[mirrored at Peter Brantley's shimenawa blog]
I’ve spent the last few days in New York, and had the pleasure of meeting with various interesting folks. About which more anon, separately.
Many of the conversations revolved around digital books and the future of publishing — what form will books take? Would they be downloadable objects, or eventually migrate to a fully networked book? The consensus was that ultimately the book would live on the cloud, and as network access becomes ubiquitous, the implicit assumption that more and more of the content a reader will “license” or acquire will not be something that he has any direct physical ownership of, either in bits or paper. Maybe those options will cost extra; maybe they won’t be available. We will read our books on iPhones and Androids, via iBooks and Google Book Search; on Kindle v2 and the Amazon Book Shop.
This may have a profound impact on interpretations of the Fair Use privilege; generally licenses obviate the ability to assert Fair Use because non public domain network assets are usually governed in their use by contract. If, for example, Google Books settles with publishers in the AAP and AG suits, the ability to reclaim Fair Use will become sadly pivotal.
One of the other interesting casualties of this transition will be the existing book identifier schemes. Already, publishers are making a single EPUB digital book package, and then leaving the proliferation of more discrete ebook reader formats to intermediaries, distributors and wholesalers. Ingram will make the XYZ, Amazon will make the Kindle format, etc. The publisher is only responsible for one file, the .epub package.
This was a design goal of the IDPF, of which I am a board member. It relieves some of the work for publishers. What was entirely expected was that this leaves the publisher making one electronic product; what was not thought about as much was that this leaves the publisher with one ISBN for the digital book.
We are rapidly jerking forwards into a near term future where ISBNs will be assigned for derivative digital book products by intermediaries, not publishers. As an astute colleague observed in New York, the ISBN becomes a product SKU.
There are many disadvantages in this; one is that it will become increasingly difficult to find the “book” in the tangled weave of various digital instantiations. Perhaps no longer will we be able to ask how many copies did EduPunk 2020 sell.
And even this problem may be transitory. For as books move to the cloud, from digital bundles to network assets, we will not be counting “things sold” but link hits; not things shipped, but pages accessed. As some forward thinking publishers like O’Reilly have already demonstrated, the bookshelf will be not only virtual, but increasingly transitory in composition.
Whether we will be able to successfully rethink our conception of identifiers is a problem that lays beyond us just far enough that we are even uncertain what the contours may be.