Here We Go Again

A quick question before I get into the main post. This is directed to those of you who have rear window wipers on your cars.

See, we had our first rain of the year yesterday, and noticed that only one driver out of a couple of dozen had turned on their rear window wipers.

So the question is, why not? Do the rear wipers not work? Do you forget they’re there? Do you just not care you can’t see anything in your rearview mirror? (The way many people change lanes these days makes me wonder if they even have rearview mirrors.)

Or is there an explanation I haven’t thought of?

Moving on.

Here we go again. The latest call for technology to rethink the book comes from David Pierce over at Wired. He might charge me with oversimplification, but I’m not seeing anything in his piece that differs from any of the “print is boring, we need to jazz it up” opinions we’ve gotten since the dawn of ebooks.

Mr. Pierce has a few more examples than we’ve seen before, because people keep experimenting, but it’s still the same idea: “books don’t have to consist only of hundreds of pages set in a row.”

Let’s skip the question of what a “book” is. Whether you consider something delivered as a series of tweets, something that allows readers to text with the characters, or something that comes with a musical soundtrack to be a book is beside the point. And yes, I’m including audiobooks as “maybe they’re books, maybe they’re not” here because they’re one of the earliest and most enduring approaches to “jazzing up the book”.

The critical problem with the idea of evolving the book is that people want books to remain books. Mr. Pierce himself points out that what made the Kindle popular was its replication of the reading experience. No pop-ups, no advertisements, no distractions from the act of moving the writer’s words into the reader’s brain. As a reader, you get to choose when to read, where to read, how fast to read, and how you react to what you read.

It’s about control. The more multimedia features you add to a “book,” the more you take control of the experience away from the reader. Add pictures, and you control the reader’s mental image. Add audio and video and you increase that control. Constrain the delivery options, and you limit the ability to decide where and when to read.

I have no problem with experiments in new ways of delivering stories–provided they don’t turn into advertisements–but any claim that such experiments will lead to the replacement of books-as-we-know-them should be regarded with great dubiety.

What I do see happening with books is that publishers will find ways to increase the reader’s control–and successful publishers will use those techniques.

A case in point: I recently purchased an ebook collection of short stories, the complete set of stories about a single character. In the foreword, the author notes that, while she would prefer people to read them in the order they were written, she recognizes that many people would prefer them in order of their internal chronology.

In a printed book, the author and editor would get to decide. If the reader prefers the other option, it means tedious flipping back to the table of contents, then flipping forward to the next story. But an ebook can be built to support both options. In this case, turning the pages as usual gives the “as written” story order, but at the end of each story there’s a link to go directly to the next story in internal chronological order. Either way, it’s a single click/tap/page turn to go to next story. At the reader’s discretion.

Convenience features, ideas to make the act of reading as we already know it more pleasant, are the future of books. Multimedia, text messages, and other bolt-on features are the future of something else.


Science fiction author David Gerrold asked an interesting question on Facebook.

“Is it stealing if I download my own book from The Pirate Bay?”

I had to think about that one. And the best answer I can come up with is “It depends.”


Let’s assume Mr. Gerrold owns the copyright on the book in question. Because he’s been around long enough not to have signed a contract that transfers the copyright to the publisher.

So, at first blush, it would seem as though he ought to be able to give himself permission to download a copy.

But, while he owns the copyright on the novel, he doesn’t own the book. His contract with the publisher (presumably) licenses them to produce and distribute a book. That is, either a bundle of pieces of paper with ink on them or a similar bundle of electrons in which the ink or the electrons reproduce the novel.

By that logic, the publisher owns the book, and Mr. Gerrold cannot simply download it.

But wait!

If this book is part of Mr. Gerrold’s extensive backlist, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s been offered for free to encourage the purchase of his other books. This is especially likely if it’s the first book of a series.

If it’s currently free, is it still theft to get it for free from an unauthorized distributor? What if it’s not free now, but it was when someone uploaded it to The Pirate Bay?

While you’re pondering those points, consider the question of royalties. Mr. Gerrold’s contract entitles him to a certain amount of money every time the publisher sells a book. However, (a) many contracts specify the royalty for ebooks as a percentage of the publisher’s net receipt on the sale–but if it’s being sold for nothing, that percentage is going to be zero. And (b) most contracts specify that no royalty will be paid on promotional copies.

On the whole, it seemed to me that the answer to the original question would be yes. But then one final point occurred to me:

Mr. Gerrold’s contract almost certainly entitles him to a certain number of free copies of his book*. These are typically the ones that wind up on the author’s shelves and in the hands of people who helped the author in some way. (For example, if Dad and I thanked you in the Acknowledgements in TRTT, that signed copy you should have received by now is one of our author copies.)

* In case you were wondering, authors also usually have the option of purchasing more copies from the publisher at a significant discount off the cover price. Such sales do not pay royalties, which makes for an interesting question. Given the online booksellers’ deep discounting habits, when you subtract the royalty from the actual price of a copy purchased through Amazon, it may actually be cheaper for the author to get his books that way than to use his discount with the publisher!

It’s usual for the author to take physical copies–nobody’s come up with a really good way to sign an ebook yet–but as far as I can tell, there’s no reason why one or more of them couldn’t be electronic.

So, if Mr. Gerrold hasn’t yet collected his author’s copies, it should be perfectly legitimate for him to download a copy from The Pirate Bay–as long as he remembers to tell the publisher to send him one less physical copy.

Strike a …

Beginning next month, Amazon will be rolling out a program called “Amazon Matchbook*”. Put simply, Amazon will let you purchase a discounted ebook of any physical book you’ve bought through Amazon since 1995. Some limitations apply; the main one is that publishers need to sign on. (Amazon promises that at least 10,000 titles will be available when the program begins.) Prices for the discounted ebooks will range from free to $3.00.

* What is it with Amazon naming its book-related hardware and programs after things related to burning? “Kindle” and “Kindle Fire”. “Matchbook”. Was Jeff Bezos traumatized by “Farenheit 451” as a child? (I hope Urban Dictionary’s definition of “burning amazon” isn’t relevant here…) Not only does it not make sense in relation to books (which was, as you may recall, where Amazon’s business started), but it shows a great insensitivity to the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest via slash and burn agriculture.

What do I think? I think it’s a great idea: anything that reduces the price of ebooks and makes it easier to buy them will reduce piracy (as we’ve seen with music, we’ll never eliminate piracy, but we can cut it back). We’ve seen over and over that cheap or free availability of ebooks actually increases sales of physical books for backlist titles. That’s all good for authors.

I’d like to see the publishers take the next step and make this kind of plan common across the industry. Not everyone has–or wants–a Kindle. If I could get a similar plan for ebooks in non-DRMed epub format so I can move them freely among all the devices and programs I use to read ebooks, I’d certainly be willing to pay a couple of bucks a piece.

I’m not blind to the potential problems here. If publishers jack up the price of physical books to “cover the cost” of making ebooks available, I’m going to resent it every time I buy a book when I don’t want an ebook edition. (Note to publishers: Raising the price of the physical book and charging a fee for the ebook would be just plain greedy. Don’t do it.) Given that the cost to create the ebook edition is fixed, I would hope that the fee would be the same regardless of the format of the physical edition: I shouldn’t have to pay more (or less!) for the ebook bundled with the paperback edition than with the hardback.

There are also some oddities in Amazon’s plan. Most notably, I don’t see anything that requires a customer to show that they still own the physical book in order to get the ebook. If someone bought the book and then sold it to a used book store or gave it away, should they still be entitled to a discount on the ebook? Even if I still own the physical book, do I have a legal or moral obligation to dispose of the ebook if I dispose of the physical book later? Can I sell the physical book and give the ebook away? (My take: right of first sale should apply. I should be able to sell, give away, or destroy either or both editions.)

Interestingly, it looks like it’s steamship time: a company called BitLit is preparing to launch a discounted ebook service for books purchased anywhere just about the same time that Amazon Matchbook launches. Since they don’t have purchase records, their model requires that you demonstrate your ownership of the book by uploading a picture of your signature on the copyright page. An interesting approach. I see some significant problems with it: can they detect if you’ve signed a slip of paper and laid it on the book? Is there an alternative if you don’t want to write in your book? BitLit’s model would presumably let you purchase the discounted ebook even if you bought the physical book used — though the requirement to sign the book may cause problems: if the model catches on, there are going to be issues when books start showing up with multiple signatures on the copyright page. I suspect that just the possibility of using a used book to get the ebook will scare off more than a few publishers.

So in short: there are technical problems and unanswered questions, but on the whole I regard Matchbook, BitLit, and their siblings as steps in the right direction.