I am currently reading the latest issue of The Economist. One article in particular has caught my eyes: Pulp friction. It's an article dealing with the recent Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Amazon hype on e-books. As The Economist has it: "Internet companies are racing to get books on line, but publishers are understandably wary."
This is an interesting article but some clarifications are in order. First let's get back to basics. Why is it that it takes so long for books to end up on line (as a matter of fact they are already on line but The Economist and other newspapers for that matter do not seem to know it)? Indeed, music, pictures, movies are already widely available on line.
To answer the question properly one needs to carefully reconsider Gutenberg's achievement. Let's start with a very candid question. What is a book? A book is a subtle combination of content (What the author has written) and container (the physical book itself). One single entity is both at the same time the hardware and the software. The hardware part is an achievement in itself. The user can carry it anywhere, he does not need any power, he can write on it, annotate, bookmark the pages. The book has often a bibliography, an index. When the book falls down, don't worry, it is still working. Some books are almost pieces of art: quality of paper, iconography, smell etc...
All this explains why book content did not emancipate itself from its container the same way music and movies did. As a matter of fact it did try. Remember what the fellows at Forrester Research were predicting about e-books market figures. They were promissing us the moon. But who wants to read on a computer even if its a Tablet PC or a so-called e-book device? Almost nobody. Gutenberg wins by a fat margin! So much for market research. Music and movies are different. They already gained their emancipation. One can even say that more often than not they have a life of their own. Indeed, music for instance got read of its traditional container (the CD) and went on line in a quite rude manner (Napster, Kazaa etc...). And, it works. That's the way how people want to consume music. Hence a whole ecosystem has developed around music content, the most notable one these days being the iTunes and iPod ecosystem. The same is happening with movies on line and on demand.
Let's turn to the second point that is not properly covered by the news. Is the book really the last content sanctuary? And, what does all this hype around books on line mean? First, let me emphasize that, contrarily to what most press articles seem to suggest, successful experiences and business models with on line books do exist (It seems to be human nature to talk about trains that derail and not about trains that arrive on time!). Indeed, for the book to be able to emancipate itself from its traditional container, it takes a properly crafted business model that aligns interests and value added from the publisher down to the end user. This model (or the ecosystem for that matter) exists, we all know it, it is called a library. What matters for an end-user is to be able to access the relevant information precisely when and where he needs it. A few words are important here:
- Relevant: For sure books exist that match one's information needs. The problem is to locate them and more often than not you won't find it in bookstores, even very large ones. Bookstores carry what sells fast enough (inventories, real estate etc...). Having access to a digital library powered by a proper search engine solves the problem. Publishers are happy too: They are in a position to re-monetize a (lost) relationship and they do so at a very "granular" scale.
- When: I need the info, whatever the info, now and not tomorrow. This is when I am willing to pay and where the publisher should be able to capture this willingness to pay.
- Where: I need the info even though I may be in a remote place: The piano shall come to me and not the other way round! The publisher shall be able to capture my willingness to pay even if I am not in a bookstore.
Well, this is what a digital library is all about and that is why it aligns readers' and publishers' interests. A digital library is where the content can indeed gain its emancipation from its container. This is where book content can be "nicely" unlocked. We see this everyday at Cyberlibris. Although I had a policy until now not to mix what we do at Cyberlibris (www.cyberlibris.com) and what I blog about, I find it timely and useful to have some exception here. Indeed, I am quite surprised when I hear or read that publishers are wary, hesitant or that they rush to be on line. Frankly, they don't need to. They are already there but, for sure, they did less noise than their music or Hollywood counterparts. Let's look at some basic facts (not to mention other on line initiatives like the Gutenberg project which mainly focusses on content without copyright):
We have roughly 200 publishers worldwide under contract. Through Cyberlibris their books are available on line, full-text and pages can be printed. Books can be annotated and enhanced by many on line functionalities. Does it really work? Well, ask the thousands and thousands of users that enjoy Cyberlibris worldwide. Does it pay a publisher to work this way? Well, ask them!
In a nutshell, do me a favor, read this.pdf (Article in French from Livres Hebdo).
Again I took the liberty of singing the corporate anthem for good reasons. Cyberlibris was started as an effort to improve opportunities to share information and knowledge, in other words not only to share the "short tail" but also the "long tail" (Hint: I have been an academic in a past life and spent fifteen years of this life sharing the bits and pieces I knew with my students and colleagues). This is our daily mantra. We tend to think that it has also become the mantra of the 200 publishers that work with us!
This is neither Pulp Fiction or Pulp Friction. This is Pulp Emancipation!