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Publishing is in a weird place: ebook sales are stagnating; publishing has shrunk to five major publishers; libraries and publishers are at each others’ throats over ebook pricing; and major writers’ groups are up in arms over ebook royalties, and, of course, we only have one major book retailer left — what is to be done?


In my new Locus Magazine column, “Peace in Our Time,” I propose a pair of software projects that could bring all together writers, publishers and libraries to increase competition, give publishers the market intelligence they need to sell more books, triple writers’ ebook royalties, and sell more ebooks to libraries, on much fairer terms.

The first project is a free/open version of Overdrive, the software that publishers insist that libraries use for ebook circulation. A free/open version, collectively created and maintained by the library community, would create a source of data that publishers could use to compete with Amazon, their biggest frenemy, while still protecting patron privacy. The publishers’ quid-pro-quo for this data would be an end to the practice of gouging libraries on ebook prices, leaving them with more capital to buy more books.

The second project is a federated ebook store for writers, that would allow writers to act as retailers for their publishers, selling their own books and keeping the retailer’s share in addition to their traditional royalty: a move that would increase the writer’s share by 300%, without costing the publishers a penny. Writer-operated ebook stores, spread all over the Web but searchable from central portals, do not violate the publishers’ agreements with Amazon, but they do create new sales category: “fair trade ebooks,” whose sale gives the writers you love the money to feed their families and write more books — without costing you anything extra.

Amazon knows, in realtime, how publishers’ books are performing. It knows who is buying them, where they’re buying them, where they’re reading them, what they searched for before buying them, what other books they buy at the same time, what books they buy before and after, whether they read them, how fast they read them, and whether they finish them.

Amazon discloses almost none of this to the publishers, and what information they do disclose to the publishers (the sales data for the publishers’ own books, atomized, without data-mineable associations) they disclose after 30 days, or 90 days, or 180 days. Publishers try to fill in the gaps by buying their own data back from the remaining print booksellers, through subscriptions to point-of-sale databases that have limited relevance to e-book performance.

There is only one database of e-book data that is remotely comparable to the data that Amazon mines to stay ahead of the publishers: e-book circulation data from public libraries. This data is not as deep as Ama­zon’s – thankfully, since it’s creepy and terrible that Amazon knows about your reading habits in all this depth, and it’s right and fitting that libraries have refused to turn on that kind of surveillance for their own e-book circulation.

Peace in Our Time [Cory Doctorow/Locus]

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