SunSpec: Digital Native Diatribe

In listening to one of the keynotes at Computers in Libraries conference last week about the digital natives, I sat in the main ballroom and quietly seethed. My eyes were Gatling cannons of mind bullets, none of which were capable of bringing down the buzzword behemoth that lumbered onwards in its rhetoric. “The digital natives are this”. “The digital natives are that”. I was hoping that the curtain behind the speaker would part and reveal a digital native shackled to a display a la King Kong.

“Look! He almost looks human the way he is using his thumbs to interact with tools!”

“Stop taking pictures! He’ll break his chains and crash into the audience, asking what kind of phone you are using!”

For the record, it’s not the term that drives me crazy; it’s the definition. The idea that just because people are born into the modern era automatically allows them to have a better intuition or understanding of digital technology is just preposterous to me. While I will concede that new generation will have no memory of a time when such technology did not exist, the implication that they are somehow better suited or more attuned to the technology implies that some sort of advanced neurological evolution has occurred within a span of a generation. Like our contemporary and ancient ancestors before us, digital technology is just another tool that requires mastery and one that individuals can choose to accept or reject regardless as to their age.

I believe being a digital native is based on the acceptance of digital interfaces and technology into one’s life (which is another definition listed in the Wikipedia entry but not the one that was used by the keynote speaker). It’s a matter of what it means to have technology in your life and how you handle it. For some, it’s a smartphone, gadgets, and profiles on Facebook or Twitter; for others, it’s maybe a phone line. It doesn’t matter whether you are 5 or 105; if the technology doesn’t interest you, doesn’t fit into your life, or doesn’t mesh with your reality, then you are not going to use it. Even then, there is a normal human learning curve for adoption and use of the technology.

But since I can’t pass it up, for those in favor of the definition of digital natives to be applicable to the generation being born, answer me a few questions:

  • When I was born in 1977, disco music was reaching the height of popularity. As I would not remember a world without disco music, does that make me a “disco native” and my parents “disco immigrants”?
  • For the children born in the United States after 1788, they would have never known what it is what like to be under colonial control. Would they be called “democracy natives” and their parents “democracy immigrants”?
  • When our ancestors mastered fire as a use for heat, light, protection, and cooking, would it be proper for them to refer to their children as “combustion natives”?

Can we get back to treating them like people rather than social exotics? Because this unfounded mystique that has been granted to them is rather irksome and loathsome all at once.

Across the Pond, E-readers are not Library Equivalents Edition

Leo Benedictus writes in Prospect Magazine about the closing of libraries in England and the rise of e-reading. Salient quote:

The talk of a future in which children cannot access books is also not just wrong, but backwards. E-readers—already available for £52 ($83), and falling—offer an incomparably more convenient way for anyone to find good things. While defending libraries, surely there is also time to promote the fact that, thanks to Project Gutenberg and Google Books, every child in the country can now download virtually any out-of-copyright book for nothing. (Piracy will doubtless do the same for most in-copyright books too, as may digital lending, though this is less cause for celebration.)

He goes on to argue that digital readers will be able to provide children with libraries of their own. I would agree with that notion if libraries were simply book access centers; who wouldn’t want to make it easier for readers to get a hold of books? But libraries operate beyond that capacity. E-readers do not provide the same internet access as current library computer labs; they do not have classes on computer use or other topics; nor do they provide programming for people of all ages.

A library also functions as a place, whether for old men to gather and play chess or teens looking for a safe space to be to do their homework and avoid the dangers of the street. It’s a community focal point, a space preserved for mental and social activity the same way parks are saved for physical activity. An e-reader is a poor substitute for an actual place where these ideas can congregate and be exchanged.

Mr. Benedictus argues that 2011 will be the year that each child will receive their own library through an e-reader. That may be so, but it will be at the loss of the discovery of books next to those titles on the shelf and a place that houses them.

(h/t: The Daily Dish)

MARC Madness: Who Will Make the Final Four?

Round 3 (152 votes total)

Acronym Division

MARC 93, LoC 59
MLIS 83, ILL 69

Lexicon Division

festschrift 77, digitize 75
authentication 114, nesting 38

Lingo Division

authority control 114, link resolver 38
metadata 91, cutter 61

Buzzword Division

user experience 92, transliteracy 60
information literacy 98, digital native 54

Sixty four terms entered the Tournament of Library Terminology.

We are now headed to the Final Four! This next round of voter will choose the division winners! Which terms will reign supreme?


festschrift vs. authentication

authority control vs. metadata

user experience vs. information literacy

Here is the updated bracket!


Voting ends Tuesday!

(As the number of voters have been dropping, I’m wondering if there is a way to spice this up a bit. Maybe I need to give away some more t-shirts or something!)

Publishers Having Their eBook Cake and Eating It

A reader sent me a link to this article last week. Money (literally) quote:

Among the ills of this radical pay cut [lower prices for e-books than for hardcovers] is the distorting effect it has on publishers’ incentives: publishers generally do significantly better on e-book sales than they do on hardcover sales. Authors, on the other hand, always do worse.

How much better for the publisher and how much worse for the author? Here are examples of author’s royalties compared to publisher’s gross profit (income per copy minus expenses per copy), calculated using industry-standard contract terms:

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Author’s Standard Royalty:
$3.75 hardcover; $2.28 e-book.
Author’s E-Loss = -39%

Publisher’s Margin:
$4.75 hardcover; $6.32 e-book.
Publisher’s E-Gain = +33%

Hell’s Corner, by David Baldacci

Author’s Standard Royalty:
$4.20 hardcover; $2.63 e-book.
Author’s E-Loss = -37%

Publisher’s Margin:
$5.80 hardcover; $7.37 e-book.
Publisher’s E-Gain = +27%

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Author’s Standard Royalty:
$4.05 hardcover; $3.38 e-book.
Author’s E-Loss = -17%

Publisher’s Margin:
$5.45 hardcover; $9.62 e-book.
Publisher’s E-Gain = +77%

So, everything else being equal, publishers will naturally have a strong bias toward e-book sales. It certainly does wonders for cash flow: not only does the publisher net more, but the reduced royalty means that every time an e-book purchase displaces a hardcover purchase, the odds that the author’s advance will earn out — and the publisher will have to cut a check for royalties — diminishes.

Since people don’t own their digital book content (both in the sense of the First-Sale doctrine and the current content licensing agreements), then it’s a double win for publishers. They get a bigger slice of the eBook sale AND retain ultimate control and ownership over an eBook. What’s not to like when you carve out of a new revenue stream out of content creators (authors) and the end user (people and libraries) and retain control of the content?

Consider this in the light of the HarperCollins decision of limited checkouts. For each additional sale of an eBook (even at the lower price point) once it hits the magical 26th circulation, it generates the same revenue equation above. Yes, it does generate another author royalty payment that they would otherwise not get with perpetual access but authors are not the main beneficiaries of this re-buy system. The greater publisher margin gets the biggest boost out of the system. I believe it is an incentive that compels this idea of artificial scarcity in eBook lending.

From the library end of things, I find it rather disheartening for the future of collections. With a profit motive like that one, I’m wondering when the other publishers will follow suit. I respect the fact that they need to make money for this equation to work; editing and talent scouting is not without cost. My concern is for one hundred years from now when the question of the future generations will be about the literature and prose of the 21st century, not the yearly revenues of the publishers who existed then. It is a matter of the cultural record and what is collected or preserved versus what licensing can do for people now.

I may be bordering on hyperbolic so I’ll try to take a step back. There is nothing to say that this is the way it will be in the future, even six months from now. The eBook market (both content and devices) is still in transition as we move ahead with innovation cycles and consumer inclinations. But I still find the math above rather askew when looking at the HarperCollins oft quoted statement,

We have serious concerns that our previous e-book policy, selling e-books to libraries in perpetuity, if left unchanged, would undermine the emerging e-book eco-system, hurt the growing e-book channel, place additional pressure on physical bookstores, and in the end lead to a decrease in book sales and royalties paid to authors.

What are your thoughts?