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Harry Potter bookThe TeleRead blog made Wired News today. Robert Andrews did an excellent job of summing up what I emailed him on the Potter e-book controversy. J.K. Rowling truly shows a Luddite mindset in refusing to let the Harry Potter series go online. At same time, I overdid it with the phrase “Luddite fool” in my description of her. Blame me, not Robert. Sorry, J.K., I should have narrowed my criticism to focus more on your ‘tude and less on you.

With that mea culpa out of the way, just what would I do in the place of Mrs. Rowling and Neil Blair, the lawyer for Christopher Little, her literary agency? Here are seven friendly suggestions.

Suggestion One: Try the technology as it exists today

Has Mrs. Rowling or Mr. Blair ever tried e-book technology to understand its potential? E-book gizmos have a way to go, but present models such as the Cybook are good enough for many a reader–not all, but enough to take the machines seriously.

The Cybook now sells for $399 with a ten-inch screen, less than many PDAs. Fictionwise‘s eBookwise machine with a small screen, lacking the resolution of the Cybook and the still-higher-resolution of the Librie and upscale Tablet PCs, goes for just $130 or about half the price of Sony’s new PlayStation Portable.

Of course, many younger readers are screen-oriented to the point where they would be willing to read the Potter books on $50 used PDAs. In trying out the technology, Mrs. Rowling should remember that she is of a different generation from her millions of Net-oriented fans. Some empathy, or attempted empathy, would help. What if Potter books could appear on little videogames players that young people already use, such as the PlayStation Portable? In fact, hackers have already figured out a way for the PSP to display public domain classics. Ideally Potter books–legal ones!–can soon be on PSP screens as well.

Legal Potter e-books would offer yet another advantage. By buying books from links or stores mentioned at jkrowling.com, young fans would not be risking viruses. J.K. Rowling should stop saying in effect, “Don’t download any of my books from the Net because they may contain viruses.” Instead, the word should be, “Stick to stores I list on my site if you want to buy a Potter e-book.” If young people don’t have legal alternatives, they will go for dangerous illegal ones.

Suggestion Two: Don’t just give away Potter books

Neil Blair should continue the policy of issuing warnings against pirate sites and also not give away Potter. Warnings are not the same as lawsuits. So far he has not been as trigger-happy as, say, the RIAA. For that I applaud him. He does need to show that pirates cannot just reproduce Potter books with impunity. If sites persist in pirating the books, they indeed deserve suits, at least in the more egregious cases.

I can truly understand why Mrs. Rowling would not want her books online for free. Unlike Cory Doctorow and most other writers, she is already movie-star-famous among the masses, and it doesn’t make as much sense just to give away the electronic version in hopes of spurring paper sales. No one book can satisfy all readers. Similarly, I don’t see why one particular promotional model can meet the needs of all writers.

While generous excerpts online from Mrs. Rowling’s writings would be good, free texts of full books are not the ultimate solution as I see it. This is a close call. Others are welcome to disagree.

Suggestion Three: Make legal Potter books available for sale

At the same time, for-sale versions of at least the older Harry Potter books should go on the Net immediately to take advantage of the current Pottermania. The posting of older books at reasonable prices would be one way for Mrs. Rowling to test the waters. My own strong preference would be for publishers to offer a Potter 6 e-book pronto, but that might not happen.

We’re talking more than bookstores here, by the way. Business arrangements should also be made with schools and libraries, given the effectiveness of the Potter books in encouraging literacy. This is a major reason why I feel so frustrated by the unwillingness of Mrs. Rowling to authorize e-books of her novels. Long term, the real solution would be well-stocked national digital library systems in the States, the U.K. and elsewhere. That would help reduce the incentive for piracy. Not all books can be library books paid for by tax money–I’m a great believer in both libraries and bookstores–but if the Potter books don’t qualify, then I don’t know which will.

Meanwhile look ahead the future in other ways. While Mrs. Rowling isn’t a techie, I do find hope in her Web site. For those who love flashy Macromedia sites full of serendipity–you never know what you’ll run into–this one is a winner. Her Web designers have done a masterful job of creating some virtual chaos of the kind so endearing to many young people. Put your cursor over the switch of a cleverly drawn radio, and music plays. Roll it over a pen, and you’ll find a series of links. An electronic dog barks amid the sounds of other creatures. Web functionalists would hate the site, but it turns out that the designers have not forgotten them. If you want just the links, ma’am, Mrs. Rowling’s crew will oblige with a text-only version.

So here’s the logical question. What if the same care were applied to the creation of Potter-related electronic books? With or without multimedia, well-done Potter e-books could sell in the millions. But it won’t happen until Mrs. Rowling and her agents get more comfortable with the technology. Then the possibilities are limitless. What Mrs. Rowling and her agents will need is the imagination to look beyond the primitive e-books of today. They should also endorse technical standards–for text and graphics–that will be more durable than the ephemeral proprietary ones of the moment, so that future generations can enjoy sophisticated multimedia creations or even just plain text. For an example of the hazards of not looking ahead, check out Overcoming the Dangers of Technological Obsolescence: Rescuing the BBS Doomsday Project in DigiCULT News. Hundreds of years hence, not every story like this might have a happy ending.

Suggestion Four: Use a variety of formats right now, but standardize on Mobipocket if only one must be used

One would hope that Potter would go online in different formats, but if not, the best single one to use from the perspective of Mrs. Rowling and her lawyer might be Mobipocket. It does offer Digital Rights Management to prevent copying, a requirement on which I’m confident they’d insist despite the preferences of us consumers. But at the same time Mobipocket’s DRM isn’t as reader-hostile as the system in use by Microsoft Reader or Adobe‘s. Even Mobipocket’s DRM, of course, could be improved from the perspective of customer convenience. And remember: Mobipocket is no substitute for a durable standardized e-book format at the consumer level. See Suggestion 6.

Suggestion Five: Work with clueful online booksellers to grow the market

Neil Blair should talk to the more clueful e-book-sellers such as Fictionwise and eBooks.com and cooperate with them to grow the market–or at least have publishers do so. Do not expect huge advances. Instead go for royalties. Having Potter books online will pave the way for the industry to grow to the point where huge advances for e-books will be possible.

Suggestion Six: Join OpenReader

The Christopher Little Agency should join the OpenReader Consortium, which is less glitzy than the Open eBook Forum but which is quietly working toward long-term solutions to grow the industry–such as a common e-book format at the consumer level. Steve Potash, head of the OeBF, has adamantly refused to do consumer standards despite the recommendations of brilliant technical people with his group. Steve has many admirable qualities, but he himself has business interest deeply intertwined with the present status quo and so far shows little willingness to change.

Suggestion Seven, the Most Important: Keep your eye on the prize–making money, not just the legalities

J.K. Rowling and Neil Blair should worry less about the legalities and more about goals dearer to them both–protecting the integrity of her books and making money.

No matter how many takedown orders go out, the piracy may if anything increase. “For the next book, we’re going to be prepared,” Wired quotes a Potter pirate. “The people who’ll be helping me will be at their computers waiting for me to get home with it and I’ll be calling in sick to work for a day or two so I can scan it without interruptions.” Paper book, digital book, it makes no difference–the pirates will be at work. Just how much money should go for legal fees to fight them all? Make an example of some sleazy small-time profiteers, but don’t overdo this. Better to focus on large-scale or commercial pirates, especially of the paper variety. Yes, good, old-fashioned dead-tree counterfeits of the latest Potter are already on sale in India and presumably elsewhere.

Most of all, lawyer and client would do well to heed the warning of Jon Noring, founder of the OpenReader Consortium in which I’m also involved. Like Mrs. Rowling, he is concerned over the integrity question–the risk that pirates may issue error-ridden versions or even try to edit her without telling readers. He correctly worries that the pirates in the long term could dilute the value of Mrs. Rowling’s work. So what to do?

“The best way to fight piracy-created dilution,” Jon says, “is to dilute the pirates with legitimate, well-done e-book releases.”

If Christopher Little and its biggest client can deal with the above issues and bring legal Potter books to the Net, they won’t just be helping themselves and their young readers along with the cause of literacy. They will also set a wonderful example for the book industry as a whole. Despite the Potter rage, this is one troubled business in dire need of change.

Related: The Perils of DRM Overkill For Large Publishers, in which Jon warned of the ability of pirates to make scans from paper copies and also suggested that publishers avoid the most reader-hostile forms of copy-protection.

 
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