Roving thoughts and provocations

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Reading in the Cloud

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Ap Photo
Steve Jobs talking about the iCloud at the Worldwide Developers Conference, San Francisco, Monday, June 6, 2011.

Last week, when Apple’s Steve Jobs took to the stage during the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference and grandly announced its new iCloud service, he was putting the Apple logo on something most internet users have relied on eclectically for years. Gmail, Dropbox, Netflix, Hotmail, Flickr, Box.net, and Spotify, to name a few popular services, all rely on cloud computing, where data—documents, music, photos, and movies—are stored on shared servers in large data centers, rather than on your puny, personal hard drive. The benefits of cloud computing are obvious: one is not limited by the size of that drive, nor restricted to viewing that material on a single device. Once it is in “the cloud,” the only thing standing between you and your stuff is a (fast) internet connection.

In a crucial way, Apple’s ascension to the cloud is a step backward, since material stored on iCloud will only be accessible with an Apple-branded device (or a Windows computer, since a lot of Windows users own iPods). If you want to look at photos on your iPad and Macbook, no problem. If you want to see them on your Android phone, though, tough luck. Jobs exclaimed that iCloud will “demote” the PC (where this material typically has been housed) “to be just a device.” But he also seemed to be betting that users will find iCloud so convenient that they will stay within the Apple family of machines. Why buy a Blackberry phone if you can’t use it to listen to your music, check your calendar, or read your books if they already “live” in Apple’s cloud? The demotion of one device is, potentially, the promotion of a bunch of others.

If the primary benefit of using the cloud—whether through Apple’s proprietary service or a la carte with Dropbox , Google, Rdio and others—is convenience, it should be understood that convenience comes at a cost. For one thing, there’s the matter of that internet connection—typically, your stuff is not accessible without it. (And good luck when the power goes out.) For another, there are privacy and security concerns, the extent of which are not yet clear, and are constantly evolving. It’s not just that storing our digital lives somewhere other than our personal computer makes us vulnerable to hacking—did anyone doubt that Anthony Weiner’s Twitter account could have been hacked? More insidious, possibly, is that so much personal data out there—typically either from public records, or that we’ve given up willingly— is being mined legitimately by all sorts of companies, for all sorts of purposes. Marketers, obviously, but employers, schools, law enforcement, and insurance companies, to name a few.

As I noted in my recent NYR piece, “Mind Control and The Internet,” Amazon’s handy Whispersync feature, which lets a reader move from computer to tablet to phone to tablet without missing a page and is a precursor to Apple’s iCloud, sends data back to Amazon about your reading habits. That information is then shared with publishers. Publishers have long aggregated sales figures and used them in a preemptory way to tell a writer, for example, that “books on women chemists don’t sell,” but they’ve never had more information at their disposal than they do now—and soon they will have more. To what end is not yet clear, but as Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media told NPR last year “If people are buying books but not reading them, or they’re quitting after a relatively short period of time reading the book, that ultimately tells you that the customer in this case is dissatisfied. Better understanding when people stop reading or stop engaging with your content would help you create better products.”

For a writer, and I suspect for anyone who loves books, thinking of them as “products” is disheartening. Even if the crowd is wise in some regards, do we, as writers and readers, want it more involved in the creative process than it is already? I vote no. Markets may be able to tell us who will buy a book, but they tell us little about its quality or originality or importance.

On June 30, a group of four IT guys from Spain who are also passionate readers are launching a cloud-based reading service exclusively for books. Called 24Symbols, in honor of the original Greek alphabet, it will let readers stream books, much the way Netflix enables users to stream movies. Unlike Apple’s iCloud for iBooks, which requires readers to buy the books they want to read, 24Symbols’ users will not own the books they read. Rather, they will subscribe to the service for about ten euros a month or 59 euros per year, and once they do, they will have access to all the books in the 24Symbols catalog. (It is thin right now, filled primarily with public domain books, but the group expects to have a some major American publishers signed on by launch time. Because the group wants their catalog to be “curated,” they are not accepting self-published books but, rather, are working with traditional publishers and agents.) Subscribers who do not want to pay a fee can join for free; the books they read will come with small ads. Publishers will be paid a percentage of the ad revenue and a percentage of the subscription fee based on the total number of pages of their books that are read in a month. Books whose readers lose interest part way through generate proportionately less money than those that are read to the end.

In their model, Justo Hildago, one of the four principals of 24Symbols told me, “books are not a product, they are a service.” The flip side of this service is that publishers will be able to get real time information on what is happening with each book: how many subscribers are reading it, how many pages are being read, how much money each book is generating. It’s not unlike Amazon’s Whispersync, but it’s even more extensive.

I want to believe that Hildago and his three partners really are “book addicts.” I want to believe that paying a small fee to be able to read any number of books will not further undermine public libraries and bookstores; I’d like to believe that in places where there are no public libraries, having yet another way to access books will be a good thing. I want to believe that having a free, ad-based reading service will eliminate book piracy while still providing a revenue stream to writers. (I’m eager to see what sorts of “contextual” ads they come up with for, say, Gravity’s Rainbow.) And I want to believe that when my publisher finds out that the only people reading my books come from a notoriously parsimonious demographic, and most of them never get past the first three chapters anyway, I will still have a career.

In the meantime, I will subscribe to 24Symbols (making sure to at least turn every page of every book I select) while continuing to 1) download books and read them on my iPad, 2) buy actual, physical books in actual, physical stores, and 3) go to the library. None of these things are mutually exclusive unless we make them that.

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