress to take action against the long-dead authors. Copyright protection should be restored to ALL creative works that have been produced. It's only by doing this that we can be assured that authors like Rhonda Byrne will have meaningful incentives to write a sequel to The Secret.

You may be wondering how we'll dispose of the royalties generated by works of long-dead authors. These royalties can be used to eliminate the other main reason that authors won't bother writing anything decent for ebooks. That's right, the taxes that living authors have to pay on their royalties! By cutting or even eliminating taxes on live-author royalty income, we'll stimulate the creativity of our moribund authoring classes. Publishers will no longer be desperate for unsolicited book manuscripts.

The more I think about this course of action, the more it makes sense to me. Think of the huge amounts of money that will be saved over the current complicated and idiotic rules that govern copyright status. With the extension of copyright to all works, the answer will be easy and cheap to determine- everything will be covered by copyright! Orphan works problem- solved!

The free-culture crowd will inevitably denounce the extension of copyright to all works as a threat to the freedom of speech. That's ridiculous. Dead people don't have the right to free speech, and even if they did, I'd hate to hear them try. Speech may be free, but in the words of our greatest President, "I paid for this microphone".

  1. Patterson has been trying his best to compete with the dead-author slushpile. He's been forced to offer the first 21 Chapters of "Toys" for free on the Kindle.
  2. If long-dead authors were free to express themselves, they'd just write more tedious run-on sentences like
    the provision is unequal to the task; the means either cannot or will not accomplish the end, and the whole affair is a felo de se; for as the greater weight will always carry up the less, and as all the wheels of a machine are put in motion by one, it only remains to know which power in the constitution has the most weight, for that will govern; and though the others, or a part of them, may clog, or, as the phrase is, check the rapidity of its motion, yet so long as they cannot stop it, their endeavors will be ineffectual; the first moving power will at last have its way, and what it wants in speed is supplied by time.
    It's just common sense to keep them in their coffins.
  3. Of course, to achieve the maximum benefit from copyright uniformity, website readers will have to start paying royalties for the articles they read online. This minor inconvenience is a tiny price to pay for the cultural renaissance that will ensue in the universal copyright regime.
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