EBook Monday: Steven Berlin Johnson, Google Books, and more

* Steven Berlin Johnson speculates on “How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write: […] a future with more books, more distractions — and the end of reading alone.”

* I keep being tempted by the Amazon Kindle, despite my many posts on the Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and other problems with the device. Then I see a post like “Amazon has banned my account – my Kindle is now a (partial) brick” and all those bad feelings return. The poster in question apparently returned too many items to Amazon, causing them to suspend his account and causing his Kindle to stop working.

* In other electronic news, a warning: Google Book Search settlement gives Google a virtual monopoly over literature. What am, random joe, supposed to do about it besides joining the Electronic Frontier Foundation? I have no idea. Still, the headline might be more sensationalistic than it should be, as this paragraph shows:

But the real risk is that Google could end up as the sole source of ultimate power in book discovery, distribution and sales. As the only legal place where all books can be searched, Google gets enormous market power: the structure of their search algorithm can make bestsellers or banish books to obscurity. The leverage they attain over publishing and authors through this settlement is incalculable.

(Emphasis added.)

I added a comment pointing out that the real response to this should lie with Congress and copyright law: at the moment, virtually everything published after 1923 is effectively under copyright. The solution is to start rolling the copyright year forward, so that 86 years (2008 – 1923) after a work is published, it automatically enters the public domain. Actually, 70 years would be nice, but the various Senators from Disney passed the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, making it seem unlikely to happen, so I stick to the (sightly) more pragmatic hope for 86 years as a possible reasonable length for copyright.

If the material in question isn’t in copyright, Google has no special power over it. Two problems solved at once.

* Speaking of all things Google, Nick Carr’s post “Google in the middle” has some brilliant parts and some absolutely wrong parts. Being the kind of person I am, I like to start with the wrong parts:

For much of the first decade of the Web’s existence, we were told that the Web, by efficiently connecting buyer and seller, or provider and user, would destroy middlemen. Middlemen were friction, and the Web was a friction-removing machine.

We were misinformed. The Web didn’t kill mediators. It made them stronger.

But Carr misses the fact that a) mediators are easier to replace than ever, since I only have to click on another one, and b) fact a has made other mediators ever-easier to find: Hacker News has become my chief aggregator, for example, and Google has nothing to do with them. Furthermore, if I want to use a different search engine, it’s only a click away.

The web still is a friction removing machine even if Google has an unusual amount of (probably temporary) power.

On the other hand, this bit is brilliant:

As I’ve written before, the essential problem facing the online news business is oversupply. The cure isn’t pretty. It requires, first, a massive reduction of production capacity – ie, the consolidation or disappearance of lots of news outlets. Second, and dependent on that reduction of production capacity, it requires news organizations to begin to impose controls on their content. By that, I don’t mean preventing bloggers from posting fair-use snippets of articles. I mean curbing the rampant syndication, authorized or not, of full-text articles. Syndication makes sense when articles remain on the paper they were printed on. It doesn’t make sense when articles float freely across the global web. (Take note, AP.)

Once the news business reduces supply, it can begin to consolidate traffic, which in turn consolidates ad revenues and, not least, opens opportunities to charge subscription fees of one sort or another – opportunities that today, given the structure of the industry, seem impossible. With less supply, the supplier gains market power at the expense of the middleman.

Newspapers are engaged in an almost Marxian race to the bottom in terms of production, and the more efficient the Internet makes news gathering and dissemination, the worse this race will become. It was obvious to me in 2002 (which I wrote about in Media myopia and the New Yorker), when I graduated from high school, that newspapers were bound to contract enormously (and catastrophically for those employed by newspapers); I was tempted to go to a big-time journalism school and try to make it as a journalist, but a rare bout of good sense stopped me. This is why.

(Incidentally, the New York Times has also noticed that J-Schools are Playing Catchup because of changes in journalism. Strangely enough, the Times seems to imply that journalism might become more like something akin to Grant Writing Confidential: people who find niches and then write the hell out of their subject.)

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