The Chronicle of Higher Education, Back Page: June 23, 2000

On Retro Glue and the E-Book Readers

By Michael Jensen

The future of publishing is complicated enough to imagine without the new E-books (Microsoft Reader, Rocketbooks, Softbook, and the rest) complicating matters by wrapping Buck Rogers containers around 500-year-old publishing processes.

Call me a curmudgeonly futurist if you must, but I'm not too thrilled about the implications of these new electronic-book toys that are supposed to be the end of publishing as we know it, yet will retain publishing exactly as we know it.

The E-book gizmos are cute, colorful, and capacious. They're even readable, especially when they use one of two recently introduced display techniques (from Adobe, CoolType, from Microsoft, ClearType) that allow the use of "quarter pixels" to create surprisingly smooth letter curves. These curves carve greater legibility from the same ol' LCD screens, which now seem to approach paper quality.

The tools for human users seem generally sound - simple buttons, easy page "turning," and straightforward navigation between chapters. You can carry hundreds of titles in one little pocket or backpack widget, and read them at will, or read them on your laptop with the E-book Reader software. It's the future, now. What's not to like?

Surprisingly, a lot, much of it affixed by what I call ``retro glue.''

Retro glue sticks old thinking, old values, and old habits to new technologies. Retro glue can be a comfort, allowing the best elements of the old to adhere to the new, so that we can see how similar the new thing is to our old standbys. Itís the analog big and little hands that are moved by a quartz-accurate motor in my pocketwatch, instead of the more-precise digital readout. Retro glue is what drove Model A's to look like buggies, and what prompted early movies to be staged like theater. It's how every new technology is accepted-by recapitulating its predecessor.

The E-book Readers all strive to present the text page exactly like a printed page, to ensure user comfort and familiarity. The button which turns a "page" on a Rocketbook is comfortable, and requires no user manual.

But retro glue can also stick on things that don't belong. The retro glue oozing off the E-book may, I fear, attach the worst of the last century's paradigm of intellectual property and dissemination to the new century's publishing models.

Don't get me wrongóIím a digital enthusiast. The Open E-book Standard itself (the coding structure that underlies most E-books, called OEB) is a solid and predictable set of XML codes for presenting text on a screen. Like the Webís HTML, itís not good at complicated equations, tables, or intricate typography; like HTML, itíll improve over time, and could become a standard for electronic publication.

The publishing industry has long been waiting for such a consistent, broadly supported standard for electronic publishing; with the help of Microsoft and a number of other companies, the Association of American Publishers developed the OEB standard for coding book files. Naturally, the design emphasis was more on safeguarding intellectual property than it was on developing a code set for a fully integrated knowledge infrastructure for humanity. Rather, the intent was to ensure that the current economic and authority models maintain sway over their piece of the new technologies.

Consequently itís publishers, more than technologists, who are excited by the E-book (especially the "digital rights management" component of the E-book), because it works the way they wanted it to work: much differently from the Web.

The World Wide Web was embraced so rapidly by our society that it caught many in the content industry-publishers, agents, music producers, even creators-

flatfooted. What's radical about the Web is its ability to easily and freely connect people to things that interest them. Its structure presumes open access and encourages the free exchange of ideas, the linking to other sites, and the interconnection of carefully presented content with informal content. It empowers both amateurs and professionals to make their stuff public in new ways. It lets anyone be one in a billion.

Nowhere in the Web's self-organizing tangle of interconnections is there much structural encouragement for controlling parties with authority over selecting, enhancing, collecting, or disbursing intellectual and creative content.

The fact that no locus of control exists on the Web disquiets the many powerful people whose careers have been devoted to the care and feeding of those loci.

``Disquiets'' isn't quite right: ``Scares the hell out of'' is more apt. They've made a living controlling who gets published or produced, what prices are charged, what marketing budgets will be, and the like. The trends toward disintermediation approach like the perfect storm. They can see a future where we won't require an industry of intermediaries.

And in my ideal future, we wonít require intermediaries. We will appreciate them, however, and weíll be willing to pay for good intermediation: having someone else select a good read saves time, thus money. However, Iím leery of the E-book because its current incarnation is all about protecting the deeply vested interest of for-profit publishing.

One of the catchphrases in the seminars on the E-book being given by Microsoft and others is "donít get MP3ed," a reference to the free-music-file phenomenon that has music industry executives calculating career years.

Unlike the Web (where open access is presumed unless restricted), the OEB was designed to presume restricted access. An E-book producer who wants to give away an OEB document must specify that the book has a 0 dollar purchase price. You can "grant" rights to browse, loan, print, and the like, but the presumption is no access without official authorization or payment to a publisher or an organizing agency.

The E-book also seems to retro-glue the old "each-book-is-an-island" model from the book world, as well as the page-centric, linear-narrative (as opposed to a hyperlinked, deeply contextualized document).

Finally, the E-book retro glues old models of intellectual-property ownership which encourage publishers to lock away content, restrict access,

organize marketing and publicity, manage digital rights, sell each bit individually, register users with the proper authorities-in general, to treat intellectual property as a commodity. The E-book allows the conglomerates that currently dominate publishing to further consolidate their control, and makes e-publishing seem to publishers like just another binding type: "cloth," "paper," "ebook."

For over a decade Iíve been saying that publishers will still be valued, even in an electronically connected world of everything, every time, everywhere. I still hold to that. But I also believe that the trends point toward a different intellectual property landscape than the one which informed the old models of publishing.

In the old days, it made sense to have the entire infrastructure of publishing, because the risk of publication was so high. To publish a book required a minimum of tens of thousands of dollars, to be recouped by selling enough copies of the books to pay back the investment and then some. It made economic sense to hedge every bet with confirmation from agents, editors, book buyers, etc., before publishing a book, and it made business sense for authors (notoriously bad in their judgment of their own work) to give the lionís share of profit to the publishers for taking the risk of publication.

It still makes business sense to do that in many cases, but the environment has changed; digitally, the risk can be made less dangerous, the outlay less extreme. Without the gamble of print runs, new publishing options open up, with new opportunities.

We need to be asking how we can ensure that the best qualities of the old system (quality, value, care, selectivity, etc.) can be maintained in the new environment. In any new model of e-publishing, we must be sure that creators will get paid (though I believe people will always find ways to support creative expression, albeit with perhaps less remuneration than the creators would wish).

We must also be sure that the business of publishing isnít wiped out. Publishers do far more than just vend books. They develop, enliven, enrich, and improve. Publishers are professionals; professionals almost always do a better job than amateurs; and customers are almost always willing to pay for quality. Centralized organization is often more efficient than alternative models, and people will pay for the value publishing adds. Yet we must also recognize that the process of publishing is not exclusively a business.

In short, I believe that as a civilization we ought to be able to do a lot better than just reproducing the worst qualities of the current system. E-books aren't-and shouldn't be-the wave of the future. In truth, Iím expecting that the Open E-book standard will grow into a generally accepted code set for publications, and that a free, creator-ready set of mechanisms will be invented and presented so that writers can present their work in an E-book format over which they retain control, and which somehow provides direct payment.

It's unlikely that E-books will become a monopoly container, but will rather become one of many ways we use digital tools to read, watch, and investigate our world. E-books will fill a niche, along with cheap Internet machines, broadband Web access, autonomous search agents, cell phones and palm pilots, everywhere and anywhere personalized access to the Net, and other communication methodologies crowding the horizon.

But I also think that it's important to recognize the E-book for what it is: a cute technology that, while useful, has the jetsam of the past affixed with gooey retro glue.

Michael Jensen is director of publishing technologies at the National Academy Press.


Appeared on the back page of the the June 23, 2000 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.