Innovation and the future of the book

Very belatedly, I’d like to write about the last two sessions of the module ‘Libraries and Publishing in an Information Society’ which I took earlier this year. In the penultimate session, we had two speakers – Matt Finch (@drmattfinch) and James Baker (@j_w_baker). And in our last session Alastair Horne (@pressfuturist) gave a presentation. The common theme was innovation in libraries and publishing.

Matt Finch, a writer and educator, wrote his PhD on the Warburg Institute, a research institute in London that focuses on the study of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, described by the New Yorker as the world’s weirdest library. This library apparently arranges its collection by the ‘law of the good neighbour’, which apparently means that each book should be able to ‘stage a conversation with its neighbour: ask a question, provide an answer’ (Steinberg, 2012).

Matt’s talk was entitled ‘Words and Pictures, Space and Play’ and focused on how comics, storytelling and theatre can be used in libraries. For example, in Parkes, New South Wales, public and school libraries hosted retailers and comics creators in Australia’s first rural comics festival. And in another public library, Matt staged a live-action zombie siege where participants got to decide the outcome of the story. This was in a library that only opens four hours for one day a week so the event was great for raising awareness of the library. Matt emphasised that no extra money was spent on the event either – they worked with what they had. Another community project in public libraries that Matt was involved in was the over-18s Dark Night: Library Burlesque festival, which featured comics, cinema screenings, cabaret evenings and more in partnership with Auckland’s public library service.

James Baker is a curator in the Digital Research team at the British Library. As such he has been involved with projects such as the Million Images from scanned books project. This involves releasing images from digitised books in the British Library’s collection onto Flickr – you can see their photo stream here. I particularly like the fancy letters you get, such as:

11140592193_cca9b30ebe_m   11145712576_af02111e9a_o

James also talked about text-mining tools for humanities research, citing Google’s Ngram viewer and the Infectious Texts project as examples. In his slides he showed us a graph created using the Ngram viewer of the use of the word ‘prison’ in books on Google Books. It showed sharp rises in the use of the words ‘prison discipline’ in the mid-nineteenth century and ‘prison camps’ in the mid-twentieth century, which could reflect societal preoccupations with prison reform at these times. James’s work on personal digital archives – i.e. laptops and phones belonging to writers deposited at the BL – was also fascinating to hear about.

Finally, in our last session, Alistair Horne, who works on innovation at Cambridge University Press, lead an interactive session on ebooks, publishing business models and more. We covered so much that I think perhaps the best would be for me to give you a flavour of the discussion through a few questions and some of the answers we came up with. Alistair’s blog is well worth checking out for further information.

Why are ebooks cheaper than print? This was a bit of a trick question as actually ebooks are sometimes more expensive than print. There is an expectation that ebooks should be cheaper and when Alistair probed us about this we realised it was because we assume that ebooks have less production costs. But actually it turns out that ebooks have similar production costs to print books – they’re just different. So instead of having to pay to store books in a warehouse, for example, you’re having to pay for space on a disk or in the cloud to store files.

What ebook subscription services currently exist? I’ve found three so far: Oyster, Scribd and Kindle Unlimited.

How do these ebook subscription services work financially? The customer pays a monthly subscription ($9.95 for Oyster, $8.99 for Scribd, £7.99 for Kindle Unlimited) in exchange for access to vast digital libraries (between 500,000 and 1 million books depending on the service). In the case of Kindle Unlimited you also get free access to Audible audiobooks. The range of books might sound huge but it’s important to remember that not all publishers are signed up to these services so it’s worth checking which publishers are available before you sign up.

Imagine that you are a) a publisher; b) an author; c) a reader. What do you want from a subscription model? What are your fears? As a publisher, I would have mixed feelings. On the one hand it might make my authors more discoverable and increase sales of their work. On the other hand, it might decrease print sales or ebook sales via other platforms and negotiating fair royalties with a giant like Amazon might not be easy. As an author, I would be interested in a new way of making my books available to readers. However, I might have similar concerns to publishers about royalties. I might make comparisons with Spotify, which offers a subscription model for music streaming. Spotify pays artists $0.001128 per play of one of their tracks, which means they have to get lots of plays to make it worthwhile (Guardian, 2015). I might also worry that less well-known authors would be harder to discover by users of subscription services as they’d be sharing shelf-space with thousands of other authors. As a reader, I’d want a subscription model to mean that I could access books on any device, offline as well as online. I’d also want as wide a range of content as possible, including front list titles from a range of publishers. Otherwise I might think that free elending via my local public library would be a better option.

References:

Michael P. Steinberg, 2012. The Law of the Good Neighbor. Common Knowledge 18.1: 128-133. Project MUSE. Web. 17 Jul. 2015. <https://0-muse.jhu.edu.wam.city.ac.uk/&gt;.

Guardian, 2015. How much money do musicians really make from Spotify, iTunes and YouTube? Web. 17 Jul. 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/apr/03/how-much-musicians-make-spotify-itunes-youtube

Links from Matt Finch’s talk: Matt’s blog | Tabletop superheroes game | Comics grid | Drawing Words and Writing Pictures

Links from James Baker’s talk: Slides | James’s website | The Mechanical Curator

Links from Alistair Horne’s talk: Internet of Things

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