Law in Contemporary Society

The e-Book and Thoughtful Readership

-- By JamieGottlieb - 15 May 2009

The delivery of most mainstream media has been revolutionized by the internet. People listen to music and watch television and movies over computer screens. The epitaph for the traditional, offline news media has become a commonplace.

Books, however, had steadfastly resisted the internet revolution, even as the percentage of Americans who read books regularly increased through the last decade. Yet while books have resisted the transition to the computer screen, the development of one new device, the Amazon Kindle e-reader, augurs the beginning of the transition from paper book to e-book.

The e-reader has been criticized, for example, for hastening the destruction of the material culture of books. But such criticisms are tangential to the primary purpose of books, the transfer of information, for which the e-reader and its e-books will unquestionably be a boon. Nevertheless, there are significant challenges to the cause of thoughtful readership created both by the development of the e-book in general and by Amazon’s rapid rise to dominance in the field in particular.

Why e-Books are Different: Delivery and Consumption

Why is the emergence of the Kindle a cause for concern? The most familiar analogy is the emergence of Apple’s iPod and the shift of recorded music to online delivery, the primary effects of which have been to dent the exorbitant profits of the recording industry and to drive increased consumption of a broader range of music – seemingly less-than-troubling phenomena.

Yet books are not music. Books represent the densest and richest conglomerations of information in popular media, and – when approached thoughtfully with an attitude of cultivation rather than consumption – are the major locus of the progress and direction of intellectual development. Such an approach – encouraged by the purposefulness and patience required by purchase of a book from a store, ordering a book for delivery, or even printing a hard copy of an internet text - contrasts markedly with the spirit of rapid gratification associated with the near-instantaneous delivery of electronic media over the internet.

The fear, therefore, is that the very efficiency of the delivery and use of e-books will drive users of this format to read less thoughtfully and more like consumers, thus favoring books that lend themselves to consumption. Further challenges abound. Efficient access to summary and commentary resources could serve to funnel even thoughtful readers along well-worn paths through works. Such paths exist already, of course, but the thoughtful reader must work to discover them, which provides an opportunity for both intellectual work and serendipitous insight that the e-book could eliminate.

Why e-Books are Different: File Formats and Freedom

While such challenges must be recognized, they are inseparable from the progress of a technology whose benefits, as noted above, make it neither possible nor desirable to fight. The same may not be said of more troubling concerns that relate to the particular circumstances of the e-book industry. Again, a contrast with online music is instructive. Before Apple’s rise to dominance in online music sales, a common standard] – mp3 – had emerged. This format had been adopted virtually universally before any company seriously pursued online music sales. Since the creators of mp3 have taken a liberal approach to their patent, the medium of online music has remained generally free of restrictions either on the material that artists might make available or on for those who wish to obtain such works.

In contrast, e-books failed to achieve popularity until now, with the emergence of a dominant industry leader – Amazon – equipped with its own proprietary format. Kindle owners may purchase books in copyright in only one format: awz files that may be obtained exclusively through Amazon. Out-of-copyright books may also be downloaded for free from elsewhere on the internet, but only in poorly-supported formats that must be converted to awz. Kindle books are explicitly non-transferable to any other user or device.

There is an accepted open format for e-books, and it is supported by other e-readers including that of Amazon’s largest rival, Sony. However, due to the dominance of the Kindle and the preference of publishers for the distribution restrictions that Amazon imposes, more than twice as many books are available in Amazon’s awz as in the open epub format.

The result is a single clearinghouse for e-books. Readers would have only those books that Amazon provides, only within Amazon’s framework, and only at Amazon’s price.

A Way Forward for Authors, Publishers, Readers, and Teachers

On the supply side, authors must leave behind the fight to extend prerogatives that are particular to physical book formats into the realm of electronic books. Similarly, publishers must understand that attempts to protect copyrights by recourse to a monolithic company’s proprietary format will ultimately reduce rather than increase authors’ and publishers’ control over their books. Instead, these stakeholders must be convinced that they can best capitalize on the potential benefits of e-books by working within the context of an open format accessible to any party that wishes to sell books or provide applications to add to books’ value.

On the demand side, thoughtful readers should commit to supporting the open epub standard. By driving this standard to a more prominent position in the marketplace, Amazon and other future e-book companies might be forced to support it. After all, the mp3 standard was so widespread that not to support it in a device would have been suicidal.

Finally, teachers must tailor their approach to books to a new regime in which works are easy to search and are accompanied by canonical commentaries. Particularly fruitful approaches might be ironically low-tech: greater emphasis on the creative interpretation of a portion of a text rather than the understanding of a commonly-accepted set of themes, and the sacrifice of some typed papers in favor of oral exams testing on-the-spot critical thinking rather than the ability to parrot others’ easily-accessible words.

  • I don't understand this essay at all. In the first place, it's not technically well-informed. Of course there's a standard for free books: it's called ASCII. The total number of proprietary works available in Amazon's captive format, or Epub for that matter, is tiny compared to the output of Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, and the Million Books Project, and all the other places where electronic texts are. Epub isn't an open format; it's a controlled, DRM'd piece of shit same as Amazon, meant to propitiate the publishers by controlling copying and redistribution, and just as evil and destined for death as the Amazon approach. The Kindle is important only if you read Mr Bezos' bullshit. Free reading software like FBreader that handles all the free and some of the proprietary formats runs in every smart phone and on every laptop in the world.

  • Second, the sociology is wrong. The reason the book has been eroded more slowly than the DVD and the CD is that it was harder to rip. Digitizing books for yourself was difficult, particularly if you wanted to do it non-destructively. But with the design and publication of the book-ripper, a cheap build-it-yourself device that for less than $200 can copy 1,000 pages an hour non-destructively and turn any bound book into usable e-text, as well as inexpensive high-speed sheet-fed scanners you can use to scan guillotined books even more rapidly, along with good free OCR software, making e-texts is going to be something everyone can do. Amazon and other parties attempting to prop up or remonopolize publication are going to fail, and once people get used to books without physical embodiment, the whole idea of book publishing as a hierarchically-controlled activity will disappear.

  • Third, the points of your own that you want to make, about reading behavior, have no support whatever: they're just speculation, and not even grounded speculation. If books are easier to obtain, people will obtain schlock, seems to be your point. This hasn't turned out to be the way it worked when music and film became freer media and people could get pretty much anything they wanted without having to pay for it. Why should it be true here?

  • If this is a topic that interests you, as it apparently does, we could spend some time working on it together. I think the route to a better essay here lies through more basic research into the actualities, technical and socioeconomic: there's only so far you can get towards the understanding of free culture by ignoring the activities of the Free World.


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r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:48:43 - IanSullivan
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