Category Archives: POD

national archives/amazon agreement released

From Rick Prelinger:

In a rapid FOIA response, NARA has released the partnership agreement between them and Amazon’s CustomFlix (now CreateSpace) subsidiary. It’s downloadable here (I’m responsible for the poorly derived PDF). I’ll be reading and analyzing it soon.

amazon on demand

CustomFlix, Amazon’s on-demand DVD distribution service, has just been rebranded as CreateSpace, and will now serve up self-published media of all types. Getting a title into the system is free and relatively simple. Books must be a minimum of 24 pages and have to be submitted as a PDF. Seven trim sizes are available for color interiors, five for black and white. Each title automatically receives an ISBN and is displayed to shoppers as “in stock,” available for shipping immediately. You set the list price on your media, Amazon sets the selling price. CreateSpace is listed as the publisher of the book unless you provide your own ISBN, in which case you can appear under your own imprint.
CreateSpace titles apparently are eligible for the SearchInside browsing program (I wonder what the threshhold, or price, for entry is). I assume they will also be open for reader reviews, ratings and such. One thing I’d be very curious to know, however, is whether, or to what extent, CreateSpace titles will get factored into the social filtering and recommendation engines that power Amazon’s browsing experience. In some ways, that would be the best indicator of how much this move will blur the lines – ?in the perceptions of readers – ?between traditional publishing and the new, less authoritative POD channels.
Obviously, this presents a major challenge to other on-demand services like iUniverse, Xlibris and Lulu. It will be interesting to observe how the publishing cultures on these sites will differ. seems to hold the most potential for the emergence of a new ecosystem of independent imprints and publishing storefronts, with the Lulu brand receding into a more infrastructural role. iUniverse and Xlibris still feel more like good old-fashioned vanity presses. Amazon theoretically offers good exposure for self-published authors, but again, as I queried above w/r/t social filtering, will CreateSpace titles be ghetto-ized in an Amazon sub-space or fully integrated into the world of books?

the future of print?

On Demand Books has installed an Espresso Book Machine in the New York Public Library’s Science, Industry, and Business Library and is offering to print books for anyone who comes by to request one. Their machine has been running since June (and will run until the end of the month), but the Internet seems to have only taken just notice of it and there was a flurry of publicity this past week. I went over to 34th Street to take a look at it on Wednesday afternoon (just after the New York Times visited, I think).
They’ve installed the machine prominently on the first floor of the library. It’s about the size of a small car and it looks like a bunch of laser printers were smashed together and a computer was stuck on top. Signs explain why it looks jerryrigged: this machine is a prototype, “On Demand Books Espresso Book Machine Model 1.5,” although the Model 2, about half the size and looking much more sleek, is on the way. While the press release suggested that anyone could come up and start printing out books, in reality the machine was cordoned off from the public and being run by an operator.
For this demonstration, there’s a list of 20 available titles: the usual assortment of out of print Open Content Alliance books (Dickens, Tom Sawyer, Beatrix Potter), a couple of scientific papers (Einstein, also out of print; a paper from the AMS), and two recent ones related to the venture: Jason Epstein’s Book Business, which made the case for machines like this being the future of bookselling in 2001, and Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. And one odd one: Faulkner’s Three Famous Short Novels, published by Vintage in 1942, which is still in copyright (and in print). The operator suggested that Moby-Dick would take too long to print – because it’s so long, it would be printed in two volumes – and tried to get me to choose The Long Tail, which is nice and short. I wanted something that I’d actually read and I was curious about how the Faulkner volume wound up in the list, so I went for it. Was I sure I didn’t want The Long Tail? I was sure.
The operator clicked a button on the computer’s display and the machine soon started making printing sounds. This continued for the next fifteen minutes. First the pages of the book were printed; they were printed on standard 8.5” x 11” paper, double-sided. The Faulkner book has around 160 leaves; this took a long time, and was exactly as exciting as waiting for a printer to print 160 pages. When all the pages were printed, they were apparently moved to another part of the machine where glue was applied to one edge. (While the machine has translucent sides, it’s hard to see what’s going on inside it for the most part.) They were moved down to another printer, this one color, which printed the cover on thicker stock. The cover was then glued to the pages and folder around them. Finally, the book was moved to the last section, where it was clamped down and rotated three times to cut off the extra trim, making a book that’s about 5” x 7”. The waste paper dropped down to a bin at the bottom of the machine; the newly minted book came out a slot in the front of the machine. The operator picked it up and handed it to me.
How does it look? It looks like a cheap paperback. My copy wasn’t quite cut right and there’s a little spur of excess paper rising from the top right corner, which gives it a modicum of uniqueness. Like the other Open Content-printed books that I’ve seen, the print isn’t wonderful: they seem to be working from screen-resolution scans of the books, and they appear notably grainy when printed. It looks very much like a book that someone photocopied on a copier with the contrast set a bit too high. But like a photocopied book, it’s certainly legible. It’s worth pointing out that this grainy quality is a function of the scan rather than the machine: a copy of The Long Tail looked just like a PDF printed through a regular laser printer would look. It still doesn’t look like a regularly printed book, but it certainly works as proof of concept.
More importantly, what does it mean? While there’s certainly work that needs to be done on these machines, they certainly seem viable. Epstein proposed these machines as a solution for a single problem: the unavailable backlist. It’s not hard to imagine, however, that a decade from now the entire bookstore will have been replaced by one of these machines at the FedExKinkosBarnes&Noble. Holding my copy of Faulkner in my hands, the overwhelming feeling was one of cheapness: the book had been reduced, finally, to being a disposable consumer object, available as easily as a latte at Starbuck’s. The books that the Espresso was putting out every twenty minutes existed for demonstration purposes: although passersby oohed and ahed at the possibility of the machine and happily took the sample books, I sensed that the books probably wouldn’t be read.
We’ve noted here how young people don’t tend to keep CDs: when they buy them, they immediately rip them into the computer, often throwing away the packaging and the CD itself. Over the past five years, music stores have been closing at a precipitous clip; so have video rental stores. There hasn’t been a tremendous outcry about this: we get enough out of the convenience of the iTunes store or Netflix that we don’t care that Tower Records went under and that Blockbuster is struggling. What happens if the book goes in this direction? It’s certainly technically possible – both Google’s book-scanning project and the Espresso machine demonstrate that. But technology has moved faster than our sense of how our culture will be affected. There’s a discussion here that needs to happen.

dismantling the book

Peter Brantley relates the frustrating experience of trying to hunt down a particular passage in a book and his subsequent painful collision with the cold economic realities of publishing. The story involves a $58 paperback, a moment of outrage, and a venting session with an anonymous friend in publishing. As it happens, the venting turned into some pretty fascinating speculative musing on the future of books, some of which Peter has reproduced on his blog. Well worth a read.
mejadebookshred.jpg A particularly interesting section (quoted further down) is on the implications for publishers of on-demand disaggregated book content: buying or accessing selected sections of books instead of entire volumes. There are numerous signs that this will be at least one wave of the future in publishing, and should probably prod folks in the business to reevaluate why they publish certain things as books in the first place.
Amazon already provides a by-the-page or by-the-chapter option for certain titles through its “Pages” program. Google presumably will hammer out some deals with publishers and offer a similar service before too long. Peter Osnos’ Caravan Project includes individual chapter downloads and print-on-demand as part of the five-prong distribution standard it is promoting throughout the industry. If this catches on, it will open up a plethora of options for readers but it might also unvravel the very notion of what a book is. Could we be headed for a replay of the mp3’s assault on the album?
The wholeness of the book has to some extent always been illusory, and reading far more fragmentary than we tend to admit. A number of things have clouded our view: the economic imperative to publish whole volumes (it’s more cost-effective to produce good aggregations of content than to publish lots of individual options, or to allow readers to build their own); romantic notions of deep, cover-to-cover reading; and more recently, the guilty conscience of the harried book consumer (when we buy a book we like to think that we’ll read the whole thing, yet our shelves are packed with unfinished adventures).
But think of all the books that you value just for a few particular nuggets, or the books that could have been longish essays but were puffed up and padded to qualify as $24.95 commodities (so many!). Any academic will tell you that it is not only appropriate but vital to a researcher’s survival to hone in on the parts of a book one needs and not waste time on the rest (I’ve received several tutorials from professors and graduate students on the fine art of fileting a monograph). Not all thoughts are book-sized and not all reading goes in a straight line. Selective reading is probably as old as reading itself.
Unbundling the book has the potential to allow various forms of knowledge to find the shapes and sizes that fit them best. And when all the pieces are interconnected in the network, and subject to social discovery tools like tagging, RSS and APIs, readers could begin to assume a role traditionally played by publishers, editors and librarians — the role of piecing things together. Here’s the bit of Peter’s conversation that goes into this:

Peter: …the Google- empowered vision of the “network of books” which is itself partially a romantic, academic notion that might actually be a distinctly net minus for publishers. Potentially great for academics and readers, but potentially deadly for publishers (not to mention librarians). As opposed to the simple first order advantage of having the books discoverable in the first place – but the extent to which books are mined and then inter-connected – that is an interesting and very difficult challenge for publishers.
Am I missing something…?
Friend: If you mean, are book publishers as we know them doomed? Then the answer is “probably yes.” But it isn’t Google’s connecting everything together that’s doing it. If people still want books, all this promotion of discovery will obviously help. But if they want nuggets of information, it won’t. Obviously, a big part of the consumer market that book publishers have owned for 200 years want the nuggets, not a narrative. They’re going, going, gone. The skills of a “publisher” — developing content and connecting it to markets — will have to be applied in different ways.
Peter: I agree that it is not the mechanical act of interconnection that is to blame but the demand side preference for chunks of texts. And the demand is probably extremely high, I agree.
The challenge you describe for publishers – analogous in its own way to that for libraries – is so fundamentally huge as to mystify the mind. In my own library domain, I find it hard to imagine profoundly differently enough to capture a glimpse of this future. We tinker with fabrics and dyes and stitches but have not yet imagined a whole new manner of clothing.
Friend: Well, the aggregation and then parceling out of printed information has evolved since Gutenberg and is now quite sophisticated. Every aspect of how it is organized is pretty much entirely an anachronism. There’s a lot of inertia to preserve current forms: most people aren’t of a frame of mind to start assembling their own reading material and the tools aren’t really there for it anyway.
Peter: They will be there. Arguably, when you look at things like RSS and Yahoo Pipes and things like that – it’s getting closer to what people need.
And really, it is not always about assembling pieces from many different places. I might just want the pieces, not the assemblage. That’s the big difference, it seems to me. That’s what breaks the current picture.
Friend: Yes, but those who DO want an assemblage will be able to create their own. And the other thing I think we’re pointed at, but haven’t arrived at yet, is the ability of any people to simply collect by themselves with whatever they like best in all available media. You like the Civil War? Well, by 2020, you’ll have battle reenactments in virtual reality along with an unlimited number of bios of every character tied to the movies etc. etc. etc. I see a big intellectual change; a balkanization of society along lines of interest. A continuation of the breakdown of the 3-television network (CBS, NBC, ABC) social consensus.

not just websites

At a meeting of the Interaction Designer’s Association (IxDA) one of the audience members, during the Q&A, asked “Why are we all making websites?”
What a fantastic question. We primarily consider the digital at the Institute, and the way that discourse is changing as it is presented on screen and in the network. But the question made me reevaluate why a website is the form I immediately think of for any new project. I realized that I have a strong predilection for websites because I love the web, and I know what I’m doing when it comes to sites. But that doesn’t mean a site is always the right form for every project. It prompted me to reconsider two things: the benefit of Sophie books, and the position of print in light of the network, and what transformations we can make to the printed page.
First, the Sophie book. It’s not a website, but it is part of the network. During the development and testing of a shared, networked book, we discovered that there a particular feeling of intimacy associated with sharing Sophie book. Maybe it’s our own perspective on Sophie that created the sensation, but sharing a Sophie book was not like giving out a url. It had more meaning than that. The web seemed like a wide-open parade ground compared to the cabin-like warmth of reading a Sophie book across the table from Ben. Sophie books have borders, and there was a sense of boundedness that even tightly designed websites lack. I’m not sure where this leads yet, but it’s a wonderfully humane aspect of the networked book that we haven’t had a chance to see until now.
On to print. One idea for print that I find fascinating, though deeply problematic, is the combination of an evolving digital text with print-on-demand (POD) in a series of rapidly versioned print runs. A huge issue comes up right away: there is potentially disastrous tension between a static text (the printed version) and the evolving digital version. Printing a text that changes frequently will leave people with different versions. When we talked about this at the Institute, the concern around the table was that any printed version would be out of date as soon as the toner hit the page. And, since a book is supposed to engender conversation, this book, with radical differences between versions, would actually work against that purpose. But I actually think this is a benefit from our point of view—it emphasizes the value of the ongoing conversation in a medium that can support it (digital), and highlights the limitations of a printed text. At the same time it provides a permanent and tangible record of a moment in time. I think there is value in that, like recording a live concert. It’s only a nascent idea for an experiment, but I think it will help us find the fulcrum point between print and the network.
As a rider, there is a design element with every document (digital or print) that makes the most of the originating process and creates a beautiful final product. So a short, but difficult question: What is the ideal form for a rapidly versioned document?

google and the future of print

Veteran editor and publisher Jason Epstein, the man who first introduced paperbacks to American readers, discusses recent Google-related books (John Battelle, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, David Vise etc.) in the New York Review, and takes the opportunity to promote his own vision for the future of publishing. As if to reassure the Updikes of the world, Epstein insists that the “sparkling cloud of snippets” unleashed by Google’s mass digitization of libraries will, in combination with a radically decentralized print-on-demand infrastructure, guarantee a bright future for paper books:

[Google cofounder Larry] Page’s original conception for Google Book Search seems to have been that books, like the manuals he needed in high school, are data mines which users can search as they search the Web. But most books, unlike manuals, dictionaries, almanacs, cookbooks, scholarly journals, student trots, and so on, cannot be adequately represented by Googling such subjects as Achilles/wrath or Othello/jealousy or Ahab/whales. The Iliad, the plays of Shakespeare, Moby-Dick are themselves information to be read and pondered in their entirety. As digitization and its long tail adjust to the norms of human nature this misconception will cure itself as will the related error that books transmitted electronically will necessarily be read on electronic devices.

Epstein predicts that in the near future nearly all books will be located and accessed through a universal digital library (such as Google and its competitors are building), and, when desired, delivered directly to readers around the world — made to order, one at a time — through printing machines no bigger than a Xerox copier or ATM, which you’ll find at your local library or Kinkos, or maybe eventually in your home.
espressobookmachine.jpg Predicated on the “long tail” paradigm of sustained low-amplitude sales over time (known in book publishing as the backlist), these machines would, according to Epstein, replace the publishing system that has been in place since Gutenberg, eliminating the intermediate steps of bulk printing, warehousing, retail distribution, and reversing the recent trend of consolidation that has depleted print culture and turned book business into a blockbuster market.
Epstein has founded a new company, OnDemand Books, to realize this vision, and earlier this year, they installed test versions of the new “Espresso Book Machine” (pictured) — capable of producing a trade paperback in ten minutes — at the World Bank in Washington and (with no small measure of symbolism) at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.
Epstein is confident that, with a print publishing system as distributed and (nearly) instantaneous as the internet, the codex book will persist as the dominant reading mode far into the digital age.

amazon looks to “kindle” appetite for ebooks with new device

Engadget has uncovered details about a soon-to-be-released upcoming/old/bogus(?) Amazon ebook reading device called the “Kindle,” which appears to have an e-ink display, and will presumably compete with the Sony Reader. From the basic specs they’ve posted, it looks like Kindle wins: it’s got more memory, it’s got a keyboard, and it can connect to the network (update: though only through the EV-DO wireless standard, which connects Blackberries and some cellphones; in other words, no basic wifi). This is all assuming that the thing actually exists, which we can’t verify.
Regardless, it seems the history of specialized ebook devices is doomed to repeat itself. Better displays (and e-ink is still a few years away from being really good) and more sophisticated content delivery won’t, in my opinion, make these machines much more successful than their discontinued forebears like the Gemstar or the eBookMan.
Ebooks, at least the kind Sony and Amazon will be selling, dwell in a no man’s land of misbegotten media forms: pale simulations of print that harness few of the possibilities of the digital (apparently, the Sony Reader won’t even have searchable text!). Add highly restrictive DRM and vendor lock-in through the proprietary formats and vendor sites made for these devices and you’ve got something truly depressing.
Publishers need to get out of this rut. The future is in networked text, multimedia and print on demand. Ebooks and their specialized hardware are a red herring.
Teleread also comments.

the wisdom of fortune cookies: “your reputation is your wealth”

Over cold jasmine tea and quartered oranges in Chinatown, I got this little gem of a fortune. I chuckled at its relevance to our work at the institute. With the rise of self publishing (blogs, wikis, and POD), being google searchable, and content being freely given away, I wonder what our readers think about reputations being our wealth. Is this truth, nothing new, tom foolery, or just a fad? Has the concept of “reputation” changed? Have you and your work felt an effect as well? If so, how? I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

the book is reading you

I just noticed that Google Book Search requires users to be logged in on a Google account to view pages of copyrighted works.
google book search account.jpg
They provide the following explanation:

Why do I have to log in to see certain pages?
Because many of the books in Google Book Search are still under copyright, we limit the amount of a book that a user can see. In order to enforce these limits, we make some pages available only after you log in to an existing Google Account (such as a Gmail account) or create a new one. The aim of Google Book Search is to help you discover books, not read them cover to cover, so you may not be able to see every page you’re interested in.

So they’re tracking how much we’ve looked at and capping our number of page views. Presumably a bone tossed to publishers, who I’m sure will continue suing Google all the same (more on this here). There’s also the possibility that publishers have requested information on who’s looking at their books — geographical breakdowns and stats on click-throughs to retailers and libraries. I doubt, though, that Google would share this sort of user data. Substantial privacy issues aside, that’s valuable information they want to keep for themselves.
That’s because “the aim of Google Book Search” is also to discover who you are. It’s capturing your clickstreams, analyzing what you’ve searched and the terms you’ve used to get there. The book is reading you. Substantial privacy issues aside, (it seems more and more that’s where we’ll be leaving them) Google will use this data to refine Google’s search algorithms and, who knows, might even develop some sort of personalized recommendation system similar to Amazon’s — you know, where the computer lists other titles that might interest you based on what you’ve read, bought or browsed in the past (a system that works only if you are logged in). It’s possible Google is thinking of Book Search as the cornerstone of a larger venture that could compete with Amazon.
There are many ways Google could eventually capitalize on its books database — that is, beyond the contextual advertising that is currently its main source of revenue. It might turn the scanned texts into readable editions, hammer out licensing agreements with publishers, and become the world’s biggest ebook store. It could start a print-on-demand service — a Xerox machine on steroids (and the return of Google Print?). It could work out deals with publishers to sell access to complete online editions — a searchable text to go along with the physical book — as Amazon announced it will do with its Upgrade service. Or it could start selling sections of books — individual pages, chapters etc. — as Amazon has also planned to do with its Pages program.
Amazon has long served as a valuable research tool for books in print, so much so that some university library systems are now emulating it. Recent additions to the Search Inside the Book program such as concordances, interlinked citations, and statistically improbable phrases (where distinctive terms in the book act as machine-generated tags) are especially fun to play with. Although first and foremost a retailer, Amazon feels more and more like a search system every day (and its A9 engine, though seemingly always on the back burner, is also developing some interesting features). On the flip side Google, though a search system, could start feeling more like a retailer. In either case, you’ll have to log in first.