eBooks – product or service?

Apparently the EU has decided eBooks should be taxed as services (link) instead of goods (like physical books).

I don’t think it’s that simple. 

When Digital Products Are Services

eBook “retailers” like Amazon are essentially offering you a licence to access a digital product, not ownership of a copy of the product. 

Of course, their casual wording might lead you to believe otherwise:



But you’ve purchased a licence, not a book. 

Compare it to NetFlix. You pay a monthly fee to access a library of digital content. It happens to be the same library everyone else gets too, not a customized library. We are more comfortable with the idea of subscription because we aren’t picking specific movies, and we even expect that some titles will disappear. 

These are services – the companies sell access, not goods. 

When Digital Products Are Goods

When I buy a book from Humble Bundle or Baen though, I’m buying a book (aren’t I?). I’m allowed to use it in certain ways (e.g. on multiple devices), and they’re not able to revoke my licence (I don’t think). There is no DRM to lock me into a platform or a service, and the expectation is that I will manage my purchases honestly and appropriately. 

And I’m glad they provide the ability to download my books at any time, but I don’t expect them to maintain my library for me. I keep my local copies, just in case. 

I’m certainly thinking of an eBook as a thing I’m buying, not a licence I’m buying. I want permanent access.

Can’t the Retailer and/or Publisher Choose?

I think there is room for both types of access, but it’s currently not clear to the consumer what they’re paying for. 

It would be nice for the publisher, or possibly the publisher and retailer together, to decide whether they’re licensing or selling (or both), and then price differentially and accordingly. 

Don’t forget

I have no legal training. I’m just making lay observations, so don’t interpret any of this as legal advice, silly.

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What if ebooks had come first?

I like to read books. I always have, and I expect that will continue for the rest of my life.

But I’ve changed in my reading habits a lot over the last few years. Now I read far more ebooks than print books, and I listen to audiobooks as well. Most recently I’ve started exploring graphic novels, mostly digitally on my iPad.

When I talk to people about reading ebooks (usually novels), they either hop excitedly foot to foot inquiring about the Kindle titles I love or they scrunch their faces as though tasting bitterness in their old-schoolery while proclaiming they prefer print books.

Why the polarity? Why do people love one or the other?

Why ebooks are better

They’re sometimes cheaper (not always).

They’re easy to get on release day, or any other day. They’re always available and never out of stock.

You can bring (and read) hundreds of them anywhere without lugging anything you wouldn’t already have (phone, tablet, etc.).

They’re not heavy (ever try to read a Brandon Sanderson hardcover?).

They’re not lost in a basement flood, they can be archived, and they can’t be stolen by literate, opportunistic ruffians in the coffee shop.

You can share your notes (even voice notes!) with a social network.

They can synchronize across devices, and with audiobook narrations.

You can adjust the type and screen to account for your failing eyes, the brightness of the room, your font snobbery, and the colour you want the “paper” to be.

From a publisher’s/distributor’s point of view, they require no storage and no shipping; that is, no per-unit cost. They can therefore maintain a back catalogue into perpetuity at no additional cost. Books can even be updated to correct typos, improve covers, and so on.

Why print books are better

You can share them easily.

There is no question that you own it, and you’ll always be able to read it.

You can write in them with a pencil.

They work when you’re out of power.

You can leaf through them quickly, which is helpful for some times of reading.

You can’t change the type, colour, or where stuff is on the page (that’s a good thing).

They don’t depend on screen resolution to look good.

But what if we had had ebooks first?

But of all the reasons people list for preferring print books, the one I hear most often isn’t such a “logical” reason: it’s just that people “are used” to them. It’s almost an argument from nostalgia.

I think if we’d had ebooks before print books the market would be different.

People buying print books would be incredulous at the delays (“You mean I can’t just click the button and start reading?!”), and at the limitations of the format (“I can’t embiggen the font!”). They would feel cheated at only being able to have a small number in their bag at once.

But print books would still have their place, because they truly are better at some things. They’re better when you need to look at a series of charts. They’re awesome for marking up. They are locally very shareable.

Sometimes digital text is later produced in print formats. For example, a series of blog posts might be sold as a paperback book (even while remaining free on the web). Or an ebook is successful and then has a print run. This is often to hit both markets, I’m sure, but sometimes it’s because a text is better represented in print. The authors whose books are published with gorgeous covers, creamy paper and stitched signatures revel in the work of art they were a part of. They may love the pagination, or how they were able to choose the font to evoke emotion instead of relying on Caecilia.

I love that there is a market for both, and I’m sad that many books will never make it into my digital library because of a publisher’s retention of rights without the will to digitize. I hope that authors and publishers will make both forms available to us, and I’m happy that print-on-demand will make it reasonable to do so without many of the costs of warehousing and shipping.

If ebooks had come first we would still have both forms, but more people would think more kindly of them.

What I’m Reading

I saw this post by @PernilleRipp via @OSSEMOOC today:

First, go and read the article. Great advice.

Now, I’ll share what I’m reading right now. See how I was inspired?

  • Gabriel’s Journey (Book 1, Gabriel’s Redemption) by Steve Umstead (Kindle; just listened to #0 in audiobook)
  • Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (audiobook; second time through)
  • Play by Stuart Brown (borrowed hardcover; haven’t actually started yet)
  • Star Trek: Ongoing (graphic novel/comic series; just finished issue #32)

What are you reading?

First look at Liberio beta, a slick, free eBook publishing service

My friend and colleague Jennifer Keenan (@keenanjenn) asked me recently on Twitter:

I had not, but we both requested invites for early (beta) access. When I had a few minutes I started to play around with it, and I’m really impressed.

A screenshot of the Liberio login screen on a computer

 

It’s still in beta, so not everything worked perfectly (but nearly so!). Overall it’s pretty awesome.

I wrote a short story (originally published here) and so I tried making an ePub file using Liberio.

You have a library of your own stuff. When you click/tap on the “plus” item, you can either select a Document from your Google Drive or upload a file from your computer. I grabbed a Google Document, and it was ready in seconds.

Libary view.

 

You have some control over the settings in your published book. Here are the basics:

Edit Book screenshot.

Expanding “More Options” gives you these choices:

Edit book advanced options screenshot.

I especially liked the License and Rights section, which gives you “All Rights Reserved” and then a half dozen Creative Commons choices.

Pro features aren’t available yet. Also, I’m not a pro :)

I didn’t try uploading a cover image (because I have neither mining photos nor pictures of silver), but the option is there.

When you’re ready to publish, you save your changes and then choose a sharing method. Just saving will upload an ePub file to your Google Drive. You can download to preview the file in your reader of choice (the site doesn’t display for you, but that’s hardly a problem these days), and you can share via email or social media.

Sharing options in Liberio.

For comparison, here are the versions produced by Calibre and by Liberio as viewed on my iPad Mini. Note that publishing in Calibre provided more control but was rather finicky. I think I like the Liberio default better, and being thoughtful as I create my Google Doc would give more control, I imagine.

Calibre-generated eBook viewed in iBooks on an iPad Mini.

Produced by Calibre.

Liberio-generated eBook viewed in iBooks on an iPad Mini.

Produced by Liberio.

The site looks great on my iPad and iPhone both, although there were a few intermittent browser issues. Some problems may have to do with the wifi here, I’ll admit. Being mobile-friendly makes it much more useful in then K-12 context, I think.

The view on an iPhone

Liberio also gave me an email address to send feedback to, and they’re very responsive so far (both by email and on Twitter at @LiberioApp). I’m looking forward to a few tweaks and updates, and I’m hoping this could be an easy way for students to publish online. This is one to watch, for sure.

Great apps for reading comics and graphic novels

Last week I griped about the problems reading graphic novels on my iPad (gentle rant here). While I haven’t solved the problems of the portrait-only-and-can’t-zoom Kindle app, I found two others which are even more awesome than Cloudreaders (it’s still good, if less polished, and has some unique features – you can get it here). Neither can read the DRM-crippled Kindle comics.

Chunky Comic Reader

Screenshot of Chunky Comic Reader for iPad.
This app is brilliant. Really, really great. It has an interface that effectively disappears while you’re reading. I don’t just mean that the icons and buttons aren’t visible; I mean that you forget that there are controls because everything is so completely intuitive.

When I finish a book, it brings up a thumbnail of the cover of the next book. Tapping it takes me there.

When I read in landscape mode, I scroll down the page. Swiping brings me to the top of the next page, which is exactly the behaviour I want (Cloudreaders doesn’t do this).

It integrates with Google Drive, Dropbox, and a few other services, as well as Mac and Windows shared folders, FTP sites, and more.

Apparently there is right-to-left reading for all you manga aficionados.

The developer is responsive on Twitter (@ChunkyReader) and seems friendly (I didn’t have a problem; I just tweeted some kudos).

The app is $2.99 now FREE, which is a great price for such a seamless interface. Plus it has a nice icon (actually, I liked the previous icon better).

Darkhorse Comics

Screenshot of the Darkhorse Comics iPad app.
I haven’t tried the Android version, but the iOS version is sweet. I bolstered my library on Free Comic Book Day and now have 32 titles to churn through. It won’t let you import non-Dark Horse comics, but they have an extensive selection, so I’m okay with that for now. Otherwise the app functions exactly as you’d expect (that is, like Chunky Comic Reader but for DH’s DRM titles).

Mistakes made when writing a short story as a serial

I recently started writing a short story, “The Encourager”, and decided to release it in five or six parts. I was going to post each part here on Mondays. It was just an way to get me to write at least a little every week, knowing that I had a sort of deadline to meet. I released the first three weeks of the story without any trouble.

But after posting part three and thinking about part four, I realized I had some problems which crippled the story.

I had outlined the entire story, including the resolution, before I began writing. I thought it was a good idea to know where the story was going before I committed it to the Interwebs. But I didn’t actually write the whole thing up front, and so I made a large mistake.

When reading over the story I realized that there was one of those “why don’t they just…?” moments. You know, like when you’re watching Star Trek and you nudge your older brother to ask, “Why don’t they just beam part of the hull away?” or, “Why don’t they just have the computer fly the ship?”

While I realize it’s blasphemous to ask questions about Star Trek on the Internet, it’s perfectly acceptable to shred my story on a blog.

I have a “superpower” in my story called “Pushing” – the ability to influence another person’s thinking. The problem is that I had someone killed at short range by a well-prepared team of soldiers. I realized that no one would knowingly bring handguns close to someone who could effectively control your mind. Instead I decided to carry out the killing with distant snipers (“Why don’t they just have long-range sniper support?”). Of course, I noticed this issue as I considered the later parts of the story, and my change in tactics dramatically changes what’s possible for an ending.

So, I’m re-writing the beginning and middle of the story and I’ll release modified versions once I’m done it all. I might still schedule the parts serially, or I might just post the whole thing. We’ll see.

So, if I don’t get the revised parts one to four out the door by tomorrow night, please forgive me. If you have other feedback about any part of the story, original or modified, I’d welcome it. Thanks!

[I should note that there’s nothing special about the serial format here. Each week’s “episode” isn’t a scene or anything. I just wanted to break it up for the writing process. I’m not sure this was a good idea, except that it was instructive.]

Short Story: The Encourager, Part 1

Her face was blank mask, and she knew it. She practiced each day in front of the small, grimy mirror, removing every trace of emotion and thought from her features.

Amanda used to cry when they questioned her, hot fury and poisonous despair destroying her control, but she had been a child. Now she faced them in perfect silence, and still they knew nothing.

It wasn’t easy to purge the effects of feelings. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel at all, but rather she had trained her body to no longer respond unless she willed it to. Her training was far more painful than the questioning ever was, but she turned herself to stone in order to survive.

Again today she brought up the memories of the CPD bludgeoning her father to death with their batons, then of her mother stalking purposefully from the porch. She saw again how the armoured men wilted before the woman, tearing off their helmets and vomiting as they fell, great welts appearing suddenly across their faces. And inevitably she saw them draw their pistols and fire round after round into her body, continuing long after she was dead.

The memories hadn’t changed, and her mind’s reaction was still horror and shock and rage, but her face remained cool, her heart rate steady. Amanda was the master of herself.

She started in surprise as the door to her room banged open behind her. She felt the rush of adrenaline, both familiar and frustrating as it threatened her facade, and she fought down the reaction her body was insisting upon. In seconds she was ready, and she turned around.

Brant stood in the doorway, silhouetted by the blue-white fluorescents buzzing in the corridor behind him. He stepped into the light of her room; he was wearing his crisp, brown uniform and polished black boots. She couldn’t imagine how she hadn’t heard him coming.

“It’s time, Amanda” he said quietly. He was always quiet. Like a ghost.

She looked at his grey eyes and saw the same thing she always saw: pity.

She nodded and followed him from the room.

They passed by dozens of doors identical to her own, each home to a pathetic soul whose parents had been murdered by the Citizen Protection Division. Most were twisted wraiths, barely recognizable as human. Some were loud in their defiance, but she knew their fear was louder still. Some rooms were empty, the former occupants having been “set free”.

Only she had survived intact, overcome the torture, the drugs, the equipment, the provocations, and the endless, endless questions. She was a rock.

Eventually the too-bright hallway ended at a too-familiar steel door with a six-inch safety glass window to the other side. She didn’t need to look; it was the room she had visited every day for longer than she could understand, and she knew every inch of it in terrifying detail.

Brant reached for the handle and pulled the door open on its shrieking hinges, then waved Amanda into the room. The scent of bleach and latex assaulted her and her stomach rebelled. She held her breath for just a moment before willing herself to breathe normally.

There was a man seated in a stainless steel chair in the centre of the room. He was wearing the same kind of uniform as Brant did, although it was clearly of better quality. He was reading the contents of a file folder which had a photo of her fastened to the corner with a paperclip. He looked up and smiled.

“Come in, Amanda; I’ve been waiting for you. I’m Solomon, Agent Solomon, with the CPD. Please sit.”

He motioned to the only other piece of furniture in the room, a chair placed opposite him and a few feet away. His face was open and honest-looking, but she knew better. She stood impassively just inside the door. Agent Solomon’s smile became slightly forced.

“Please,” he repeated, “join me for a moment.”

She relented and sat in the chair, neither relaxed nor tense. She wore her mask and she sensed she needed it now more than ever.

He continued to peruse the file for a moment, then looked into her eyes. “You’re a Pusher.”

She did not respond.

He smiled again, humourlessly this time. “You’re a Pusher, and we both know it. You’ve been able to Push for years, and you’re the best I’ve ever seen at keeping it to yourself, but you’re still a Pusher.”

She looked at him without expression.

He leaned back and crossed one leg over the other knee. “You see, I’ve been watching you for a long time. Since shortly after you arrived here, actually. Because both your parents were Pushers, so we figured there was a good chance you were too.” He paused. “We weren’t aware that your mother had the skill when we went to apprehend your father, you know. It wasn’t until she attacked our men that we found out.”

Solomon started to flip through the folder, pausing to turn it sideways from time to time. Amanda assumed he was looking at photos; she couldn’t see to be sure. He made small noises to himself as he turned pages.

“Do you know how long you’ve been here?” He waited for her to respond, but continued after a moment. “One thousand, four hundred sixty days.” No reaction. “That’s four years, Amanda. Or it will be tomorrow.”

She felt her eyes widen. Four years. No wonder she was being questioned by an Agent. No one lasted four years in a CPD orphanage. The law said that after four years they had to let you go. She felt hope bubble up hot inside her, and she crushed it mercilessly.

Solomon continued. “So that’ll be it. Tomorrow you’ll be a free woman. It’s never happened here before, you know. No one has ever left this facility alive. Ever.”

His casually polite voice had turned gritty and dark on the last word, and Amanda became certain she would not break the streak. She had long ago resigned herself to dying in this prison, and her dull despair reasserted itself.

Solomon started to tap his fingernail against the chair, the metallic ring echoing ominously.

“Do you understand me, Amanda?”

Uncharacteristically, Amanda swallowed and then spoke, her voice rusty with disuse.

“I understand. You’re going to kill me,” she replied.

His serpent’s smile reappeared. “No, I don’t want to kill you. I want to hire you.”