What Books? Where Books?

My friend Ben Vershbow over at the if:book blog zeroes in on one possible outcome of the growth of digital book availability: conjecture sparked by several news stories about the imminent release of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, and renewed speculation on the possibility of using an iPhone as an ebook reading platform.

But project forward a few years … this could develop into a huge money-maker for Google: paid access (licensed through publishers) not only on a per-title basis, but to the whole collection — all the world’s books. Royalties could be distributed from subscription revenues in proportion to access. Each time a book is opened, a penny could drop in the cup of that publisher or author. By then a good reading device will almost certainly exist (more likely a next generation iPhone than a Kindle) and people may actually be reading books through this system, directly on the network. Google and Amazon will then in effect be the digital infrastructure for the publishing industry, perhaps even taking on what remains of the print market through on-demand services purveyed through their digital stores. What will publishers then be?

This is a critical cognitive and more importantly business development split – will ebooks be consumed over the network, or will the older model of downloadable and packaged books into dedicated readers persist?

Whether Apple, Amazon, or Google wind up defining the predominant consumption infrastructure for published works, the impacts on publishers — and libraries, for that matter — will be profound, even if publishers retain a valued production and marketing role in the genesis of reading material. [Note the excellent comments by Barbara Fister and others on the if:book blog on the importance of editorial roles, and the value of the circulation and transferability of book content and information even, or particularly, in pre-digital environments].

Fortunately, I suspect public, community libraries will somehow always wind up with a ticket for the merry-go-round, as the last refuge of unimpeded access for the network abandoned and underprivileged. However, definitions of content ownership, and the normative expectations of privacy in browsing, much less reading, will be thrown into a churning fray.