Internet Archive Dishes up BookServer as Digital Books Market Heats Up
Nancy K. Herther
Posted On November 2, 2009
Perhaps anticipating the upcoming holidays, a number of key ebook product announcements have been made recently. Barnes & Noble's new $259 nook ebook reader (www.barnesandnoble.com/nook) was released just in time to compete with Amazon's Kindle and Sony's eReader this holiday season. Google announced its Google Editions, a new online service for booksellers with existing distribution deals with Google. Google Editions will provide a method for readers to buy books and access them on multiple platforms-from PDAs to cell phones, computers to ebook readers. Google said that about a half-million books would be available initially, either through Google or through sites such as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. Perhaps even more significantly, on Oct. 19, Brewster Kahle and a team of Internet Archive (IA) staff formally announced their latest venture: BookServer (www.archive.org/bookserver).
Using an open architecture and open ebook formats, Kahle and his team intend to see that ebooks are available-for free or a fee-that will work on any device-whether a laptop, PC, smartphone, game console, or dedicated ebook reader. While it is still in development and probably years from completion, the BookServer project is intended to allow users to search book indexes across the web-whether it be on publishers' sites, libraries, bookstores, universities, or other sources-to identify content, compare vendor offerings, and easily download titles.
According to the IA's website, BookServer is "a growing open architecture for vending and lending digital books over the Internet. Built on open catalog and open book formats, the BookServer model allows a wide network of publishers, booksellers, libraries, and even authors to make their catalogs of books available directly to readers through their laptops, phones, netbooks, or dedicated reading devices. BookServer facilitates pay transactions, borrowing books from libraries, and downloading free, publicly accessible books."
Kahle's announcement is not only interesting in its breadth and scope, but it represents the first major effort to create a noncommercial, standard distribution system for online books and other publications based on clear, open technical standards. BookServer is intended to be easy-to-use, while respecting authors' and publishers' interests in controlling the pricing and market channels for their products. In that sense, this announcement is pointing to a potential 21st-century web-based digital distribution system for information that is more inclusive and far-sighted than Google's controversial scenario.
A Focus on Open Standards and Innovation
Based on the Open Publication Distribution System (OPDS) standard, a beta version of the architecture is currently available at the IA website and at Feedbooks (http://feedbooks.com). O'Reilly Media representatives who were present at the unveiling announced their intention to adopt the standard as well.
EPUB seems to be garnering support as the industry standard for ebooks, with Google's endorsement in August and its use in BookServer. (EPUB comprises open and freely published specifications created and managed by the International Digital Publishing Forum-IDPF; www.idpf.org.) This means that publishers need not worry about having to create multiple formats of their materials in order to have their books be readable on the various devices on the market. The cost of converting content to multiple proprietary formats in order to work with proprietary systems is prohibitive for most publishers today.
The Open Book Alliance (www.openbookalliance.org), founded by IA's Peter Brantley and dedicated to promoting "fair and flexible solutions aimed at achieving a more robust and open system," continues to gain support from major players in the industry, including Microsoft and Amazon. (For details, see http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/NewsBreaks/Anti-Google-Book-Settlement-Organizations-Band-Together-in-Open-Book-Alliance-55861.asp.) The alliance supports the new BookServer project.
At the press announcement, IA's Raj Kumar demonstrated how the BookServer technology will be able to deliver books wirelessly to the One Laptop per Child XO laptop, paralleling the Kindle's wireless access. Since an estimated 1 million of these machines are currently in use globally, the children who are using them have immediate access to 1.6 million new books from IA's collections.
Today's Market Confusion for Users
For today's users, however, confusion resulting from competing standards and formats still reigns. Google's proposed proprietary system of ebook distribution-along with the often rigid and unforgiving nature of many ebook interfaces-has created significant market uncertainty.
As IA's Brantley describes the dilemma, the digital channels are far too fragmented today to be useful: "If I'm looking for a specific title, I don't really know where I should be looking for it, and I have to be concerned about the format as well, because not everything works with everything else. And then I have to actually get the book and put in on a hardware device or other things I'm reading on." As long as the distribution system is so confusing and complex, the market for ebooks of all types-free or purchased-will be stalled.
The diversity of available reading devices creates additional confusion-from iPhone and Android-based devices to dedicated ebook readers, such as Sony's eReader and the Kindle, to products that may work on computers, game consoles, or other systems. Consumers have no guarantee that any ebook can be viewed on their existing hardware. And what if users want to take titles from their computers to put on their phones or other devices for reading on-the-go?
Finally, the process of buying or acquiring the book is generally far from seamless, and users aren't certain exactly what it is that they are "buying" due to copyright concerns. What readers really want, Brantley continued is to "be able to find the books they want, in the formats that they can use, for the device that they have, and not have it be painful."
Distributors' Wish List
Publishers, booksellers, and libraries have needs as well, such as the desire to "make books available for discovery, with accurate descriptive information, at as many different places as possible, under the sales/use terms permitted." They want to be able to control their content and access rights while remaining profitable. As owners and producers of the content in question, they expect to have a greater role in determining the future of the industry.
Brantley even quoted the U.S. Department of Justice in its comments on the Google lawsuit advocating that book "data provided should be available in multiple, standard, open formats supported by a wide variety of different applications, devices, and screens." If titles aren't findable and the descriptions aren't clear, customers will avoid the new format.
What is IA's answer to these issues? "Creating a new architecture using common open standards that permits people to find, buy, acquire, and read books from any source, on any device, using many different ebook applications." Users would type a title, author, or keyword into a web search engine, and the engine would return results listing everywhere you could get that book in digital format, including online bookstores, libraries, or a publisher. Users could then borrow or purchase the book and download it to their preferred digital device.
BookServer is an interesting alternative to the Google approach. Kahle and his associates are approaching this from the perspective of creating standards and processes acceptable to all stakeholders-and that includes fair attention to digital rights management issues (DRM). Sarah Perez of the blog ReadWriteWeb (www.readwriteweb.com) notes that "by allowing publishers to set their own pricing and manage the distribution of their books, they will be able to take back control from Amazon and Google who would rather dictate those terms for them." This issue of neutrality is intriguing and perhaps the most compelling aspect of BookServer as an appealing solution for the widest number of stakeholders in this arena.
Many initial criticisms focus on BookServer's lack of a specific plan for making the full texts of these materials available to allow for more comprehensive searching. However, this may just be a short-sighted analysis. IA's focus is more on developing a neutral platform acceptable to all key parties and less on mapping out the digitization of the world's books and hoping the DRM issues resolve themselves. Books published since the mid-1980s (and the rise of word processing) are probably already available in digital forms from their publishers or authors. No matter what becomes of the Google settlement, publishers are critical players in the ebook marketplace, and massive digitizing of copyrighted content can only further ostracize them in an environment in which no general agreements or clear understandings currently exist.
BookServer's collaborative efforts to bring publishers and content providers into the process as partners seems to be a more rational way to approach market development of what may be the primary publishing medium of the 21st century.
Google-Controlling or Enabling?
Google seems set on its current path-a path that is still uncertain and filled with many gaps and issues yet to be resolved. ReadWriteWeb noted the following:
While Google promises its Google Editions store will allow anyone to access digital books as long as they have a web browser and internet access, it's still unknown at this time how the company plans to make the digital content available offline. Will it require the use of special web browser plugins to do so? Until Google reveals more about the technical details, it is not possible to know how truly open their online store will be. And even if their store is 100% open, they are still a company whose ultimate goal is to profit from their work of digitizing books. BookServer's goal, on the other hand, is to provide universal access to book data made available in open formats. (www.readwriteweb.com/archives/bookserver_a_plan_to_build_an_open_web_of_books.php)
A Missed Opportunity for Information Professionals?
Robert Darnton, Harvard historian and bibliophile, writing in The New York Review of Books (www.nybooks.com/articles/22281) on the Google settlement proposal, noted that "[a]s an unintended consequence, Google will enjoy what can only be called a monopoly-a monopoly of a new kind, not of railroads or steel but of access to information. Google has no serious competitors." With IA's announcement of BookServer, the playing field may have seen the emergence of a potential contender.
Paul Courant, University of Michigan head librarian, responds to Darnton's article: "Of course I would prefer the universal library, but I am pretty happy about the universal bookstore. After all, bookstores are fine places to read books, and then to decide whether to buy them or go to the library to read some more" (http://paulcourant.net/2009/02/04/google-robert-darnton-and-the-digital-republic-of-letters).
Professional involvement by librarians in these discussions to date has been minimal-except for allowing the scanning of collections (largely by Google). In 2003, speaking at the Library of Congress (LC), Kahle noted that LC might be the perfect institution to spearhead the movement of information access into the 21st century: "Libraries are the right civic institutions to do this. They've got money, creative people. Let's bring public access to the public domain. ... The world looks to the Library of Congress to solve [these problems]. What the Library does is copied; what the Library doesn't do is copied."
Recently, Patricia Schroeder, as president of the Association of American Publishers, rhetorically asked: "Wouldn't it be much better if the Library of Congress had done this [rather than Google]? Yeah, probably it would have, but they didn't have the money to do it, and they didn't do it."
So what will the future of books and publishing look like? We now have at least two visions of the future of publishing on the table.