by Kaleeg Hainsworth
Principal, Bright Wing Books
Full disclosure first: I am an ebook developer. I run a small company that makes ebooks and book trailers. We also do a lot of consulting for publishers and organizations, helping them build custom digital publishing systems. We are still learning, struggling, and trying to do things right. I love what we do. I love the people I work with and the clients we work for. The ebook developer community is full of people who are professionals trying to make the most beautiful and innovative ebooks possible given the restraints, obfuscations, variability, and voodoo-code of the device world we make them for. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an industry display more professionalism than this one. Ebook makers basically rock. However, I am also an author (An Altar in the Wilderness), an Eastern Orthodox priest, and single full-time dad of three kids. Additionally, I am a lecturer on spiritual ecology, the climate and the environment, and a backcountry enthusiast. It's important for me to disclose this outright because I am speaking from all these frames in what follows.
All that said, I have a simple proposition to make.
I think that we must stop making ebooks for devices - now. Not later, and certainly not at some indefinite future point. Instead, I think we should channel all our energy, hard work, and collective intelligence into solving, developing, and standardizing the Portable Web Publishing model. I believe we should do this for the following three reasons, in order of importance. I can think of more, but these three will do for now.
The Planet, and Humanity, Literally Need Us To
This world does not need more devices. We need less gadgets, and we need the ones we have to be consolidated. We cannot keep pretending that we can source and manufacture millions of e-readers, along with smart phones, computers, and tablets (oh, and TVs), every year. Year after year. Why? The short answer is because it is 2016 and climate change is a real thing. A new study released by Oil Change International on September 22, 2016, in partnership with 14 organizations from around the world, scientifically grounds the growing global movement to "keep it in the ground" by revealing the need to halt all new fossil fuel infrastructure and industry expansion.
You might have heard that every country on earth (except a few stragglers) signed the Paris Agreement in December 2015, and that the UN, the US Pentagon, and the EU all consider climate change and the need to stop carbon burning one of the most important issues humanity faces. Well, this report focuses on the potential carbon emissions from developed reserves – that is, where the wells are already drilled, the pits dug, and the pipelines, processing facilities, railways, and export terminals constructed. The report reveals that we can only burn 353 more gigatons (Gt) of carbon if we want to have a 50/50 chance at keeping the increase in the earth’s temperature below 1.5 degrees, or, more likely, at 2 degrees - the levels at which scientists say irreversible tipping points will occur. However, there are 932 Gt of carbon already on reserve in the world’s current infrastructure. If we burned it all, we would quite literally burn ourselves along with most of the species on earth. Renowned environmentalist and journalist, Bill McKibben, puts it bluntly:
"Those numbers spell out, in simple arithmetic, how much of the fossil fuel in the world’s existing coal mines and oil wells we can burn if we want to prevent global warming from cooking the planet. In other words, if our goal is to keep the Earth’s temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius — the upper limit identified by the nations of the world — how much more new digging and drilling can we do? ... Here’s the answer: zero.”
All of this means that more devices are a really, really irresponsible way forward. They take oil to make, oil to get their component materials out of the ground, oil to ship, oil to operate, and oil to recycle - or they end up as e-waste. Frankly, this is THE moment in history when we make decisions that will determine our future, a future my kids will have to reckon with. I am therefore asking the ebook development community, of which I am a proud member, to lead the way in the digital publishing world towards a more sustainable solution. The fact is, whether we do so or no, the world is going that way anyway. We don’t have a choice, and we don’t have a vote either. Climate change can’t be solved by voting Democrat or Republican (or neither - I’m Canadian). Climate change is not democratic. But it is math, and the facts of it suggest a distinctly anti-device agenda. I know there is a line of thinking that technology will solve this problem, or a free-market economy, or 'magical carbon-sucking unicorns’ (to borrow a phrase from the chief scientist of the report, Stephen Kretzmann), but regardless of what exactly happens, we can all be pretty sure that our nifty e-reader devices (with their circa Windows 95 code-base) won’t be sticking around as an essential - or an anything, really. Sooner or later the climate demands our transition to a renewable economy, and our digital habits will require a consolidation of material into fewer kinds of devices - I think likely eventually into just one.
As it turns out, it is not only the planet’s climate asking us to stop making what is ultimately junk. Animals and people we never see are also asking. Have you ever wondered what, exactly, the devices we make ebooks for are made of? And where this stuff comes from? And how? I did (reluctantly), and I discovered that they are made of some pretty dodgy stuff. Like coltan, a mineral dug in the Democratic Republic of Congo by slave labour for pennies a day. It is back-breaking and life-threatening work, and because the workers don’t make enough to buy food they turn to gorillas and other wild animals for bush meat. This has led to the eastern mountain gorillas, in ten short years, nearing extinction. There are plenty of other materials like coltan, and where they aren’t dug up by human hands, they are stripped out of the earth in quantities which defy the imagination, creating micro-apocalyptic scenes. The more I read - Apple memos, local stories, research, engineering surveys, aerial photography collections, supply chain requisitions, incident reports, chemistry profiles, materials list, and manufacturing chains - the more I realize that the device industry is ignorant of such things, or amoral, or both. And I realized that it’s time to call for a ‘managed decline’ of ebook development for devices starting immediately, along with a general reining in of material consumption overall.
We are essentially digital content producers, and the companies that make devices are digital content distributors. So I’m saying, simply, that if we produce the digital content then we can choose the medium we produce it for. The dog wags the tail - so let’s take a stand for what is right and the distributors will follow. Besides, we don’t have much of a choice at this point. And, if we are really upfront about things, when has the device industry ever *really* cared about our opinions anyway? So long as ‘more devices’ is the distributor’s response tp digital publishing, I think that a climate-wise, and future-proof, ebook developer community can ethically and straightforwardly move on.
Portability is the Future
There are plenty of reports about the decline of ebooks. My community reads them all the time, along with all their dire financial reports. It is pretty depressing stuff, and makes for a pretty demoralizing backdrop to keep working against. I think there is also a significant bias here and there in the publishing community at large over the actual value of ebooks. ‘A real book is a better book.’ And I agree. There is nothing as authentic and natural to me, a Gen X-er, than sitting down with a physical book. There is a very familiar semiotics conveyed in the physical experience of holding an object - feeling its weight (and knowing that it is coterminous with the content), turning its pages, smelling the paper, feeling the ink. I think it is a primally human experience. But that’s a book. We don’t need to replicate that experience.
Ebooks are something else altogether, or they should be. We’ve been making ebooks as though they are facsimiles of the ‘real’ thing. Really, though, a book and an ebook are as different from one another as a tree is to the wind. The ebook conveys an entirely different semiotics; it is colder, but it is more immediate, and it creates a dynamic visual experience. Digital content entices interaction as well. There is no need to privilege one medium over another. Let’s just decide to let the tree grow and the wind blow. Let’s agree that only making ebooks for devices kind of also blows, but in an entirely different way. Let’s take a leap of faith together and leverage the cloud, harness web technologies, and design beautiful, portable, and flexible ebooks - to quote the poet Dylan Thomas, this is our ‘our craft and sullen art’ after all.
However, I think that it is not the ebook itself which is in decline; it is the devices we make them for.
Where I live, and no doubt where you do too, every single person walks around with a smartphone. These gadgets have become indispensable to modern life in just a few short years. The pace of their adoption into the fabric of our personal and public life has been simply incredible. Ray Kurtzweil, someone who has earned some street cred in the technology arena, calls our phones ‘brain extenders’. I think he is right. We have become accustomed now to having our phone attached to us like another bodily appendage. Our entire life and everyone and everything in the human world is accessible and digestible through it. One thing is for sure, we really don’t want or need yet another device to read our books with. If we are accustomed to instant, universal access to information and communication through our smart phones, then it is no wonder people are starting to ask why they would need yet another gadget to read books with. Oh, I know e-ink is cool, and good for the eyes, and mimics a book, etc. But we have actual books for that. Besides, we have retina screens and blue-light settings now. It was a cute idea to make devices more like books - the look and feel, ooh, aah! - but we have moved on now and I think people are quite happy to have books be books and digital content be something different.
What I am saying here, essentially, is that a separate device for reading ebooks is so five years ago. Most people just want to read their ebook or magazine or whatever on the same device they carry around everywhere and use for everything anyway. The device makers and ebook distributors have produced apps, of course, for our smart phones. No offence meant here, but they suck. From the ebook developer point of view, the code base these apps use is buggy and ineffective. What is more, they do not, generally, seem to be produced for how people actually read digital content. I think these apps were (and still are) an afterthought. They clutter our home screens and take up memory. Very few people we work with ever use them anyway. But they still require us to test our books for them and they still demand our hacks and fretting. Enough already.
Portability of digital content is the way of the future, even if that future did not include a changing climate and new demands from manufacturers. What that means is that we, the ebook developer community, need to solve the portability conundrum once and for all in exactly this way: let’s make ebooks, and digital content systems, which can be accessed directly in the browser of the devices people already have. This allows us to:
- leverage the HTML 5/CSS 3 code base available to everyone else on the web;
- make this content available to anyone with a browser;
- do extraordinary things with the ebooks we produce, instead of being hamstrung by the device manufacturing community;
- open the market up for ebooks and e-zines to a much broader audience, which already consumes an enormous amount of digital content through browsers anyway;
- apply all the xml structure our hearts desire for future content consumption (allowing us to design content presentation privileged for different mediums); and
- maximize the multi-media potential of the larger web without worrying about exceeding the media limits of the device gatekeepers, or in fact about those gatekeepers at all.
Furthermore, we can empower authors and publishers in ways we have all dreamed of, and in ways we haven’t dared to hope for yet. There are significant challenges in the PWP direction, but as a community of ebook developers, we are accustomed to overcoming challenges. This time, however, I am suggesting we stop trying to overcome the challenges of an increasingly defunct digital publishing model and start taking the reins ourselves to craft our own future. We all care deeply about the ebooks we produce, and we want them to succeed. I think every honest book is an act of courage, and ebook makers understand and appreciate that. If we channel our energy and genius into developing a viable, stable, and future-thinking PWP protocol, then I think we will not only have done our authors, publishers, and clients a great service, but we will also be taking control of our own destiny.
As you might have guessed from what I have written thus far, I don’t have a lot of love for the distribution and device models we have all gotten used to for the last ten years or so. The devices were a good solution before we had smartphones. But I am now advocating for what I call a democratic model for the publishing world. Why, in an age of universal digital access, do we still think that third-party, device-dependent, app-specific, royalty-siphoning distributors are the only solution? Why should we give them that power over our ebooks? I know they have benefits. But they also have control. They set the prices. They apply their own algorithms. They take the money. They want to sell devices, where authors want to sell books. They determine the code base we get to figure out how to use. While they do have a place in the digital publishing world, it must not be the only place. Not anymore.
What if we had an established PWP model, one where an author or publisher could self-host a book on their own website? Where this book could be purchased and read by anyone with a browser? Where all the royalties go to the people responsible for the content? Where a book can be a vivid, dynamic, engaging and exciting online document in its own right? Where the full power of meta data can be leveraged for web discoverability? Where we can apply all the media queries, xml structures, and other cool things we dream about so that these books can be read on any screen size, with information optimized for the environment it is accessed through? What if we could design and develop ebooks in ways that privilege the reader’s experience, honours the author’s intentions, and puts the power back into the hands of the content creators? This is all possible, but we have to work together, and we can’t expect any help from the device and distribution people. It’s our work to do, and it is a work which has a dignity of purpose. As a dear mentor of mine used to say, "If it is worth doing, then it is worth doing poorly."
A recent podcast by Malcom Gladwell tells the story of Wilt Chamberlain, the great basketball player of the 1960s. Gladwell describes a basketball game in which Chamberlain sank a record number of free throws by using an underhanded shooting style - the so-called granny shot. Asked why he did not change his whole game to that method, and thus lead his team to many seasonal records, Chamberlain said that it was not manly enough and that no one else was doing it. Gladwell posits a theory in which everyone has a threshold for trying new things. Some people have a very low threshold: they have no problem adopting new techniques and new modalities, independent of how many other people might be doing the same. Others have higher thresholds; they need lots of others to do it first. I am aware that a democratic publishing model, which adopts and develops portable web publishing and a flexible xml structure, initially requires effort by people who have a low threshhold. Others will wait and see. That’s fine. When I was serving as a mission priest, I would have some people come to my little church, and join soon after. Others would come, check out how many people were there, and then leave and not return for years to come. When they came back, if enough other people had joined the church, they would join too. Everyone was welcome when they felt ready. That same principle applies here, I think. Join when you can.
I happen to have a low threshold, and thus I am jumping in, with both feet now. I am not a Java ninja. I don’t have millions in venture capital. I don’t have a large multi-national company. But I do recognize that the days of ever more devices (and those of the ‘infinite growth on a finite planet’ mindset) are numbered. I care about the earth, its future and my kids' future, just as I care about the authors and publishers we have been privileged to work with. I also care about those third-party, device-dependent, app-specific, royalty-siphoning distributors too, but I think they can take care of themselves. I am calling out to my community to consider now, rather than adapt later, to the future of digital publishing and, in a way, to both accept and shape our destiny.
The way I have undertaken this is simply to start making what I call ‘booksites’. A booksite is an online book which is accessed by anyone with a browser, just as I described above - it is a primitive raid on the PWP model.
It is, as I say, primitive. I am not saying it is the only way forward; it is just an attempt. And I think it works pretty well. I’m darn proud of what we have done, in fact. We still have so many questions to answer and obstacles to face, and I often think of the lines from Dryden’s poem, ‘hills peep o’er hills, and alps on alps arise.’ I also know that Readium exists, which is great - awesome, in fact. They are way ahead in some ways. We spent quite a bit of time exploring Readium’s Github libraries and trying to work with them. However, quite honestly, I wanted to customize each booksite for each book, and Readium doesn’t play well that way, and in a few others that matter to me and our purposes. Instead, we adopted the nascent Epub.js libraries and completely changed them to our liking. While you may disagree with our decisions and approaches, I hope you understand that, unless you have constructive and kind feedback to offer, that is not our concern. We do care that you get on with finding your own solutions, and hopefully sharing them with the rest of the ebook community. Maybe we can even work together. My fondest hope is that people like Ivan Herman, and others already thinking about these things, will soon have inboxes full with offers to get going. Get in touch with me too, if you want.
Finally, what we really care about is that our ebook developer community (‘we few, we happy few’), with our collective awesomeness, will answer the call and step up to find a way forward that works for everyone. Because the everyone here includes the planet itself, not just the authors and the people who just want to read and explore the world of ideas. This is our moment to shine. This is our part in history. This is our journey to make.
image by sam_churchill