Books & Literature Conference Notes

Live from ETech: Cory Doctorow and e-books…

Warning: What follows makes increasingly little sense. Day Three Proper of ETech has resulted in a certain lack of mental flexibility and a weird warm grinding feeling at the temples as my over-saturated lobes rub together…

So in a few weeks I’m presenting a piece on e-publishing and weblogs at the London Book Fair. To be honest, I’ve never understood the compound, “e-publishing”. It seems to mean different things to different people at different times. For most people it seems to bear little or no relationship to what I consider publishing online – ie. those content-rich sites like BBC News Online and or weblog-style stuff or in fact anything browser-readable, but instead just that highly narrow field of e-book publishing (generally considered as some kind of proprietary text-based format glued into a PDA or piece of dedicated e-book-reading hardware / software). In a nutshell, then, I didn’t really consider it terribly interesting.

I was surprised, then, to see Cory Doctorow talking on the subject at Emerging Tech. I mean, obviously I knew that he’d released his books online under a Creative Commons license and obviously I’d known that had been quite a successful and publicity-garnering thing to have done, but – to be honest – I’d somehow never really made the connection between that and “e-books”. In my mind an e-book was little more than a species of niche electronic emphemera designed to sit within a tiny ecosystem of highly-tech-friendly but not particularly tech-savvy over-monied poseurs. So, why would that have any connection with Cory? I mean – he basically slapped the plain-text of the book onto the web. Which is – you know – useful. Where’s the connection?

Forty-five minutes later, of course, and my views are different. It’s not that Cory said that much which was alien to my sensibility or world-view – in a sense he’s preaching to the converted – but I’ve now got slightly more of an understanding of the publishing of books ‘electronically’ as a spectrum rather than as a set of rather problematic models in competition with each other. Which demonstrates, I guess, what a dumbass I was fifty minutes ago. Still… I guess it’s good that I can face up to that, right?

Anyway – I’ve stuck up my personal transcript and understanding of his piece and I recommend everyone read it.

More importantly, Cory did a really cool thing just before getting off-stage – he’s releasing even more of the rights to “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” under a Creative Commons license. Originally it was just free to distribute, but not to change or undertake any derivative works. But now – as long as it’s uncommercial – he’s freed up derivative works as well. This is more important than it might sound – it means that individuals can make t-shirts or badges on the one hand (as long as it’s non-commercial), but more significantly, they can now make and distribute reader translations of the book without trouble and they can even write fan-fiction and slash without any trouble – just as long as these translations and derivative works are distributed under the same terms. Very interesting and worthy of considerable celebration and approval. More later…

10 replies on “Live from ETech: Cory Doctorow and e-books…”

Hang on – “Even the trolls work for him – directing people to download the book and read it to see just how bad it is..”??
Just because someone didn’t like his book and tells other people their opinion doesn’t make them a troll. Maybe they really didn’t like the book. Here, I’ll have a go. I read his book, I thought it was better than the first one, but it was still a pretty thin read. His characterisations are 2-D, the narrative is fairly standard – the only edge he has is the obvious enthusiasm for what’s happening in five minutes. Probably he will get better – lots of artists do. But I wouldn’t recommend Eastern Standard Tribes to anyone.
Troll? No. I just don’t like the book. The good thing is, anyone can now go and download it and See For Themselves. So he’s right there – but critics aren’t always trolls.

Interesting views… made me think of a project that I worked out for the RNIB (royal national institue for the blind). They have tens of thousands of hours of recorded audio books (novels and textbooks), recorded over the past 50+ years. Many are out of print. All are now being digitised from decaying old tape. So they index them *manually* to put in the chapter marks. This should be automatable… so I engaged with some voice recognition software and an “intelligent” natural language search engine… the result of which was searchable time-coded recordings. So, a searchable spoken-word archive of books, and we can have the whole thing voice-controlled over the phone. Who needs paper anyway…

Who, now, has such a burning desire to create these derivative works? I mean it’s as though Cory imagines thousands of people clambering across one another to partake of this god given freedom which he has so kindly allowed!
Here we have a huge decoration scattered upon a writer trying to sell his work. Will it be because of his talent that people want derivatives or because of his exposure via BoingBoing. Perhaps his ‘fans’ will be looking for exposure of their own.

I’m wondering too what is going on with this promotion ‘sharing’ among the big wig blogs ñ of course I do not demise the good in them, but it seems like the beginnings of a traffic monopoly?

Philip – I think you’re rather missing the point. Cory took what a lot of people would think of as an impossibly enormous risk by putting the whole text of his first published novel online for anyone to download for free. Many other writers would have claimed that to be commercial suicide, so I don’t think it necessarily follows that it was an obvious piece of PR fluff at all.
With regard to the derivative works stuff, Cory spends an incredble amount of his time at the EFF and under his own steam arguing for rights for us ALL to be able to employ – rights that organisations like Disney are taking away from us (almost as a side-effect) in order to try and eake out more money from work done tens of decades ago. Whether or not anyone is particularly interested in the derivative works thing in his case is kind of irrelevant, except in that it gestures in a potential direction for other writers, and in the meantime people are now starting to translate his books into other languages and distributing them non-commercially. That seems to me to represent a success for him personally and a success for any non-English speaking individual who wanted to read his work.

I don’t dispute Cory’s efforts, however I do not see the enormous risk. Most of us can do very little with long digital texts, I for one cannot read a whole novel on a screen and would rather buy a copy than print it. Perhaps it would have been different if he was already a thoroughly established author or if we were further into a future where book are redundant. It would be interesting to see statistics on how many readers are actually reading these long digital texts.

One of my (adult) students here in Korea was explaining to me the other day how ‘e-books’ work here. As with most things e-, the Koreans are way way out ahead of the game. Seems much of publishing these days is tiered – many books are made available on line first, de rigeur, and if they achieve enough popularity, they get printed and bound and sold in hardcopy.
Just a data point that I’m fairly certain may not have been included in the magnificent punditry at the latest conference…

Also, just to counter what philip had to say there, above, I have done my reading (on average 2-4 books a week) exclusively on my laptop for the last 4 years. Perhaps 100 books out of my 10,000-12,000 volume book collection is actually printed on paper. My circumstances are perhaps somewhat unique, but it’s certainly not as uncommon as some may think.

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