Ahh, Ebook Hubris

Somebody sent this link to a tweet by Hadrien, founder of Feedbooks.

We’ve had more downloads than Project Gutenberg for the last 6 months. Can we claim the title of “most popular website for public domain” ?

The short answer to this question is no, no you can’t.  The longer answer, speaking as someone who’s averaged more than a million ebook downloads a month since before 9/11 (even counting summer ’06, when All The Evil happened), and materially upset the downloading-hierarchy just this April–after I was finally confident enough to flip the switch on the new mobile interface and quickly went well above 2 million ebook downloads a month (without the database crash I suffered in Dec.)–is no, no you really can’t.  Gutenberg is a non-profit organization whose volunteers have taken ownership in the cause.  If you’re reformatting PG texts as a major component of your content offerings, the best that can be said is, you own not calling, not a business, but a job, and you, monsieur,  are completely replaceable.

Now, Hadrien has one thing on me.  Owing to past work experience at NPR and elsewhere, somewhere in the free ebooks, I was able to identify revenue streams, however slight*, and eke out a living while giving away tens of millions of free ebooks.  Later, I began linking to the site that makes money (now with a mobile interface). To my knowledge Hadrien has yet to identify a revenue stream.  I know other sites, like Memoware, Bartleby and even ScribD, have had problems in this area. Heck, MobileRead discovered there is in fact negative economic value in providing a library of free titles.  Could’a told you.

However, I did contribute materially to the cause.  For various reasons, my time as a Gutenberg volunteer ended early ’04.  But for the five years prior, with Dagny, Mr. Bickers and the Distributed Proofreaders, not to mention Col Choat down under, I played a part in scanning and proofing hundreds of books.  I was primarily concerned with the issue of a major lack of books for boys–long story, but by the ’90s, given prevailing “thought,” academic curricula were openly misandrist, and it was estimated more than 2/3rds of all public school libraries in America had not a single title in stacks of interest to those who bear the stain of the Y chromosone.  Correlation ain’t causation, but at some point, while averaging a million ebook downloads a month (primarily titles of interest to said Y chromosone), the number of men in this country who’d read a book in the past year went from below 40% of the population in the ’90s to 43-45% (depending on which survey you’d read) in the later ‘Aughts.  Something like 8 million readers.  My good deed.

These days, books for boys is an “issue,” with grant funding and so forth. Hopefully, the new generation of providers will be half as effective as we were.  I’m not optimistic that people get it, but at least they’re trying.  And, for the record, I won’t be sued over boys’ books… again.  Text-to-speech and accessibility, maybe, but not boys’ books.

I don’t blame Hadrien.  He came on the scene in ’07, when, you know, you had “experts” explaining just how open and unnecessarily complicated the ebook world Was Going To Be, while simultaneously endeavoring to enrich themselves via exorbitant conference fees, ludicrous conversion costs several multiples of what it’d take to print the damn things, and Adobe DRM. The contributions of people who’d worked in ebooks for decades and actually knew whereof they spoke was inconvenient and very much overlooked during this period.

That was then.  These days, the action is Apple.  Mr. Jobs is busily recapturing his own iPhone ebook market, just gave small publishers a way around conversion costs, and has laughed off Adobe DRM.  Needless to say, any firm so wise in the ways of electronic books would be smart enough to honor Gutenberg and announce that PG’s content would be in the Ibookstore from the get-go.

Trust me on this one.  Ebook formatting sites come and go.  You may or may not be able to extract value from the process of giving it away.  I did.  Others didn’t.  But based on experience here, if Feedbooks or Munsey’s or any of the others vanished, PG’d be fine and readers would have their needs met.  Gutenberg’s eternal, and only one idiot ever tried to harm them.

Let’s cool the ego.

*Black Mask is too long a story to detail here, but predated DVD-R, and is doing much better since the pulp era ended, though it seems to take a year for a “redone” book to start selling.  Per Munsey’s, I posted about the Dante Kindle success.  Some others in that vein.  This site also has a printed line.  I went 0-for-Leblanc, and my Lovecraft-admired-gothic thing must be considered a bust, though I enjoyed the conventions, particularly the grade D movie actresses in their costumes who’d prance around for four days as I and fellow vendors enjoyed camaraderie.  I’ve located sufficient hits to cover server expenses and, really, my travel for a couple years now.  Many of the print books are low-cost CreateSpace-only, and there’s a new batch identified, coming sometime in July, depending on Goodloe’s schedule.   Still have 100-something free setups left :)

About dmoynihan

Me here.
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  • http://freesf.blogspot.com Blue Tyson

    ‘Eek’-ing out a living means it is scary? :)

  • http://www.munseys.com dmoynihan

    Terrifying…

    ly early. (Fixed. But was stoopid.)