Archive for the ‘Electronic Publishing’ Category

Using blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and e-books to get the word out.


Is e-book piracy ethical?

Awhile back, New York Times columnist Jeffrey Seglin posed a question that looks at a particular aspect of copyright law: is it morally (if not legally) acceptable to pirate an e-book if you own the original hardcopy edition? Although most pirates offer specious justification for their actions, this particular question warrants more thoughtful consideration.

Historically, I have engaged in similar activities: if I owned a video game, I considered it reasonable for me to acquire the soundtrack to said game, regardless of the means. Sometimes this meant connecting my PlayStation's audio output to my computer's input and making my own recording; other times, it was copying the album that had been released as a separate product. Video games have since adapted to such exploitation with copyrights that individually name the art, design, programming, and music, which would seem to deny any legal basis for my youthful actions.

Moreover, a game's soundtrack provides a unique experience within and without the context of the game, just as a book is different from an e-book. In a game, music is used to complement the on-screen action, whereas separately, it may be used without requiring gameplay to invoke its own imagery. Similarly, a book has a look, touch, and feel all its own, while an e-book is portable, markable, and potentially more transportable. To argue that buying one grants a license to a union of these benefits is dubious.

My response to Mr. Seglin's question was quoted in his follow-up:

I think it's fair to create your own translation of a product you own for personal use — such as scanning a book to put on your Kindle, or digitizing a CD to load onto your iPod.

To enjoy the fruits of someone else's translation efforts means making the investment in their version of that product. To do otherwise is still piracy.

I may not find it ethical for a consumer to steal something they already own in a different format — but to end the discussion there ignores the other party in the transaction. Is it ethical for the corporation to expect consumers to pay twice for the same content? If it were possible to provide proof of purchase, surely a discount for existing customers would be both respectful of their patronage as well as an incentive toward future business, as software developers do when offering upgrades to new versions. When dealing with more physical products, such a policy could more easily be implemented in small contexts, such as when the developer and distributor of said product are one in the same. As an example, Jason Scott's GET LAMP documentary comes with an upgrade guarantee:

What drives me absolutely nuts is buying the same film multiple times.

What I'm talking about is you buy a DVD of something, and you enjoy it. Then they come out with a special edition of the same thing and you buy it again. Then there's a downloadable version, and you buy that. And so on. And so on. It makes some people very rich, but it's just a completely disrespectful thing to do to the people who brought you success in the first place. It sucks.

So here's what I am doing.


It is the right of Mr. Scott as the copyright holder of GET LAMP to determine the availability and value of his product (which is why he chooses to release it under Creative Commons). As Mr. Scott told me in an interview for Computerworld, "You've already paid me, I've already made a profit off you — I don't want to make another profit off you!" It is a generous (and perhaps expensive) approach he has chosen that could be considered the opposite extreme of corporations that charge the full amount for content that is improved but not new. A balance between the two could prove lucrative for all parties.

Like me, Mr. Seglin is not a lawyer, and his column looks at issues from an ethical, not legal or political, perspective. It's a useful prompt for us to look beyond the law and more rigorously examine how our own philosophies concur or disagree with society's external guidelines.

New York Times to charge for online content

The New York Times recently announced that it will start charging for online access in 2011. My friends have been weighing the pros and cons of digital readers, dealing with bulky newspapers while commuting, and the amount of articles they'd be reading before having to pay.

I feel that train commuters are likely to be among the first to take advantage of portable e-readers like the Kindle that are finally maturing. Print advertising revenues have plummeted thanks to CraigsList,, and eBay, so traditional newspapers and magazines have suffered financially in the past several years.

However, the move to subscription-based journalistic content has been fairly gradual, and there's likely to be resistance from readers accustomed to free articles for their RSS feeds. Also, it hasn't yet been proven that battery-powered devices are that much more friendly to the environment than recyclable newsprint. The popularity of microblogs on Twitter and short, text-based mobile updates may be transient as smartphones like the iPhone gain full Web-display capabilities.

As part of my career in the news industry, I've been following these developments closely for the past decade or so and attended many professional conference sessions on the topic. Computerworld still has a biweekly print magazine, but TechTarget, my current employer, is online only and maintains numerous specialized Web sites for business IT audiences.

Progress is inevitable; let's just hope that news organizations reinvest in the staffers needed to produce in-depth, objective content to help citizens and organizations make informed decisions!

Announcing the Plastic Logic Que e-reader

The annual Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, is currently being held in Las Vegas. I've long had my calendar bookmarked in anticipation of yesterday being the release of Plastic Logic's Que e-reader, as its 8.5" x 11" dimensions poses it to become for periodicals what other e-readers are doing for books. From the Que's Web site:

Product Specifications

  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g), USB, Bluetooth ® 2.0
  • Memory: 4 GB (Approx. 3.6 GB available for user data)
  • Display (viewable area): 10.5-inch diagonal, 944 x 1264 pixels at 150ppi, 8 gray levels
  • User Interface: Full Touchscreen, Virtual Keyboard
  • Battery: Rechargeable Lithium-ion battery, charging via computer or wall charger
  • Dimensions: 8.5" x 11" x .3"
  • Weight: Approximately 17 ounces

Supported Formats

  • QUE has native on-device support for PDF, GIF, JPEG, PNG, BMP, ePub, and TXT
  • Using the QUE software on your computer, QUE supports printable formats such as Microsoft Office 2003/2007

The Que's touch-screen interface sets it apart from the Kindle and Nook, which rely on traditional physical input. I believe doing so eliminates a cumbersome layer between the user and the content, and the Que's ability to annotate and highlight text is an expected feature of print media, which e-readers are trying to improve upon. Given that touch screens are available on as affordable and versatile a device as the Nintendo DS, I see no reason not to apply this technology to more practical purposes.

However, the device's price tag definitely identifies it as for "business professionals": models are available at either $649 and $799. And beyond the hardware is the software — which, if previous demonstrations are any indication, still have a ways to go.

It takes a lot of clicks on Plastic Logic's various Web sites before you finally arrive at the page to pre-order the Que, which ships in April 2010. Oddly enough, the page's domain is specifications/ — Barnes and Noble? What involvement does the publisher of the Nook have in this competing product?

Computerworld, one of Plastic Logic's publishing partners, has the full story on the Que, one of 40 e-readers due to be released this calendar year.

Clumsy e-readers and elegant newspapers

The Barnes & Noble nook has recently drawn attention to the e-book market, but let's not forget the falling circulation of newspapers and magazines. They too are trying to adopt to this digital age, yet their attempts to persuade me of their savviness fall flat.

Time Inc, Condé Nast, Meredith, Hearst, and News Corp. have collaborated to create a shared vision for digital editions of their print publications. Here's a demo of their model of the future:

Does anyone else find this example unappealing? Maybe it's the use of a CGI hand instead of an actual, physical user demonstration, but the interface for these digital magazines strikes me as cumbersome and loaded more with bells and whistles than with practical features — as though the device were aimed at luring print luddites, not existing IT connoisseurs. Nothing at the homepage of the SI Tablet, as this particular model is apparently called, dissuades me from that opinion.

The benefits of such a transition may be overrated. Some print newspapers seem to be weathering both this economy and media revolution decently, with below-average losses in circulation, revenue, and staff. It's encouraging news, as hardcopy still has much to offer. In stark contrast to the above stilted proof-of-concept is this functional representation of existing technology:

Some futurists predict that the last print newspaper will be circulated in 2050, after which all written communication will occur digitally. I hope the day is longer off than that, as a healthy democracy will long have room and need for print journalism.

Why would the Atlantic publish on the Kindle?

In a publishing discussion forum I participate in, a friend recently posted her concerns over a recent announcement regarding exclusive content for the Amazon Kindle:

An article in today's New York Times announced that the Atlantic will sell some short stories exclusively on Kindle… This concept bothers me for a couple of reasons. First, the Kindle seems to be the most restrictive of the e-readers… Second, selling a short story exclusively to the Kindle is essentially creating a work that only a privileged few can ever read.

She's right that the Kindle is more restrictive than other readers, but not by much. The only advantage Sony's e-reader has over it in format compatibility is in its support of ePub files, for example. Wikipedia has a handy chart that compares all the hardware's compatibilities.

As for why anyone would choose to make their content available on only the Kindle, check out this table of who owns the e-book market: a quarter of all e-book readers are Amazon Kindles. That's twenty-five times greater than the Sony eBook Reader, and many more times still than the unproven nook. If the Atlantic wants maximum exposure for their content, it makes sense to go with the market leader. (And it's possible Amazon offered them some strong incentives to provide this exclusive content — something e-publishing fledgling B&N couldn't afford while investing in launching their own product.)

However, though there's something to be said for getting in on the ground floor, I think it's too early to be pledging allegiances just yet. It was just last year that early adopters of the HD-DVD format found themselves orphaned in the face of Blu Ray's victory, as this comic strip recently reminded me, for example. How many of today's e-readers will soon be similarly unsupported? The Atlantic may see the potential in taking a risk with a particular product, but I'm more than happy to wait this one out, and then through my weight behind a sure thing.

If e-books were a technology that needed my support to survive — so many people skipped the Sega Dreamcast in favor of its eventual successor that there was never the sales to warrant a successor — then I would be less hesitant. But given the nook's overwhelming presales, I don't think electronic publishing's pioneers will suffer for my economical patience.

Wikipedia's growing pains

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about how Wikipedia is losing editors faster than it's recruiting them. There are a variety of proposed reasons for this exodus. Some are content-driven, such as many essential entries having already been written, thus requiring fewer contributors than when the site was founded. But many reasons are bureaucratic:

"Wikipedia is becoming a more hostile environment," contends Mr. Ortega, a project manager at Libresoft, a research group at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid. "Many people are getting burnt out when they have to debate about the contents of certain articles again and again."

Mr. Ortega is not alone in identifying the trials and tribulations inherent in Wikipedia's open source nature. Digital historian Jason Scott (based in nearby Waltham, Mass.) has often criticized Wikipedia not for the accuracy of its final product, but for the system by which that product is developed:

This is what I mean; you have a brick house that, from a distance, looks decently enough like a house that people say "see, community building works". But what isn't obvious on the surface is how many times those bricks have been pulled apart, reassembled, replaced, shifted, modified, and otherwise fiddled with for no good reason other than battling an endless army of righteous untrained bricklayers who decided to put a window there… no, there… wait, no window at all. If you declare the final brick house a "victory" while ignoring the astounding toll of human labor required to get it so, then you are not understanding why I consider Wikipedia a failure.

Scott's essay was posted in May 2005; now, in light of the Wall Street Journal's report, it seems as much diagnostic as prognostic. Wikipedia is consulted by professionals, academics, and the curious worldwide, but the value derived by its visitors may not justify the overwhelming energy and exhaustion that powers its content's formative stages.

The issue calls into question the value of crowdsourcing, which is intended to take advantage of the diversity, expertise, and sheer quantity of the masses. But to tame that plurality, Wikipedia has devised standards that could be contributing to the problem, says the WSJ:

… Wikipedia, one of the world's largest crowdsourcing initiatives, is becoming less freewheeling and more like the organizations it set out to replace. Today, its rules are spelled out across hundreds of Web pages. Increasingly, newcomers who try to edit are informed that they have unwittingly broken a rule — and find their edits deleted, according to a study by researchers at Xerox Corp.

Take a look at the Wikipedia editors' manual and you'll see the problem: twenty-one grueling chapters from which to learn about the database's style, format, and purpose. Such rules are typical of a professional publication whose staff have been trained and compensated for learning and applying such guidelines, but there is little incentive for a drive-by contributor to dedicate herself to memorizing the manual. Perhaps those organizations that Wikipedia set out to replace existed for a reason — one that, in the move from print media to digital, we've forgotten, leading to mass layoffs of copyeditors and other quality control staff. Wikipedia's current straits may signal a return to those more expensive but more authoritative sources.

Despite these issues, Wikipedia is still seen by many as a definitive reference, with a 20% growth in site traffic in the last twelve months. Wikipedia's founders feel they can continue to grow its content with a smaller core of contributors, and they are also rolling out a redesigned interface that they theorize will be more welcoming to newcomers.

Of course, none of these problems or solutions address the observation some have made that Wikipedia is a valuable source for nothing that matters. As the WSJ reports, "By [Wikipedia's] own internal grading standards, the article on Louis Pasteur, one of the founders of microbiology … is lower in quality than its article on James T. Kirk, the fictional Star Trek captain."

The present and future of e-readers

It's been an interesting last week for e-readers.

First, the Barnes & Noble Nook, due in stores November 30th, is enjoying such great demand that, unless you preordered one, your order will not be fulfilled until 2010. I expect demo units will still be available in retail outlets, as I doubt B&N would miss the opportunity to market to the 2009 holiday crowds, thus generating even more sales for 2010.

Then, as a response to growing competition, the Kindle got a firmware update that offers better battery life, PDF compatibility, and easier landscape orientation. However, just like Amazon's removal of 1984 from some readers' Kindles, this update was pushed automatically to users, leaving them to wonder: who's really in charge of their e-readers?

And, despite all these advances, here are eight reasons e-readers could fail:

  1. Price of devices
  2. Price of e-books
  3. Smartphones
  4. Apple's rumored tablet computer
  5. Popular authors aren't sure about e-books
  6. Digital rights
  7. Open publishing standards, or not?
  8. Librarians and small bookstores

In evidence of #5, last week I attended a book signing by fantasy author R.A. Salvatore. As we discussed the unknown future of the publishing industry, he offered his own anecdote: Vector Prime, his only Star Wars novel and the one that infamously killed Chewbacca, sold 145,000 copies in hardcover and 500,000 in paperback. The title's e-book sales to date? 147. There are no zeroes after that — Vector Prime has sold under two hundred digital copies.

Despite these experiences, I don't think it's likely e-books will fail. As the technology progresses to offer a more pleasant user experience, and prices drop to more affordable levels, we may see e-readers become as commonplace as Star Trek's PADDs. But, as with the rest of Gene Roddenberry's vision for the future, we're still a long ways off.

Choose your own digital adventure

The move to an electronic format holds many potential ramifications for literature. Is it the same content in a different medium? Or does the move from text to hypertext offer more possibilities for storytelling?

When I was a kid, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books. These young adult novels were interactive, giving the reader control over the main character's actions by offering branching paths. Do you follow the forest's beaten path, or forge your own? Do you fight the giant lizard, or do you run away? The page you flip to next is determined by your choices.

Interactive fiction is well-suited to hypertext, with each choice becoming a link to a new Web page. Using this format, Choose Your Own Adventure-style games have become playable in such digital venues as a Web browser or even the Xbox 360. So why not the Kindle?

ChooseCo, the company behind the original Choose Your Own Adventure brand, has also recognized this opportunity and is bringing their series of novels to Amazon's e-book reader. House of Danger is currently a free title, with additional CYOA books selling for $6.99, roughly the same price as the print edition.

Rather than try to change the definition of what a book is by adding multimedia or other gimmicks, ChooseCo is taking advantage of the native capabilities of both hardcopy and digital formats by offering their books as they were meant to be read, only better. This is the best example I've found of the possibilities of e-books.

What other possibilities do you see for e-book readers like the Kindle to change how books are presented and read?

(Hat tip to Jason Scott)