Cory Doctorow: Peace In Our Time

11 May 2016

From Cory Doctorow via Locus:

E-books are game-changers, but not in the way we all thought they would be. Far from taking over print, e-book sales have stagnated at less than a quarter of print sales and show every sign of staying there or declining for the foreseeable future.

But e-books continue to be a source of bitter controversy that divides publishers from two of their most potentially useful allies: writers’ groups and libraries.

Below, I’ll present two thought experiments for how libraries and writers’ groups could find common cause with the Big Five publishers, using tech projects that would make a better world for writers, readers, literature, and culture.

First up, libraries. Libraries are understandably exercised about the high prices they’re expected to pay for their e-books – as much as 500% more than you and I pay on the major online services. To add insult to injury, HarperCollins makes libraries delete any e-book that has circulated 26 times, on the bizarre grounds that:

a) Its print books are allegedly so badly bound that they disintegrate after 26 readings (this is not actually true); and

b) This defect in the robustness of physical books is a feature, not a bug, and should be im­ported into the digital realm.

. . . .

Publishers have a much bigger e-book problem than library pricing: Amazon’s dominance in e-book sales. Worse than that: Amazon is also a publisher, one that competes head to head with the Big Five, chasing the same authors to write the same books for the same readers.

Amazon knows, in realtime, how publishers’ books are performing. It knows who is buying them, where they’re buying them, where they’re reading them, what they searched for before buying them, what other books they buy at the same time, what books they buy before and after, whether they read them, how fast they read them, and whether they finish them.

Amazon discloses almost none of this to the publishers, and what information they do disclose to the publishers (the sales data for the publishers’ own books, atomized, without data-mineable associations) they disclose after 30 days, or 90 days, or 180 days. Publishers try to fill in the gaps by buying their own data back from the remaining print booksellers, through subscriptions to point-of-sale databases that have limited relevance to e-book performance.

. . . .

Here’s my thought-experiment: what if libraries cloned Overdrive in free, open source code, which every library in the world could use, and which libraries could pay independent contractors to patch and improve. Rather than paying an annual fee for Overdrive that pays for the soft­ware and dividends to Overdrive’s investors, the libraries would adopt the model that has made Drupal and WordPress so successful: paying independent contractors for service and upkeep, and collectively shar­ing the benefits of the incremental improvements made through these transactions.

The openness of the platform is key, because that’s what lets the libraries assert that they are able to collect aggregated statistics on usage and circulation that are sufficiently zoomed-out as to not compromise patrons’ privacy, but are still full of the key insights publishers need to compete with Amazon, their best and biggest frenemy, publisher, and retailer rolled into one.

. . . .

It’s critical that we make sure these deals ben­efit writers, because e-books are also a hot potato in writer-publisher dynamics. The Author’s Guild has taken a public stand demanding that writers to get 50% of net proceeds from e-books as a standard deal – double the current rate. Publishers have not taken this call very seriously so far.

But there’s a way to triple the writer’s share of e-book royalties, with­out costing the publishers anything, and, in so doing, take away some of Amazon’s market dominance.

That way is to allow writers to retail their own books.

The standard deal looks like this: retailers get 30% of the gross book price, and writers get 25% of the net (17.5% of gross) as a royalty. If writers were the retailers, their royalty would jump from 17.5% of gross to 47.5% of gross, for the books that they sold.

How could this work? Groups like the Authors Guild, and even its rival Authors Alliance (a group that calls for more liberal copyright rules, on whose advisory board I sit), or even both together (this being one of the few areas in which they can both agree), could raise a grant from a foundation to create an e-book retail platform that writers could host themselves, plug into their WordPress of Drupal sites, or embed as a widget on Facebook and Tumblr. This platform would allow writers to retail their own e-books, and would have a central hub, ‘‘Fair Trade E-books,’’ where readers could, with one search, find the writer’s store for whatever books they were seeking.

Writers who sell their own e-books offer two things that Amazon can’t match. The first is the assurance to readers that when they buy from writers, they help the writers they love triple their earnings, while not spending a penny more. The second is the ability to buy books from a single store, regardless of geographic location.

. . . .

The Big Five would have to come to the table, of course: they’d have to offer retail accounts to their own writers, which would incur some real accounting expense on their end. But as this service is born digital, the accounting tools could be built into the retailing software, developed in consultation with the Big Five, to plug right into their accounting systems.

Link to the rest at Locus

PG says there’s some notable hand-waving in this plan.

First, a bunch of programmers, working for free, will clone Overdrive. Presumably without violating any software patents or copyrights of Overdrive. While Overdrive drops into a deep sleep.

Second, a bunch of non-profit organizations notably short on programmers or programming expertise get a grant from a foundation to build an ebook retail platform that would compete with Amazon.

Of course, it’s dead simple to sell ebooks better than Amazon does. That’s why Amazon’s days as an etailer are numbered. Nook and Kobo have been eating Amazon’s lunch. Beating Amazon would be a cinch for the Authors Guild and some foundation-grant programmers.

Large organizations with deep pockets and the ability to hire lots of very smart people (Walmart – Annual Sales: $482 billion) are losing to Amazon. Amazon’s ecommerce platform is a work of sublime genius. And getting better every day.

PG is sure Cory means well, but an alternate universe would be necessary for his plan to succeed. With time travel back to Bezos’ place of birth.

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Russian culture ministry denies reports of book burning

10 May 2016

From The Guardian:

The Russian ministry of culture has denied that a widely reported book burning ever happened, after the Russian Writers’ Union (RWU) submitted a petition to the government voicing concerns about the destruction of books.

In January, Russian authorities were reported to have burned 53 books and removed more than 500 other volumes from two university libraries in the north-western Komi republic, on the grounds that they contained sentiments “alien to Russian ideology”.

Most were textbooks published with money donated by the Soros Fund, run by hedge fund billionaire and outspoken Putin critic George Soros. The Open Society Foundation and the Open Society Institute’s Assistance Foundation, both financed by Soros, were declared “undesirable organisations” and forced to stop their work in Russia in November 2015.

A spokesperson for the education authorities in Komi later said reports of book burning had been misinterpreted by the media, and that the books had been withdrawn from circulation and stored in a warehouse. Culture minister Vladimir Medina later said that burning books was “totally unacceptable”.

. . . .

A spokesperson for Russia’s ministry of culture told the Guardian via email that the RWU’s fears were “groundless” and that book burning “could be regarded as censorship which is prohibited by the Russian constitution”.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Uganda, where a book can cost a month’s salary

9 May 2016

From The BBC:

The hunt for a good book in Uganda’s capital is not for the faint-hearted; in fact it feels like a black market.

People look for friends going on a foreign trip to help them buy books, which are either not available or too expensive in Kampala.

One book which I have been wanting to read is Nothing Left To Steal by South African journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika.

But it costs around 140,000 Ugandan shillings ($42, £29) in bookshops here – which can buy a week’s worth of groceries for a family.

On internet shopping sites the best-selling memoir goes for less than a third of that price but deliveries to Uganda are not straightforward.

I did splurge once on a book by Guinea’s revolutionary leader Ahmed Sekou Toure. It set me back $60 – the pan-Africanist in me got the better of me that day.

Waitresses in downtown Kampala barely earn $60 in a month.

. . . .

It is in this environment that Rosey Sembatya has decided to start the Malaika Children’s Mobile Library.

“My sister has four children now and I’ve been finding it very difficult to buy them books because they’re quite expensive,” she says.

“So I sat back and thought maybe there is need to create something that can make story books accessible and available at a quite cheap price.”

. . . .

The library is in the spare room of a two-bedroom house she rents.

There are a couple of hundred books stacked on shelves and a long desk.

From here motorbike taxis, known as boda bodas, whizz around the capital delivering a week’s worth of reading for children.

Ms Sembatya used up her savings to start the library and says she tries to keep the cost down.

For a $30 annual fee, each child can borrow three books a week.

. . . .

But Uganda does have a fairly robust publishing industry.

Fountain Publishers is one of the biggest in East Africa, but like most companies here its focus is on academic writing.

. . . .

“Our biggest sellers are the curriculum books. Schools and students cannot afford to go away minus curriculum books,” Harrison Kiggundu, the firm’s senior marketing officer, told me.

Link to the rest at The BBC and thanks to J.A. for the tip.

Library usage falls 14.3 percentage points since 2005

4 May 2016

From The Bookseller:

There has been a “significant” decrease in public library usage over the last decade, with usage falling 14.3 percentage points since 2005, new figures have revealed.

The report, commissioned by the DCMS in partnership with Arts Council England and entitled Taking Part: a focus on libraries, measured the number of people who use libraries and looked at the most common reasons for changes in individual library use over time.

The report showed that 33.9% of adults had visited a public library in the year October 2014 to September 2015, which is down from 48.2% in 2005/06. Looking across all adult age groups, the report shows that the largest decrease in the proportion of adults who use the library has been among 16 to 24 year olds – 51% of adults aged 16 to 24 used a public library in 2005/06, but only 25.2% used a library in the year October 2014 to September 2015.

. . . .

The survey also re-interviewed the same individuals annually in order to assess reasons for increased or decreased library use. Of the respondents interviewed, 21% visited libraries less often by the third interview, while 14% visited more frequently. The main reason for using libraries more often was to “encourage my child to read books”, which was cited by 20% of adults. A further 18% said their increased library usage was due to a desire to read more, and 15% simply had more time.

The most common reason for a decline in library use was having less free time, cited by 25%. A further 17% said it was due to buying or getting books elsewhere and 12% said they were now reading e-books instead.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Weeding the Worst Library Books

3 May 2016

From The New Yorker:

Last summer, in Berkeley, California, librarians pulled roughly forty thousand books off the shelves of the public library and carted them away. The library’s director, Jeff Scott, announced that his staff had “deaccessioned” texts that weren’t regularly checked out. But the protesters who gathered on the library’s front steps to decry what became known as “Librarygate” preferred a different term: “purged.” “Put a tourniquet on the hemorrhage,” one of the protesters’ signs declared. “Don’t pulp our fiction,” another read.

In response, Scott attempted to put his policy in perspective. His predecessor had removed fifty thousand books in a single year, he explained. And many of the deaccessioned books would be donated to a nonprofit—not pulped. Furthermore, after new acquisitions, the collection was actually expected to grow by eighteen thousand books, to a total of nearly half a million. But none of these facts stirred up much sympathy in Berkeley. A thousand people signed a petition demanding that Scott step down—and, in the end, he did.

Public libraries serve practical purposes, but they also symbolize our collective access to information, so it’s understandable that many Berkeley residents reacted strongly to seeing books discarded. What’s more, Scott’s critics ultimately contended that he had not been forthcoming about how many books were being removed, or about his process for deciding which books would go. Still, it’s standard practice—and often a necessity—to remove books from library collections. Librarians call it “weeding,” and the choice of words is important: a library that “hemorrhages” books loses its lifeblood; a librarian who “weeds” is helping the collection thrive. The key question, for librarians who prefer to avoid scandal, is which books are weeds.

Mary Kelly and Holly Hibner, two Michigan librarians, have answered that question in multiple ways. They’ve written a book called “Making a Collection Count: A Holistic Approach to Library Collection Management,” which proposes best practices for analyzing library data and adapting to space constraints. But they are better known for calling attention to the matter with a blog: Awful Library Books.

Kelly and Hibner created the site in 2009. Each week, they highlight books that seem to them so self-evidently ridiculous that weeding is the only possible recourse. They often feature books with outlandish titles, like “Little Corpuscle,” a children’s book starring a dancing red blood cell; “Enlarging Is Thrilling,” a how-to about—you guessed it—film photography; and “God, the Rod, and Your Child’s Bod: The Art of Loving Correction for Christian Parents.”

Sometimes it’s the subject matter that seems absurd. Of “Wax in Our World,” a nonfiction book for young adults, Kelly said, “Who came into a publisher’s office and said, ‘You know, the kids really need a book about wax’?”

. . . .

 “It’s not free to keep something on the shelf,” Ann Campion Riley, the president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, told me. According to Riley, weeding goes back at least to the medieval period. “There are writings where the monks are saying, ‘Should I keep this? Should I keep that?’ ” These questions are pragmatic, but profound—and they have been joined by new ones, such as, should libraries phase out physical books and move their holdings online? The trouble, as Jamillah Gabriel, a librarian at Purdue University, explained, is that “there’s not always an e-book for everything.” Digital libraries are becoming more popular, but they’re not on pace to replace tangible books anytime soon.

. . . .

 When I asked about what happened in Berkeley last year, Kelly and Hibner said it helps, from a public-relations standpoint, to weed gradually. “I pull one or two books a week. Nobody’s going to even question that,” Hibner said. She also keeps a bag of her favorite weeded books under her desk—“Vans: The Personality Vehicle,” “Be Bold with Bananas”—in case any inquisitive patrons want examples.

. . . .

 Hibner and Kelly both emphasized that many factors come into play when deciding which books should be kept. You want your books to reflect the community you serve, but the popularity of a book is by no means the only barometer. At Hibner’s library, “War and Peace” has been checked out just five times in the past twenty-two years. “It’s huge; it’s taking up quite a bit of space,” Hibner said. “But for libraries like us to not have ‘War and Peace’ at all—it doesn’t seem right.” Something tells her that Tolstoy is not a weed.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker and thanks to Chris for the tip.

And speaking of New Yorkers, don’t miss Brooklyn’s Most Cluttered Bookstore

The Bookmobile

20 April 2016

Thanks to Ryan for the tip.

Libraries Call on Multinational Publishers for Fair Ebook Pricing

5 April 2016

From CNW:

Canadian Public Libraries for Fair Ebook Pricing continue to advocate for more reasonable prices and terms for ebooks from multinational publishers with an open letter to Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster.

Some multinational publishers charge libraries as much as three to five times more for ebooks than the consumer price, while others place caps and time limits on use. Current ebook pricing models lead to fewer titles and fewer copies for readers to discover, despite booming borrowing rates and high demand.

Public libraries are key players in the publishing industry, both as major purchasers of books and ebooks, and promoters of reading and literacy. With the open letter, libraries are advocating for a pricing model that introduces fairness and flexibility, specifically:

  • A hybrid of existing pricing models that would offer libraries of all sizes the ability to buy the number of copies and also the type of copies (perpetual or limited access) that meet their needs.

The hybrid model includes:

  • A reasonable premium price for ebook copies with ongoing and perpetual access, as the $85 and $100+ pricing is not sustainable.
  • A lower price option for ebook copies with limited access because of time or use restrictions. This pricing should be slightly higher than the consumer price.

Link to the rest at CNW and thanks to Ron for the tip.

If I was a book

2 April 2016

If I was a book, I would like to be a library book, so I would be taken home by all different sorts of kids.

Cornelia Funke

In San Jose, Poor Find Doors to Library Closed

1 April 2016

From The New York Times:

When Damaris Triana, then 8, lost several “Little Critter” books that she had borrowed for her sister, the library here fined her $101 — including $40 in processing fees — a bill that was eventually turned over to an agency to collect from her parents.

The $101 is a small part of a whopping $6.8 million in unpaid fines at theSan Jose Public Library, an amount that exceeds unpaid fees at some larger cities around the country. It also exceeds other Bay Area cities like Oakland, which has $3 million in outstanding fines, and San Francisco, which has $4.6 million. In San Jose, when the late fee hits $50, the library refers the debt to a collection agency.

As the total of overdue fines has increased, so has the number of cardholders who owe $10 or more and are prohibited from borrowing materials or using the library’s computers. Damaris, now 10, relies on her cousin’s card or uses her school’s library, where there are no fines for late or lost books.

. . . .

In San Jose, libraries began charging 50 cents a day for an overdue book, and what Jill Bourne, who become director of libraries in 2013, called “an exorbitant processing fee” of $20 for lost materials. Those high fines have come at a cost.

In impoverished neighborhoods, where few residents have broadband connections or computers, nearly a third of cardholders are barred from borrowing or using library computers. Half of the children and teenagers with library cards in the city owe fines. Around 187,000 accounts, or 39 percent of all cardholders, owe the library money, Ms. Bourne said.

. . . .

In some immigrant neighborhoods, Ms. Bourne said, “there is a fear of government interaction. As soon as people hear there is the potential for being penalized by the government, they want to stay away from that service.”

In February, Ms. Bourne appealed to the San Jose City Council to consider offering amnesty to borrowers saddled with fines and lowering the daily penalty for late books for children to 25 cents. She said in an interview that she also wanted “to revisit” the use of a collection agency. In a memorandum, she wrote, “Library policies are not intended to prevent or restrict any individual’s ability to access library resources and services,” but she added, “this may be the unintended consequence.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Without libraries

29 March 2016

Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.

Ray Bradbury

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