E-books and the privatization of the village square

This commentary has also been published at the Huffington Post.

Tomorrow I’ll be part of a panel on e-books being organized in Boston by the Association of College and Research Libraries. We’re supposed to talk about what we like and don’t like about them, and I can do that. But what I really hope to discuss is the place of e-books in a world in which what we used to think of as public space is increasingly being turned over to private, profit-making entities.

Let me explain what I mean with a couple of non-book examples.

In 2003 I bestowed a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award on Crossgates Mall, in the Albany, N.Y., suburb of Colonie, for calling police and having a man arrested because he was wearing a mildly worded T-shirt in protest of the war in Iraq. The protester — actually, he was just having a bite to eat in the food court after picking up his purchase from the mall’s T-shirt store — was quickly released.

But there’s almost no chance he would have been arrested if he’d been hanging out in the village square rather than a mall. The trouble is that in too many cities and towns, we no longer have a village square except in the form of enclosed spaces owned by profit-seeking corporations. What happened to that protester said a lot more about our privatized idea of community than it does about that one particular incident.

In 2008 the Beverly Citizen, a weekly newspaper on Boston’s North Shore owned by GateHouse Media, discovered what can happen when you turn over some of your publishing operations to Google. The Citizen had posted a video of the annual Fourth of July “Horribles” parade, which included an offensive float that featured a giant, water-squirting penis. The float mocked an alleged “pregnancy pact” involving girls at Gloucester High School, a much-hyped story that turned out to be not quite true.

Although the Citizen’s judgment in posting the video could be questioned, there was no doubt that the float was newsworthy, as it had been seen by hundreds of people attending the parade. Yet Google-owned YouTube, which GateHouse was using as a video-publishing platform, took it down without any explanation. It would be as though a printing company refused to publish a particular edition of newspaper on the grounds that it didn’t like the content. YouTube is an incredibly flexible tool for video journalism. But Google has its own agenda, and hosting content that might offend someone is bad for business.

What’s that got to do with e-books? A physical book, once printed, enters a public sphere of a sort, especially if it’s purchased by a library. But an e-book remains largely under the control of the corporation that distributed it — most likely Amazon, Apple or Barnes & Noble.

We all remember those horror stories from a few years ago when some books people had purchased suddenly disappeared from their Kindles because Amazon was involved in a rights dispute. (Ironically, the books included George Orwell’s “1984.”) In some cases, students lost books they needed for school, along with their notes.

More recently, Apple refused to carry in its iTunes store an e-book by Seth Godin called “Stop Stealing Dreams.” The reason: Godin included favorable mentions of — and links to — other e-books that were available only through Amazon. “We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores … and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing,” Godin wrote.

And I’m not even getting into the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of alleged price-fixing by Apple and several leading book publishers.

Another concern I have involves the rights of authors. Several years ago Rodale, the publisher of my first book, “Little People,” reassigned all rights to me after the book had reached the end of its natural life. I published the full text on the Web, which led to my hometown high school’s adopting it as its summer read — which in turn pushed me to create a self-published paperback edition with the help of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. “Little People” has had a pretty nice second life for an out-of-print book. (I wrote about the experience recently for Nieman Reports.)

But now that e-books and e-readers have become ubiquitous, I’m worried that publishers will simply have no incentive to let authors benefit from the full rights to their own work. If a publisher can make a little bit of money by selling a few e-copies each year, then it might just decide to keep those rights to itself. This is long-tail economics for the benefit of corporations, not authors.

And have you ever tried to lend an e-book to someone?

There is a lot to like about e-books. As someone with terrible eyesight, I like being able to adjust the type to my own preference and use my laptop’s or iPhone’s backlighting rather than depend on iffy room lighting. And my iPhone, unlike whatever book I might be reading, is always with me.

But when unaccountable corporate interests maintain control over what shall take place in the village square, what content shall be deemed suitable for public consumption and what rights the authors and even the purchasers of books shall have, we have put our culture at risk in ways we couldn’t have imagined a generation ago.

Thanks to Twitter followers @jcstearns, @JimandMargery and @BostonGuyinNC, who responded quickly to my pleas for help with research.

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10 thoughts on “E-books and the privatization of the village square

  1. Stephen Stein

    “have you ever tried to lend an e-book to someone?”

    No. But libraries do it all the time. (I haven’t borrowed an e-book yet – they’ve all got huge waiting periods!)

    I wonder if the tech the libraries use is accessible to normal book owners. (Or should that be “owners”?) If I can successfully lend out an e-book, can I get it back without the cooperation of the lendee? (Now *that* would be an advantage over hard-copy books!)

  2. L.K. Collins

    I’m currently reading The Official Records of the Rebellion in electronic format. It’s only 128 volumes long.

    Convenient not have to give up bookshelf space for 128 volumes, but I would much rather read a bound version.

    Come to think of it, I would much rather read anything in a bound volume.

  3. Dan Hamilton

    Interesting and thought-provoking. I won’t claim that the following aspect, which you don’t mention, “balances” the drawbacks you warn about quite convincingly, but the good news about eBooks is that we can all become publishers (some would say that’s the bad news as well, but I digress).

    I plan to get my book into circulation using Apple’s iBook Author program — free software that lets me use stunning multimedia and allows me presentation freedoms a traditional publisher could not provide or would balk at spending money on.

    Of course if the whole book gets blacklisted because Apple doesn’t like it, then this is moot, so I’m certainly not disagreeing with you. But how many books that publishers didn’t like or were afraid of never saw the light of day in print?

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Dan: Lots of things I like about e-books. But paper-and-ink self-publishing is here, too, and it’s pretty cool. Follow that link to my Nieman Reports piece to see how I did it.

  4. Mike Benedict

    What makes you think someone won’t develop a free app so that authors can self-publish, thus bypassing the retailers? The only reason the various readers cost what they do is because someone hasn’t come along and really forced the price down. But they will. Or a open-source app or hack will become available so that anyone can read anything on any reader.

    The more the book publishers try to monopolize the content, the more incentive there is to break the system.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Mike: Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble are incredibly important in terms of publicity and legitimacy. The self-published author has the same problems he’s always had except that now it’s just easier to do.

  5. L.K. Collins

    You can always, Dan, look at a commercial publisher’s value to the system of book publication.

    His readers and editors keep us from having to sort through an increasing amount of literary trash.

    MB is right. Someone is going to come up with a clever idea that will change the whole equation… Happens all the time. with the consumer receiving the benefits.

  6. Mike Benedict

    LK, I think the publisher’s role will at some point be vanquished by crowd-sourcing. Even now, via lots of sites, a customer looking at one product can also see what other customers who bought that product also looked at/bought (at least, if you trust that the site’s recommendations are on the up and up). Sooner or later, Facebook and other social networking sites are going to make that even more ubiquitous. (FB lets you tell your friends what you are listening to, for example.)

    Which is why I don’t grasp Dan’s complaint that publishers might run roughshod over their authors. Authors will need to wise up and not sign over permanent rights to a work, but they’ll figure that out sooner or later. Over time, it says here, authors won’t need publishers, at least not in the traditional sense.

    Well, OK, they will still need editors, but editors may end up in permanent freelance-type situations, or pool their expertise under a new banner of editorial consultants, specializing (as law firms do) in certain genres. And I can see a host of potential fee for services models under such an arrangement.

    The point is, the current model of publishing is inefficient, and wherever there is inefficiency, there is opportunity.

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