Monday, December 28, 2009

The Fate of my Library

Someday we will be able to have conversations about the kindle and other readers without someone bring in up the smell of books. Seriously. I love to read. Everyone I know who has gotten a kindle or a similar device loves to read. We are all book lovers. But all this talk about touch and smell is starting to sound like a fetish community.

My own understanding of the Kindle was clinched the other day when I was grabbing my bag to go out. Normally I'd bring my kindle, but I was loaning it to my wife, so I needed to pack a book, just in case.[1] Of course, I couldn't pack just one, because one might get finished, or might not be quite the right book. So there I am, tossing a pair of hardcovers[2] into my bag and I have to fight off a flash of annoyance at how cumbersome this is. I have grown so accustomed to the ease of throwing dozens of books in my bag at once without any weight or hassle that the alternative seems awkward.

This kind of cleared up something for me. I have a decent-sized library of well loved books. We occasionally try to cut it down to reclaim some space, but we rarely do more than trim the edges. I am attached to the books, and I have often wondered about their future, especially now that my son is has entered the picture. How do I square these separate ideas of a love of ebooks and a love of paper?

The answer, as it turns out, is a lot simpler than I'd thought. It all comes down to why I keep books.

For the vast majority of them, the answer is simple: because I might want to read them again someday, or perhaps to look something up in them. My habits were established in the pre-amazon era[3], where your only chance of finding an out-of-print book was if you got lucky enough at a used bookstore. That meant if I found something like a copy of "The Well Favored Man" that I needed to grab it and hoard it, because the odds of my finding it again were pretty damn slim.

The next biggest reason, and this overlaps some with the first, is so I can loan them out. However, I am an old-school cynic on the subject of loaning books, and any book that's been loaned should be treated as lost. This is why I actually own multiple copies of certain books I consider particularly loan-worthy.

The far smaller fraction are the books that have some value in and of themselves. Some might merely be well-loved stories. Others might be gifts. Some might be signed, or be particularly lovely editions. These are books which, even if I never read them again, I cherish.

Someday, my library is going to be almost entirely composed of that last category. It's possible that the transition won't really happen in my lifetime, but I look at the speed of change in general, and I'm betting 10-20 years. I consider this more or less inevitable, but I also find it informative. The trick is that with my understanding of why I keep books, I can clearly look at what ebooks need to do if they'll supplant my existing categories.

To do that, ebooks need to be reliable, ubiquitous, and transferable. In practice, that means that:
  • I need to be able to own the file enough to choose how to back up and protect it, and I need to be able to find it when I go looking.
  • I need content to be available in electronic format.
  • I need to be able to loan and give ebooks.

Unsurprisingly, DRM is the biggest barrier to these needs, followed slightly by the simple logistical problem of getting books converted to electronic form. DRM (and the perfidious idea that I am "licensing" the material) is a barrier to use that offers me no benefits in return[4]. Sure, there are other barriers - the cost of entry is too high, the technology of the readers is still clunky at best, the available content is limited and the various formats muddle the waters even further - but those are all problems that can do nothing but diminish. The hardware and technology will eventually reach a point where the price and convenience are comparable with (or better than) a printed book.[5]

But it's all for nothing if the content is still stuck in the mud. The kindle give an interesting taste of what ubiquitous content might look like: you can access your library on your kindle, your phone or on your computer. That's pretty fantastic, and that's still a closed system; imagine if it was opened up further.

Of course, this might also have a transformative effect on the books themselves, but that's another topic for another time.

1 - This idea, that you should always pack a book just in case, is one that may not be instinctive to everyone, but I think most readers get it.

2 - "Parking Lot Rules" (a parenting book) and "Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate"

3 - I cite Amazon here, and not print on demand or e-distribution for a simple reason. While someday we will probably have all this content available on demand, that's not the case for the near term. Amazon, in contrast, is here now, and it has made exploratory trips to the used bookstore unnecessary because the used bookseller with the book you need is right there. I miss that sense of exploration and discovery, sure, but I
don't miss the inconvenience and frustration.

4 - I completely understand the need for creators to get paid, but that not what DRM does right now. Consider book loaning and gifting - Amazon controls all kindle content, and there are few technical challenges that should keep me from being able to say "Take this book off my kindle and send it to my dad's kindle", much the same way I could hand him the physical book after I finished reading it. If they had such a feature, they might be able to say "We need DRM to protect ourselves, but look how we also use the software to improve your experience" and they'd at least have a leg to stand on. Instead, DRM is an attempt to erect a barrier against change that is doomed since it's a barrier built on the very source of the change itself. A wall built on a foundation of sand will stand longer than one built on a foundation of bits.

5 - This is the "Bathtub Test". Right now, one of the smug anti-ereader talking points is how much you lose if you drop it in the tub. It's a fair cop, especially with readers costing what they do now. But there is a cost of replacing a book you drop in the tub too, sometimes a non-trivial one, since you are losing the artifact and the content (with an ereader, you lose only the artifact so long as you've backed up the content). If ereaders get cheap enough or if e-content gets ubiquitous enough, that gap may narrow or even invert.


  1. Hopefully I won't derail this lovely post by pointing out the elephant in the room, but I feel I must. You're complaints with DRM are exactly the reason media-piracy exists. Or to put it in a sound bite, where the market fails, the black market prevails.

    Let's say I have a choice between an e-book copy of a book, or buying the hardcover and then pirating a PDF of it. In both cases, I can assume the author has gotten paid, so I am morally absolved. From that point, the pirated version is basically superior. I'm free to loan it out if I want (though "loan" basically means "give" here, since I'm relying on the honesty of my friend to delete that PDF and buy his own copy if he likes it), I can back it up where I want and as much as I want, and my ability to make use of that data is limited only by the technology. PDF is, frankly, a crap technology for text but if we imagine I pirated maybe an HTML copy of the book then I can fully search it, format it into any layout I find convenient to read, and so on.

    Compared to the complete non-freedom of a legitimate DRMed e-book and there's no mystery why piracy is so high. It's too easy, and it's better for consumers. The only question is how to address the morality of it: how do the author's and creators get paid. The people who have been successful in internet publishing so far are the ones who are finding answers to THAT question.

  2. Anyway, on your original points...

    I find it kind of neat that you almost but not quite make a point along the lines of "Kindle for travel, books for home." Which is a sentiment I can get behind. I love to settle in for a nice book while I'm in the comfort of my big chair, but I can definitely see the appeal of having a small library available anywhere I go through something like Kindle.

    Its kind of like how I generally play my Xbox or PC at home, but my DS is still probably my favorite game system.

  3. It's a good and valid point, and I mostly just handwaved in its direction because the many issues with DRM are really a post of their own (one I suspect I lack the fortitude to delve too deeply into).

    That said, I'll stand by the idea that DRM would be more (commercially) tolerable *if* it came as part of a larger value add. For example - Amazon currently backs up all the books I buy from them, and allows me to archive, re-download them and move them around devices using their network rather than through me manually pushing files around. That's neat and convenient, and while it does not offset the burden of DRM, if it were coupled with other forms of support (including the ability to loan/give) so that I am getting greater ease of use out of a "managed" book than I would otherwise, then suddenly you've got a model that might work.

    But it would never happen. It would require such a profound shift in the nature of DRM (from a barrier to a service) that I can't see it happening without breaking things wide open.

    And that's probably good. Helpful DRM would ultimately be more sinister than the current version, because the current version will inevitably fail because the pressure on it is too great. Helpful DRM would be under far less pressure, since only the 'fringe' would be interested in purely semantic issues like who owns a book.

    Put another way, DRM doesn't fail because it inconveniences me or other nerds, it fails because it inconveniences my dad. They could probably change that, but I am glad they won't.

    -Rob D.

  4. "Kindle for Travel, Books for Home" was actually the thesis I started with, but I moved a little bit away from it when I realized that there's definitely a certain amount of my library (lots of the paperbacks) that I would be _delighted_ to convert to ebooks, and that muddled the idea bit.

    -Rob D.

  5. I'm coming at this whole question from someone who hasn't even bought in yet. I might be able to apply some of this thought to my CD collection, which has its own DRM issues. But as for books? I still haven't felt like I can justify the cost of a Kindle in the first place, and the cost of "upgrading" the books I have in paper to electronic format sends me back in the other direction, much like the cost of replacing all my regular DVDs with BluRay is not enticing enough.

    That said, for educational purposes, there seems to me to be an important solution here. You mentioned textbooks before and that's important. I suspect, however, that the folks who make and sell textbooks are going to find a way to make it a horrible gouge to the consumer.

    But on your point about the library, even without the factor of e-books, I think keeping only the most precious books is a good way to go, and without a kindle I hope myself to get there.

  6. I think that this is close enough to the topic that you may find it interesting. Although everything Cory says is interesting, imho.

  7. @kim You speak pretty clearly to a point which I admit I kind of blithely passed by. It's easy to say that prices will come down and it will be economical to switch over eventually, but I admit that right this minute we are definitely *not* there (and I may be optimistic in my sense of how quickly we'll _get_ there)

    @biff I loved that speech, and pretty much spent my time reading it doing the desk jockey equivalent of pumping my fist in the air and shouting "Right on"

  8. I've been reading Free by Chris Anderson(on my Kindle of course). He makes some valid points about how content companies are always competing with free, whether they want to or not. If it is possible to get something in digital format, that it has already been pirated.

    That being said, pirated material requires time. It must be cleaned up. The file might not be tagged, or it might not be in a format you can use, or it might not even be the file you thought you downloaded. That's fine if you are a teenager, because teenagers tend to have more Time than Money. Adults (most anyway) tend to value their time, so they are more likely to have more Money than Time. Given that equation, content companies can expect those with more Time to pirate, and those with more Money to buy.

    That equation falls apart, however, if my money doesn't buy me what I want. I'm willing to settle in some ways (for example, I buy Kindle books even though I hate the DRM because I am trying to reduce clutter in my life). But I'm not willing to settle in other ways (since they won't sell me DRM free movies I can play on any device, I simply rent. I'd rather spend a little to be forced to watch on DVD, than a lot to own a DRMed file or a DVD I have to spend time ripping).

    As for my Kindle, which I love, I can back up the files, but they are still, of course, DRMed and attached to that specific Kindle. There are ways of removing the DRM and producing an open Mobi format e-book, but that would probably be a violation of the DMCA (even though fair use says I can have legitimate backup copies). I'm hoping that when DRM on books goes away (as it inevitably must, just as it did with music), Amazon will allow me to convert my Kindle books to a new, un-DRMed format (I'm not holding my breath, though).

    (BTW, I was lead to this blog post by a comment on my blog, because I wrote a similar post about DRM. It's called An Open Letter to Content Creators

  9. @dogboi In my heart, I feel confident that when DRM goes away on books, Amazon will offer the same screw that itunes did, and give you the privileged of paying to "upgrade" your files. That prospect does not fill me with joy.

    But you're absolutely right regarding how the money/time equation works out, though in some cases it's even worse for the content providers. I know many people whose time is more valuable than their money, but who are still willing to throw drips and drabs of their time at a project (project being a euphemism for, shall we say, liberating content). Sure, they're slow, but they will eventually finish and the book will be scanned or the file cleaned up or whatever. They're part of that inevitable march forward.

    And that march is going to keep putting pressure on the DRM for books model until it snaps, like it has for music and like it will eventually for movies (and will eventually do so for everything except perhaps the broadcast of professional sports or similar things where they might be able to lay claim to the pipe rather than the content.).

    This, I admit, puts a smile on my face.

    (The open letter to content creators was badass, btw)

    -Rob D.


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