At last, at last, the US/UK e-book conversation is getting around to questions of the basic architecture of how we sell, buy, share and keep our e-books. First Charles Stross pointed out on how publishers' insistence on DRM has put them at the mercy of Amazon. Joe Wickert launched a manifesto calling for a "unified ebook market" avoiding the vendor lock-in that is one of the main problems with today's e-book reality. Eric Hellman's latest post shows how needless is the publishers' acquiescence to that lock-in, the real core of Amazon's monopolistic (but not collusive!) power. And he very usefully reminds us that e-book "portability can be implemented without eliminating DRM".
So what are the alternatives to the existing Amazon/Apple/Adobe system? One alternative that has some real-world traction is the idea that books should be read from the web, in browsers. The second alternative, not yet realized, would be to create an interoperable standard for digital certificates for encrypted epub files.
Singapore's e-book market is just getting off the ground, and I think we need to have more conversations about how we should move forward. So I've been a real busy-body, talking to people, and putting my oar in as per this recent article for Publishing Perspectives. Also I'm one of those people who thinks by writing - not always the most efficient way to either think or write of course.
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Technology-led disruptive change is coming—at last?—to Singapore’s publishing industry
The first time I did it I felt guilty afterwards. I was in Kinokuniya, checking out a book on the science shelves, Complexity: a Guided Tour, by Melanie Mitchell. Complexity, a hefty hardback from Oxford University Press, seemed a bit expensive at S$ 50. I used my smartphone to search for an e-book edition, which I found on Kobo for US$ 12.79. Ten minutes later I was having a coffee while reading the book on my iPad, the hardback still safely on Kinokuniya’s bookshelves (and on the publisher’s balance sheet).
I did something even scarier a few weeks later, at least scary if you are a publisher. I looked at a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, featured in a new books display at a Changi airport bookshop, and—thinking of my overcrowded bookshelves at home—I opened the Overdrive app on my smartphone to check if the title was available as an e-book loan from Singapore’s National Library. Despite the unfriendly user interface, I managed to locate the book and download a copy to my smartphone. No need to buy. And after two weeks, the Adobe DRM license on the book expires and the copies on my computer, phone and tablet become unusable. So there's not even any need to worry about returning the book: no more library fines.
«Aesthetically, the design and exterior materials used, which are in juxtaposition to the soothing, pleasing National Museum, constitute what might be harshly termed a major architectural abortion.»
One of the early efforts of Singapore's National Book Development Council, when it was founded back in the mists of time, ie 1968, was to commission a study of the Singapore book market. The study was written by an American librarian, spending 1969 on sabbatical in Singapore. Books in Singapore: a survey of publishing, printing, bookselling, and library activity in the Republic of Singapore (Singapore: Chopmen, 1971) makes for terrific reading. Cecil K Byrd, the librarian in question, had an acerbic pen. He was quite sympathetic to the business of publishing, and his report makes fun reading, even decades later.
Combining brilliant photos by some of Singapore's top and up-and-coming photojournalists, with interactive features, music and videos, this app forms an appealing record of this unique year of elections in Singapore's recent history.