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.

MOOCs evolve

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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!).