eBooks in Meatspace

I want to preface this by if you have the time to dedicate to the sheer volume of information Warren Ellis shares, I highly recommend tracking him down via his website or other social media page and follow him (I follow him on Goodreads).  At least I recommend this if you don't mind creative and liberal use of profanity (after all, he did write Transmetropolitan).  I find him creative, highly intelligent, and he finds the most unusual... snippets of cultural phenomenon (I really am not sure how to put it).  I have seen the speculative events and technology in his comics become eerily close to truth years after his publication, and I have seen the more bizarre snapshots of modern day life woven into his fiction such as in Crooked Little Vein).

So, Ellis came across "Download Wristbands" - which is a neat physical vector to distribute digital media.  The first time I encountered an artist exploring this vector was about two years ago at a Steampunk convention, Eli August had these little stoppered glass bottles for sale, each one containing a code good for the download of a song.  Not quite as streamlined as a wristband, but something that isn't going to be forgotten about quite as easily as a business card.

Ellis took it to the next step, what if we applied this to ebooks?  Everytime I go to a convention, trade show, expo, whatever, I end up with so many business cards and other sundry that I've collected that I don't know what to do with half of it.  In case you were worried, I do know what to do with the several shelf-feet worth of ARCs I brought home from last year's Book Expo America.  Regardless of my preference for physical copies of books, I am very opportunistic when it comes to books.  If someone hands me a free book that looks interesting I will read it.

I do not think I have claimed a single one of the digital copies offered through a business card or other similar medium.  They get misplaced, forgotten, or otherwise lost in the shuffle.  I don't have this problem with the bound books I collect, the worst that happens there is they get shuffled along my "to-read" list.  They're sitting their staring at me from their bookshelf, its sort of hard to forget they are there.  In terms of the pure volume of books available at shows like BEA, individual wristbands would become quickly overwhelming, and I'm not really sure what the best next step would be.  Maybe a large scale option could be something like a single wristband giving access to a library for the event, or a charm bracelet to collect vendor tokens.

So that's large scale, a conference hall filled with vendors, in the situation that every publisher and author has ebooks as give-aways (either solely ebooks or ebooks as an alternative to their bound copies).  I'm going to flat out state that at this time QR codes are not sufficient for on-the-spot sharing of books.  They work find on business cards, fliers, bookmarks, books, if we remember to look for it later, but not right there at the vendor table.  Convention centers do not always offer free wireless, and don't always have the best cell phone reception.  No internet connectivity gets in the way of instant offers.

Exclusively digital imprints exist, and self-publishing is thriving in the digital book market.  How do you then promote a purely digital item in the physical meatspace of a convention?

Smaller, more specific events is where I think something like download wristbands for books could really thrive.  Author signings, guest lectures, themed events.  Something where you still don't want a scrap of paper to be forgotten in a pocket.  Ellis mentions they could be used as a way of promoting work at a party.  It occurs to me that download wristbands could be a way that people like me could still collect author signatures for books without a physical edition (not really the same, but I take what I can get).

In the larger picture, the issue goes beyond whether or not there is internet connectivity for attendees, or even if all the attendees have devices that are capable of reading QR codes.  The bigger hiccup to me is the lack of a device agnostic platform for distributing files.  The nice thing about being handed a book is that it does not matter if you read on a nook or Kindle, on your phone, if you have a PC or a Mac.  I am generally unhappy with the landscape of the ebook 'ecosystem', which is full of walled gardens and various hindrances in access and sharing of books.

I am not trying to propose a model to fix the ebook market, but I can't deny that some of my thoughts on the subject of a distribution model for promotional ebooks come from interactions with the ebook market.  In all honesty, ebooks make for great promotional copies.  The savings in shipping costs alone pay tribute to that.  Additionally ARCs are not for sale, they're really meant as one shot books.  We're still in the midst of litigation about whether it is legal to re-sell songs purchased through iTunes (Capitol Records vs ReDigi), and a win for ReDigi does not automatically open the doors to ebook resales.  I get a number of ebook ARC's through NetGalley in exchange for writing reviews, the system works reasonably well.

For the foreseeable near future, format is going to remain an issue.  PDFs can be read on e-readers, but do not handle resizing/flowable text all that well.  Additionally if there is any sort of DRM on the PDF it may or may not work with your designated device without various hoops.  In all likely hood there would have to be both an .epub and Kindle file available (because Amazon is quite happy using a different file format than everyone else).   

Ideally, I'd love to see something like this where you can go, claim your book with a code, and not need to create a bloody account.  Sometimes, I just want a one-time transaction without having to put in a username and password for an account I may not come back to for a year if ever.  Maybe they system would let you download right after entering the code, maybe it would send you an email with the file.  An account really would not be necessary, especially if we are talking about trade shows where most of the titles would be ARCs, and a free promotional copy does not necessarily need to be indefinitely redownloadable.  If we're talking about something that you purchase then ability to re-download becomes more important, but I can speak from personal experience and say that not every place to buy ebooks from allows indefinite downloads.  I have encountered vendors that provide a download link sent to your email that is valid for 30 days.

This actually does tie into the need for a theoretical book wristband to be format/platform agnostic.  At this point, while there are handfuls of other music file formats, if you have a device that is capable of playing music files it will play a mp3.  We just are not there with ebooks.  There are ebooks I would like to read but are only available for Kindle, which means there is no way that I am purchasing them.  I don't even like "purchasing" free Kindle books even though I can convert the files.  I have a rather long rant about Amazon and their business ethics, in particular (but not limited to) as related to ebooks, that I'm not going to go into right here.  We need format agnostic options so that a independent author or publisher can offer their titles to someone regardless of what device they use.

DRM would remain an issue.  I doubt that all of the publishers and authors would consent to their books being given out (or sold) DRM-free.  Some do, and some authors even actively fight with their publishers for their ebooks to be available DRM free or with a Creative Commons license (Corey Doctorow is known for this, and Charles Stross has made a number of his ebooks available for free as well).  In the case where DRM is the sticking point something like the DRM for the Harry Potter ebooks available through Pottermore could be an answer.  Digital watermarking provides some amount of tracing if the file ends up on a torrent site.  On the other hand, for years Baen Publishing provided the Baen Free Library, which anyone could download free copies of DRM-free a huge selection of titles, and saw their sales rise.  Sadly the Baen Free Library is not what it used to be, after they signed a distribution agreement with Amazon (Baen titles are available through other ebook retailers as well as still through their own site).

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