December 12th, 2010

university presses and the ebook revolution

Okay, this isn't actually funny at all.

This is long and involved, and I started reading it after reading a really detailed description of what it's like to be in charge of ebooks at a university press (a press which looked competent according to a cursory survey of what ebooks they had for sale on their own website and what showed up on Amazon when searching the kindle store for that publisher with kindle format). I was initially quite surprised to realize that the woman with the job and the details (who sounded really on top of her game) seemed to be spending such an amazing amount of her time dealing with rights issues. I believed her, I just didn't understand it.

That survey Explains It All, which I should have realized after reading a summary of the state of the agreement in the google books settlement (which still hasn't been signed off on by the judge, and the judge got a new job and, well, never mind that now), because it's such a problem that the group involved is not included in the settlement.

Pictures. Images. The rights to the pictures and images and so forth is handled in the contract for a book, but if the contract doesn't explicitly deal with online/ebook/etc., you have to go back and renegotiate. With everyone. If you can find them. Sometimes you can't even find your own copy of the image, for that matter.

The three big issues identified with ebooks identified in the survey are Business Model (how can we make money doing this, or even recover our costs -- always a problem for small presses), Rights (overwhelmingly image rights), and Resources (finding the people to do the actual work, again, when money is tight all around, everyone has too much to do, no one knows how to do this, etc.). This was particularly interesting:

"A press whose survey responses reflect one of the most expansive programs of digital
book publishing reported here that they are finding each of these issues to be a serious
or greater concern in their efforts.
50% of individuals who report the highest level of concern on at least one issue are
directors or publishers by job title."

I would summarize that as: if you think it's not a problem, it's because you haven't actually tried to do it, or you have failed to perceive that you might be breaking the law and you could find yourself in much more serious trouble than just a bad performance review as a result, or are not participating the financial aspects of the process and thus have no insight into how fast you are bleeding money.

When people say a picture is worth a thousand words, I'm now going to be thinking about a thousand words of contract governing digital rights. That is missing. And because it is missing, that backlist book isn't ever going to be an ebook.


I don't think I've blogged about this, but I've been talking about it with R. University Presses, to the extent they are doing ebooks at all, are _very_ much PDF first, and everything else an extremely distant second. I'm not sure what to think about this. I understand a lot of the rationale for doing this: they can't go _backwards_ from what happens in a paper monograph, and the other obvious choices (kindle) don't support things like figures/graphs/images in minimum-paper-standard sort of way. Also, Adobe has a suite of software for producing digital books that at the InDesign level would appear to be more or less perfect for what this size and type of press needs to accomplish. (That's not my opinion; I found out about this by reading the survey.) There's even the tantalizing possibility that you could flow a book through InDesign and have it come out the other end either digital or paper: you wouldn't have to do a conversion at the end for digital, you wouldn't have to duplicate work constantly, etc.

news I missed

This is from last April, when the picture people were excluded from the google books settlement but the judge said they were welcome to start their own lawsuit. They did. I always figured the scanning without permission and the whole legal business was just a way to create mechanical licensing, when there really wasn't any other conceivable way to get mechanical licensing for books.

"The case is certainly less interesting as a fair use exercise, than as more confirmation of a major policy shift for the digital age. "What we are seeing is the commencement of the age of filing copyright class actions as a way of creating universal licenses," Grimmelmann told PW. For the parties involved, that makes sense, he acknowledges. "But as somebody concerned with the rule of law and the judicial system, this is an awful way to create copyright policy.""

What, he thinks there's a better way? Nope, he didn't say that. He just said it was awful. It is. But probably the only option.