Some thoughts on Google’s eBookstore

Paul Oliver, over at MobyLives, reviews the new Google eBookstore venture, and finds it neat but wanting.  For one thing, his downloaded copy of A Tale of Two Cities came complete with a scan of the contributing library’s aged book pocket, stamped with past borrowers’ dates.  For another, it was volume two…of a two-volume set.

Google’s cataloging, OCR quality, and organization of its digital book files seem to be still stumbling around a little, like a toddler just learning to walk.  In a separate MobyLives post, more than a few sticky cataloging and quality-of-information glitches were exposed.  (Mae West biographies filed under “Religion,” anyone?)  It seems likely that these problems will be cleaned up before too long, but for now at least, caveat searcher.

Other folks have been pointing out that if you use a Kindle, you’re out of luck as far as the eBookstore is concerned.  No .mobi, .prc, or .azw files up there…for obvious reasons.  I’ve seen some folks blaming Google for this, but since those are proprietary Amazon file types, and since you can’t read .epub files on the Kindle, that one seems to sit pretty squarely in Amazon’s lap.

Google is making an effort (at least a marketing effort) to include indie booksellers in its sales strategy, which is not only smart (long tail!) but seems less determinedly hostile to a rich bookselling ecosystem than the “kill them all” Amazon approach.  And Google is (for now) wisely staying out of the business of making a proprietary device or file format, instead making money off doing what it does best; mediating access to information, and skimming a little profit off every exchange.

If I had to lay money on where we’ll be in three years with purchasing e-books, I’d lay it on Google over Amazon.  I have a Kindle 2.  I’ve written here before about my reservations about its physical design and the business model on which it relies.  The way Google’s positioned, it seems to me that it’s not so much Google vs. Amazon, as it is Amazon vs. every other e-reader designer out there that wants to make money off Google’s huge reach.  Amazon’s going to have to do something pretty amazing to stay ahead of that.

Crossing the valley

Kevin Kelly comments on how organizations can weather “suboptimal” periods by sharing knowledge and resources:

A motley caravan of firms can cross a suboptimal stretch with hope. Banding together buys their networks several things. First, it allows knowledge about the terrain to be shared. Some firm riding point might discover a small hill of opportunity. Settling there allows small oases of opportunity to be created. If enough intermediate oases can be found or made, the long journey can become a series of shorter hops along an archipelago of small successes.

Libraries, universities, publishers, governments: take note.

Lightning Talk: Whither the Book?

A couple of months ago I did my first lightning talk at Online Northwest, on the future of publishing and how libraries and indie bookstores might not just survive, but thrive.  A lightning talk, if you’re not familiar with the genre, is a five-minute performance keyed to a set of 20 slides set to automatically advance every 15 seconds.  So, yeah.  Five minutes, 20 slides.  The future of publishing.  Hm.

It was a great experience, and it made me want to do another lightning talk sometime soon.  Thanks to Kate Gronemeyer for wrangling the talks this year–I just joined the Online Northwest conference planning committee, and I hope we’ll keep that torch burning.

Whoops, lull.

Things have been busy, what can I say.  Every academic knows how the middle-to-end of term starts to compress, accordian-like, until by the last week (which happens to be this one) there’s hardly room to breathe, let alone think about the wider world.

Still, I came across this piece via the great ArchNewsNow newsletter (architectural news of note delivered to your inbox daily, for free), and wanted to share it.

New Libraries Revitalize Cities

A mixed-use, multimedia complex that is meant to foster social interaction and creative ferment as much as reading and research, the library of the future is also intended as an engine of city-center rejuvenation.

The article discusses libraries like the Rem Koolhaus-designed Seattle Public Library, which is grandiose and visionary, and which lives in an already-thriving downtown center.  It also looks ahead to how libraries can be designed as additions to failing neighborhoods, not just as book warehouses but as places where you can “use a research database and take a swim, say, or to find a good read and buy a pair of socks.”  Basically, libraries can be meaningfully integrated with other public / commercial centers, from the ground up.

What might that look like?  Here’s an architects’ drawing of a library planned for Aarhus, Denmark:

Architects' rendering of library planned for Aarhus, Denmark

I like the kayak.

This also makes me think of the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch, one of the first places I ever plied my trade, in its mammoth Coliseum-style Moshe Safdie Statement Building, which also included small businesses in the adjoining rental spaces.  If you worked at the library you could go downstairs, through the atrium, and get a slice of pizza or some noodles at the little restaurants there, or buy a magazine at the newsstand.  If you could make your way through the traditional cultural dance performances happening in between.

Vancouver Public Library, Central Branch

Obviously there’s a lot that goes into making a major New Building happen, and still more into making it a truly functional and integrated part of a working or non-working neighborhood.  But I like knowing that architects and planners are thinking about libraries as hubs, not just for borrowing books but for anchoring neighborhoods.  I think that’s pretty cool.