SunSpec: Nearly Non-Existent

The helmet in the picture above belonged to my great-grandfather, Bayard Randolph Kraft Sr. From the design, you can guess that it was the helmet he wore while serving in the Army during World War I. He served as a medic, on the front in France to aid and evacuate the wounded and dying. Given the descriptions of trench warfare that have been written, I can’t even imagine what that was like.

In picking the helmet up, the first impression I get is how rough the metal feels under your fingertips; it has a gritty feel to it akin to very coarse sandpaper. The padding within has hardened over time and the chin strap buckles are pretty worn and frozen into place. The helmet doesn’t feel heavy, but it has a certain weight to it, one that makes you think that you’d be protected if something happened. But given the relatively thin metal involved, it’s a fleeting bit of confidence.

But this helmet is more than a war souvenir from a relative. It’s the story that goes with it that makes it an important sentimental piece.

As the story goes, my great-grandfather was moving through the trenches to get to where there had been a German assault. When he came to an intersection in the trenches, he paused for a moment to figure out which way to go. He did not realize it at the time but a German sniper saw his head poking out above the trench walls at the intersection. He took aim on my great-grandfather during his momentary pause.

As the sniper fired, my great-grandfather heard a noise to his right and turned his head to look at it. The bullet entered the helm by his ear, grazed his left temple, and exited through the front of the helmet, knocking him over in the process. What you see of the helmet above is the damage the bullet caused on its way out. The edges are still sharp, even after nearly a hundred years.

When I think about the generations that proceeded me, there are certainly an innumerable amount of close calls that must have been experienced stretching backwards through time. It’s a little different when you have the evidence of a close call in your hand, especially when it is just slightly remotely removed in connection to a great-grandparent. I can remember my grandfather wearing the helmet and telling the story dozens of times for family and friends. I can actually retell it by heart, that’s how much it impressed me as a kid and later as an adult.

For me, it’s a bit strange to look at this helmet and see the moment of time it represents. It’s a moment where the other outcome means that I wouldn’t exist. It’s one thing to have come and gone, it’s another to be a ‘never was’. And since the universe has a habit of not noticing such transactions, it is truly an isolating thought. It has an Alice in Wonderland quality to it as an “impossible thought”; how can one imagine something like that?

I’ve added a few pictures to show you the helmet and how it looks on someone (it’s not one of those ‘smile and take a picture’ sort of moments).

I’m curious if there are others out there with similar family tales. I’d love to hear them or if people have other thoughts on non-existence.

Weekend #hcod & #ebookrights

This article from the Wall Street Journal:

Some publishers, which are monitoring the sites closely, say they fear that making books available for loan may deter people from buying physical and digital books.

Despite an American Library Association study to the contrary, publishers believe that lending books represents a lost sale. But when you have quotes like these:

ebook sales in general are rapidly gaining on print sales. Forrester Research reports that ebook sales in the United States hit $966 million in 2010, up from $301 million the year before.

In Canada, HarperCollins says it’s seen a 500 per cent increase in ebook sales since 2009, while Random House Canada has seen a 400-percent jump. (The Province)

It’s not hard to see why they make statements like this:

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.

Right. I have yet to see a study or statistic which proves their last point that lending (library or otherwise) leads to less buying. My understanding is that reading leads to more reading, especially when there is a favorite author involved. As evidence I offer my anecdotal experience in lending out Game of Thrones to people and seeing a number of them buy it for themselves or the sequels.

Eric Hellman has a theory about why HarperCollins put limitations on their eBook sales:

[..] HarperCollins has played a neat trick. By focusing our attention on the books that are lent many times, supposedly shortchanging the publisher and the author, HarperCollins has gotten us to overlook the 80% of books that don’t circulate much at all. Libraries pay full price for those, too, and it’s pretty clear that publishers make infinitely more money on books that don’t circulate in libraries than on books that don’t sell in bookstores!

On balance, the economic effect of libraries, in addition to those I’ve discussed before, is to shift money from very popular books to those that are less popular. It can be argued that libraries support a breadth of culture that would go away without their support. Guess who publishes those very popular books? The Big 6 publishers, of course. They pay the big advances to authors, the big coop advertising fees to bookstores, they get their authors on talk shows and their books reviewed in the Times. That takes a lot of money, but the expenditure is richly rewarded by a "vital few" or "smash hit" economy.

So here’s the cunning. By focusing on popularity-driven revenue mechanisms, HarperCollins is pushing money towards the smash hits and away from the long tail. Libraries may be adversely affected, but they’re collateral damage. It’s the long tail publishers that HarperCollins is trying to destroy.

Read his whole post. While the math makes my eyes cross (it’s not him, it’s me), I can understand the point that he is getting at. That when you have a limited budget and must consider re-buys of a popular license, you’re going to divert it away from the eBooks that do not circulate as well. That Janet Evanovich eBook will have a high enough demand to warrant a re-buy (at a lower price point: “If a library decides to repurchase an e-book later in the book’s life, the price will be significantly lower as it will be pegged to a paperback price point.”) while the midlist authors that don’t get the same demand may get squeezed out by collection development money headed towards Janet.

That makes sense to me. Personally I hope it’s not the real reason although my cynical side was doing a jig while I read it. We’ll just see how it plays out.

Ebook Reader’s Bill of Rights Interview with The Pod Delusion

This past Sunday, Sarah Houghton-Jan and I did an interview with Salim Fadhley of The Pod Delusion about the eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights. You can listen or download our interview from the link above. (It should be noted that Salim has licensed the interview under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike which is frikkin’ sweet!) We had a great chat with him about the eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights and I was very pleased in how it came out.

Before the interview, we chatted a bit about the continuing plight of libraries in England. They are still on track to close approximately 1 in 3 public libraries over there as they wrestle with government cuts.  So, just when you thought it was tough here in the States, you’re not alone in the budget struggles.

So, enjoy listening to Sarah, Salim (who has a great podcast voice) and I!

Open Thread Thursday: Boycott, #hcod, etc.


[Note: the actual website still says "YES”. Click the picture to see for yourself!]

It’s an open thread. The starter topic is the HarperCollins boycott. The encouragement is to call it like you see it. Will it work? Will it fail? What do you think will happen?

Or talk about something else. And now, your comments, please.

The Other Shoe of #hcod

Lest anyone forget that there was more than one outrageous aspect in the Overdrive dispatch to libraries over eBooks, Karen Schneider reminded me that there was another bombshell that went with the limited eBook checkouts. I’ll quote the blurb on Bobbi Newman’s post and keep the emphasis that she added:

In addition, our publishing partners have expressed concerns regarding the card issuance policies and qualification of patrons who have access to OverDrive supplied digital content. Addressing these concerns will require OverDrive and our library partners to cooperate to honor geographic and territorial rights for digital book lending, as well as to review and audit policies regarding an eBook borrower’s relationship to the library (i.e. customer lives, works, attends school in service area, etc.). I can assure you OverDrive is not interested in managing or having any say in your library policies and issues. Select publisher terms and conditions require us to work toward their comfort that the library eBook lending is in compliance with publisher requirements on these topics.

My gut answer is “Um, how about no?”

In the same paragraph in which Overdrive assures that they are not interested in being involved in library policies, they accede to the publisher’s concerns by making it is a requirement to cooperate with those terms. I can only presume this was in done in the absence of consultation with their library “partners”. I’m not super familiar with partnerships in which one party simply tells the other what the deal is going to be without recourse; perhaps I cling onto an antiquated definition of partnership which includes bilateral communication. But if there had been some form of consultation as to the viability of these publisher fears, I would imagine their shock when they found out that what publishers want already exists.

First, libraries can pretty damn good at identifying who gets borrowing privileges. Whether it is a school, town, county, college, or hospital, one of the things that is well established in policy is who gets a card and who doesn’t. Generally this is shaped around who pays taxes or membership fees, who has active employment or enrollment at the school, or who simply works there, but I will concede there are a few exceptions. However, since library privileges are built around the concept of “who is in and who is out”, the publisher’s concerns have already been addressed. It’s a policy that is enforced everyday in libraries across the United States. Case closed.

Second, libraries already enforce patron qualifications as to who can remotely access materials through the library website. Long before eBooks appeared on the scene, databases were the outreach resource that could be accessed from outside the library walls. As a subscription service, libraries were pretty keen to ensure that only qualified parties could use these materials (especially there were a limited number of logins permitted). In order to access this content, an individual needs a library card; the same would be true with eBooks. As the issuance of library cards was handled in the previous point, the publisher’s concern is moot.

It really makes me wonder if publishers who are expressing these concerns are out of touch with libraries. They could walk down to their own public library or their kid’s school library or call up a university library and ask the very basic question as to what it takes to get a library card. Library card issuance policies are as clear cut as they get in the library world.

As to Overdrive, a little more consideration might be in order. Seriously, before making the mistake of rolling over to some unwarranted hand wringing, a little research might be in order. The answers might surprise you or already be in place.


So, here are my remaining questions as it pertains to this other shoe that Overdrive dropped:

(1) Who are these publishers that have concerns? Names would be good.

(2) What are these concerns in detail? What are these nebulous terms and conditions? Some details would be illuminating.

How The eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights Benefits Authors

About a week ago, Sarah and I posted the eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights. We’ve watched it bounce all over the blogosphere much to our mutual delight. But there has been a recurring question in some of the discussions as to what this document would mean to authors. I will try now to explain how authors would benefit under the terms outlined in the eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights. Here’s my breakdown:

the right to use eBooks under guidelines that favor access over proprietary limitations

As a librarian, I have a carefully honed monologue to inform people who come to the library why or why not their chosen ereader device will be able to download eBooks or audio eBooks. (At present, the Kindle one is the shortest at “Sorry, no can do”. The iPod is the longest since it starts out with a short shopping list of programs needed and permissions required.)  I am the de facto technical support for these devices and yet I am left holding the bag when it comes to explaining the convoluted jargon of Digital Rights Management, proprietary devices and software, and why’s and how’s of loading content into their devices. Now, imagine this interaction happening beyond the walls of the libraries as people look to purchase eBooks.

As an author, these limitations do you no favor when your readers cannot access your literature. When the effort eclipses the reward, people will forgo the attempt to get your work on their ereaders in favor of easier fare. I have seen people give up on trying to download library eBooks; I would hope that they would not give up on authors as easily.

the right to access eBooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software the user chooses

Ebooks should transcend platforms. What you buy on the iBookstore or the Kindle should be readable on the Nook or Kobo and vice versa. Ebooks should be platform neutral and portable. As an author, in order to reach the widest audience possible, your books should be able to travel wherever your audience wants them to be. You’ve put in the hours and the hard work; why should something like software or technology get between your prose and the reader?

the right to annotate, quote passages, print, and share eBook content within the spirit of fair use and copyright

At present, there is an inconsistent ability to do any of these aspects across all of the devices and eBooks. While fair use and copyright should be respected, these limitations work against the reader and their interaction with the text of the eBook. They stifle potential discussion regarding book passages by the inability to copy and share with others. They frustrate the reader by disallowing annotations about significant passages and recording their thoughts or reactions. Finally, in preventing the printing of parts of the eBook, they keep the words in a virtual space when the intention of printing is to share with others for further discussion or commentary. Think of every work space you’ve ever seen where a line of poetry or novel passage has hung; that is one of the beneficial aspects that this is preventing. People find significance in those words and make them part of their daily life. The prevention of printing usurps that urge.

Again, while copyright and fair use should be observed, authors should be mindful of accommodating the habits and actions of their readers that have grown out of print editions of their materials over many years.

the right of the first-sale doctrine extended to digital content, allowing the eBook owner the right to retain, archive, share, and re-sell purchased eBooks

Now, I will admit this is the tricky one that has gotten people tripped up over this document. Retaining and archiving are common practices for people with software; it allows them to make a backup copy in case something happens to the original. There shouldn’t be a problem with that as it ensures the future of the eBooks that they have purchased.

As to sharing, I’ll put it this way: authors benefit from sharing. Neil Gaiman makes a note of it specifically in his Open Rights Group video where he asks audiences how many people found their favorite author through a friend lending them a book as opposed to buying it at a bookstore (I’ve linked to the specific part of the video). The American Library Association has a 2007 study which shows that people who borrow books are likely to buy those books for themselves or purchase them as gifts for others. Libraries are an integral aspect of word of mouth marketing for authors.

“Word of mouth is still the best form of advertising. The forces unleashed by new media technologies seem to have never changed the truth behind this age-old wisdom dating back to the times when human culture was largely oral.” (ComCorp) With the new communication and social media possibilities, people are not simply telling their immediate friends and family about books; they are telling everyone about books. People are sharing the books that they love through sites like Facebook, LibraryThing, Goodreads, Shelfari, and their own blogging. The Twitter hashtag #fridayreads (up for a Mashable award for Best Internet Meme) shows how people can make recommendations for books to their followers and to the people who follow the hashtag. That recommendation carries weight with others as depicted by this survey from eMarketer and presented as this graphic:

The 2009 Nielsen Global Online Consumer survey shows that 90% of consumers trust recommendations from people they know and 70% trust fellow consumer opinions posted online (think #fridayreads, sites like Goodreads, and Amazon/B&N user book reviews). This 2010 Guardian/ICM survey gives similar supporting results of this trust in others (especially question 4).

Sharing eBooks would be word of mouth on steroids for authors since it means  making a recommendation and the ability to put the book almost instantly in the (virtual) hands of another. Sharing is not a lost sale, but a new marketing foray into a previously unrealized potential fan.

As to the question of eBook re-selling, I will admit that I do not have a perfect answer on this point. If there was a limited DRM system that would enable people to do so (ensuring that the old copy is destroyed while transferring a copy to the new owner), I think it would be a fair trade-off to confer ownership and greater content rights.

My primary concern is less about re-selling and more in regard to people being given control over their own reading content. While I’m hesitant to engage in what may be construed as hyperbole, I appeal to you to consider the emotional connections to your own personal libraries and the importance of every book that you have selected to be a part of it. I would implore authors to consider how they would consider outside removals or modifications on your own book collections. Ownership matters, quite frankly, and it is an expression of intellectual pride.

As it concerns the passage of text that followed the rights in the initial document, I personally believe in every word written there. I believe authors can flourish when their work is available on the widest range of media and when readers are given the maximum amount of freedom to access and share with others. I believe in creating the best possible market for authors to live by and thrive. I also believe eBooks are an important new part of the greater cultural cornerstone of society; and I believe that a document like the eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights works towards that goal.

For myself, there are farther reaching issues at stake here since the written word lives on long after our bodies have turned to dust. As a librarian, I strive to preserve the work of authors for future generations. It is a matter of great import and one I do not take lightly. It only gets more complicated when eBooks are locked behind formats and proprietary ereaders. It is my hope that the actions we take today will cultivate a vibrant literature market while increasing access to readers and allowing libraries to maintain their traditional societal role in maintaining the literary and cultural record.

I thank the authors who came here to read this post. I hope I made the meaning of the eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights and the benefits authors would derive from it a bit clearer and show that it was constructed around the best of intentions. I welcome any author feedback on this post so that I can further refine the eBook Reader’s Bill of Rights.

What Have Libraries Done For Us Lately?

The interior of HARPERCOLLINS BOARDROOM. A darkened room with a very long shined oaken table. Executives are seated on each side looking towards one end of the table with executives BOB, STEVE, JOSH, and DAVE sitting closest. JOSH stands at the one end, track lighting acting as a spotlight showing that he is standing in front of a white board with graphs marked EBOOKS with the lines going up.

Josh: “So, it is settled. Starting on March 7th, all eBook purchases for libraries will expire after twenty six circulations. This is to prevent undermining 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 of book sales and royalties paid to authors.”

Bob: “Bravo! We can’t let libraries get in the way of our new business model!”

Josh: “They’d bled us white, the bastards. They would take everything we offer, not just from us, but from all of publishing and lend it out to anyone!”

Dave: “They’d want give eternal lending rights to their children!”

Josh: “And their children’s children!”

Dave: “And their children’s children’s children!”

Josh: “All right, Dave. Don’t labor the point. And what have they ever given us in return?”

Bob: “They buy our books.”

Josh: “Oh yeah, yeah, they do give us money. Yeah. That’s true.”

Rob: “And they promote our authors!”

Dave: “Oh yes, author promotion. Josh, they do tell people about our authors.”

Josh: “All right, I’ll grant you that they buy our books and promote our authors are two things that libraries have done…”

Steve: “And promote literacy…”

Josh: (sharply) “Well yes obviously literacy… literacy goes without saying. But apart from buying our books, doing author promotion and the literacy thing…”

Exec 1: “Reading lists that mention our books…”

Exec 2: “Backcatalog buying… Storytimes with our books… author talks…”

Josh: “Yes… all right, fair enough…”

Exec in the back: “Book reviews!”

Steve: “Oh yes, true!”

Bob: “Yeah. That’s something we’d really miss if libraries didn’t do it anymore, Josh.”

Steve: “Yes, they certainly know how to keep order… (general nodding)… let’s face it, they’re the only consumers that put up with our mood swings and pricing schemes.”

(more general murmurs of agreement)

Josh: “All right… all right… but apart from buying books and backcatalog titles and author talks and promotions and using our books on reading lists and storytimes and book reviews and promoting literacy… what have libraries done for us?”

Bob: “They have more locations than McDonalds and are frequently more present than bookstores in communities all across the United States?”

Josh: “What!? Oh, locations where we would not otherwise have our titles available, yes… shut up!”

[For non Monty Python fans, the reference is here.]