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22 January
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Publishing Problems

James Bridle is so important to study closely and read because he is a publisher, one of very few publishers who is attempting to address the problems facing the industry with experimentation and innovation instead of throwing his hands up in frustration.

His point in the Harvard Library Innovation Lab podcast, about the fact that we want souvenirs of our books, is actually related to the idea that many of us represent ourselves publicly, online, as consumers of information or culture both more readily and frequently than ever before. When we tell “everyone” or even just designated networks what’s on our shelf or what we’re currently reading on Goodreads, or review books on Amazon regularly and have a profile that features all of our reviews, or even if we blog or tweet for ourselves or for others, we are sharing our opinions, displaying our taste. Publishers and writers, who have embraced Twitter and profited from it, are notable participants in this kind of sharing.

But a cube, a dog-eared copy, the books on our own personal bookshelves, are much more personal and intimate. Others may see them, and we might even display and share our physical books, but I think he’s arguing that these are things we make or keep primarily for ourselves, for the content and their accompanying aura. His Open Bookmarks project (I highly recommend this article: “Walter Benjamin’s Aura: Open Bookmarks and the future eBook“) aims to bridge a gap between the social and superficial and the local and deep, providing a socially networked souvenir that could be much more intimate as a window into a friend’s reading experience than a conversation about a book or an invitation to look at  a personal library would be, for most of us. I think it could suffice that we just keep our annotations, our quotes, our experiences of something, and if we can share what we think or note in and about a text more easily we may find ourselves reading more carefully, or being able to get more out of our reading experiences (socially, information-wise, philosophically…).  Might we feel more connected to one another if we participated in a more interactive and networked reading experience? Another interesting start-up, Small Demons, seems to concur enthusiastically. Books may inform us on the personal level, but they are really much more than just that. And their linking capacities will soon take on even greater weight and strength. After all, before digital technologies arrived to threaten their form and distribution, the printing press was the greatest thing that ever happened to them.

In fact, publishers and editors and other participants in book culture are so unhappy with the status quo that it seems more likely the book-making mechanisms we have in place will collapse and be forced to reinvent themselves in a digital-oriented environment than that readers will kill them first:

…Long-term there’s no future in printed books. They’ll be like vinyl: pricey and for collectors only. 95% of people will read digitally. Everybody in publishing knows this but most are in denial about it because moving to becoming a digital company means laying off like 40% of our staffs. And the barriers to entry fall, too. We simply don’t want to think about it…


But after discussing books as souvenirs and objects for display Bridle addresses the issue of book ownership. Here I think his and David Weinburger’s most interesting point is that we will want primarily to own our metadata. But I think the question is complicated from the position of the specialized and the passionate collector. When we don’t actually own digital files of e-books but just access to them, how do we keep them, and must we? Personally, perhaps, the answer seems to me to be “no,” we don’t need to own physical copies as long as we can keep our responses, whether they’re in the form of notes or highlights or something else entirely. We need records of our experiences and lists and links. I think Amazon’s new Kindle ebooks and Owners’ Lending Library, as described in the blind item quoted above, both for the authors participating and the readers who are flocking to “check out” e-books once a month, are evidence that the marketplace agrees. But for archives and other interested collectors, the answer seems to me to be a resounding “yes.” And here is the great problem. we don’t yet know how to do that or have permission from publishers to do so. E-books will likely change a lot even in the next 5 years as EPUB3 takes off (and, I hope, puts some base level standards on the table), but we are not now able to save them. The HRC is unable to obtain original copies of e-books from publishers and not even the Library of Congress is provided with archival copies!  As a further exploration of this issue,  I offer a really interesting blog post by a librarian, An eBook Is Not a Book. The future will be really exciting as long as we too, in our field and with generous goals, embrace it and participate.

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