I’m constantly trumpeting about the death of libraries, but the way I see it, I’m allowed. I work in one, I have always used them regularly and I only speak doom of them to try to encourage people to ‘use them or lose them’. In a lot of cases, I think rumours of the death of libraries are greatly exaggerated. I certainly hope so.
CyberNet News pointed out this new web2.0 beta site, going by the name of WhatsOnMyBookshelf. It’s basically an online book trading website, with a credits-based system for assessing what books a user is entitled to request from another. And to be quite honest, I’ll be very surprised if it gets much further than it has so far. It’s a nice idea, granted, but the hassle and postage costs (ever mailed a hardback novel? It’s not cheap) are going to put people off participating. And I certainly don’t see it as ‘the library replacement’, as the CyberNet post title suggests. This site will never have the really obscure books on it, the ones that libraries specialise in, for the reason that these are the books that people keep hold of – they aren’t going to trade them away for two Dan Browns and a Sophie Kinsella (thank whichever god you prefer).
But there’s a good feature mentioned there, and one that I’d love to see brought in on our library catalogue where I work. And that is tagging. I’ve discussed the problems of labelling library books before, and tagging is a way to bypass the problems of one person making a ‘genre judgement’ on a book, and that judgement then affecting the book’s perception by (and prominence to) readers. With catalogue tagging, people could keyword search the catalogue, and find items that may have been catalogued as one thing, but tagged by a dozen readers as something else – e.g., Geoff Ryman’s ‘Air’, despite ending up on the ‘normal’ fiction shelves, might end up tagged as science fiction by those who read it*, and hence appear in a science fiction search.
(*Actually, bad example, because part of the magic of Ryman’s ‘Air’ is that it’s the sort of book that doesn’t fulfill the rayguns-and-green-monsters stereotypes that many readers still overlay on the genre – however justified they may be considered to be in doing so.)
The chances of catalogue changes occuring are sadly slim, thanks to UK libraries being tied to local government funding, and hence having to jump through the same convoluted political hoops of funding and service bid tendering that are (IMHO) crippling the entire nation as we watch. It is obvious to me that the amount of money spent on legacy software maintenance contracts (our catalogue system isn’t even GUI based yet, FFS) could be far better spent on a pair of dedicated code monkeys who could take care of an open-source catalogue system that could be adapted as and when required, in sync with the changing demands of the job. But what the hell do I know? Not how politics and government works, that’s for certain. And long may it remain that way. (Mutter, mumble, grumble.)
In other book-related news, Slashdot pointed towards a New York Times piece about the latest attempt by the Print On Demand publishers to woo the content creators across to their way of thinking. Blurb.com are providing free server-side layout software to allow potential publishees (look mum, neologism!) to format and layout their tome as they wish. Though not as powerful as some DTP packages, ease of use is said to be the point-winner here.
It’s worth mentioning here that these outfits aren’t aiming at wannabe novelists, but at the bespoke photo-album market. But that doesn’t alter the fact that P.O.D. is becoming a much more accepted and commonplace business model. If the Long Tail proves to be a working model rather than a snapshot of trend-changes (and I tend to believe it will be), niche publishing is going to have a hard time competing in an age where an author can self-promote themselves on the web just as well as a small press can. It’s already possible: get an audience through blogging, drum up a buzz with viral memes and word of mouth/web, launch POD book.
It’s still early days yet, but I think we’ll start hearing of success stories of this type fairly soon. There will still be a place for regular publishing houses for some time to come, but they will increasingly look to go-getting authors who can build a buzz for themselves and then (most importantly) not disappoint with a crap book. It’ll save them from the tedium of the slush pile, and anything that frees up a publisher’s time is bound to get taken on board eventually. (Yes, I have mentioned this topic before, and no, I’m not gloating over the doom of publishing, I’m just trying to point out what I consider to be the inevitable – anyway, good publishers will adapt and succeed in a new world. Business has Darwin-esque properties, especially nowadays.)
The two themes of this post will eventually converge (though I’m not going to be so foolish as to suggest a potential time-line for it happening). There will still be a market for mass-run paperbacks for a long time, but I think the change will come first in academic texts. These are inevitably the most oversubscribed books in any library, due to their price restricting the number of copies that can be bought, and to entire classes of students needing the same book. But often, they only need a certain chapter or two. There’s no reason P.O.D. should restrict itself to entire books – why not allow someone to just buy the part they need?
That’s if they want to buy it at all, of course – a sensible model for libraries in the next decade or so would be for them to work out a deal with academic publishers where they can allow the reading of electronic texts on computers in the library, and let libraries act as a sales outlet for full or partial copies thereof. This business model would keep libraries open and enhance their value massively (hence increasing footfall and adding weight to cries for funding). It would also allow a greater number of academic works to be published, because the publisher wouldn’t have to worry about accrueing losses on a large print run that doesn’t sell. No need to run off a new edition, either; just keep updating the source files, with a wikipedia-like amendments history. Plus the online copies could be hyperlinked – which could drive traffic and sales to your other titles. Business follows the route of profit maximisation, and at the moment things aren’t looking so good for the content industries. When they see a way to carry on their business and still make money from it, they will move – and fast. The only question, to my mind, is how long before it starts to happen.