Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

Doctorow Paper, Part One.

Ebooks: Neither E, Nor Books

Paper for the O'Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference, 2004

February 12, 2004

San Diego, CA

Cory Doctorow



This talk was initially given at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference [ ], along with a set of slides that, for copyright reasons (ironic!) can't be released alongside of this file. However, you will find, interspersed in this text, notations describing the places where new slides should be loaded, in [square-brackets].

This text is dedicated to the public domain, using a Creative Commons public domain dedication:

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For starters, let me try to summarize the lessons and intuitions I've had about ebooks from my release of two novels and most of a short story collection online under a Creative Commons license. A parodist who published a list of alternate titles for the presentations at this event called this talk, "eBooks Suck Right Now," and as funny as that is, I don't think it's true.

No, if I had to come up with another title for this talk, I'd call it: "Ebooks: You're Soaking in Them." That's because I think that the shape of ebooks to come is almost visible in the way that people interact with text today, and that the job of authors who want to become rich and famous is to come to a better understanding of that shape.

I haven't come to a perfect understanding. I don't know what the future of the book looks like. But I have ideas, and I'll share them with you:

1. Ebooks aren't marketing. OK, so ebooks are marketing: that is to say that giving away ebooks sells more books. Baen Books, who do a lot of series publishing, have found that giving away electronic editions of the previous installments in their series to coincide with the release of a new volume sells the hell out of the new book -- and the backlist. And the number of people who wrote to me to tell me about how much they dug the ebook and so bought the paper-book far exceeds the number of people who wrote to me and said, "Ha, ha, you hippie, I read your book for free and now I'm not gonna buy it." But ebooks shouldn't be just about marketing: ebooks are a goal unto themselves. In the final analysis, more people will read more words off more screens and fewer words off fewer pages and when those two lines cross, ebooks are gonna have to be the way that writers earn their keep, not the way that they promote the dead-tree editions.

2. Ebooks complement paper books. Having an ebook is good. Having a paper book is good. Having both is even better. One reader wrote to me and said that he read half my first novel from the bound book, and printed the other half on scrap-paper to read at the beach. Students write to me to say that it's easier to do their term papers if they can copy and paste their quotations into their word-processors. Baen readers use the electronic editions of their favorite series to build concordances of characters, places and events.

3. Unless you own the ebook, you don't 0wn the book. I take the view that the book is a "practice" -- a collection of social and economic and artistic activities -- and not an "object." Viewing the book as a "practice" instead of an object is a pretty radical notion, and it begs the question: just what the hell is a book? Good question. I write all of my books in a text-editor (BBEdit, from Barebones Software -- as fine a text-editor as I could hope for). From there, I can convert them into a formatted two-column PDF. I can turn them into an HTML file. I can turn them over to my publisher, who can turn them into galleys, advanced review copies, hardcovers and paperbacks. I can turn them over to my readers, who can convert them to a bewildering array of formats. Brewster Kahle's Internet Bookmobile can convert a digital book into a four-color, full-bleed, perfect-bound, laminated-cover, printed-spine paper book in ten minutes, for about a dollar. Try converting a paper book to a PDF or an html file or a text file or a RocketBook or a printout for a buck in ten minutes! It's ironic, because one of the frequently cited reasons for preferring paper to ebooks is that paper books confer a sense of ownership of a physical object. Before the dust settles on this ebook thing, owning a paper book is going to feel less like ownership than having an open digital edition of the text.

4. Ebooks are a better deal for writers. The compensation for writers is pretty thin on the ground. Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback's original science fiction magazine, paid a couple cents a word. Today, science fiction magazines pay...a couple cents a word. The sums involved are so minuscule, they're not even insulting: they're quaint and historical, like the WHISKEY 5 CENTS sign over the bar at a pioneer village. Some writers do make it big, but they're rounding errors as compared to the total population of sf writers earning some of their living at the trade. Almost all of us could be making more money elsewhere (though we may dream of earning a stephenkingload of money, and of course, no one would play the lotto if there were no winners). The primary incentive for writing has to be artistic satisfaction, egoboo, and a desire for posterity. Ebooks get you that. Ebooks become a part of the corpus of human knowledge because they get indexed by search engines and replicated by the hundreds, thousands or millions. They can be googled.

Even better: they level the playing field between writers and trolls. When Amazon kicked off, many writers got their knickers in a tight and powerful knot at the idea that axe-grinding yahoos were filling the Amazon message-boards with ill-considered slams at their work -- for, if a personal recommendation is the best way to sell a book, then certainly a personal condemnation is the best way to *not* sell a book. Today, the trolls are still with us, but now, the readers get to decide for themselves. Here's a bit of a review of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom that was recently posted to Amazon by "A reader from Redwood City, CA":

> I am really not sure what kind of drugs critics are smoking, or what kind of payola may be involved. But regardless of what Entertainment Weekly says, whatever this newspaper or that magazine says, you shouldn't waste your money. Download it for free from Corey's (sic) site, read the first page, and look away in disgust -- this book is for people who think Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code is great writing.

Back in the old days, this kind of thing would have really pissed me off. Axe-grinding, mouth-breathing yahoos, defaming my good name! My stars and mittens! But take a closer look at that damning passage:

Download it for free from Corey's site, read the first page

You see that? Hell, this guy is working for me! Someone accuses a writer I'm thinking of reading of paying off Entertainment Weekly to say nice things about his novel, "a surprisingly bad writer," no less, whose writing is "stiff, amateurish, and uninspired!" I wanna check that writer out. And I can. In one click. And then I can make up my own mind.

You don't get far in the arts without healthy doses of both ego and insecurity, and the downside of being able to google up all the things that people are saying about your book is that it can play right into your insecurities -- "all these people will have it in their minds not to bother with my book because they've read the negative interweb reviews!" But the flipside of that is the ego: "If only they'd give it a shot, they'd see how good it is." And the more scathing the review is, the more likely they are to give it a shot. Any press is good press, so long as they spell your URL right (and even if they spell your name wrong!).

5. Ebooks need to embrace their nature. The distinctive value of ebooks is orthagonal to the value of paper books, and it revolves around the mix-ability and send-ability of electronic text. The more you constrain an ebook's distinctive value propositions -- that is, the more you restrict a reader's ability to copy, transport or transform an ebook -- the more it has to be valued on the same axes as a paper-book. Ebooks fail on those axes. Ebooks don't beat paper-books for sophisticated typography, they can't match them for quality of paper or the smell of the glue. But just try sending a paper book to a friend in Brazil, for free, in less than a second. Or loading a thousand paper books into a little stick of flash-memory dangling from your keychain. Or searching a paper book for every instance of a character's name to find a beloved passage. Hell, try clipping a pithy passage out of a paper book and pasting it into your sig-file.

6. Ebooks demand a different attention span (but not a shorter one). Artists are always disappointed by their audience's attention-spans. Go back far enough and you'll find cuneiform etchings bemoaning the current Sumerian go-go lifestyle with its insistence on myths with plotlines and characters and action, not like we had in the old days. As artists, it would be a hell of a lot easier if our audiences were more tolerant of our penchant for boring them. We'd get to explore a lot more ideas without worrying about tarting them up with easy-to-swallow chocolate coatings of entertainment. We like to think of shortened attention spans as a product of the information age, but check this out:

[Nietzsche quote]

To be sure one thing necessary above all: if one is to practice reading as an *art* in this way, something needs to be un-learned most thoroughly in these days.

In other words, if my book is too boring, it's because you're not paying enough attention. Writers say this stuff all the time, but this quote isn't from this century or the last. It's from the preface to Nietzsche's "Genealogy of Morals," published in 1887.

Yeah, our attention-spans are different today, but they aren't necessarily shorter. Warren Ellis's fans managed to hold the storyline for Transmetropolitan in their minds for five years while the story trickled out in monthly funnybook installments. JK Rowlings's installments on the Harry Potter series get fatter and fatter with each new volume. Entire forests are sacrificed to long-running series fiction like Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books, each of which is approximately 20,000 pages long (I may be off by an order of magnitude one way or another here). Sure, presidential debates are conducted in soundbites today and not the days-long oratory extravaganzas of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but people manage to pay attention to the 24-month-long presidential campaigns from start to finish.

7. We need all the ebooks. The vast majority of the words ever penned are lost to posterity. No one library collects all the still-extant books ever written and no one person could hope to make a dent in that corpus of written work. None of us will ever read more than the tiniest sliver of human literature. But that doesn't mean that we can stick with just the most popular texts and get a proper ebook revolution.

For starters, we're all edge-cases. Sure, we all have the shared desire for the core canon of literature, but each of us want to complete that collection with different texts that are as distinctive and individualistic as fingerprints. If we all look like we're doing the same thing when we read, or listen to music, or hang out in a chatroom, that's because we're not looking closely enough. The shared-ness of our experience is only present at a coarse level of measurement: once you get into really granular observation, there are as many differences in our "shared" experience as there are similarities.

More than that, though, is the way that a large collection of electronic text differs from a small one: it's the difference between a single book, a shelf full of books and a library of books. Scale makes things different. Take the Web: none of us can hope to read even a fraction of all the pages on the Web, but by analyzing the link structures that bind all those pages together, Google is able to actually tease out machine-generated conclusions about the relative relevance of different pages to different queries. None of us will ever eat the whole corpus, but Google can digest it for us and excrete the steaming nuggets of goodness that make it the search-engine miracle it is today.

8. Ebooks are like paper books. To round out this talk, I'd like to go over the ways that ebooks are more like paper books than you'd expect. One of the truisms of retail theory is that purchasers need to come into contact with a good several times before they buy -- seven contacts is tossed around as the magic number. That means that my readers have to hear the title, see the cover, pick up the book, read a review, and so forth, seven times, on average, before they're ready to buy.

There's a temptation to view downloading a book as comparable to bringing it home from the store, but that's the wrong metaphor. Some of the time, maybe most of the time, downloading the text of the book is like taking it off the shelf at the store and looking at the cover and reading the blurbs (with the advantage of not having to come into contact with the residual DNA and burger king left behind by everyone else who browsed the book before you). Some writers are horrified at the idea that three hundred thousand copies of my first novel were downloaded and "only" ten thousand or so were sold so far. If it were the case that for ever copy sold, thirty were taken home from the store, that would be a horrifying outcome, for sure. But look at it another way: if one out of every thirty people who glanced at the cover of my book bought it, I'd be a happy author. And I am. Those downloads cost me no more than glances at the cover in a bookstore, and the sales are healthy.

We also like to think of physical books as being inherently *countable* in a way that digital books aren't (an irony, since computers are damned good at counting things!). This is important, because writers get paid on the basis of the number of copies of their books that sell, so having a good count makes a difference. And indeed, my royalty statements contain precise numbers for copies printed, shipped, returned and sold.

But that's a false precision. When the printer does a run of a book, it always runs a few extra at the start and finish of the run to make sure that the setup is right and to account for the occasional rip, drop, or spill. The actual total number of books printed is approximately the number of books ordered, but never exactly -- if you've ever ordered 500 wedding invitations, chances are you received 500-and-a-few back from the printer and that's why.

And the numbers just get fuzzier from there. Copies are stolen. Copies are dropped. Shipping people get the count wrong. Some copies end up in the wrong box and go to a bookstore that didn't order them and isn't invoiced for them and end up on a sale table or in the trash. Some copies are returned as damaged. Some are returned as unsold. Some come back to the store the next morning accompanied by a whack of buyer's remorse. Some go to the place where the spare sock in the dryer ends up.

The numbers on a royalty statement are actuarial, not actual. They represent a kind of best-guess approximation of the copies shipped, sold, returned and so forth. Actuarial accounting works pretty well: well enough to run the juggernaut banking, insurance, and gambling industries on. It's good enough for divvying up the royalties paid by musical rights societies for radio airplay and live performance. And it's good enough for counting how many copies of a book are distributed online or off.

Counts of paper books are differently precise from counts of electronic books, sure: but neither one is inherently countable.

And finally, of course, there's the matter of selling books. However an author earns her living from her words, printed or encoded, she has as her first and hardest task to find her audience. There are more competitors for our attention than we can possibly reconcile, prioritize or make sense of. Getting a book under the right person's nose, with the right pitch, is the hardest and most important task any writer faces.


I care about books, a lot. I started working in libraries and bookstores at the age of 12 and kept at it for a decade, until I was lured away by the siren song of the tech world. I knew I wanted to be a writer at the age of 12, and now, 20 years later, I have three novels, a short story collection and a nonfiction book out, two more novels under contract, and another book in the works. I've won a major award in my genre, science fiction, and I'm nominated for another one, the 2003 Nebula Award for best novelette.

I own a lot of books. Easily more than 10,000 of them, in storage on both coasts of the North American continent. I have to own them, since they're the tools of my trade: the reference works I refer to as a novelist and writer today. Most of the literature I dig is very short-lived, it disappears from the shelf after just a few months, usually for good. Science fiction is inherently ephemeral.

Now, as much as I love books, I love computers, too. Computers are fundamentally different from modern books in the same way that printed books are different from monastic Bibles: they are malleable. Time was, a "book" was something produced by many months' labor by a scribe, usually a monk, on some kind of durable and sexy substrate like foetal lambskin. Gutenberg's xerox machine changed all that, changed a book into something that could be simply run off a press in a few minutes' time, on substrate more suitable to ass-wiping than exaltation in a place of honor in the cathedral. The Gutenberg press meant that rather than owning one or two books, a member of the ruling class could amass a library, and that rather than picking only a few subjects from enshrinement in print, a huge variety of subjects could be addressed on paper and handed from person to person.

Most new ideas start with a precious few certainties and a lot of speculation. I've been doing a bunch of digging for certainties and a lot of speculating lately, and the purpose of this talk is to lay out both categories of ideas.

This all starts with my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which came out on January 9, 2003. At that time, there was a lot of talk in my professional circles about, on the one hand, the dismal failure of ebooks, and, on the other, the new and scary practice of ebook "piracy." It was strikingly weird that no one seemed to notice that the idea of ebooks as a "failure" was at strong odds with the notion that electronic book "piracy" was worth worrying about: I mean, if ebooks are a failure, then who gives a rats if intarweb dweebs are trading them on Usenet?

A brief digression here, on the double meaning of "ebooks." One meaning for that word is "legitimate" ebook ventures, that is to say, rightsholder-authorized editions of the texts of books, released in a proprietary, use-restricted format, sometimes for use on a general-purpose PC and sometimes for use on a special-purpose hardware device like the nuvoMedia Rocketbook. The other meaning for ebook is a "pirate" or unauthorized electronic edition of a book, usually made by cutting the binding off of a book and scanning it a page at a time, then running the resulting bitmaps through an optical character recognition app to convert them into ASCII text, to be cleaned up by hand. These books are pretty buggy, full of errors introduced by the OCR. A lot of my colleagues worry that these books also have deliberate errors, created by mischievous book-rippers who cut, add or change text in order to "improve" the work. Frankly, I have never seen any evidence that any book-ripper is interested in doing this, and until I do, I think that this is the last thing anyone should be worrying about.

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