kottke.org posts about E-books

A budget for BabelMay 04 2011

Last night I started thinking about e-books, partly because I was frustrated that I wanted to buy some books that aren't available for Kindle. (If you're curious, the two I was pining over were John Ashbery's new translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations and Eugene Jolas's Critical Writings: 1924-1951.)

Truth be told, I probably would have talked myself out of the purchases anyways, because I haven't had any spare money for my drug of choice (books) in a while. But I was bothered because I couldn't buy them. I wanted them, and if I had enough money, I wanted them all. And if I could have them all, I'd find a way to get enough money.

So I took to Twitter with this idea, with the following results.

So, so far, we've got a few different possible models (assuming everything could be worked out on the back end with author consumption, etc., which is a pretty gigantic assumption):

  1. Every book that's ever been made digital or easily could be made digital (I'll come back to this second point later);
  2. The same thing for movies and TVs. Which might be an even bigger, more popular idea;
  3. A curated digital book club/book channel, a la Netflix, that offers you enough popular and backlist material to keep you busy;
  4. What else?

Casey Gollan also pointed me to a similar thought-experiment a couple of years ago by Kevin Kelly:

Very likely, in the near future, I won't "own" any music, or books, or movies. Instead I will have immediate access to all music, all books, all movies using an always-on service, via a subscription fee or tax. I won't buy - as in make a decision to own -- any individual music or books because I can simply request to see or hear them on demand from the stream of ALL. I may pay for them in bulk but I won't own them. The request to enjoy a work is thus separated from the more complicated choice of whether I want to "own" it. I can consume a movie, music or book without having to decide or follow up on ownership.

For many people this type of instant universal access is better than owning. No responsibility of care, backing up, sorting, cataloging, cleaning, or storage. As they gain in public accessibility, books, music and movies are headed to become social goods even though they might not be paid by taxes. It's not hard to imagine most other intangible goods becoming social goods as well. Games, education, and health info are also headed in that direction.

And Mark Sample noted that really, you already can get almost any book, movie, TV show, etc., if you're willing to put in a little work and don't mind circumventing the law.

Here's a thought: How would this change the way we read? If I haven't laid down money for a particular book, would I feel less obligated to stick it through to the end? I'd probably do a lot more dipping and diving. I'd be quicker to say, "this isn't doing it for me -- what else is on?"

And remember, a lot of the books -- cookbooks, textbooks, reference material -- would be geared for browsing, not reading straight through. We might actually find ourselves plunking down extra money for a digital app with a better UI.

Ditto, imagine the enhanced prestige of rare books that were off this universal grid, or whose three-dimensionality couldn't be reduced (without difficulty, if at all) to an e-book.

Still, I think whatever I pay for cable, internet, my cellphone's data plan, newspaper and magazine subscriptions, Dropbox backups, etc. -- I'd pay way more for the Library of Babel.

What do you think? What would you need to make this work for you?

(Comments enabled. I'll shut 'em down at the end of the week. Be nice.)

Why metadata REALLY matters for the future of e-booksAug 09 2010

Okay, I'll chase ONE new story today. But it's about this fundamental problem of converting old media objects into new ones, and I get to dig up some old blog posts too, I feel like I'm still in character.

Google Books claims to have counted all the books in the world: "129,864,880 of them. At least until Sunday." But as Ars Technica points out, that number is dubiously wiki:

Google's counting method relies entirely on its enormous metadata collection--almost one billion records--which it winnows down by throwing out duplicates and non-book items like CDs. The result is a book count that's arrived at by a kind of process of elimination. It's not so much that Google starts with a fixed definition of "book" and then combs its records to identify objects with those characteristics; rather, the GBS algorithm seeks to identify everything that is clearly not a book, and to reject all those entries. It also looks for collections of records that all identify the same edition of the same book, but that are, for whatever reason (often a data entry error), listed differently in the different metadata collections that Google subscribes to.

But the problem with Google's count, as is clear from the GBS count post itself, is that GBS's metadata collection is a riddled with errors of every sort. Or, as linguist and GBS critic Geoff Nunberg put it last year in a blog post, Google's metadata is "train wreck: a mish-mash wrapped in a muddle wrapped in a mess."

It's not just Google that has a problem. I wrote a post for Wired.com last week ("Why Metadata Matters for the Future of E-books") about how increased reliance on metadata was affecting publishers of new books, who also depend heavily on digital search -- and generally how bibliographic and legal arcana around e-books affects what we see and how we come to see it more than you'd think.

But I wish I'd added Google's woeful records to the piece. It's not like I didn't know about it; here's the title of a post I wrote a year ago, also citing Nunberg's post when it first appeared at Language Log: "Scholars to Google: Your Metadata Sucks".

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