You bought it, but is it yours?

Microsoft has changed its mind about selling e-books. Not only is it not selling any more, but it’s unselling those it sold previously.

Microsoft removes the Books category from the Microsoft Store
Previously purchased books and rentals will be accessible until early July, but after this, books will no longer be accessible, officials said in a customer-support article today. The company is promising full refunds for all content purchased from the Books category; anyone who bought books via the Store will receive further details on how to get refunds via email from Microsoft.

People aren’t happy though, as you can imagine.

Microsoft announces it will shut down ebook program and confiscate its customers’ libraries
This puts the difference between DRM-locked media and unencumbered media into sharp contrast. I have bought a lot of MP3s over the years, thousands of them, and many of the retailers I purchased from are long gone, but I still have the MP3s. Likewise, I have bought many books from long-defunct booksellers and even defunct publishers, but I still own those books.

When I was a bookseller, nothing I could do would result in your losing the book that I sold you. If I regretted selling you a book, I didn’t get to break into your house and steal it, even if I left you a cash refund for the price you paid.

Via the Wired newsletter, which added that “this remains a stark illustration of the fact that you never really buy digital media that’s locked down with DRM: merely a licence to access it for as long as its provider sees fit.”

Futuristic authors, bored readers?

Whilst television seems to be rushing towards its future, can the same be said of books? In this essay for Wired, Craig Mod answers with a ‘yes, kinda’.

The ‘future book’ is here, but it’s not what we expected
In the 1990s, Future Bookism hit a kind of beautiful fever pitch. We were so close. Brown University professor Robert Coover, in a 1992 New York Times op-ed titled “The End of Books,” wrote of the future of writing: “Fluidity, contingency, indeterminacy, plurality, discontinuity are the hypertext buzzwords of the day, and they seem to be fast becoming principles, in the same way that relativity not so long ago displaced the falling apple.”

Things didn’t quite work out that way; Amazon swallowed up pretty much all the burgeoning e-book market, with Kindles that are “as interactive as a potato”.

Yet here’s the surprise: We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve—I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a “book” as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building—everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t. Perhaps the form and interactivity of what we consider a “standard book” will change in the future, as screens become as cheap and durable as paper. But the books made today, held in our hands, digital or print, are Future Books, unfuturistic and inert may they seem.

It’s an interesting take, for sure, but I can’t help but think this publishing revolution is marvellous for authors but, as a reader, I’m still pining for that promised interactivity. I don’t think it’s enough to say we’ve got Wikipedia and YouTube videos and e-mail newsletters and somehow we can bundle them all up and consider the resulting unstructured, messy, unvalidated heap a Future Book.

Tim Carmody responds to Craig’s essay with a call to pursue an older approach.

Towards the Future Book
I think the utopian moment for the future of the book ended not when Amazon routed its vendors and competitors, although the Obama DOJ deserves some blame in retrospect for handing them that win. I think it ended when the Google Books settlement died, leading to Google Books becoming, basically abandonware, when it was initially supposed to be the true Library of Babel.

For Tim, that goal — “the digitization of all printed matter, available for full-text search and full-image browsing on any device” — is where the future of the book should lie.

Will Self, meanwhile, is in a less positive mood.

The printed world in peril
As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

I’ve been a fan of his for many years now, his lack of optimism notwithstanding.

At the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the exiled hoboes return to the cities, which have been destroyed by the nuclear conflicts of the illiterate, bringing with them their head-borne texts, ready to restart civilization. And it’s this that seems to me the most prescient part of Bradbury’s menacing vision. For I see no future for the words printed on paper, or the art forms they enacted, if our civilization continues on this digital trajectory: there’s no way back to the future—especially not through the portal of a printed text.

Books, future tense

Kindle v Glass, apps v text: the complicated future of books
It’s yet another way that our digital footprint is commercialised, marketed and analysed. Nothing is private anymore. Curling up on the couch with an e-book is not a solitary act but instead a way for corporations to learn about your habits and then sell you items you’ll think you need.

[…]

Despite it all, the book will survive and perhaps thrive, though our understanding of what a book can do and how it relates to the reader must change. Amazon remains a behemoth and yet a recent New Yorker feature on the company painted a picture of multinational disinterest in building a quality collection of books and literary culture (perhaps because they’re too busy selling garden tools, dildos and toys on their website).

Will Gutenburg have the last laugh?

GutenbergInteresting post from Nicholas Carr about the state of the e-book business. As The Browser puts it, “We say we like books. And it turns out that we do. Sales of e-readers are slowing. Early adopters have adopted. Print sales are holding up well. Printed books may have more of a future than seemed probable even a year ago.”

As usual, these things are never as straightforward as the media would have us believe. I can easily see a place for both (we still have radio even though we have tv, we still have theatre even though we have cinema, we still have cinema even though- and so on and so on) and still love having both. Some of the competing business models can be a little frustrating, though; my Waterstones gift card won’t play nice with my Kindle, for instance. #firstworldproblem

(Via The Browser)

Book making

Book making

That’s not a proper book
There’s only one copy of it, unlike a proper print run. Technically all I’ve done is printed one copy of the web page for personal use. But it feels odd. Books are usually mass produced. With a few clicks I could print off as many copies as I want with no additional work. Scaling atoms like you scale software. And it baffles the author when you ask them to sign it.

He’s made a book. Or just printed out an article from the web. Can’t tell which, but would love to give this a go myself.

You're really not much better off with e-textbooks?

E-Textbooks saved many students only $1
Despite the promise that digital textbooks can lead to huge cost savings for students, a new study at Daytona State College has found that many who tried e-textbooks saved only one dollar, compared with their counterparts who purchased traditional printed material.

Read the rest of the article and wonder what the position would be for UK students (and their increasing fees).