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Weekend Reading

I've been away (visiting relatives) and shirking my bloggerly duties, so please allow me to suggest that if you read one essay today, it should be this one, by Clay Shirky, thinking the unthinkable about the future of news media:

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.
Read it on the web because you won't read it in your newspaper ... his diagnosis fits the disease: the only problem is, nobody knows how to cure it.

65 Comments

1:
Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.

Taking his argument as a general case and applying it to any industry the internet has or has the potential to disrupt makes for some interesting times ahead.

It's rather obvious that 'Society doesn’t need record companies. What we need is music'; we all know that business model is dead, but no one knows what is going to replace it.

The same can be said of book publishing as more and more books have digital editions - we don't need publishers, we need books. Arguing that publishers provide necessary editorial and other functions is moot; we don't actually know what is necessary, and more importantly, consumers don't care, they just care about the books, and there are a lot of other models that may work to provide those functions.

While what Clay is arguing makes sense, does knowing that we are going through a revolution actually make any difference? Stakeholders will continue to be resistive to change, especially when it seems to signal a loss of control and profitability for them. They will grasp at any measure to protect what they have regardless of the fallout, and most would do the same in their place. The public will continue to push for any change that makes life easier, cheaper or better, and we have numbers on our side. I guess if the knowledge has any benefit it's that we should try as many different ways of doing things as possible - some of them may just work, and the cost of failure is not going to be too big.

If the printing press teaches us anything, it's that the potential benefits of these transitions are massive, and that for every business model they disrupt many more new ones become possible. We just have to hope that the collateral damage does not get to bad while the old guard flops around in it's death throws. We are already starting to see some pretty draconian IP policy enacted, and things like ACTA and perpetual term extension are a herald of a future that's not going to be good for the majority.

In time we will know what models one, but it's going to be a bumpy road getting there.

2:

s/one/won

3:

Book publishing is a very small corner of this mess but yes, the rug is slowly being pulled out from underneath the existing business model.

I reckon high-end books -- signed limited editions, coffee table items with glossy photographs -- will be the last to go; first up in front of the wall when the revolution comes will be technical/professional literature (text books and reference books), followed shortly thereafter by mass-market entertainment (if you've seen Stanza or the Kindle app for iPhone, then try to imagine what a circa-2014 iPhone will look like, that's what I'm thinking of).

As for the draconian IP policy -- they can try. (They are trying.) It's like banning the printing press, or banning the translation of the bible into local vernacular.

4:

I confess to not understanding Lee's comment. But the Google search reveals a curious automated calculation.

5:

I think you are correct about tech and reference books being the first to go - they already are if you look at O'Reilly's Safari bookshelf et al. It makes sense for them to go as printed editions are so quickly out of date, they are fertilizer within a year or two. Not to mention that gouging students for a new edition of a text book every year is morally questionable.

Signed limited editions, yes, but how about the actual signings. Heh, the future of authorship is giving away your books for free to promote your concert equivalents: paid signing and speaking tours. Jokes aside, it seems to work quite well for Cory, so maybe that's one of the future models - Selling you rather than selling your books. If you look at it that way it's not necessary for the books, signings, and conventions to make any money, no more than it is for the blog, it's simply that they all sell you and generate additional income from tangential engagements - like Scalzi's gig as creative consultant for Stargate Universe.

I've had a Sony reader for a couple of years, so I know what you mean regarding mass market. It's not hard to envisage the always on connection and massive available library. At the moment a lot of the warez (for want of a better word) version of books are home scan and ocr jobs with questionable quality, but once the majority of the mass market is made available digitally, one or two breaches in encryption will put the bulk of market on the trackers, and that's going to be hard for the publishers to fight. That's just a question of when, not if.

I think Cory is right to a limited extent, giving stuff away does promote sales; the first thing I read of yours was digital (we won't discuss the legality :)), and now I have a shelf of your books. However, once it's a choice between a free legal or otherwise digital copy or a paid digital copy, how many people are going to lay down the cash? The model starts to fail when everything is digital, which is why the record companies are struggling - in hindsight, squashing things like Pandora and a legal kazaa are going to look pretty stupid. I'm not sure what models other than Cory's are going to work in that world, no doubt there are plenty. I just hope that the majority of writers manage to make the transition.

I hope your right on the IP policy; I think you probably are; But it's still painful to watch it happen. Ditto the nasty terror laws enacted because they can rather than they need to.

6:

@4 - sorry geek speak, it's a vi command for replacing all instances of 'one' with 'won' in the input (the s means search), as I incorrectly said 'In time we will know what models one,...' rather than 'In time we will know what models won...'

Funnily enough I don't use vi much, but that bit of usage seems to have become entrenched in forum language for correcting ones mistakes...

7:

Hmm. I made a commitment about 5 years ago, when I began to live reliably above the poverty line, to seek out and pay for as much work as possible by authors/musicians/artists whom I enjoy. At the same time, I try to hit the tip jar quarterly on those online news and opinion sites I appreciate.

In short, I've already made the jump to the new economy in which the payment is for the work, not the medium. If Charlie chooses to publish his next book on this site in PDF, I'll buy it the day it comes out for $25 (about the cost of a hardback book). Because its worth it. And because Stross, Doctorow and Scalzi (just off the top of my head) have been entirely sensible about the shift from paying for the work, not the medium.

8:

The problem that I see, has nothing to do with the publishers. (Insert "Dead Parrot - Extended Edition" joke here.)

Nor is the problem access to news and literature, the solution of this problem being the problem to begin with.

It is mostly about feeding and housing authors and journalists, or they will all require a day job and their work will suffer, on average. So, what are the possibilities on that? Donate buttons on ebooks, newspages and websites of authors and journalists? Advertisements (that people take pains not to take the pain of watching them)? Any other suggestions? ... I mean, just because money as we know it will be abolished in the long run doesn't mean that you guys won't need it in the short run. Once that problem is solved, all the rest is mostly trivial.

9:

Well you might not read in your newspaper Charlie, but I have been reading about it in the Guardian most days for years. I commend their website to you.

For example, every single newspaper has its own unique approach/attitude to the current challenges/opportunities/whatever, and the UK is waaay further down this road than the US. And UK newspapers are well ahead of all but a handful of book publishers - nevertheless the ice seems to be cracking in that industry as well.

10:

Very good article. I have been thinking much the same for a while. I think this applies to all forms of digital based media. I think of the Sony PSP as a classic example of how far a company will go to produce a piece of merchandise and then deliberately hobble it.

11:

"Society doen't need record companies - what we need is music"
Hmmmm ...
Society doesn't need politicians - what we need is freedom?

12:

tp1024@8

But what happens when everyone has the capability to be a "journalist"? Suppose everyone is able to broadcast what they see, hear and speak?

13:

Yes, very interesting article, thanks for bringing it to our attention. Agree that this will affect technical publications first and in my field, astronomy, this has been true for some time. The Astrophysical Journal was possibly the first technical journal to create an on-line version in 1994. Today some libraries have the policy of not purchasing the paper copy of a journal if there is an on-line version. This not only saves money, but possibly more importantly, it saves space.

With regards to technical books, others have also adapted the policy of offering free, downloadable versions as a way for the reader to see if they would like a dead tree version which usually has additional material. I have a hard time reading text off a screen, so if it looks like a book I would like, I will splurge for a dead tree copy.


14:

Lee @5: However, once it's a choice between a free legal or otherwise digital copy or a paid digital copy, how many people are going to lay down the cash?

Historically (pre-ebook) each book sold had an average of at least four readers over its life cycle (original owner, loaner to friends, second-hand, and so on). If you count library loans it's even more. So I'm sanguine about the percentage who lay down the cash; if even 20% continue to do so, we're no worse off than we were in the pre-ebook era.

I'm less happy about the "give the books away for free to support your speaking gigs" niche. Lots of writers are recluses or have nothing interesting to say in public (that's why they write, rather than being public speakers or radio broadcasters or whatever). But I think there are other models that could save us. (I'm thinking specifically a compulsory license model, imposed at the point of purchase of network access -- if you have broadband or a mobile phone, a percentage of your rental goes in tax -- and used to fund a rights society model; we can encapsulate the existing broken copyright model, pay off the rightsholders, and then allow everybody to download whatever they want freely -- free as in speech, not free as in beer. This has the huge advantage that we don't need to renegotiate all those international copyright and IP treaties that have screwed us up; we just impose another layer on top that buries the crap and lets us move on from there.)

@6: that particular piece of syntax predates vi by some years. (IIRC it goes back to ed. Which got it, in turn, from typesetter's markups written in blue pencil on the galley proofs.)

Kevin: I've been reading The Guardian -- first on dead tree, then online -- for around 30 years now. It's my regular newspaper.


15:

I suspect that many of Charlie Stross' readers are in technical fields, so it's likely we'd notice the availability of technical works in electronic form.

There's a company drivethrurpg.com selling a role playing game books as watermarked pdfs. (I really wish more books were available like that.)

And Salacious content driving ebooks suggested that erotic fiction (AKA porn for women) is another significant ebook genre.

16:

Any suggestions what will happen to the libraries in this environment ?

17:

Lee@2: Society doesn't need publishers OR books - society needs to read.

Here's another model: distributed patronage. We all know that whatever Charlie writes next, we're going to want to read it. So those of us who really care contribute to the Charlie Endowment. The Endowment pays Charlie based on his output, with a schedule similar to his current agreement with Tor.

Since Charlie is a well-known, proven-productive author (are you getting enough flattery here, Charlie? (-: ) it's easy to find a few thousand contributors to fund the Endowment. Meanwhile, all Charlie's work for the foundation gets released with a Creative Commons license or similar. The contributors might get a special edition printed on real dead trees if that's what they like.

That seems like it would work for established authors. Now, let's do the same for editors. Editors are not celebrities like authors, so there's some brand building needed. But an editor's fans would fund him to identify new authors and pay their advances while they're becoming known.

The difference is, today we readers pay for the finished product by buying a physical artifact containing it. (And middlemen suck up 95% of the proceeds.) In the distributed patronage model, fans would pay for the artist before the product exists, and everyone would get the work for free.

Everyone is going to get the work for free anyway...

18:

Charlie @11

I had not thought about paper books number of reader to sales - obvious now you point it out. Certainly for writers with an active following, 20% sounds pretty doable. As Brett @7 illustrates a lot of peoples ethics will ensure that money continues to flow. Personally I don't object to paying for what I use, but I do start to object when I can see most of what I pay going into the coffers of a copyright cartel where it does little to promote new and novel culture, rather than into the pocket of the creator. I also object to the levels and length of protections, they don't benefit the majority, but that's another discussion.

On the writers as recluses I agree - public speaking etc is one future model, and it had better not be the only one or we are going to lose a lot of creative talent.

I think a compulsory licence is where we will end up for music, and if it works I can see it being extended to movies and books. However I am not yet convinced that it will actually work to the benefit of creators, I can see it being the new cash cow of the content cartels, but I guess that's what your saying.

On top of that I can't see how it could accurately and fairly divvy up the pot without abuse. Deep packet inspection might help, but I've yet to be convinced of that too. Having said that, it probably does not need to be fair or abuse free to work or to maintain the status quo; as you say, we stay as we are with publishers funding new authors until they have enough market penetration to get noticed by the rights societies all seeing eyes.

For the consumer it's certainly not the worst outcome, but ideologically it does nothing to redress the imbalance between big content cartels and content creators. Maybe we'll be lucky and get some compromises on IP law as well, but as much as I want to see it, I don't think we are going to see a from first principles overhaul of the IP regime this side of post scarcity.

19:

If we're going to purchase more and more digital content (or, more accurately, the usage rights of digital content), having some kind of guaranteed, iron-clad, no BS or excuses, commercial or military grade backup capability becomes an absolute must. Imagine (let's say) you've purchased the keys to use $10,000 (or equivalent in Euros etc.) of digital content, over the course of 5-7 years. One day the drive in your PC dies. No problem, you say, we'll just get a new drive and restore from backup. Except you dropped your backup drive down the stairs on the way to do a restore with it. Now what? I'll grant you that any current tech savvy user will (at minimum) have RAID-1 mirrored drives in his PC, and have multiple backup copies on different media (some off-site). But we're a long way from seeing these thing become commonplace and taken for granted. As digital content becomes more and more mainstream, our storage reliability and recoverability requirements will go up by (at least) an order of magnitude. They are not there today. Now, if I could only buy some memory diamond somewhere... (Don't forget the definition of 'backup' from the Devil's DP Dictionary: "The act of destroying a file while attempting to make a duplicate copy for archival purposes".)

20:

kbob@16

Here's another model: distributed patronage

I'd love to see that sort of model, but I don't think it's workable for the majority.

Firstly, it has no provision for new creators, no way of promoting or funding new and novel things.

Secondly, I don't think Charlie or other authors would want to be beholden to a bunch of shareholders, even if you could come up with a workable contract that did not make authors feel like they not in control. I guess if it was completely non commitment based it might work - but how many people are going to put money into a pot for an author, year on year with no guarantee that the author will produce what they want to read, or anything at all for that matter.

Thirdly, if you did find a workable setup, it's liable to be heavily geared to producing more of the more of the popular and less of the fringe. Authors will be worried about keeping funding and so will write what people want to read, and not what they want or need to write, and as a consequence we are likely to miss out of some of the most profound work by ensuring we get lots of the good.

21:

MikeM@18

I'm more worried about losing access to digital content because the company who runs the DRM scheme see no profit in keeping the authentication servers for X alive and shuts them of. Through no fault of my own I have now lost access to something I paid for, and have no legal recourse to do anything about it because the nasty EULA said they could do it.

I am also worried about the increasingly draconian EULAs that come with digital content. Not only do you have to worry about DRM, but you can't on sell or lend it because it's tied to an account and can't transfer out of it because the EULA says so. There are all sorts of nasty scenarios here from the blocking of free speech to the mundane '..you agree to not post negative reviews of this product online and if you do so your license is revoked'.

As to loosing digital content (and the backup if you were allowed to make one), I am not sure that's much of an argument. If I buy a paper book, the publisher is not obliged to replace it if I loose it or drop it in the bath - that's what insurance is for......

22:

Lee: an important point that often gets lost in these discussions is that a publisher -- let's get specific and say a publisher of popular genre fiction -- is very unlike the "faceless copyright cartel" than most people imagine. There's a lot less money in publishing than in music or film or TV or computer games, and so there are a lot fewer sharks in Armani suits; your typical publishing house is staffed by mostly overworked, underpaid enthusiasts. The fact that they're also typically owned by a large multinational conglomerate who own newspapers and magazines and recording studios and games companies is an embarrassment, if anything: they get tarred with the same brush whatever they do.

MikeM: yes, that's why DRM is an abomination.

23:

Great article! Thanks, Mr. Stross, for the shout-out.

"That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place."

Absolutely. And they happen when the public perceives the existing institutions as causing more problems than they solve, and going over their heads to new ways of doing old things, and new ways of doing new things, while the Establishment is paralyzed by failure of imagination, failure of nerve, factionism, and elimination of moderates while exalting extremists.

Narrowly, I put this at the feet of the entities who created the World Wide Web without the micropayments as infrastructure, as urged by Ted Nelson. Once the world has gotten used to everything being free, it has been impossible to claw back to even tiny expenses for access to even tiny portions of content.

Broadly, "When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry." This was the zeitgeist in several industries. Didn't the financial institutions that caused the global recession marginalize anyone who warned about bad mortgages and Credit Default Option? Didn't the Angloamerican governments marginalize anyone who warned that invading Afghanistan and Iraq would take more resources? Werent scientists reporting Global Warming attacked as alarmists? Didn't NASA marginalize engineers who said that the Space Shuttle would blow up and kill people unless certain studied problems be fixed? Didn't intelligence old hands warn that satellite surveillance couldn't replace humint, and that it was a bad idea to force out agents who knew the local language and replace them with ideologues who could not penetrate a paper bag? Didn't teachers warn that students can not be efficiently taught in crumbling buildings that lack textbooks and technology, when teachers are not adequately recruited, retained, and rewarded?

Great science fiction authors such as yourself go beyond first-order predictions to a dense network of second- and third-order predictions of the impact of new science and technology on human life? If I were advising President Obama, I'd say: "Create a new Cabinet position, the Secretary of Consequences. Her job is to extrapolate uncomfortable major consequences of policy recommendations by all the other cabinet members."

24:

Charlie@21

Having no intimate knowledge of the book publishing industry I bow to your informed opinion.

Though if the publisher continue to price digital versions at the same price point as hardbacks, once the majority of sales are digital there might be a fair bit more profit floating round to be sliced up*. Do you believe that the big media companies that own the book publishers are going to allow them to pass on a bigger chunk of the profit to the author?

* I read a break down of the cost of publishing a book a while ago, and while there was a lot more to the castings than I expected it still seemed to me that the majority were tied to the physical book, even though the actual printing and warehousing costs weren't that high. A lot of it seemed to be selling it into bricks and mortar outlets, but when there are only 5-10 big online digital stores, that is going to go down a lot.

25:

Returning to the point I was trying to make (very badly) @ 11, and something in the original article ....
How WILL politics really be affected by the web?
It hasn't really started yet - witness the amazing screw-up by the catholic church over re-admitting a known holocaust denier to their number - when the info was widely web-available ...
Think of the bradsheet/ballad/printing war (as well as real wars) between the various sides during the Reformation in Europe - all fuelled by the decreasing cost of printing and the rising tide of basic literacy.
Finally reaching a peak (in Britain, at least) during the Civil Wars 1642-52.
I've got a repro pack of playing cards, for instance, on "The Knavery of the Rump", and there were many popular ballads, some of which are still known and used, such as "Prince Rupert's March" with (like "Lillibulero") several alternative sets of words - I happen to like "The Lawyer's farewell to Charing Cross".

Now, how are the collapsing existinng publishing-and-media structures, and the new web-enabled ones going to affect politics, both national and international?
Because they are, and profoundly - it is just that we don't know how.
Or do we - any predictions from anyone out there?

26:

@24 Re:politics - It's already started Greg, witness the crap flying around the US election, "Obama is a muslim" etc. as well a the periodic Russian/Ukrainian cyber-wars. The latest is "Obama is a Russian agent" BTW (I kid you not).

As for publishing generally. Like the invention of the printng press it will mean the sheer volume of stuff getting published will increase dramatically once the basic tools are there and people cotton on. Witness, well, blogs like this!

If I ever wrote a book it would be far easier for me to self-publish and charge micro-payments for digital downloads than go through the hell of finding a publisher/agent willing to take on an unpublished author. Mostly this is down to my personal skills, but I'm hardly unique and the general tools required are becoming available.

If, against the odds, I actually managed to write a best-seller the cost of producing a short run hard copy vanity edition would be economically viable (just, but again this is getting cheaper).

The biggest problem would be marketing - and the fact that 90% of the stuff being produced would be crap!

I can predict the role of reviewers and the views of "trusted figures" could become very important in such an environment.

27:

Ultimately, the real problem with the "publishing industry" (or any of the thirteen distinct economic niches that are the only parts that are internally consistent "industries") results from the real world's failure to declare variables.

DEF(success): ????

So long as DEF(success) is in the class of "immediate, GAAP-compliant profit," things will asymptotically trend toward a patronage-dominated system.* We've been through this several times in the past as a result of changes in the experience-method of communication and the arts; remember the Renaissance? Surely, somebody has figured out that similar repetitions in the West (and, as far as I've been able to determine, China and Japan) might indicate that there's a common issue?

But what if DEF(success) is decoupled from profit? Then we end up with arts and communication being dominated by the leisure class, as in ancient Rome, ancient Greece, and China for most of its history... because those are the people who can afford to participate in a noneconomic activity (or even partake of it).

Frankly, I'm not sure which is worse. I'm sort of inclined to side with Churchill (democracy being the worst of all forms of government... except for all of the others than have ever been tried; and acknowledging that Churchill had, himself, a very strange idea of what "democracy" was), but that also means that I'm missing out on some of the alternatives.

* Don't kid yourselves -- claiming that "widespread popularity" is not "patronage" is correct if, and only if, there is direct, disintermediated compensation from the audience to the artist/musician/writer/whatever. The intermediaries -- in the present model, the media conglomerates -- are economically "patrons," because they have complete control over both distribution and the amount, timing, and method of compensation.

28:

When the publisher is good, the output is edited. Furthermore, the editor has backing. If the author won't listen or cooperate, no book. The process doesn't always work for the best: in a few cases, a visionary is stifled by a clueless editor. In most cases, IMHO, a book is improved.

If we go entirely to self-publishing, there are not only going to be more bad books, books that never could have been rescued by a good editor because they're hopeless from the beginning, but also more books that aren't as good as they could be, because the author doesn't have to listen.

I've only been editing for a year, but I've already done some books where the publisher calls the shots, some where the author does. It is much much trickier to edit the latter, and often much more frustrating. You tell an author that the sentence is so unclear that it can be read three ways, one of them scatological, and he'll refuse to make any changes. All I can do is grit my teeth and repeat the copyeditor's mantra: It's not my book.

29:

The one thing I always look at is public transport systems in mainland Europe, and particularly Germany and Scandinavia - despite the lack of gating, and the fact you need to voluntarily stamp your tickets for your journey, and a near absence of ticket inspectors . . . it works - the majority of people buy into the system.

I suspect a lot of that is down to Anglo-Saxon vs Northern European social values, but it's feasible that we can make a similar transition into the digital era with books and music, where people accept the basic market principle, and that it makes sense for everyone (or everyone who can afford to) to be a rational player.

The other option is Charlie's blanket license proposal, which I think would cause a lot of people/countries to balk - although, like Charlie, living in the land of the BBC, the results in terms of TV, radio and funded news coverage, seem better than the purely advertising funded alternatives, if not beyond criticism.
But at least we can see how the BBC News will survive in an online world.

However, you can already see a lot of organised resistance to the blanket model - the 'free' crowd see it as 'locking in failed business models'. Others see it as too socialist. It's likely that - like the BBC - it will reflect the values of the gatekeepers.

With regards the point on revolutions & new business models - I'd agree that the potential benefits of the transition to digital are huge - Stephen Fry on Radio 4 last night made the valid point that from his phone he can access more knowledge than any great ruler of history, with the libraries they funded, and it's easy to see the book from The Diamond Age becoming a reality, which could have a phenomenal impact in the developing world.

But it doesn't automatically follow that viable business models follow after a transition. Historically it seems we need to see the damage (industrialisation, car-dominated city centres) before we start to tackle the consequences. It took a long time before the American TV industry produced HBO - people needed to get well and truly sick of purely commercial TV.

The one thing that's evident is that while there's still a scarcity economy for housing, food, etc, we're going to need some way of exchanging between the two. And I can't see a small number of farmers and land-owners being that happy to fund the rest of us . . .

Incidentally, anyone who thinks is the end for the big entertainment cartels should consider how much sports personalities or pure 'celebrities' (your Big Brother winners, etc) can earn their agents and backing companies, without producing any copyright works people can actually own.

There will always be a value in 'owning' a Madonna, Brad Pitt, Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, etc, and it's possible the contracts will actually be more gouging than the current ones - if the actual art itself has no value, the artist has less leverage to negotiate with. How much income would you give over to a company who could deliver you an audience 10 or 100 times bigger?

30:

And added bonus: there's interview material from Elizabeth Eisenstein (mentioned in the essay) at http://footage.stealthisfilm.com/browse. She's worth watching. (as is pretty much anything there, for that matter).

31:

And going back to the original article - well, I guess if someone pronounces you terminally ill, there isn't a whole lot you can do in terms of planning a post-death business model.

As such, the behaviour of the old guard is entirely understandable - i.e. try and keep going as long as you can, grasp onto faith cures and fad diets - given that there is probably no plan by which they can successfully transfer as entities to the digital age.

I do think one question we should be asking is how much the current financial crisis is actually down to the poverty of the existing news media, given that the majority of media seemed to help fuel the speculative property bubble, rather than shed a spotlight on it.

32:

I think the problem is bigger

The economy is shifting from being focused on the production and consumption of physical goods to the production and consumption of intellectual "property" for want of a better term.

However intellectual "property" is not really property, it is not physically, and likely will never be effectively be owned. it is not newspapers or publishing, but capitalism itself is on it's last legs.

How do you still encourage behavior that benefits society in a world where scarcity and trade become increasingly meaningless?

33:

One consequence of the digitalization of media is that it is especially hard on business models based on "blockbuster" releases and "star" creators/performers. There's been a trend towards this model in all the media over the last three decades or so, but it's still much more pervasive in film and music, and less so in publishing. Movie funding as all about getting "bankable" actors, becoming one is the only way to have a successful career anymore, but in writing, despite Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and Danielle Steele, there is still a niche for authors like Charlie who have a solid fan base and some appeal to a wider audience as well. When distribution costs cease to be a large fraction of total costs, the distribution subindustry for a medium starts to break; this may or may not affect every other part of the industry depending on the degree of vertical integration, but the shock waves will certainly cause some angst for everybody.

The real changes come when production costs come tumbling down. We've already seen this happen with music, as bands route around the studios and distributers to produce and sell their own work. Film production companies and publishers can survive if it's expensive to create the end product; the reason the publishers are for the chop in the near future is that production costs for electronic distribution are lower than for dead trees, and don't require anywhere near the capital outlay. The same fate is coming for first TV and then movies: the cost of a basic setup to shoot, edit, and postproduce a TV episode has gone from somewhere north of US $1 million a few years ago to somewhere around US $50k, and it will continue to go down for awhile. And the distribution costs have already gone through the floor because the cost of server hosting is considerably less than the cost of network video bandwidth. I'll leave the fate of the movie business as an exercise for the reader.

There's still the fate of the creative star to consider: the author in books, the actor, director, and writer (star? ha!) in TV and movies. Support of million-dollar book advances and tens-of-millions-of-dollar acting fees will evaporate when the rest of the cost of a movie production is in the neighborhood of a million or less; the patronage model can't support more than one or two people per industry at those levels, and I doubt that it will ever be forced to scale to that level in any case; the production companies that operate at that level will be going under by then.

34:

Bruce@32, my understanding is that creative stars have become more important and more highly paid in the past couple of decades in film as productions costs have come down, not less. As more and more films and TV shows are produced, audiences start to suffer from decision overload. Big name stars are the most effective way to be noticed in the crowd.

One piece of evidence is the advertisements for current generation computer animation films. Except for Pixar, these emphasise the actors supplying the voices for the characters.

Would someone with more knowledge of the film/TV industry be able to comment on A-list film star payments as a proportion of total film costs now as compared to say twenty years ago?

35:

Following on from what I was saying about the new importance of reviewers and "trusted sources" and what other have mentioned about A-list stars and big names.

I have a horrible feeling that celebrity culture is not only with us but will get worse as celebrity is co-opted to push this or that intellectual product in a sea of crap.

Maybe we'll have the development of intellectual rock-stars recommending the "in" blogs to read and newsfeeds to subscribe to.

Actually, this is already happening and the idea isn't that original (I remember Fred Pohl's "Age of the Pussyfoot" and "Mortal Gods" by Jonathan fast for instance).

So Charlie, you up for intellectual rock star status? Should I call Max Clifford?

36:

Hugh @ 33:

But production costs haven't come down in movies. Actors' costs are in fact a higher percentage of total production, but the "blockbuster" movies that are the primary source of profit for the largest production houses have typical budgets in excess of US $200 million, much of it for CGI (there's a lot of it even in predominantly live action movies, to remove inappropriate scenery, correct bad weather, etc.), sets, and props (more explosions than the last movie means more things get blown up and have to be paid for).

TV doesn't have as many superstars as the movie industry does (the transition from one medium to the other is still not as smooth as the actors might like), so it's been trying to steal them. The thing is that most TV work is long-term, for a series show that is contracted for at least 12 and often more episodes in the first year, with more years a possibility if the show is continued. That's typically 7-8 months of preproduction and production in which the actor really can't do any other production work. A movie on the other hand might be in production for 2 months, perhaps 3, and preproduction can get stretched over a long period of time, so that the actors can take other work during it. And the income from even a very successful TV series are more than an order of magnitude less than for a blockbuster movie, so there's less of a pie for the actor to take from, for more time and lost opportunity cost.

On the other hand, as the cost of big movies goes up, the gamble for the investors gets higher; not all movies make a profit, and a blockbuster can lose US $100 million or more. Too many of those and the production studio goes belly up, or the investors lose their taste for movies and all the studios suffer. And the first-run movie audience is getting smaller all the time.

If the studios weren't chasing the huge films with massive profits so much, they could make a good business out of more smaller films with less to lose, and less competition among them. But they're increasingly going the other way, and that business model is unsustainable, especially in the face of a major recession in which there are cheaper alternatives to first run movies.

37:

That was a great article: we need journos, not newspapers. The problem is who's going to pay for them. As the article points out, the newspapers may die before we come up with a viable alternative economic model for journalism.

As Charlie notes, textbooks (in the broad sense) are already well down the digital road, and this makes great sense. Digital textbooks are so much more useful in terms of searchability, google-ability, mashability, ... I think we're going to see some remarkable things in the book space that'll make us laugh at the cheesy "multimedia" notions of the 90s.

In music, the recording industry as the distribution gatekeepers is surely dead already; it just doesn't know it yet. The problem here is likewise who's going to pay the musicians until a new model emerges, but least most musicians are already used to having day jobs.

In the long run, the motion picture industry as we know it will join the dodos, but in the short run they may be forced to innovate in the cinema space: making the theater experience something worth paying for. We already have the projection and audio technologies to make going to the movies an awesome experience. Cinemas will of course become obsolete eventually, but it could be very sweet in the meantime.

In the short term, I fear a move to locked-down devices (i-phone, Kindle, PSP, ...) and kiosk machines that allow the old guard to enforce their Draconian DRM.

38:

It's the same old problem. People generally seek confirmation bias to support their current situation, rather than seeking alternative viewpoints. Companies typically defend their market share by pulling up the drawbridge rather than embracing and adapting to change. It's easier to focus on what you understand.

The senior managers in power are adept at defending their positions. The change embracers are by definition disruptive, not managers and therefore suppressed.

Only young dynamic companies tend to understand this, before all senior positions become filled by empire builders.

39:

Ryan G @36:

If only textbooks and reference material were well on its way to useful electronic versions in fields outside of computing. Other than being able to buy a copy of Perry's ChemE handbook on CD, which works about like the first digitized copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica (that is, saves space but is in all other ways less useful than the dead tree version), there is a huge dearth in the actual electronic textbook market.

As a ChemE undergrad student, I'd buy a Kindle tomorrow, even paying new textbook prices for the content in addition (including dead tree editions I already own), if I could stop carrying around two backpacks. One of which I often leave in the car, and it always has the book I actually need.

Not that I have any problem with the college textbook market collapsing. I had 3 different Spanish texts in 4 introductory classes. I feel fairly confident in saying that the delta in Spanish language evolution is not quite that high. Those bastards will be first up against the wall when I'm emperor.

40:

Something has to happen to make technical books more affordable. The price of new books at graduate level or above is often US $150 to $200. I'm assuming that's because the market for many of these books is pretty small, perhaps a few hundred to a thousand, many of them libraries, and they have to amortize a 500 to 1,000 page book with lots of diagrams (and equations to proofread, oh my aching head). What price could the publisher afford to charge for an ebook-only text of that kind? Half as much as paper?

41:

I think what really will work, becasue it's already a meme that works, is the monthly fee for unlimited access to a resource.

This idea is one that people can understand and feel is value for money.

If Charlie's publisher were to offer you the consumer all their authors' books for free while you continue to pay them a monthly fee would you be interested?

Millions of people already pay monthly fees for unlimited access (within reason) to a resource - mobile phones, broadband, water, cable TV, online games, etc, etc.

Why can't we just add ebooks to the list of things available on a monthly basis?

p.s. Is singularity just a new term for revolution? and does that mean we are entering a digital singularity already?

42:

Robin @40: that's how I envisage a "compulsory license" system working. The publishers opt into a collection scheme. The ISPs then add its cost to your broadband bill -- invisibly -- and in the process effectively indemnify you against copyright infringement. It's part of your broadband bill: if you don't want to pay, you can still rent some dark fibre to carry traffic between your corporate data centres, but access to the public internet implies (a) compensation for the rights holders and (b) the whole copyright thing becomes invisible to end users.

The devil is in the detail, of course. Any such scheme needs to be international in scope. It needs to be easy for content rightsholders (individual artists or publishers) to join up. There needs to be some way to evaluate readership and parcel up compensation so it doesn't fall into the ASCAP/BMI brain-lossage whereby 50% of the revenue from music for public airplay ends up going to about 3 major artists, and 49.9% goes to another 50, with everyone else getting 0.1%. But. But. At least it would get us past the current messy situation.

(And I'd hope that if it was done correctly, in the long run the big studios would be replaced by a swarm of much smaller, more specialized, production/marketing companies working on behalf of the artists, rather than vice versa. But that's a pipe-dream ...)

43:

Book publishing has so far proved more or less immune. In the UK out of the last fifty years book sales have increased in forty-nine. At present the existing model is working pretty well. Maybe this will change but there isn't any sign of this at the moment. There have been major changes in the retail and distribution side, the collapse of net book agreement the consolidation of ownership into large chains like Waterstones and the emergence of on-line retailers like Amazon. Throughout all of this sales have risen continually as has the number of titles published.

44:

#31 - it's a damned good question, but the problem is that we're NOT in a world where scarcity is meaningless, we're just in a world where it's meaningless exactly in the area where Western governments have placed all their bets - we can survive designing chips, not making them, because we are naturally culturally superior.

What's actually likely is that a collapse in the market for IP will cause a retrenchment back towards producing physical goods again, if only because eventually people will be willing to work longer hours for less money than Chinese workers in order to put food on the table.

Of course to get there we'll need to roll back a century of labour reform, but it will be presented as a 'painful necessity' by those most likely to gain from it.

#32 I think you're mistaking hardware costs and production costs. The BBC recently filmed a 3 part serial using the new Red cameras, yet the whole thing came in somewhere above £2 million pounds for 4.5 hours of actual broadcast television. Granted, it was very heavy on location footage, but the point is that it was an entirely digital production.

It's also evident that we don't seek to watch or listen to the cheapest available programs - there is a quality threshold below which audiences start to fall - see the margins of cable TV. Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, The Charlatans and Prince may have given away for free, but I'm still not encouraged to waste my time listening to them (although I am currently enjoying the free Matt Berry album).

Or put another way - ownership of Logic Express does not automatically mean the ability to produce a good recording, open source 3D software doesn't make me John Lasseter, etc.

45:

For once I feel like I have a semi informed opinion (or not)

Right now, we have a platform war between Amazon's propietary ebook format and new(ish) CSS and HTML formatted database driven PDF documents. (Google a company called Madcap and an application called Flare; 1.0 release was last July) My bet is that the later will win because there is a generation infrastructure ready to port over to styling-on-the-fly using different CSS to generate PDF for different mobile devices _or_ print on demand.

I work in printing, I do web, personally, I can make this work. Ain't easy; it sucks wet dust bunnies through a straw compared to our current publlshing apps, but it can be done, refined and taken to the next level. In many ways, it will be refering back to typsetting code and technology from the late seventies (SGML).

The beauty (from a ebook publisher's and library's) point of view is that you can embed javascript applets in the document to a) turn it off at the end of the "free trial" or "loan" period or to turn it into nagware at the same point.

So RSS feed of content, try before you buy, shuts itself off or starts to nag when cash is due and gives you an option of keeping a copy on your reading device or laptop or printing a dead tree edition at your local digital book printing kiosk in (gasp) the bookstore. Chapters Indigo here in Canada appears to be well on the way to being ready for this model.

I can see that working.

46:

Iterestingly enough, one model, or at least a potential model has already begun to emerge. In China where copyright and patent infringement are easier to do or become involved in than buying a cup of coffee, the music industry, particularly the artists making the music, have found a way to thrive even though they are not selling records anymore. They simply have to make more guest appearances (much like book signings) and do more concerts. So essentially, the model may have changed but not neccesarily to the deterement of the masses that changed it.

47:

@ 42
Question.
WHICH was the year in which book-sales did NOT rise, do you know, please?

48:

@44:

Right now, we have a platform war between Amazon's proprietary ebook format...

And the outcome might be decided by patent protection. There appear to be an old-type patent, currently waved under Amazon's nose, not on e-books but on DRM on e-book.


Amazon may think it can rely on proprietary DRM to increase its revenue, but if it has to contend with a firm that will want to wring all the money it can get from the Kindle... they might think a lot sooner about dropping DRM. All of DRM. You just have to wish that the patent holder is very, very greedy.

49:

Shirley @ 44:

Can you expand on why someone would _want_ to use PDFs for mobile content ? Is it simply DRM again?

I recently bought a Sony eReader for reading a mixture of novels and more importantly scientific papers. For the former its fine, for the latter its badly hobbled by PDFs.: especially the formatting of equations, etc. Compared to a HTML + CSS. I'm annoyed at the way PDF has become the "archive" format of choice in science. ("display" format, ok, but archive + store the docs in something better, please. ODF ?

50:

I actually quite like PDF, for generic viewing, scientific papers, etc. Of course, I use a Mac where it's practically native (the Mac's graphics system is based on Display Postscript). But, that said... for eBooks, PDFs are a really bad idea. Because eBook readers typically have a small (relative to a computer) screen size, typically have less 'grunt' for rescaling, and PDFs do not support reflow.

This means you can't change the font size; you can only zoom or unzoom the document as a whole, and if you zoom it, you have to scroll horizontally on every damn line in order to read it (which is as good as saying, you can't read it). HTML on the other hand, can re-wrap the lines to the new font size, as can Kindle's native format.

Incidentally, Kindle's format is actually somewhat standardized: 'AZW' files are really just renamed MobiPocket files with some minor change to the DRM (MobiPocket files can be either DRMed or not). Any publisher geared up for Mobi is likely in a good position to publish to Kindle.

If you wish to (sensibly) avoid DRM, you can put non-DRMed MobiPocket files on a Kindle. I was writing a MobiPocket exporter earlier this week for precisely this reason.

Also:

The beauty (from a ebook publisher's and library's) point of view is that you can embed javascript applets in the document to a) turn it off at the end of the "free trial" or "loan" period or to turn it into nagware at the same point.

Hmm. I haven't used it, but purely based on your description, my snake-oil alarm is pinging off the scale ("Tell him about the Twinkie, Ray."). It may be a great publishing system, I have no idea, but implementing DRM using client-side javascript sounds... dubious. (Not that any DRM really makes any difference to the TTBT* of a book anyway. But still, most eBook formats at least pretend...)

* Time To BitTorrent. The TTBT of DRMed iTunes songs was measured at 30 seconds from initial release.

51:
@41: There needs to be some way to evaluate readership and parcel up compensation
I think, once filesharing is legal, authors of various software used would see no problem with adding reporting. You could easily learn how many people downloaded a particular book/tune/whatever. Technically feasible, maybe a bit costly.

@49:
TTBT - great name!

52:

@ 46

Sadly no, it was mentioned in passing on _The Money Program_ part of a three part series on the UK media industry (the other two were on television and newspapers).

53:

The problem with any rental model is that books don't really rent well. With a mobile phone I'm not buying access to the network, I'm buying the ability to talk to people. Immediate conversations support a rental model well because once they're over that's it, they're gone.

With a book I will often want to re-read it or refer to it later. I have a significant collection of writing on my computer that I've acquired over the years, arranged in a way that makes sense to me and searchable in a variety of ways. I will not pay a monthly fee on the off chance that someone else chooses to make that material available. Especially because I can't currently tag stuff and say "only search in stuff tagged Moz (the Moz that is me)", which makes it unreasonably difficult to locate "that usenet post about sockwear that Trish made in about 1998" using an internet search engine.

So I demand to be able to buy the data. I'll only buy ebooks that are DRM-free or have DRM that I can remove shortly after purchase (and I only keep the DRM-free versions). Charles' publisher is using the latter sort of DRM but hopefully they will soon switch to the former.

54:

Alistair at 48:

PDF, as a file format, is extremely versatile. I use it for prepress work (one application with one set of parameters) and for proofing print documents to clients (variation of the same parameters with lower image resolution. I have also used it to generate HTML pages. The code's not pretty, but it's less buggy than that which comes from M$ products.

I also do web work (about two years in, compated to my twenty years in print) and one of the things that PHP-based sites, using databased material, with proper scripting, XML taga and tagged alternate Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) can already do, is deliver the same content to multiple formats. For practical reasons you need one CSS for screen and a different one for print. Properly done, you cand drop the ads and condense content for the dead tree version. Technically, it's not that big a deal to deliver a CSS style sheet for different mobile devices and (again, technically) it's even less of a deal to deliver formatted documents to a PDF format.

I said technically; it's still _a lot_ of work to set up, and once done, you want to leave it alone. A script is needed to detect the browser and platform, then a formatted document can be delivered in the appropriate style. You already see this on mobile friendly sites.

This stuff has been gathering steam on the development side (mmmm.... hand wave) for the past five-six years? I think you're going to see a lot more of it this year. The pro versions of Acrobat has been javascript enabled since early on. What's changed is how it's written into the file. Any time you see a fillable PDF form with a s"Submit" button, there's scripting running in the background. Based on what I know now, I'd say expert knowledge to deliver device specific formatting as PDF on the fly from databased copy and images. (I'm currently at the beginner/intermediate level myself, and am just starting to poke at JQuery, an open source data base of Javascript commands that is doing a lot to lighten code load in pages and electronic documents).

The CSS2 and HTML 5 standards, in development for the past four-five years, will take all that to the next level.

I'm still messing around with my first (unpaid) real world application; it's taking a bit of stomping around to nail down all the bugs.

The company I mentioned, Madcap, released their commerial Flare desktop publishing app this past summer (http://www.madcapsoftware.com/products/flare/). Bert Bos first wrote about the issues of using CSS and HTML for print back in November 2005. z(http://www.alistapart.com/articles/boom) This is stuff has been in development for a while.

Again, I'm not a programmer (although my scripting skills are coming along nicely) but I can see where this is heading. On the print side of things, it's been possible to deliver print newspaper, flyer and magazine content from database since about 2002-2003. All that's really going to change is how the pages are styled under the hood, and medium to which they are delivered.

The big question is which economic model is ultimately going to work. Advertising supported newspaper and magazine publication only really started in the 1920's, when ad placement revenue shot past subscription and purchase revenue for the first time. Science and academic journals still operate on the subscription-driven business model, as do most professional journals. If you have access to these, it's usually because your school or employer has subscribed for access to the online editions or databases.

The medium to which they are delivered doesn't really matter.

WRT formatting locked down DRM files on the fly, we're at about 1995 wrt the development cycle. CSS2 and HTML 5 offer much better formatting controls; personally, I can't wait until I can deliver specific fonts on the fly to your device from the source website.

Canis: I agree with you regarding PDF as e-book. My perspective comes from my experience with hacking PDFs and pushing the format. I haven't yet held an ebook reader in my hands, although I'd dearly like one. Have I mentioned my backlog of technical reading that I need to get through and how many dead-tree books I'd rather not have to keep on the shelf? Regarding scientific papers, CSS and HTML don't adequately support footnotes and indexing. The source documents that are currently used to generate PDF do. CSS2 promises to do so.

Again, I'm just starting down this path myself as I've been aware of where things were going for about four years. I had my first specific request from for the skill set from a headhunter last week.

55:

Alistair at 48:

PDF, as a file format, is extremely versatile. I use it for prepress work (one application with one set of parameters) and for proofing print documents to clients (variation of the same parameters with lower image resolution. I have also used it to generate HTML pages. The code's not pretty, but it's less buggy than that which comes from M$ products.

I also do web work (about two years in, compated to my twenty years in print) and one of the things that PHP-based sites, using databased material, with proper scripting, XML taga and tagged alternate Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) can already do, is deliver the same content to multiple formats. For practical reasons you need one CSS for screen and a different one for print. Properly done, you cand drop the ads and condense content for the dead tree version. Technically, it's not that big a deal to deliver a CSS style sheet for different mobile devices and (again, technically) it's even less of a deal to deliver formatted documents to a PDF format.

I said technically; it's still _a lot_ of work to set up, and once done, you want to leave it alone. A script is needed to detect the browser and platform, then a formatted document can be delivered in the appropriate style. You already see this on mobile friendly sites.

This stuff has been gathering steam on the development side (mmmm.... hand wave) for the past five-six years? I think you're going to see a lot more of it this year. The pro versions of Acrobat has been javascript enabled since early on. What's changed is how it's written into the file. Any time you see a fillable PDF form with a s"Submit" button, there's scripting running in the background. Based on what I know now, I'd say expert knowledge to deliver device specific formatting as PDF on the fly from databased copy and images. (I'm currently at the beginner/intermediate level myself, and am just starting to poke at JQuery, an open source data base of Javascript commands that is doing a lot to lighten code load in pages and electronic documents).

The CSS2 and HTML 5 standards, in development for the past four-five years, will take all that to the next level.

I'm still messing around with my first (unpaid) real world application; it's taking a bit of stomping around to nail down all the bugs.

The company I mentioned, Madcap, released their commerial Flare desktop publishing app this past summer (http://www.madcapsoftware.com/products/flare/). Bert Bos first wrote about the issues of using CSS and HTML for print back in November 2005. z(http://www.alistapart.com/articles/boom) This is stuff has been in development for a while.

Again, I'm not a programmer (although my scripting skills are coming along nicely) but I can see where this is heading. On the print side of things, it's been possible to deliver print newspaper, flyer and magazine content from database since about 2002-2003. All that's really going to change is how the pages are styled under the hood, and medium to which they are delivered.

The big question is which economic model is ultimately going to work. Advertising supported newspaper and magazine publication only really started in the 1920's, when ad placement revenue shot past subscription and purchase revenue for the first time. Science and academic journals still operate on the subscription-driven business model, as do most professional journals. If you have access to these, it's usually because your school or employer has subscribed for access to the online editions or databases.

The medium to which they are delivered doesn't really matter.

WRT formatting locked down DRM files on the fly, we're at about 1995 wrt the development cycle. CSS2 and HTML 5 offer much better formatting controls; personally, I can't wait until I can deliver specific fonts on the fly to your device from the source website.

Canis: I agree with you regarding PDF as e-book. My perspective comes from my experience with hacking PDFs and pushing the format. I haven't yet held an ebook reader in my hands, although I'd dearly like one. Have I mentioned my backlog of technical reading that I need to get through and how many dead-tree books I'd rather not have to keep on the shelf? Regarding scientific papers, CSS and HTML don't adequately support footnotes and indexing. The source documents that are currently used to generate PDF do. CSS2 promises to do so.

Again, I'm just starting down this path myself as I've been aware of where things were going for about four years. I had my first specific request from for the skill set from a headhunter last week.

56:

#49 (Canis); I chuckled at TTBT; it'll probably be the same.

You can stick javascript a lot of places. It's pretty easy to do; so easy that it's advent lead to a rash of viruses and trojans in the late nineties/early oughts. I'm sure that other means with less potential for abuse could be used as well, such as encryption or PGP. I'm not as familiar with them as I haven't used them for that in my professional work.

57:

#48 Canis - as to why PDF? It supports a greter range of formatting, extended font sets and can be created from a wide range of source programs, CSS and HTML don't support footnotes. CSS2 can (see http://www.w3.org/TR/CSS2/), but isn't the universal standard yet. Give it about 18 months.

58:

Shirley: PDF is terrible for reading online. Reflow simply doesn't work on most devices, and PDF has no built-in way of handling different output device sizes (such as PDAs or smartphones). It tends to be built to render on paper (US Letter at that; no thought for those of us in metric-world!) or a high-res laptop screen -- guess who reads on a variety of small-screen devices? Hate, hate, hate.

59:

Dan - it's not like playing live or personal appearances are a new business model, but this week did see the point where UK live music revenue exceeded recorded music sales.

Of course, this isn't so good for your solo artists hacking around on their digital home recording studios, who don't really have a physical band, or any music that's uneconomic to tour. A significant amount of what I buy is from people who would be lucky to get 100 people to come to a gig in London or New York, let alone anywhere smaller.

However, it's fairly easy to find 2000 people globally to (currently) pay for a copy of a recording . . . from 2000 different towns.

The question is what the cultural result of that shift is - as I said in an earlier comment, it's easy enough for a sporting personality or Big Brother 'celebrity' to make money from personal apperances without having any IP product to sell, just their presence. But do we really want a culture like that, rather than one that can support small authors, songwriters, etc.

I'm not so apocalyptic in my views on this - I suspect multiple models will exist, and people who value 'art' will pay for it somehow, even if it is - as I've done today - by purchasing a limited edition CD-R. Again, as I said earlier, it took declining TV quality to create a market for HBO - I can imagine something similar emerging for genres of music.

60:
You can stick javascript a lot of places
Oh, I'm not doubting that. I'm doubting it being even remotely effective as a security measure. Javascript running on the client is notoriously easy to circumvent.

I mean, yeah, in the end, all DRM is snake-oil: it's just plain mathematically impossible to make DRM that works. There are some systems that make an effort, and some that are are gossamer-thin, though, and this sounds like the latter.

as to why PDF? It supports a greter range of formatting, extended font sets and can be created from a wide range of source programs
As I said in my previous post, I don't have anything against PDF -- as an intermediate format that sits between your computer and a printer, or someone else's printer, it's very good. It accurately represents what you're going to see on the printed page, it's widely supported, on a Mac at least it's trivial to import/export and so on. However, for eBooks, it's lousy -- because eBooks are not a printed page.

eBooks are digital display devices and need to be treated as such. As I mentioned before, and I see Charlie did too, they need to support reflow. They need to be searchable, even for words with ligatures in (PDF tends to replace ligatures with special characters that break search engines), they need to be robust in the face of fonts going missing, as a hardware device may not have the font, and embedding fonts, while lovely in concept, has so far been a rights nightmare.

I feel like there are other reasons too, which I'm forgetting, but no matter -- the inflexibility of PDF layout is the critical problem for eBooks, and it's fundamental to the "philosophy" of PDF.

As for HTML+CSS: I'm a big fan of it in theory. I think I mentioned elsewhere on Charie's blog that for a period of some years I stopped using word processors altogether and just wrote HTML documents instead :-) (Hey, I got sick of Word, Pages hadn't been written yet, and the end results could be posted to the web, sent by email or printed, and would display on any platform.)

Thing is, current HTML+CSS standards aren't up to scratch for formal book layout, and HTML5 has been trundling along since 2004 and only reached First Public Working Draft status last year, and likely has a few years yet to go before it becomes a full standard. A decent CSS replacement is a more critical need though, IMO, but sadly looks equally remote.

Currently it looks to me like, if publishers cling to DRM, then MobiPocket/Kindle AZW files will continue to be the main format used -- tools are already in place (they're HTML-based too, incidentally) and backed by a monster-sized book retailer and supported by the only eBook reader to really get noticed by the mainstream.

If publishers stop trying to roll back the tide with pointless DRM, then what will probably take hold is some pragmatic, bastardized format of convenience that mixes HTML4, draft-HTML5, CSS and some nonstandard extensions that degrade safely on regular browsers/readers, but patch over the missing features, for hardware that supports it. It'll probably suck in a few different ways, but only developers will notice, and it'll be easy to get 99% of the way there, people will be able to recycle Firefox or Webkit code to make new readers, and use a wide variety of existing tools to produce it.

61:

I`d like to propose a possible model. It`s not perfect, and smells kinda libertarian, but may work:

Let`s say Charlie is a world famous author, with lots of fans, who lives in the world of free internet.

Charlie writes a book, publishes the first chapter on the web, then offers an auction for the only digital copy of his book.

Eventually, as the auction goes, one of Charlie`s richest fans, Bill, proposes a price of one million dollars.

Charlie sells the file to Bill, and goes off to write a new book.

Bob, after consuming the book and copying the file to his secured hard-drive, now have two options:

1. Distribute the file on the web, and get known for his charity.

2. Start another auction.

3. Do nothing, keep the file to himself.

If Bill chooses option 1, the book is now free for all to read.

If Bill chooses option 2, he will return some of the money he spent, and another rich fan will get to read the book.

If Bill chooses option 3, it`s up to Charlie. He can, after some pre-declared period of time, start another auction. Or he can do nothing, he already got million dollars, after all.

/PEACH

62:

Shirley, Canis:

As an 'intermediate' format to a printer or display, or from a scanner, PDFs are fine, sure. My problem is as an 'archive' format: PDFs inherently lose so much semantics that XML+CSS / XHML + CSS / HTML5, whatever would preserve.
Agreed CSS2, etc. are unfinished standards, but its irritating to see sites like arxiv.org or most journals providing the soft copies of their materials in PDFs.

The lack of semantics breaks reflow (or even highlighting: pick a 2-column text in a PDF and highlight a paragraph).
They break searching; section tags and labels (import a PDF into an eBook, and the table of contents is probably broken).

Basically losing semantic information in a document is bad, and PDFs are optimised for one task only: displaying well on a given size. The problem is that so many publishers see themselves as providers of the "FINISHED" product, that exists only to be read.

63:

Have to agree with Charlie about PDF format. HTML proves infinitely easier to read, especially on small-screen devices, because you can reformat the thing on the fly and get arbitrarily large fonts, change the leading, change the paragraph breaks, etc., etc. With PDF the output becomes essentially unreadable unless you click the viewing size up to the point where the page width overflows the width of the screen, which is just unacceptable.

PDF format is designed for print output. Works well for that format. But we're chopping down too many trees as it is, we don't to chop down more just so I can print out one copy of a novel I might not even want to finish reading.

64:

I wonder if pdf ever becomes deprecated for archival use, what will we LaTeX users do? LaTeX can export to html, but it isn't really designed that way.

65:

Sorry for reviving an ancient thread, but I can't believe that no one recommended Steven Johnson's brilliant speech Old Growth Media And The Future Of News on the same topic, published in the same week as Shirky's in a fortunate happenstance. They're both cogent and insightful, but have notably different tones. Definitely worth a read.

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on March 16, 2009 10:29 AM.

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