“I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers […] I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write.
Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.”
– From Ursula K. Le Guin’s acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, 2014
The large-scale digital book markets of Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble have created new distribution channels for many contemporary artists and independent arts publishers. New digital formats (apps, video files, PDFs, and ebooks) are creating opportunities for artists, and new modes of distribution. While epub, the open ebook standard, has existed since 2007, it has yet to find widespread adoption by independent publishers—largely due to a lack of accessible markets and some significant technical hurdles. Meanwhile, large commercial publishers have found new opportunities to reach wider audiences through ecommerce channels, and publication formats like Kindle, Nook (using Adobe DRM) and Apple’s iBook. Embedded within these digital protocols is a new legal regime with significant implications for libraries, and those concerned with the sovereignty of open and noncommercial research databases. In this text, I discuss some of the reasons why libraries should worry about this turn to closed digital formats, why it is a particular problem for arts libraries, and argue for the necessity of a dedicated, open database of digital arts publications. Finally, I will propose one strategy for addressing these issues: a new database project and distribution platform that is designed to serve the needs of both libraries and artists. I hope here to solicit responses from those most proximate to the issues at hand.
Let me first describe my own interest (and perhaps biases) in this field, and how I came to be concerned with current trajectories of independent publishing. In 2009 I founded Halmos, a small, experimental publishing imprint, as an extension of my own arts practice. Ebooks were of particular interest for their potential to reach wider audiences at minimal material cost. Both the Amazon Kindle and Apple iPhone had been released 2 years earlier, marking the creation of two new major ebook markets. Halmos’ first ebook was released on both platforms—seemingly an obvious choice for any small publisher looking to inexpensively maximize their audience. With these two channels, it is possible to reach over 90% of the ebook market (www.goodereader.com). The remaining distribution options and formats (eg Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Kobo, etc) offered little in return for the considerable time and effort required to make use of them. However, it was immediately obvious that neither Kindle nor iBook would allow for circulation amongst institutional and public libraries, nor was it clear how a small publisher might do so through any other ebook distributor. While library print collections are shaped by their own internal acquisition processes, digital content is typically mediated by volume aggregators such as Overdrive or EBSCO, who have little or no concern for niche art content. Moreover, the vast ebook catalogs of Amazon and Apple were designed to be closed ecosystems, entirely inaccessible to libraries or the content providers who serve them. In investigating the counterintuitive realization that ebooks are in fact less free to circulate than their print counterparts, it became clear that they are books in name only. With the shift to digital, the paradigm of the book has itself been restructured: as digital media, the book is no longer an autonomous object, rather it is a service made available through a chain of contracts. Following from this understanding, this text argues for reconceptualizing ebooks towards what I call ‘digital objects’.
A few recent statistics demonstrate the significant impact that ebooks will have on the wider publishing industry, including libraries that chiefly collect print materials. While initial ebook market growth has slowed for major publishers, digital publishing from independent imprints will continue to drive the overall market, with digital overtaking print sales in the near future—in one estimate by as early as 2018 (www.economist.com). Ebooks already account for 30% of all book sales, with Amazon Kindle at a 65% share of the market (and 19.5% of the total book market) (www.forbes.com). Recent statistics detail an increasing sector of independently made books published through Amazon and similar platforms. Fully 60% of all ebook titles sold through Amazon fall into the category of ‘nontraditionally published’ – that is, many more sales than the titles sold by the top 1200 publishers (authorearnings.com). A significant number of artist publications must fall into the category.
A short list of emerging art or cultural publishers experimenting with digital publication may help to make the problem more concrete. My point is to demonstrate the increasing importance of digital works, and the need for art libraries to find ways to access them. Badlands Unlimited (badlandsunlimited.com), a digitally focused imprint started by artist Paul Chan, publishes ebooks on Kindle and iBook including recent releases by Yvonne Rainer, Hans Ulrich Orbist and Calvin Tomkins, with a number of titles exclusively available in digital formats. Strelka Press (www.strelka.com), a digital-first publisher with a focus on architecture and design theory (whose authors include Metahaven, Bruce Sterling, Keller Easterling, and many others), also provide their digital books in the closed formats of iBook, Kindle and Bookmate. Another example hints at problems for even those avoiding commercial sales channels entirely. Meson Press (meson.press) works with a number of important cultural theorist (Isabelle Stengers, Matteo Pasquinelli, Benjamin Bratton and others), and releases digital content as free, open access PDFs with a Creative Commons license. Despite this effort to use a permissive license, their ebooks have not been cataloged by libraries. In fact, the circulation problem for open access content mirrors that for books in closed formats, namely: that the licensing model of commercial ebooks dictates the mode of circulation so strongly that any format falling outside of that technical horizon requires too much retooling by distributors to be financially viable. Even with efforts to archive open content on sites like the Internet Archive, contemporary, independently published ebooks tend to be cataloged solely through private databases, and indexed only by commercial search engines; influencing how they are found and accessed in ways that we cannot fully know. The strong and weak commercial biases imposed by the current system are precisely the reasons that libraries are perhaps best equipped to work towards an alternative.
I do not claim that books are in a state of crisis, or that making and selling them should not be profitable. But, I want to draw attention to our growing lack of control on the matter. We need to reassess our engagement with digital media and decide if we want to allow commercial interests to determine all future modes of circulation. Six months ago, Halmos launched the beta version of a new initiative called Library Stack (www.libarystack.org) to begin to address the problem. It is a growing portal for art and culture ebooks, apps, video and sound media, providing general information, external links and online lending whenever possible. The goal is to build a comprehensive digital catalog of works by contemporary artists and cultural thinkers. Library Stack collects a range of dispersed, open projects, from free-standing artist applications to the digital output of established, medium-sized publishers. Thus, the closed databases of Amazon and iTunes are mixed with individually-produced works and various forms of open-access content. Library Stack’s growing catalog provides records to the OCLC Worldcat database system using the Open Archive Initiative standard protocol (OAI-PMH). In addition, Library Stack is built upon standardized structured data (i.e. www.schema.org) to allow for more complete results with popular search engines, helping researchers find artists’ contributions in digital publications that might otherwise go overlooked.
Admittedly, addressing the metadata problem is only the first step; we have already begun working directly with publishers and authors to make primary content available to patrons through open digital lending. Though modest in scope, the process has so far been invaluable in learning the limits of public lending without a viable market-driven distribution system. Ultimately, we hope to provide both a new ebook database for research, and a distribution platform for libraries, but in order to do so we feel that we must first resolve the impasse between commercial and noncommercial interests through new modes of distribution.
Rethinking digital distribution demands significant attention. At its most fundamental, it means wresting digital content away from the software-license model and re-conceptualizing it as a digital object: a media file that may circulate online without dependencies on web services, proprietary DRM systems, or any central authority. Many existing media formats already meet these basic requirements, however, critical to any new scenario is the digital object’s ability to circulate through financial exchange systems as well: to be owned, resold and lent, as with physical objects, while also leveraging the infinite reproducibility of digital media. A key question for digital objects is how to create a market for them without inducing artificial scarcity. Rather than a central authority used in DRM models, we propose a cooperative model where each creator, publisher, distributor, lender, customer—and even would-be pirate—shares in the process of distribution as well as its profits. Without getting into the technical details, and at the risk of using a few buzzwords, Library Stack sees blockchain technology and “distributed apps” (sometimes collectively called Web 3.0) as providing mechanisms to circulate works in an open manner while disincentivizing piracy, and without having to resort to closed formats. (A whitepaper detailing the intricacies of this proposal is to come.) At this stage, we are chiefly interested in better understanding the needs of libraries and how they want to work with digital content. A truly library-forward digital distribution model may ultimately require the same level of library involvement as with their print collection management. Are libraries willing to make this investment for digital content if it allows for owning the works in a more meaningful way? Or is a service arrangement with an ebook collection provider an easier entry point? What are the critical features for libraries looking to expand their digital collections?
nt digital media has already been strongly shaped by commercial forces that are foreclosing on the future of digital library lending. We can build interim solutions (such as with the Library Stack), but the fundamental problems may not be fixable within existing media licensing regimes. Which is all the more reason why the future of digital library lending systems should be rethought now, as new technologies and new opportunities emerge that can redirect their trajectory.
Erik Wysocan is an artist and founder of the independent arts imprint Halmos (www.halmos.us.com). Last year Halmos launched Library Stack (www.librarystack.org), a digital card catalog of arts and culture media. He is also the creative director at Standard Analytics, a company working to reinvent scholarly publishing using open standards and artificial intelligence.
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