Thursday, June 3, 2010

The future present

Sarah's comment about ebooks being introduced as a concept before the technology was really ready reminded me of something from my info tech degree, Lo! these many years ago (right around 2000, actually).

Disintermediation.

Okay, that's a mouthful, and one of the uglier words ever coined. But what it means is providing a service that eliminates as many layers of middleman as possible between the provider and the customer. eBay is probably the original example, with CraigsList following not far behind. These are places where people who want to sell stuff can list it for a relatively small price, with contact info and payment details, and people who want to buy stuff can find it and buy direct from the provider - who is, in the case of eBay, also providing the payment handling.

It was going to be the Next Big Thing, but ultimately it was, like ebooks, an idea that was ahead of its time.

I think that time is now, at least for ebooks and disintermediation.

The publisher started life as the only middleman. They'd arrange the assorted complexities (which are a whole lot less complex now than they used to be), and ship the finished product to bookstores or they had their own direct mail order. Then distributors moved in, because it was easier to box up large quantities and let someone else sort them out. The chain bookstores put another layer in, with buyers who knew nothing and cared less about the readers in any given area. The whole edifice is so clunky it's falling on its face.

Amazon was the first crack in the wall. Suddenly instead of having to rely on whatever your local bookstores held, if you had Internet access, you could buy anything in print, and get it shipped damn near anywhere in the world. Chain bookstores haven't adjusted to that one - and may never adjust.

DRM and all, the ebook readers are the next big break. Now, there's a device that can carry thousands of books, and doesn't cause eye strain. Sure, you want to have it inside a ziplock baggie if you're reading in the bath (this is something I don't do, because the water goes cold while I finish the book. It's the same reason I do not keep reading material in the bathroom. It's kind of disconcerting to stand up and have the seat stick to your butt), but on the whole it's nearly as convenient as a paper book.

What's actually happening here is that the pace of change is such that an age difference as small as five years becomes a massive cultural gulf - but the people who think they're in charge are trying to hold back the flood and failing miserably.

Just as an example: I predate color TV. My brother - ten years younger than me - has never seen a house without a microwave, or at least, not one he can remember. Someone born ten years after him would have grown up with CDs and personal computers. Five years after that, and Internet access is the norm, and CD burners are common. Another five years, it's broadband everywhere, DVDs and DVD burners. Five years on, smart phones are the norm. (I, Luddite that I am, have a relatively dumb cell phone. When my ancient, much loved PDA eventually dies, I'll get a smart phone and combine the functions.)

eBook readers will probably be normal for babies born sometime in the next 5 years - you buy them a reader, and all their school books live on it. It should - assuming that someone manages to step into the yawning chasm that is the disconnect between authors and readers (the entire publishing system is somewhere at the bottom of the gaping hole, at least physically. Mentally, I think most of them are somewhere near De Nial.) - be the norm to have electronic books which are not DRM and are provided by publishers whose websites include goodies like "fillable" texts - this tech is already partly out there in Adobe's fillable forms - where students can answer worksheets in the book, have them marked by their teacher via a networked system, and the entire history of the the lesson and the student's attempts to answer are there.

All it takes is someone to step up and provide a reliable source of non-DRM eBooks. And someone else with marketing skills I haven't got to promote the living shit out of it - if the service does what people want and they can find it, they'll use it.

23 comments:

matapam said...

Kid's textbooks, I hadn't thought of. But they're the obvious target - once the teachers get trained to use them.

My older son called me a few days ago. "Hi Mom. I got a new phone last week, and I finally realized I'd done everything except make a phone call on it. So I figured I should make sure it worked." Hey, whatever it takes to make them phone home.

But every kid from now on out will be carrying one of those things as soon as he or she can talk Mom and Dad into buying one. Might as well make it the portable text and fiction book device as well.

Synova said...

My husband got an android phone, developers version or some-such. I'm the sort that wants a phone that makes calls and if I'm forced to text then I suppose I've adjusted to that as well. He set up so I could track him, or at least track his phone and see where he is in the world. He had his phone give me driving directions all the way home last night. Of course he does his web surfing on it. And his phone will do voice to text and text to voice.

We were testing that last night so I called him and left a little love-note in his voice mail. What came out the other side was... "It won't be with you. Talk to Dave. Bye bye."

And to think that androids are portrayed as not understanding humor. ;-)

Synova said...

I think that there will always always always be a place for the middle man who does the marketing and makes it possible for the consumer to find a product, who makes it possible for a reader to find a book, and for the person who works as gatekeeper and quality control.

There's a shape of a thing I can't quite grasp that computers and the internet and everything ought to make self-publishing possible, that ought to work the sorting and sifting and even payment to authors if they just stick their book in it. An automated interactive slush pile. But I don't believe it.

I think that there will always be a vital place for a "brand" and for services that sift and sort and pick out the best and for en editor to give a manuscript a professional look-over for errors and rough spots.

I think that there is room for models other than the traditional publisher such as a cooperative or even guild of some sort that could enforce quality and present a brand identity and reputation.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate,
Don't look at me, sister. I can't sell things at bottom prices in garage sales, and often end up giving them away. Which, yes, is why I resent having to market my books. If it's possible to have REVERSE selling skills, I have them.

Pam -- well, we used to give the boys walkie talkies, when they were really young. I had the receiving unit on my desk. They could range the entire neighborhood and always be in touch with me if there was a problem. Ditto their first three or four conferences. Though it was disturbing to hear "Baby bird to mamma bird. Come in mamma bird."
Of course, once phones were cheap enough we gave them that. Though like Synova, we just want our phone to do phone things. We have another -- tiny -- gadget for music, and (for the parents, at least) e ink screens are essential for reading.

Synova -- Dragon Speak. I haven't used it in a long time because it has issues with my accent. My favorite was when my cat Pixie would meow, it would type "Hello, hello, hellow" and once "Hi there, help?"

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Synova said:
We were testing that last night so I called him and left a little love-note in his voice mail. What came out the other side was... "It won't be with you. Talk to Dave. Bye bye."

And to think that androids are portrayed as not understanding humor. ;-)


LOL, Synova.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate, don't get me started on mobile phones. I carry one under protest and I never turn it on except to make a specific call.

As a mother of 6 who is constantly being interrupted by demands of all kinds, my 'me time' is really precious. The last thing I want is more phone calls, with more demands on my time.

So I am the last person to appreciate a mobile phone and its upgrades.

Kate said...

Matapam,

There's a lot of places kid's textbooks and teaching can go with the current tech.

For that matter, I could guarantee that given a choice between 1-200 per book and a 250 device once plus say, 20-30 for text books, you'd have college students sporting ebook readers in no time flat.

The new thing with phones is online ticketing - you buy your ticket, send it to your email address, then open that email on your phone when you get there and it scans.

Or your phone picks up the scanning system as you get close, and sends the ticket info to the scanner, so the gate unlocks for you.

Phones stopped being "just phones" a long time ago.

Kate said...

Synova,

Are you sure your husband's android isn't named Marvin?

Kate said...

Synova,

There will always be a need for some kind of middle man. What it will end up being is anyone's guess. Left to themselves, these things tend to evolve as clever people figure out ways to make it work - and even cleverer ones figure out ways to make it work and make themselves some income from it. :)

Automated interactive slush is something that could work if implemented properly. It needs to be something that doesn't reward trolling for good ratings - I don't think any of the attempts so far have found a way past that aspect of human nature.

Kate said...

Sarah,

The image of Dragon transcribing - and translating Cat - is priceless.

I think I might give you competition in the negative marketing stakes. I'd end up paying people to take the stuff away. Of course, I'm also the woman with the Midas touch in reverse, so you can see where that's going.

Kate said...

Rowena,

The only reason I got my first mobile was the combination of a not terribly reliable car and a commute to college that went through some less than desirable parts of the world.

These days, the mobile is the main phone - hubby and I don't have a land line, just our mobiles.

Of course, we don't get many calls and we don't make many, so it works out pretty well.

I can understand why you don't want to deal with the hassle, though. I've had an issue or two with relatives who don't get that I like time to myself now and then.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. Great analysis. I have to confess to being a bit of a Luddite (at least with the electronic gizwads), which is very strange for an engineer whose job is to work at the forefront of energy recovery technology.

I suspect you're right - kids born now will think ereaders are normal. We've had, X gen, Y gen, now I gen, maybe the next one is E gen:)

Stephen Simmons said...

There's already a move afoot here in VA to push for electronic, update-able science texts, as a minimum, since the science content "wears out" long before the bindings do at the current rate of technological advance. Unfortunately, that initiative has run squarely into some very heavy opposition from traditional sources of traditional classrom texts (and their heavily-unionized employees ...).

I'm reminded of the line from "Demolition Man", about Taco Bell winning the "franchise wars". Baen seems to be on a trajectory that is compatible with the extant realities of the situation, while Toni's competitors do not. Synova's right; the editor/gatekeeper will always play an essential role in the marketplace, because we readers don't have the time or patience to sift through a thousand opening sentences like the one Matapam posted yesterday looking for one readable book. And acting individually or in small groups, most of us authors could never hope to muster the resources and "reach" to garner enough audience to make a living without the "branding" someone like Toni can offer. After all, Analog has figured out a successful transition model from all hard-copy to the Information Age, right? Not surprising, if you think about it, that an SF magazine and an SF/F publisher seem to be leading the way ...

Dave Freer said...

Uh. I've had a bad night (life's little lessons, do not eat Saveloys, not even on the pity-to-waste principle)so my eyes had a little trouble with disintermediation...
Got as far as disinter... and I though 'wampyrs' (fear my sparkle ;-)) Then my stomach gurpled again and I wondered if it was a typo ... dysentermediation, or maybe dysentermedication (much needed) or dysentermeditation (not something you want to think about.) :-) See I can coin the worstest words.
Dead on Kate. It's heading right at us like a savage saveloy. The issue is - no matter how many intermediates you have (and they are like council employees. Always increasing in number and cost) you do need the originator, and the buyer... usually the BIG issue is to let these two find each other. I think there will still be a need for _an_ intermediary. ONE. The big question is whether it will retail (good at customer relationships, pricing and marketing, probably bad at handling very large numbers of individual author-suppliers, no experience with editing and proofs or gatekeeping) or Publishing experienced at dealing with author suppliers, experienced with editing and gatekeeping, probably very bad at the nuts-and-bolts of competitive retailing. Or, heaven help us, distributors...

All the survivors will need writers and customers. All of them will do their level best to make as much money at the expense of both. It is is important to realise that none of these people are our friends. It can be good business for them to be supportive and friendly. But hopefully a lot of 'cronyism' will vanish with the flush out of a new order.

I think Stephen Simmons comments on Sarah's post were particularly brilliant - " In the evolution of a practical method of connecting the demand with the supply."

get that... and we're home and dry.

Amanda Green said...

What concerns me with the ever expanding tech is what one of the publishers is proposing for college texts. (Sorry, but I don't remember the publisher right now. I'll try to find the site later.) Basically, you'd have a science text or math text, etc., put together by the authors and publisher. BUT, and this is the big but, when the colleges buy the license for these e-text books, they also buy the license for their professors to cut, add, and edit the text to fit their curriculum.

Do you see my problem here? As an author -- and knowing how for into outer space some of my professors were -- it scares me to think how some of them might "improve" the text. But there is another part to my concerns as well. If we allow this for science, math and engineering texts, will it stop there? (And don't get me wrong. I know there are changes and new discoveries that occur between the time a textbook is written, published and distributed.)

That said, a number of colleges already offer the option of either going electronic or buying the hard copy of text books and lab notes. Some engineering and math texts are only offered electronically where my son attends university. It's an economic decision on the university's part because those texts are prohibitively expensive in hard copy.

This is an exciting time, in my opinion. My son, at 20, is a child of the computer age. When he has kids -- very far in the future please! -- they will be children of the electronic age. E-books, smart-whatevers, etc., will be parts of their daily lives. If we, if publishers, if retailers don't adjust and embrace, we'll be left behind.

Kate said...

Chris,

For a software geek, I'm rather a Luddite myself. Of course, that kind of falls into the quality assurance side of things - if it ain't broke don't fix it.

You could ask your own kids what they think is normal - or just watch them roll their eyes when you talk about how things were when you were their age :)

Kate said...

Stephen,

So long as the updateable aspect is handled right (I do not want to see Christian Literalists updating anyone's science texts, thank you - any more than I'd want Stephen Hawking updating religious studies texts), that would be an excellent use of ebook technology.

Schools are broken. They were never that great a system to begin with, but they'd lost any relevance they had at least 20 years ago. Rust belt relics, at best. (Yes, the school system is designed as an industrial system to produce factory workers. It wasn't that good at it even at its best, and now it's hopelessly mismatched with what kids need to learn. But that's a rant all by itself)

Actually, the most enthusiastic adopters of ebooks have been romance publishers and readers. Possibly because the readers no longer have to worry about embarrassing covers :) I mean, just imagine a really good "Romantica" (aka erotica lite) cover on the train. Much more innocuous reading it on a kindle.

Kate said...

Dave,

Savs are made with the parts of the pig the pig doesn't want to know about - those who like them try not to think about what's actually in them. That's when they actually have a passing acquaintance with the pig in the first place.

Dysintermeditation is something that happens rather frequently in Casa Paulk, what with the less than ideally calibrated digestive systems - but it's not something that needs to be aired in public, so to speak. And disinterring stuff that ought to be long gone, well... I thought that was what I was supposed to do? I mean, if it's not properly dead you've got to dig it out to kill it right, and...

Oh never mind.

You and Stephen between you have nailed it. Readers don't want to go outhouse diving for the occasional gem, and writers are usually very bad at selling their stuff - and the best writers are often the worst self-promoters.

The two groups would do the Cathy/Heathcliffe thing, miss by half a mile, and plunge off alternating cliffs - unless something got into that gap to connect them.

We can only hope that whatever emerges is competent and not excessively greedy unless we're trying to create it ourselves. In this kind of situation, being the first with a viable answer is likely to "win", barring breathtaking stupidity.

Kate said...

Amanda,

Unless that kind of license is carefully managed, there's a risk that the texts will be mangled. I don't see a problem with a professor adding appendices with readings that are specific to the course, or even offering a cheaper version that doesn't contain chapters not relevant to the course in question.

If the text itself is going to be edited, there needs to be a clear edit trail and something like the wiki history pages to ensure that someone's pet theory doesn't end up being taught as accepted knowledge (don't laugh. One of my geology professors was an expanding earth proponent. Excellent in his field, but... Not someone you'd want editing a plate tectonics text.)

And yes, your grandkids are going to think computers that sit at a desk are positively quaint :)

Synova said...

Allowing the text to be changed would seem to violate some part of copyright or other.

The ability to add side notes or parallel text that is annotated as such might be useful.

I can't see electronic text books saving any money, though. Not a bit. I don't know where the money for text books go but it doesn't cost anything like $60 for a trade paperback to be printed up. There is nothing to save, no money to save on paper and ink or even warehouse space, in an electronic version of the same text.

If the e-texts can be sold as used maybe instructors would be less likely to decide everyone needed the new version (hey, no one is paying for books with their own money anyhow) every other semester if they could make updates and notes in the old ones.

(Yes, my kids are just getting to college age. How did you guess?)

Synova said...

Kate, I've actually bought category romance specifically for the embarrassing cover... sort of on a self dare to take it through the grocery store check out.

Brendan said...

What I would like to see is with your school electronic texts for school(or any tech manual) is an "upgrade" option. If you are buying the text for a uni course you get a three year licence for free but could perhaps buy an additional 3 for $20. Once your upgrade licence runs out you can still open the text and ask to check for changes or perhaps ask to be notified on any changes that have occurred in certain sections of the book - and considering how people narrow their specialisations these days it would be a waste to pay for updates that you aren't going to be utilising.

You would be able to keep track of the changes by selecting flicking through the 'editions' index and also use it to go back and look at what you were taught as opposed to the latest edition changes.

And this would not be limited to text books. How would you like to buy the 'upgrade' to Ray Feist's Magician without having to go out and buy two new books or have the choice to watch any and all the different cuts of Star Wars or even mix and match scenes from different editions(Han shot first!)?

EvMick said...

I just got slapped in the face with that today. Call it TechNo Lag? My wife is considering changing the datapipe incoming to the hacienda. We now have Time Warner Cable. They've been unsatisfactory. She's considering AT&T.

Different Techs. Time Warner Cable is......cable. AT&T is fiber optic.

I was told that it would be YEARS before fiber came direct to the house. Guess those years have passed.

Brendan: I really like that UPGRADE idea. I can see it's use in several different applications.