Feature or Bug? Ebooks roll out later

by Jonathan Sterne on August 8, 2012

Authors–especially academic authors–should always be happy when people want to read their work, and flattered by desire for access. And so please consider me flattered: thanks for reading and thanks for caring enough to tweet about it.

But since Steven Shaviro’s comment mirrored my own confusion about a month ago (and has been making the rounds), and since there’s a more interesting and profound truth to Steven’s post that I can’t get out in 140 characters, I’m taking the time to blog a reply.

Duke University Press originally told me that MP3 would be out in ebook as well as paperback, but as the release date approached, I couldn’t find any evidence of it on kindle or ibooks. I emailed Laura Sell at DukeUP, and she assured me they were coming. It’s just that it takes longer for e-books to come out.

Let that sink in. If you are of the Nicholas Negroponte persuasion–“digital books never go out of print, they are always there” — this makes no sense: analog books are atoms, digital books are bits. Negroponte’s argument perfectly fits my own mindset as a consumer of digital content. Why can’t I have all my digital stuff instantaneously and on exactly my own terms? I remember years ago when Joel Schalit put out a new record on iTunes and I couldn’t get it in Canada because of international licensing agreements. Totally a drag. Let’s not even speak of the new season of Damages. Though of course there are workarounds.

So as a reader, listener–and in this case as an author–I want to believe the promises of ubiquity and instantaneity. Basically, I want Being Digital to be true.

But as an intellectual, I know it’s not.

As an intellectual, I’m not at all of the Negoponte persuasion.* When it comes to content, I’m more of the Tarleton Gillespie persuasion, that digital book services want to cast themselves as platforms, who at once attempt to provide content, shape the user experience, define the market and affect policy. In other words, they work more or less like old media, just with slightly different ingredients in the salad (to mix a metaphor).

So from this perspective, it’s no surprise that the e-books are coming out later than the paper copy. But they should arrive within a month or so.

In fact the whole release date thing is slippery. Amazon said “August 6th,” which was conveniently my birthday. At first I thought someone at Duke had a sense of humour. Then I realized it was random. Then I realized it was meaningless when Patrik Svensson wrote in mid-July to tell me the book showed up in Sweden.

In the meantime, the intro to MP3 is available online, and of course, there’s always the wax cylinder, about which I will have more to say in the coming days.

*For the record, I’m also of the Matt Kirschenbaum persuasion that bits are atoms.

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