In the latest push by Big Publishing to win back ground lost to digital disruption, Big Six house HarperCollins has announced a competition, BookSmash, for developers “to create excellent, functioning software and proof of concept apps utilizing the HarperCollins OpenBook API.” The competition comes with a first prize of $15,000.
“It is an incredibly exciting time to be a reader, an author, and a publisher,” declares the HarperCollins intro to the competition. “Opportunities to engage audiences are endless—new devices now support numerous ways of reading, publishing, and reaching readers.”
Perhaps HarperCollins has had a hard time capturing a share of that excitement hitherto. Gluejar’s Eric Hellman describes BookSmash as: “a way for HarperCollins to prop up the sad, desolate ghost towns that are the OpenBook API and the OpenBook Content API.”
“Content from over a dozen HC authors—including sci-fi novelist Debra Driza, management guru Peter Drucker and Narnia creator C. S. Lewis—is being made available for participants to use in their entries,” repeats The Bookseller coverage of BookSmash.
Nick Perrett, HarperCollins UK group strategy and digital director, is quoted as saying: “I recently said at the Futurebook Innovation Workshop ‘books are software now’. This challenge directly connects our authors with entrepreneurial software developers to dream up something different.”
Now, Drucker and C. S. Lewis were far more, and greater, things than mere HarperCollins authors—while they were still alive. And notwithstanding HarperCollins’s generous concession, developers have had plenty of great dead authors to work with, and no compelling reason to lock themselves into HarperCollins’s copyright portfolio except the prize money. How exactly does Perrett envisage BookSmash developers directly connecting with Drucker and Lewis. Planchettes, perhaps?
“Developers who wish to innovate around book products often find challenges in gaining access to authors’ content, as well as understanding rights, distribution and legal issues,” adds Chantal Restivo-Alessi, HarperCollins’s chief digital officer and one of the competition judges, in The Bookseller. Actually, I doubt that. I suspect that any developer looking to build a proof-of-concept e-reading app could find all the out-of-copyright material they wanted, including AV if required, to build around. But it obviously is absolutely in HarperCollins’s own interest to make sure that any new apps incorporate rights, distribution and legal issues from the ground up.
Furthermore, Perrett’s remarks and apparent oversights speak to the bias and the priorities underpinning the whole exercise. Books are not software: Books are content. Software is the wrapper, the user interface, the medium. What’s inside survives. Publishers’ failure to appreciate or acknowledge this is worrying—or symptomatic. They still regard books themselves as secondary to the mechanics of process and product. What to conclude when their senior staff can’t even do the digital equivalent of distinguishing the texts from the paper they’re printed on, and disregard whether their authors are alive or dead?
As it happens, dreaming up something different is one of the few roles that I reckon publishing houses still have towards the great corpus of past literature, because otherwise, who would pay HarperCollins good money for great works that they can get from Project Gutenberg for free? Even Amazon has its own substantial library of freebies. HarperCollins had better pay very close attention to which of its authors are dead, because that long Micky Mouse-act tail of legacy revenues is getting shorter by the day, and software innovation offers them one of their few remaining chances to extend it.
“We are inspired by the past, but use technology to blaze into the future” says the OpenBook developer page. On current strength, I won’t be anxious about a brushfire.