Thursday, October 07, 2004

Recent exciting book news

I've been getting quite excited by a lot of book-related news recently. Here are some things that really got me going:

The Long Tail at Wired: we're moving from a world of hit-driven economics, where what you read, watch, and consume is dictated by "mainstream culture", to a world of niche-driven economics, because publishers and sellers are discovering that there's just as much money to be made, if not more, from "the long tail" - the non-hits that are bought only by a very few people:

What's really amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you've got a market bigger than the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon's book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are ... In other words, the potential book market may be twice as big as it appears to be, if only we can get over the economics of scarcity. Venture capitalist and former music industry consultant Kevin Laws puts it this way: "The biggest money is in the smallest sales."
This especially resounds with me because I know I'm a niche reader. There aren't that many people interested in linguistics in Singapore. There're two shelves of linguistics books in our local Borders. Kinokuniya has more, but they're really, really expensive.

Then there's Brewster Kahle's call to arms at the Web 2.0 conference yesterday [via Boing-Boing]. Here are the key points I gathered from listening to the MP3 (available here):

- Universal access to all human knowledge is possible.
- There are 26 million books in the Library of Congress, of which more than half are out of copyright, then there are 8 million in copyright and out of print, and a comparatively small number of in-print books.
- A book in ASCII takes up about 1 MB, so it would take 26 terabytes to store the whole LOC - which would cost $60,000.
- It costs $10 to scan a book. Efforts ongoing at the Library of Alexandria, in China and India (not to mention Project Gutenberg, etc.)
- So, it would cost $260 million to scan the whole LOC. Which isn't that much!
- It makes no sense that we're not allowed to put out-of-print stuff but copyrighted stuff on the net, where people can actually *use* it. Brewster Kahle calls these "orphans".
- So he's suing John Ashcroft in the Supreme Court for the right to bring these orphans onto the net. Go, Brewster, go!
- Furthermore, it costs $1 to print and bind a 100-page black and white book. Harvard says it costs them $2. In other words, it's cheaper to make books available for people to bring home - forever, and free - than to go to all the effort of getting them back again!

Now, to take the idea further from the "Long Tail" article, it makes perfect economic sense to make *all* books available in this way - digitized, then cheaply printable - because sometime, somewhere, someone might pay some money for it. And if you add up all the dollars and cents from each of these out-of-print books, that's a heck of a lot of money. Plus, it's perfect for places outside the US and EU - it costs us a tonne of money to get books shipped over here. It'd cost me $8.98 to get a single book shipped to me from Amazon - which is half the price of the book! What we need is things like the Bookmobile (or more permanent and stationary print-and-bind-on-demand kiosks in bookshops). It's an old idea, but it only makes economic sense if there's the inventory and the demand. The demand's been demonstrated. We just need the inventory. There's all the out-of-copyright stuff, which is being digitized by efforts like Project Gutenberg, coming along. And if Kahle succeeds in his lawsuit against Ashcroft, that'd be a huge number of 20th-century works, timely and relevant. And then get some major publishers to jump aboard and make their works available in the same way...

And once we have all this stuff, Google will help us search it: Google has started a print service to digitize and make available for search in-print books, which is clearly to combat against Amazon and A9's Search-Inside-the-Book feature.

Oh, and, an update to the LibraryLookup bookmarklet thing. One of the big problems with it as it currently stands is that you might be looking at a certain edition of a book on Amazon with a certain ISBN, but your library has a different edition with a different ISBN, and there's no way to jump from one to the other. Ah, but in gallops the OCLC with its xISBN service, which takes an ISBN and looks for all editions, translations, etc., of that book and returns you a list of the ISBNs. Now, take the output from that and send it through your LibraryLookup bookmarklet and you should get all editions, translations, etc., available at your library! Wonderful! The OCLC already has some ready-made bookmarklets available here, but naturally not Singapore's. Next on the project list: figure out how to modify my NLB bookmarklet to take advantage of the xISBN service.

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