Books as Luxury Goods

TechCrunch has an interesting piece on the difference between print and e-books. It is written by Chris Lavergne, identified as “the CEO of Thought.is and the publisher of Thought Catalog” both unknown to me. (And visits to the sites are a bit mystifying–I think I miss some of the context, or are so far from the core audience that it goes over my head.)

But the bit of the article that caught my eye was a discourse about electronic publishing versus real books:

“The medium is indeed the message

We were surprised to learn that print books and digital books were almost two distinct businesses with totally different operating models. While a print book and an e-book share identical content, they reflect diametrically opposed media formats. Print books are luxury goods and e-books are utility, and this has real implications in the strategy and workflow behind the marketing and production of each.

This technical distinction is also present in consumer behavior. E-books — with their instant access and cheap prices — sell generally 6x more quantities than print books for us. That said, a print book will generally generate 7x more revenue than an e-book. It’s hard to generate revenue on an e-book because the whole premise of the platform is: I want this quickly and at the cheapest price possible. The premise of a print book in the digital age is driven by luxury: I read better on paper… or… I like the feeling of turning a page.

You can’t create much markup on utility, whereas you can create a great deal of markup on luxury. This has been perhaps one of the most important insights driving Thought Catalog Books’ growth. The print books department needs to be run like a luxury goods company, while the e-book department needs to be run like a technology company. The content is the same, but the medium dictates an entirely different business model.”

 

This seems plausible (if arguable) to me. I’m not much of an e-book reader, not because I’m opposed to the format, but just because of the long habit of print books, and more cognitive comfort and personal efficiency with them. (But I do read them once in a while, because I don’t buy them they tend to be oddball classics I can get off of Project Gutenberg. Currently it’s Three Men and a Boat, and previously I read News from Nowhere on my IPad, a singularly inappropriate title for an e-reader, given William Morris’ attitudes about technology).

Books aren’t luxury items for me–luckily enough, but I can see that for somebody who was born digital, books, magazines and eventually newspapers too, are prestige items (like the encyclopedia sets of my youth, or the solemn, and generally unread, volumes by Will and Ariel Durant). It’s an odd thought: a once dominant (and for me still far more companionable and effective) medium is now becoming a prestige lifestyle accessory. What could that status mean for libraries and for publishers? And how might ebooks with their different business model (if the article is correct) find an incentive to address access and literacy world-wide, given that more people have access to electronic devices now than have access to toilets according to the U.N.

Advertisements

MOOCs evolve

nypl-digitalcollections-96d61bf8-2d84-f4f7-e040-e00a18065dd3-001-r
Would Abe have been a MOOC student? (Cover of a publication from the International Correspondence Schools, c. 1908).

Now that we are half a decade or so into the MOOC revolution it’s interesting to see it sort out and calm down a bit. Although it hasn’t quite fulfilled the utopian aspirations of the early evangelists, it has provided a useful means to get content to learners (particularly in tech areas).  While it’s unclear how the business models are doing (probably not all that well), people and institutions have benefited.

As somebody who is interested in curriculum, class structure, and the rhetorical forms that educational content take (why 13 weeks? why lectures? etc.), I was puzzled by the slavish effort of MOOCs to reproduce the highly artificial structure of an on-campus course. This seemed to me a clear example of the Marshall McLuhan adage that the first thing that happens with a new medium is that you use it to deliver an old form. (Radio shows were the first thing on TV.)

There still is an excessive amount of ‘course-ness’ to the average MOOC, but Dhawal Shah reports that the format is moving from scheduled semesters to basically on demand. A “Netflix” of education.

He writes, “MOOCs are gradually being transformed from virtual classrooms to a Netflix-like experience. Many courses are no longer offered just once or twice a year, but rather are now available as a self-paced, sign up whenever you want experience Coursera courses are now offered regularly throughout the year, with new sessions starting automatically on a bi-weekly or monthly basis.”

https://www.edsurge.com/news/2016-12-29-monetization-over-massiveness-breaking-down-moocs-by-the-numbers-in-2016

A very welcome development, not just because mapping academic calendar conventions on MOOCs was silly, but because opening up things on demand may lead to content innovation. It happened with Netflix, and helped usher in new blood, and arguably even new formats into fiction and non-fiction television.  Education could do worse…

 

 

Are Platforms Services that Should Be Regulated?

A New York Times story frames the continuing debate about Uber as platform versus service. In Europe, Is Uber a Transportation Service or a Digital Platform?”

The short answer is that Uber is asking to be considered as digital service, and thus not subject to regulations,  instead of taxi service, which would.

That Uber is not a taxi service seems an absurd position, although it may prevail legally. Its drivers are also plausibly employees, and its business structure should be subject to the same tax&regulatory regime as any other.

But the larger question (I can’t resist calling it the uber question), is why don’t we regulate platforms in the first place? at least platforms that are companies too. And as a company, their incentives are not necessarily in the public interest, or in the interests of those of  its workers or customers. It exists to make money. That’s reasonable, but Uber’s a company, and why not regulate it as such–and in all of its businesses? Does its technical product entitle it to some fuzzy emotional “feel good” hipster exemption from the norms. If it starts selling insurance, for example, should it be exempt from the rules concerning insurance markets?

Why this should come off as a heretical position perhaps has to do with the low esteem collectivism and regulation have had over the last decades. But if the digital sphere is where we live our lives, and there are signs that at least some of it has sort of been a degenerating sphere (whether Uber contributes to that or is agnostic), do we have no standing to ask governments to say wait a minute? Platforms are not outside the pale of general activity, and are not agnostic with respect to their effects on the commonweal.

I grant, it’s not going to be an easy calculus, but not doing it seems foolish not even to ask the question.

And for enjoyable foolishness of another sort, here’s stand-up about spreadsheets.

(I do play with spreadsheets for fun, and I knew what he was up to with 255! Yikes)

The Archive Vanishes

No news to anybody in the archives and records world, or researchers who work with public documents or manuscripts for that matter, but huge amounts of the original written legacy of the last 30 years is falling into the digital abyss as formats become obsolete, hardware is hard to find/non-functional, and magnetic storage media itself crumbles into dust.

But maybe there’s hope: A paper in Nature reports on a novel approach to saving the archives, applying techniques from digital forensics. Stanford’s efforts to save the Stephen Jay Gould Papers from oblivion gives an example of the impetus.

The Gould papers were an early indication of an issue that’s been rapidly worsening: four decades after the personal-computer revolution brought word processing and number crunching to the desktop, the first generation of early adopters is retiring or dying. So how do archivists recover and preserve what’s left behind?

From, “Digital forensics: from the crime lab to the library” by Mark Woverton.

The approach is to fit out archivists with the skills of a crime investigator (who will star in the spinoff “CSI: The Manuscript Division,” I wonder?).

The list of dead or dying media that a UNC prof mentions– floppies, Zip disks, CDs, DVDs, flash drives, hard drives–reads like my career. I’m sure that any digital traces of a monthly opera newsletter I contributed to and later edited for years was delivered to the printer and archived on SyQuest discs, a medium and a company both long gone. So is PageMaker, the program we designed it on. The newsletter was no great shakes, but probably somebody put stuff on SyQuest worth saving, be it a data set that has otherwise impossible to recreate info, a great novel or an archive of legal docs.

Sappho
Fragments of Sappho’s poetry. (By Masur (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Seems like UNC is on the job, with a tool called BitCurator, so maybe future generations won’t have to depend on the digital equivalent of somebody using a scrap of Sappho’s poetry as a wine stopper to rescue a legacy. (I know that story may be only a romantic legend, but it’s still evocative.)

The Age of Platforms: Will they be everywhere?

Much is made of our living in the age of algorithms, but I think that’s been true for centuries (at least since double entry bookkeeping, at least a methodology if not an algorithm). To me distinctive thing about our time is the advent of platforms, the Internet itself, and all its flavors, communication, collaboration, video, education, moving of merchandise, much of it happens on (or is indirectly supported by) a platform.

One industry that was former “platform champ”–they built it and exploited it for revenue–was the newspaper biz. So it’s particularly interesting to watch that model morph, and a Q&A on the Times site by reporter John Hermann and platform expert Andrei Hagiu takes stock of some of the changes. An excerpt. Worth reading the whole thing, and thinking about another world that is rocked by the advent of platforms, education.



NYTimes: How do pre-existing companies typically make the transition from being an independent participant in a particular category to being, basically, a platform constituent? That’s a broad question, but — is there an industry that might have useful parallels to the media industry with something like a major social platform?

HBS Prof and Economist Andrei Hagiu: I don’t think it’s true that transitioning from independence to life on a platform necessarily has to make things worse. One thing that I think a lot about — in conversations with venture capitalists and others — is the notion that platforms or marketplaces inherently commoditize. I think more likely what’s happening is the following: I think platforms, or marketplaces, make it a lot easier for, say, the content providers or app developers that are very, very good to rise to the top, and pretty much commoditize everyone else. So if you’re average, it’s definitely going to be very bad. Life is going to be worse on a platform, because you’re exposed to more competition. If you’re very good, life on a platform is a lot better.


Whole Q&A from the Times

here: Online Media Is Tested When Social Platforms Come to Town.

"All the news that's fit to print"
Once a platform all its own, and now coming to a platform near you (or on you, in the case of your cell phone!).

 

Fascinating Words: Charlie Stross on Apple, the Bank

dollar
Apple Pay, circa 1776?

There are lots of dimensions to the Apple/FBI tousle, but Charlie Stross uncovered one that I didn’t know about, the speculation Apple is going to be your solution to banking (as Amazon is to buying books). And it has technical resources no bank in the world could match.

From the piece at http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2016/03/follow-the-money-apple-vs-the-.html

Well worth reading in full, if, like me, Apple’s every move in object of morbid fascination.

Ultimately the banks are going to discover—the hard way—that getting into bed with Apple was a bad idea, about the same way that getting into bed with Amazon over ebooks was a bad idea for the Big Five publishers. Apple is de facto an investment bank, right now: all it needs is a banking license and the right back end and regulatory oversight and risk management and it will be able to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Chase or Barclays or HSBC as a consumer bank, too. And Apple has a very good idea of how risky their customers’ behavior is because unlike the banks and the credit card settlement network they’re not running on incrementally upgraded legacy infrastructure designed in the 1950s. Note those two words a couple of sentences ago: “risk management”. Banks are not in the business of holding your money or making loans; they live or die by how well they manage risk. Apple, like Google, has a much richer relationship with their customers than any bank. They can (for example), with a customer’s position, know roughly where the customer’s phone or watch is moving, and thereby spot faked payment credentials if someone clones the device and tries to use it to buy something a thousand miles away. The CC networks have velocity checking but it’s a really crude metric for spotting fraud: Apple can massively improve on it.

Some of his speculations are a little out there (iPhones doing retina scans and matches with genomic info for bio-metric authentication). Still, it’s a very thought- provoking piece, and good comments.

I do wonder what organizations with vast amounts of data about peoples’ personal and financial lives do with it for the “long game”; and it would seem that Discover + Amazon may be ahead in this particular race. Personally, I always thought airlines would create some de facto new currency based on frequent flyer miles. In some ways, liquid currency, payable on demand was just a solution to an information and convenience problem. People didn’t want to haul around goats for every transaction and trade them for crops. Computers presumably solve this problem painlessly.

Hey Newspaper, You Might Not Be a Startup!

Great piece by Butch Ward over at Poynter, “Should your newsroom act more like a startup?” pegged to the unsurprising news that Chris Hughes is giving up the ghost at The New Republic. His stormy tenure as publisher has been correlated with its growing irrelevancy.

Hughes and his minions, like many many others, wanted to bring a “start up mentality” to the venerable opinion weekly.  (The editor said he wanted to “break shit” which is apparently how some nerds show their authenticity.)

But leaving aside TNR‘s troubles, Ward makes a point that newspapers–and many other legacy companies–miss when they embark on “act like a start up” path. For one, that starts up usually often end in failure; it’s built into the model. But sort of paper failures, as there is still more money sloshing around in the real tech start up space and it’s not unusual for somebody to go from one to the next with transferable tech skills and industry connections. This isn’t necessarily the story of laid off newspaper reporters. money doesn’t tend to slosh towards them with any reliability. (Last I checked you can’t turn your Pulitzer in for stock options.)

He elaborates.

“Silicon Valley has a no-lose culture: you join a startup, and either it succeeds, in which case you win, or else it doesn’t, in which case you just join another. Failure is victimless, and indeed can be worn as a badge of honor. And precisely because failure is so socially acceptable, it is also extremely common; young companies regularly take crazy existential risks because the downside (another free roll of the dice) is so acceptable, while the upside is unlimited.”

It’s also worth pointing out that even the upside outcome to startup culture is hard to map onto the news business (is there an example of one to point to, what would count as true success) A real startup that grows maybe goes public or gets sold (either to be absorbed or to be raided for its technology), and learns to do new, and seemingly unrelated things (say a retail shipping company that becomes a TV studio).

Perhaps newspapers can morph in such ways, but Ward makes another point, namely that it’s not in their DNA:

You are not a startup.

Jim Brady, founder of Billy Penn, the online news site in Philadelphia, raises his voice when he makes that point. “You are not a startup!” he repeats. The fact that your organization is an established business means you don’t qualify as an initiative with no history, no customers and no brand.

How do you behave like a start up if you are curating a legacy and a brand that goes back a century? If the “shit” you want to break is who you are, why do you expect a start up that breaks that to succeed? Deep down, do you even want it to?

This “are you my start up?” question also seems applicable to other areas: in my (admittedly musty) worlds of education, performing arts and libraries, the same kind of “startup” mania has been applied and at least to my eyes has been attended by very little success. But that’s a rant for another day.

If you are in the news biz, though, well worth reading Ward’s full piece.

 

race
Don’t want to break it to you, guys, but you aren’t all going to finish the race!

 

 

Catalogs and the March of Technology

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 2.51.27 PMLikely only of interest to library nerds or technology history types, but here’s an interesting piece in American Libraries about how the technology behind library catalogs & how it drove standards (and came to be limited by them).  I lived through a lot of these shifts, including the end of the physical catalog at the Library of Congress. Henriette Avram (mother of the computerized format of bibliographic info)  was still working there at the time and treated with the same sort of awed respect that TBL got in early web days.
From the piece:

“[Melvil] Dewey did not anticipate the availability of the LC printed card service when he proposed the standardization of the library catalog card, yet it was precisely that standardization that made it possible for libraries across America to add LC printed cards to their catalogs. Likewise, Avram did not anticipate the creation of the computerized online catalog during her early work on the MARC format, but it was the existence of years of library cataloging in a machine-readable form that made the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC) a possibility.”

MARC automated a process, but it was founded on the idea of printing, wrangling and using a physical card, and this has led to any number of misfires…

We, and by “we” I mean all of us in library technology during this time, created those first systems using the data we had, not the data we would have liked to have had. The MARC records that we worked with were in essence the by-product of card production. And now, some 35 years later, we are still using much the same data even though information technology has changed greatly during that time, potentially affording us many opportunities for innovation. Quite possibly the greatest mistake made in the last two to three decades was failing to create a new data standard that would be more suited to modern technology and less an imitation of the library card in machine-readable form. The MARC record, designed as a format to carry bibliographic data to the printer, was hardly suited to database storage and manipulation. That doesn’t mean that databases couldn’t be created, and to be sure all online catalogs have made use of database technology of some type to provide search and display capabilities, but it is far from ideal from an information technology standpoint.

Not to mention a pain for the user. What’s puzzling to me is why we are still stuck with a system that technology has blown past. Karen Coyle wonders too:

The entire basis of the discovery mechanism addressed by the cataloging rules has been rendered moot in the design of online catalogs, and the basic functioning of the online catalog does not implement the intended model of the card catalog. Parallel to the oft-voiced complaint that systems developers simply did not understand the intention of the catalog, the misunderstanding actually goes both ways: Significant differences in retrieval methods, that is, sequential discovery on headings versus set retrieval on keywords, did not lead to any adaptation of cataloging output to facilitate the goals of the catalog in the new computerized environment. Library systems remain at this impasse, some 35 years into the history of the online catalog. The reasons for this are complex and have both social and economic components.

I wonder if they still teach MARC coding in library school? As Wikipedia points out, it’s clearly technically obsolete, but 30 million plus libraries keep track of their collections that way, as the famous saying goes, ” what is to be done?”