I was recently a guest blogger over on the government Web Toolkit and got to talk about some of the publishing work I’m involved in at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage: Multi-Channel Publishing. Like a lot of the people I work with, I’m incredibly lucky to be able to spend the working week doing something I find really interesting. It’s a privilege really, doubly so given the real commitment that the Ministry is showing to exploring new ways of publishing that connect New Zealanders with content about them.
Earlier in the year we also got some love from the Creative Commons Aotearoa, who interviewed me in December last year and profiled our approach to licensing our content. Again, work is taking small but important steps to support openness with its content.
It often feels like I’m surrounded by a lot of really smart and dedicated people both at work and in what we call the wider sector – those museums and libraries and archives that collect and store and protect the treasures that form so much of our culture. They’re people working as much for love as for money, often against the political odds and with two eyes firmly on protecting the present for the benefit of the future. It’s a great thing to be involved in.
I remember before coming back to New Zealand explaining to an American friend in the UK that New Zealand is still a small social experiment – think emigration to the far-flung corners of the Pacific or the other side of the world, depending where you started; think social security; think the free market ideology of the 80s. New Zealand’s always been a place of experiment. That’s kind of what I feel we’re still doing, but in the culture and heritage world: playing with new forms of technology in ways that respect where we’ve come from and try to navigate to somewhere new.
What I really enjoy about what they’re saying and writing is a recognition of the power of digital and the enduring yet changing quality of physical. It’s an awareness that’s growing in another world I’m interested in too, publishing.
In the library, we’ve discovered that print has become a privileged medium whose allure seems to grow greater as books recede from the everyday sphere. So while the world enacts the end of print and the onset of bit-based book simulations, it simultaneously celebrates print as a special kind of experience. (Megan Shaw Prelinger in ‘The Library as a Map’.)
That special experience has taken generations to evolve but it feels like it’s only recently that digital designers and producers have recognized it and started using its lessons on the visual web. Small type and tight layout are gone in favor of large easy-reading faces, generous leading, white space and margins, resembling more and more a printed page.
Edges and canons
I’ve come across a couple of other overlapping ideas from print recently thanks to Craig Mod and Aaron Straup Cope. Craig Mod talks about the ‘edges’ that a book provides a reader; it’s contained, you know where you are in it and your place’s relationship to the beginning and end.
Not dissimilarly, Aaron Straup Cope in conversation during last year’s NDF talked about the ‘canon’ in the Western canon sense: “denotes a body of books and, more broadly, music and art that have been the most important and influential in shaping Western culture. As such, it includes the ‘greatest works of artistic merit.’”
Physicality is central to creating a canon: it’s constrained, by a book that can only fit the names of so many great writers, musicians and artists, to a library that can only fit so many great and canonical works. In effect it’s the edges that define the canon.
In a digital world then we experience the freedom to move beyond the canon but perhaps also lose the boundaries that give structure and process to reading and thinking.
Commerce and crowds
Back to summer, and the Summer 2012 issue of New Zealand Books (vol. 22, no. 4, issue 100) featured four comment pieces about digital publishing. It felt like a good number for a country that hasn’t yet embraced ebooks to the extent in the US. Not all were in favour; Guy Somerset and Jenny Nicholls were unimpressed. But Julia Marshall from Gecko Press and epublisher Penelope Todd were more pragmatic, positive even.
Gecko Press produce beautiful books, artefacts, but Marshall believes digital is capable of producing artefacts, at least in the made-by-hand sense: “we are aiming for simple but elegant productions – the same aims as with our printed books.” (‘Matters of form’.)
Penelope Todd, in ‘What we make of it’, picks up on the artefact too, comparing physical and digital books to cars and horses: “Perhaps the ebook will prove to be the motorcar of the future – freeing the book to become the horse, a coveted object of beauty…”. But it’s her suggestion that digital is a proving ground for new publishing that’s interesting:
I see digital publishing as an ongoing experiment that nonetheless offers a viable life for an author’s work. I can also be seen as a holding or testing pen for the growing body of good writing deemed too financially risky to publish in hard copy. Work that makes its mark in e-book format should be the very work that publishers turn into finely produced hard copy… with lasting value conferred on works that make it into covers.
She’s suggesting, effectively, that commerce and sales generate one of the most accurate pictures of what’s popular – it’s what the crowd will pay for. By taking what the crowd wants and turning it from digital to physical, will we then see a new crowd-sourced canon?
It’s thinking like that though that gives me some hope for publishing, some hope that publishers are seeing ways of using a new digital ecosystem to continue producing beautiful books, physical and digital. It’s a sign of digital learning from physical and physical learning from digital.
Rights and wrongs
Both of my sons are devoted DVD watchers. Broadcast TV is pretty much off their radar. It always amuses me to watch my two-year-old stare blankly at the screen as the copyright notices at the start of his DVDs roll slowly by. Clearly he’s not reading it; neither am I.
Meanwhile, my seven-year-old recently discovered the joy of Gangnam Style thanks to this rendition by Pocoyo.
It’s not a world that gives many publishers much comfort. The Publishers Association (NZ) put out a news release in December that argued strongly for maintaining the status quo around all rights issues. There are a lot of arguments contained in that short piece, and as it summarizes various talks by Auckland University Press’s Sam Elworthy, it’s hard to gauge the balance in the original talks. But what it does argue for is the continuation of rules and processes that were established in a pre-digital age to protect works in what is now a very digital age.
Elworthy makes a lot of fair points. Selling rights into different territories, for example, makes sense for taking advantage of local knowledge, and yes, a work like the Princeton Companion to Mathematics takes years and a huge investment for a publisher to produce. Similarly, he notes that in producing a 1200 page anthology of New Zealand literature, he couldn’t find many authors willing to share their content for free.
But how much sense do territorial rights make when you consider that digital has no edges and knows no territories? Perhaps a tome-like companion is no longer the right medium for popularizing and informing people about mathematics, when much of the research is probably largely publicly funded in any case. And isn’t it to be expected that a publisher will never find people willing to share their content for free in a project that’s clearly commercial? What this really makes me wonder is whether the business model needs protecting or if it’s just too busted to bother? Do publishers risk becoming obsolete if they stick with existing business models?
We’ve all heard it before: there’s a fundamental change underway, a paradigm shift. We know this don’t we? Or do we? Rick Prelinger in ‘Preexisitng Material’ is especially concerned that traditional archives don’t:
If archives don’t open their doors, and if they don’t find ways to act like cultural producers and push their holdings out to the public for people to experience and work with, they face a very uncertain future. In fact, they face obsolescence.
Younger people, who form the vast majority of mediamakers, have already given up on legacy archives. They know they can’t get material from old-school repositories, and have routed around them. They’ll get sounds and images from filesharing sites and YouTube, regardless of who thinks they own them. Do copyright maximalists really think they’re going to retrain an entire generation to ask permission?
Archives and publishers are facing surprisingly similar challenges; they’re both facing obsolescence if they don’t recognize changes that are being driven by a generation of expectation.
I’m not offering answers for either archivists or publishers; I can’t begin to say I have a full understanding of either’s position. I’m not an archivist, and while I’ve worked for commercial publishers in the past, I don’t any longer. I probably occupy an uneasy space between the two of them, working as I do for a digital publisher that draws heavily on archives and other cultural collections but that is part of a government department and so avoids the financial pressures of a commercial publisher.
But it’s not hard to see the changes that will affect them both. Changes in a world that sees copying and re-using, being global and being immediate as normal and right. Neither archives nor publishers can expect to retrain those growing up in this world or undo the expectations that are shaping it. What they have to do is find the models that will sustain them into the future.
I’m currently reading a very long post about Wikileaks, a rant by Bruce Sterling (The Blast Shack). Sterling specialises in rants, though for rants I find them pretty readable. It’s long, and apparently it’s generated a lot of comments. Now maybe I should have checked first but I’m part-way through and I’d like to know how much of Sterling’s writing I’ve got left before the comments start (which I’ll probably only skim). So how do I check without losing my place?
It’s got me thinking about something I’d like to see in web design to help long-form reading: a graphic ticker tape-like bar on the side of the screen that shows the proportion of the page that’s the story and the proportion that’s comments, plus a marker to show where I’m up to. That can’t be too hard can it?
DRM makes me queasy. Whichever way you cut it it’s a hard one to know really which way to go. Ultimately I feel drawn to the DRM-free side of the argument, merely for the sake of making life easy on consumers. They are after all the last people that publishers want to get off-side with. If I were a publisher I’d give DRM-free a shot and see how it went; it just seems like a suck-it-and-see kind of thing. At the very least follow some of John Noring’s suggestions to keep the DRM as light and the file as flexible for the reader as possible.
It’s a vexed question, and the hardest bit to handle is the question of who pays the author when no one buys the book? I don’t think anyone quite has an answer to that, but nor do they have any substantial facts and figures about the effect DRM-lite or DRM-free might have on sales.
But the alternative question is what’s the real threat? Sure, one person might buy a book and mention it to a friend who’ll ask to borrow it, a situation that’s no different to a print book. The fear is that ebooks are that much easier to distribute therefore the peron who buys the book won’t just lend it to a friend who who asks to borrow but will for some reason send it to all their friends just in case they all want to borrow it as well. I don’t think that’s likely.
Where the argument falls down is that the friend who borrowed the book doesn’t have to give it back under a DRM-free model. I’m not sure that’s a huge problem; if they didn’t like the book, nothing lost and nothing gained. If they did, they’ll probably be buying others by the same author without waiting to borrow copies first. Like NAP’s Jensen says, DRM gets in the way of discoverability, whether by search engines or people. Conversely, unlocking content makes it findable and turns it into its own marketing device.
It does make it sounds as though publishers are being held to ransom – don’t use DRM or the vandals at the gates will pirate your books. Create a relationship that the readers wants you to feed – subscription models for up-to-date titles, pre-releases, special deals etc.
I think there’s something in the idea of micro- or distributed patronage and I’d like to see it take off. It’s a kind of dreamy world though: Radiohead pulled it off (I forget the album — maybe not one of the better ones…), and This American Life makes regular calls for donations to support its podcasts; Kiva‘s a different take on the same idea, and Brooklyn Museum supports a fan network through donations. These are all examples where there’s a community and organisation that drives the patronage. I’m not so sure how that translates to lonely writers and their often mistrusted publishers. (And I say that with no slur intended on publishers, but more to point to a misunderstanding of the value of publishers held by many readers.)
Is that the real challenge for publishers? To build genuine communities that readers want to belong to and will feel is worth continuing to contribute to financially. Maybe at the same time break down some of the misunderstanding about the role of the publisher and the restrictions in which they operate. And further, demonstrate to the readers the collaboration that takes place between author, editor and publisher, and ultimately reader. Letting readers know how valuable their contribution is to maintaining the ecosystem might be one of the biggest sales yet.
In short, forget about DRM and think about your readers, and make them think about you.
Well, I’m not entirely clear what the big threat to local publishers is, nor even to the big ones. And if there is a problem, I think it could be worse for the big publishers who have come to rely on revenues streams by buying and selling territorial rights. Large publishers are already dominant – that’s been the case in New Zealand for years – but maybe the end of territorial rights breaks one of their strangleholds if it mean New Zealand publishers can go straight out to other markets. Learn from the French and Spanish publishers and retain world rights, as Edward Nawotka suggests.
There aren’t currently a lot of New Zealand books selling rights overseas and there’s a probably a useful enough model that could take the place of selling territorial rights. Maybe a shared rights on world sales? I’d be interested to know how much money we’re talking in terms of overeas rights on New Zealand books and whether that might be recouped by a share in the world rights?
New Zealand authors will still primarily sign with New Zealand publishers, and New Zealand publishers will continue to sell New Zealand books to that relatively small percentage of the local population that thinks it’s important to support New Zealand authors, books and publishers. Removing territorial rights won’t fundamentally change the precarious state of these relationships one way or the other as far as I can see.
What the smart New Zealand publisher can do though is start selling ebooks and print-on-demand ready books anywhere they can find a market. Isn’t that a good possibility? And a little bit of success for a publisher is going to attract more authors wanting to piggy-back on it.
Maybe there’s a chance overseas publishers will dump stock on New Zealand, though that happens already, and New Zealand is such a small market – that may counter any increase. Typically too, dumped books are dross and not the sort of thing that many New Zealand publishers produce. (Side-note on non-dross parallel importing: here’s a project for someone with a connect at Unity Books – ask them where their yellow circle logo comes from.)
Martin Taylor defended territorial rights on Teleread last year, but it strikes me that he’s talking about a handful of local companies buying local rights and/or handling distribution deals. I’m not convinced that really encourages a local industry, certainly not one that’s focussed on developing authors and high-quality local content. I also suspect most of these ‘local’ companies are local branches of overseas publishers.
I’m optimistic that the end (and yes, I’m assuming the end will come) of territorial rights won’t mean the end of different prices in different markets. David Grigg, writing from Australia, complained that he couldn’t buy a US ebook. That was based on IP recognition: the website he tried to buy from knew where he was and refused the sale. In the same way a website will be able to recognise users coming from developing countries and price ebooks accordingly.
The inevitability of the end of territorial rights seems to have become fact. Consumers won’t and aren’t putting up with it, and it forms part of a traditional approach to the world that no longer really works. I seriously think that local New Zealand publishers can either avoid much impact as they’re not in the habit of selling overseas rights, or can benefit from retaining world rights and selling to new online markets.
This seems like one of the trickiest bits of the emerging publishing reality, how to price ebooks, and what effect it has on the entire chain of marketing and distribution. And what effect on the print books? That may be one of the keys to the discussion – does the ebook only exist in relation to a printed equivalent and how many print equivalents are there? For publishers today, it seems the ebook doesn’t exist without a printed book, and for many there’s both a hard cover and paperback to consider.
Amazon’s dominance has confused the issue, so the emergence of an agency model is encouraging if it hands some control back to publishers. That control would allow publishers to set the price across all channels, or even only a few channels if the percentages worked out in such a way that they could ignore some. If Apple can help push an agency model, good on them; my only worry with Apple is the gate-keeper role they tend to play – various complaints about getting iPhone apps released through their approval system suggest at least a little concern is warranted.
The problem as publishers see it remains one of estimating the knock-on effect to print of selling ebooks and how to price them in comparison to the print. I miss the point on this every time so please set me straight, but why not just set the ebook price the same as the cheapest print price? While the only version out is the hardback, the ebook is that price. When the paperback’s released, the ebook becomes that price. There must be a flaw here, but I’m not seeing it.
But the concern of the effect of ebooks on print is in a sense an invented one: if you’re still selling x number of ‘books’ then where’s the issue? The real problem is the uncertainty of how many people want a print copy and how many would rather have the electronic copy. Do you print fewer at a higher unit cost but with lower warehousing costs, or should you include the number of e-copies you hope to sell in working out the unit cost over the combined print+ebook run? Again, the theory doesn’t seem complicated, just we’re dealing with a new set of variables that haven’t settled down yet.
So another thought I had was to think about something a friend said recently: she’s no longer buying a book without first reading a library copy. She’s only going to buy once she’s decided something is worth reading again and therefore worth owning. There could be something in that for publishers – a cheap or free ebook that whets the collector’s appetite for the ‘real’ thing, or the sampler that tempts people to buy the enhanced ebook, whatever that is.
Which brings us back to the first question for publishers to consider: is the ebook just another variant of a print title or is it something with no print equivalent? If the latter then pricing becomes relatively straightforward – editorial and production costs, royalties, distribution (i.e., data management) costs, etc, plus a profit on top. And publishers will need to do like the Harvard post says – make insanely great things that people want to buy and then there’s no harm in charging what it costs to produce. Make something that’s dull (like a poorly imitated book experience) and price-setting is far more at the whim of the purchaser.