Posted on by & filed under ebooks, publishing, talks.

[Ed. Thank you Richard Nash for attending the event and writing this guest post for us.]

As much of what is to be found here on Safari began its life as a book, it behooves us to attend conferences about what the book is, now and into the future. So last week I attended the FutureBook conference in overcast, drizzly London.

Now, many conferences that use the word “Book” in the title are in fact less about books than they are about the publishing industry. The conflating of “book” with “publishing industry,” while historically reasonable, is proving to be increasingly awkward. Unlike “Books in Browsers” from which Peter & Keith offered their talk at the beginning of the month, this conference largely ignores the question of the book as a thing, as a file, as a means of transmission, instead focusing on how legacy publishers can best adapt to a world of abundant digital content.

The most compelling presentation of the day, though, had on the face of it nothing to do with the business of publishing as such. It was a talk the superficial purpose of which was to address a recent scandal around erotica for sale on mainstream e-commerce sites. Individual authors, as well as publishers using tools designed for individual, self-publishing authors, have been for years publishing erotica for sale on the web in general but also, because of the nature of the e-reading hardware ecosystems, on the Amazon, B&N, and Kobo online bookstores. And for the more hard-core stuff, to avoid breaching terms of service, these people were giving fake titles, fake metadata, so that their books wouldn’t be rejected with the systems.

This had been going on for years, in fact, but in October a British tech site, mimicking the histrionics of popular British tabloid media, wrote an expose of this phenomenon: “An Epidemic of Filth: How Amazon, Barnes & Noble, WHSmith, Waterstones and Foyles profit from breathtakingly obscene amateur paperbacks, e-books and audiobooks about rape, incest, bestiality and child abuse.”

Now, while it is not in fact the case that the retailers are making much, if any money from the sales of this stuff, what was particularly unfortunate is that the uploaders would fake the metadata such that some of these books were ending up listed in the children’s categories. So the story spread across the U.K. media, onto the covers of tabloid newspapers and so on. While most retailers ignored the drama (since it was in fact nothing new and there was no evidence children had ever seen any of these titles), the British chain W.H. Smith decided to mount a show and pulled down all the ebooks. All of them. The vendor who supplied them with ebooks is the Rakuten-owned, Toronto-based Kobo.

So Kobo had a dilemma, as their Chief Content Officer Michael Tamblyn described in his talk at Futurebook.

  1. You have several million titles.
  2. An unknown number of them contain sexual content, suggestive words or adult themes.
  3. Of those, a much much smaller number have sexual content that is against your Terms of Use.
  4. For both 2 and 3, some are well-labeled and categorized. Some are not.

What were they to do?

In practice, over the course of the course of a week, Kobo used a mixture of keyword search, semantic analysis, and manual inspection, to remove some titles from the store, and W.H. Smith turned the ebook store back on.

In the limited sense, that is the end of the story. My discussion here Tamblyn’s talk began as just one of the several aspects of this conference I had intended to discuss in this post. But as I delved deeper into it, I realized that the entire conference could be summed up, like the world in a grain of sand, in Kobo’s dilemma. This wasn’t just Sturm und Drang in a teacup, for what we are living through is a moment in which the technology used to create and transmit culture is changing and way more than just devices, way more than just businesses have to evolve to figure out the new accommodations. There are gaps, lags, asymmetries. Current technology makes it easy to sell any digital file, but it’s not so easy to know what’s in it. Not so easy for a retailer to know if it is OK to be selling, for a customer to know whether is it worth buying.

For as Tamblyn noted in his talk, in the age of scarcity, it as understood that everything was a choice: publishers chose what to publish, bookstores chose what to stock. But this current age has a different bargain:

But self-publishing is different. The natural promise of self-publishing is “yes, everything”. Whatever you can imagine. Whatever your story is. Whatever you think could be shared. However good or bad or tin-foil-hat-crazy or non-traditional or deviant or artistically groundbreaking. That’s part of the dream. And every book removed feels like a small step away from that, even if for the best of reasons. Even to the title that makes you lose your faith in humanity or throw up in your mouth.

In a sense, it is the same promise as the promise representative liberal democracy offers the world. “Yes, everything, so long as you do others no harm. And, yes, everyone can participate.” Technology makes publishing as easy as voting. When your vote gets taken away, you’re angry. Tamblyn continued:

Most authors were understanding. Some were angry. Some were loud. And they should be. In the physical world, to make a book go away is a big deal — you have to burn it or seize it at the border or confiscate if from a shop in a public, visual, galvanizing spectacle. But to de-list, to deactivate, to change a one to a zero, is silent and banal. We should be loud and we should ask why. Authors should give us and every other ebook retailer a hard time when it happens. Because it is so so so much easier now to make something disappear.

There are metaphors we’ve been able to safely lean on for centuries now. A library is, almost by definition, an archive. A book, almost by definition, is something that took a great deal of effort, intelligence, and purposefulness. We can no longer lean on these as truths though. Accuracy, reliability, permanence, are qualities we humans rely on. Words like book and library once vouchsafed them but they do no longer. The reasons they no longer serve than function are, by and large, for the better—we now have more knowledge, more access, more opportunity to fruitfully participate in knowledge-making. But we cannot be blithe about it. In a sense, the old power was the power of selecting amongst thousands of manuscripts to decide which was the one that should be given the status of book. The new power is the power of unselecting. So the power is still there, democratized as our culture now is, and it was oh so good for Tamblyn to alert us all to that.

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