Friday, May 01, 2009

There Are Big Gaps on The Digital Shelf

As more books are available as both ebooks and physical ones we find some surprising gaps on the digital shelf. These gaps may be down to rights contracts, royalty payment disagreements, reluctance of authors or their estates to go digital or the pace of digital investment by some publishers.

It has taken six years get J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy released in eBook format; some may note that this is more than half as long as Tolkien himself took to write all three books. Some literary classics still missing include; Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, A Streetcar Named Desire, Lolita, To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451and of course Harry Potter. Some authors are missing or only partially represented on the digital shelf; Thomas Pynchon, Guenter Grass, and Cynthia Ozick, Studs Terkel, Roberto Bolano, Saul Bellow, Paul Bowles, Hunter S. Thompson, and James Baldwin. Some estates such as Tennessee Williams and the author JK Rowling remain opposed to digital renditions.

Some who have previously been unavailable such as Tom Clancy, John Grisham and Danielle Steel have now apparently allowed their books to be digitized and are being joined by many older works and writers.

Some books such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth are incompatible with the ebook format today, although they are fully compatible with an online reader. This raises the question of whether ebooks are mere textural renditions of physical books and have still to break out of the straight jacket and explode the spine.

In some cases the authors and agents want a greater slice of royalty for what they see as a non inventory, non shipping and low production cost rendition. Some believe the publisher should give the author a greater share of what is perceived to be the higher available margin.

Some remain sceptical on the sales and are put off by the cost of digitisation. The problem here is you can’t sell empty space and create a market without content. Some publishers still do not produce a digital edition for all new titles, which unless there is a clear resistance by the author could signal a lack of conviction by the publisher.

In lifting of the orphan stone, the proposed Google Book Settlement has raised the issue of out of print but in copyright works. Publishers can’t assume e-rights they have to ensure the rights were acquired or reference permits a digital rendition and that rights have not reverted. This involves going into those spider filled , musty and long forgotten vaults and as many claiming orphans under the settlement will understand, this is not an easy task.

The classic retail challenge is to get the right product in front of the right people at the right price. It appears the digital shelves have visible gaps and if you are studying English literature or looking for modern classics there are clearly some big gaps today.

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