Thursday, March 22, 2012

Jellybooks Breaks All the eBook Store Rules

Nobody ever asks for less. There's not a store you can go to that helps you get rid of stuff you don't need. In all the history of the web, no feedback form has ever been filled with a request to remove a feature. Forget "web"- in all the history of software, no user has ever asked to have a working function removed.

The result is bloat.

Less isn't more. More is what people ask for. Less is porn. It's what people want but can't ask for out loud.

So Jellybooks, unveiled this morning, is an ebook store that delivers less. Gone are the faux wooden book shelves. Banished is the search box. Missing in action is the hierarchical category directory. Vanished are the lists of titles and authors. THEY EVEN FORGOT THE BUY LINKS!

All you see at Jellybooks is a bunch of book cover images. All you can do is click on them. When you click on them, you get only three choices with the book description, "sample", "share", and "deal". That's it.

When you click on "sample", you download the first few chapters of a book. It's not until you've figured out how to read the EPUB format files that you get a look at purchase links (Amazon and Waterstone's - Jellybooks is UK-based) and by then you're hooked. "Deals" is unexplained, which is an interesting choice as most consumers are uninterested in the mechanics of a marketplace and just want a ... deal.

If you think about it, all a real bookstore does is set a large number of books in front of you, hoping to tempt you to crack a book open and get hooked. Sure, the space has organization; there's a kid's section for leaving your 6-year-old while you scope out the more interesting stuff. But you look at the displays of new books organized by invisible publisher coops, and then you go to the discount rack to see if there are any... deals.

Presumably, Jellybooks employs large armies of elves who look at what you click on and rearrange the book selection accordingly. Perhaps they're the ones eating the jellies. I think the elves were asleep when I tried it. It's so difficult to get good elves these days. (At, we had to send the elves back, we're using Google instead.)

Jellybooks has plenty of rough edges for the dev and design team to work on, and I have no idea whether Jellybooks founder Andrew Rhomberg will figure out how to make the whole thing work at scale. But at the very least, Rhomberg and his team have laid out some new ideas about how ebooks can be presented and sold on a website.

In other news, the much anticipated Bilbary is pretty much trying to be what you asked for.
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Monday, March 19, 2012


On September 30, 2009, I was standing with about 2,000 of my lifelong friends outside old Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The machine-like new Giants Stadium loomed over us with little subtlety to recommend it. As we waited patiently for our chance to be first into the general admission section, we heard the sounds of the band's sound check. We didn't recognize the song.

The country was at the very bottom of the great recession. Our financial institutions and many of our industries were in doubt. A new president had been elected, but he seemed mired in partison bickering and legislative dysfunction. Three weeks before, the Tea Party Movement had marched on Washington. Overseas, the seeds of Arab Spring were being sown.

An hour later, the concert started, and we heard the song for the first time. It was Wrecking Ball, written to commemorate the last set of concerts in old Giants Stadium before it would be torn down. But as with every Springsteen song, we knew it was about something else entirely. Wrecking Ball is about joyfully tearing down worn-out institutions and replacing them with new things filled with hope.

I've been thinking about how it has become so much easier to do new things, even big things, hopeful things, crazy things.

A team of four people, with a bit of help from three others, has built, which, apart from approval from our payments provider, is ready to turn on. Even four years ago, it would have taken twice the work to do the same thing. Building on open source frameworks, plug-in modules, servers in the cloud, third party APIs, and SaaS development tools, and without really knowing what we're doing, we've been able to create something that didn't exist six months ago.

But it's not just software development that has given do-something power to us all. Social media- Facebook, Twitter, Meetup, et cetera, has given us the ability to form groups, act collectively, cooperate with people we never knew existed, and even meet them in person. Blogs and podcasts make is possible to argue with each other in depth and spread new ideas and new possibilities. How hard it would have been, even ten years ago, to mobilize massive opposition to a legislative done deal and wipe it off the agenda? Not even oppressive governments can survive if they provoke this new kind of of power.

When change comes, there are always people who drag their heels and do what they can to stop it. There's another set that denies the possibility that anything they do matters. But there's another set, born to optimism, that is ready to make the future happen on their own terms.

I've been writing a lot about the changes in libraries and publishing that are being brought about by the shift to digital reading and ebooks. When I wrote that Random House's price increases for lendable ebooks presented an opportunity for change, one set of reactions was biblio-fatalistic. Librarians said that publishers would never listen to them. Publishers said that Amazon was going to destroy the publishing industry anyway, not to mention copy-piracy.

But I've also met a lot of people over the last two years in the optimist column, They are finding each other and becoming stronger. A common theme in this group is technology. There's not a more "create-the-future" collection of people than the New York Tech Meetup, which gathers 700 people once a month to celebrate newly made things. #NYTM has a lot of spiritual cousins. I've participated in Code Meets Print, Code4Lib and Books in Browsers meetups, conferences and listservs. The ability to code is, to some extent, the ability to adapt and build new things; people with the tools to adapt and take advantage of new opportunities are naturally prone to accept change. And guess what? You can still learn to code, you don't have to ask permission.

But optimism is not confined to technologists. Participants in the growing Digital Book World community brand themselves as "publishing optimists"- not that anyone I've met at Tools of Change or the Publishing Point would ever admit to fatalism. Certainly, as layoffs sweep the big publishers and bookstores close left and right, there are a lot of people in publishing who can't imagine a different world, let alone a better one, and hope the industry changes over their dead bodies. But there are also countless people who are doing things that haven't been done before. In a way, every book is a start-up enterprise, every author an entrepreneur, and these days, it's just more so.

On the library side, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is running on 100% high optimism fuel (and a bit of grant money). But that's just one engine of change in the library world. I've used this blog to highlight tiny efforts such as the Uni Project and the Read/Write Library Chicago, but libraries ranging from the New York Public Library to rural libraries serving tiny communities are doing amazing things. There's a group of librarians that has organized via Facebook that calls itself the "ALA ThinkTank". It started out when a group of New Jersey librarians banded together to rent a house and save travel budget for an American Library Association conference. But they ended up learning from each other and finding ways to help each other, and have since grown to almost a thousand members.

I've come up with a label for the attitude we have to adopt during the torrent of changes in the "reading ecosystem". It's "MakeItHappenism". The label comes from the official ALA ThinkTank  hashtags, devised by ThinkTank founder JP Porcaro: #MakeItHappen and #PartyHard. Because although we each have the power to Make It Happen, it's not Going To Happen unless we can work together, feel good about it and have fun doing so. So party hard and let's make it happen together.

29 songs later, Rosie came out and jumped a little lighter.

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Random House's eBook Price Hikes are GOOD for Libraries. IF...

Random House, the last of the Big 6 Publishers to allow libraries to purchase and lend ebooks on a 1-copy-1-patron (pretend-its-print) basis, said last month that it was going to raise its pricing for libraries. The new pricing isn't set in stone, but Library Journal has reported that libraries are being asked to pay as much as three times the price of a print copy for a lendable ebook from Random House.

The general reaction from the library world was nicely summed up by ALA President Molly Raphael in an official press release: "In a time of extreme financial constraint, a major price increase effectively curtails access for many libraries, and especially our communities that are hardest hit economically."

Well, yes. But 5 years from now, libraries may well look back on Random's move and recognize it as the beginning of a new, healthier relationship between public libraries and trade publishers, one that recognizes libraries as an important player in the "reading ecology". Here are the reasons why I think it might happen:

  • eBooks aren't books! So why should the price of a library-lendable eBook be locked to the price of a print book? Once the prices of lendable ebooks are allowed to float, market forces will move them up and down. For some books, high profile best sellers for example, the market price for a lendable ebook might be 5 or 10 times the print price. A year later, that same book would have to be steeply discounted to be sellable in the library market. Books without a buzz, or by a new author might be offered to libraries well below the print price, in an attempt to prime the market and spread the word.
  • High prices for library-market books are nothing new! In academic markets where libraries make up a significant fraction of the buyers, prices are already over $100 per copy. That's because the  sales impact of inter-library loan and other forms of library sales-substitution is built-in to the price.
  • Higher prices give libraries more leverage. This is the most important benefit of higher prices for  lendable ebooks. Libraries aren't being forced to buy the 3x ebooks- they will consider prices and their limited budgets before investing in them. They'll need to demand digital product features tailored to libraries to make them worth premium prices. 

This last point is the big IF. With its move, Random House has made clear what it wants out of a new relationship with libraries- more cash per copy. In return, libraries need to demonstrate what they expect for their money. What should libraries require from their premium ebooks in exchange for premium prices? Here's my list:

  1. Portability - the ebooks shouldn't be locked to the distribution platform of a particular vendor; most libraries have existed longer than Overdrive, Adobe, Apple and Amazon combined and libraries would like to continue existing after those companies have been long forgotten. Their ebooks should persist as well.
  2. Transferability -  libraries can make their ebook assets go a lot farther if they can be traded to other libraries or library consortia.
  3. Privacy - libraries should never be forced to expose their users to the prying eyes of anybody!
  4. Accessibility -  libraries will increasingly be relied on to provide text-to-speech and other accessibility technologies to users who need them.
  5. Integrability - libraries don't want to be sources of friction, they want to provide integrated information environments. Library systems will increasingly provide capability such as annotation, discussion, advanced discovery tools and social interaction; they won't be able to do that if their ebooks are walled off behind third party DRM.

But, back in the real world,  most public libraries that offer ebooks are having difficulty keeping their digital shelves stocked due to overwhelming user demand for ebooks. If ebooks cost 3 times what they did last year, the availability will be 3 times worse. How can this situation get back into balance? I have three suggestions. First, if ebooks don't expire, as in the Harper-Collins scheme, the supply of ebooks will grow over time so that even if long wait times for hot titles are the norm, plenty of 5-year-old ebooks will be there to read for library users. Second, libraries can steer users to ebooks that don't have pretend-it's-print lending limits: those in the Public Domain or in the Creative Commons.

Here's an idea for a way that a smart publisher could help a library convert its print collection- offer a 1 for 3 (or 1 for 2) p for e  trade-in. The publisher's sales of new books would improve by suppressing competition from used books, and the library would gain inventory of older books to slake reader book-thirst.

Both libraries and publishers need to move on from backward-looking economic models. The time to start doing so is now. We can make it happen.