Are we leaving the Gutenberg Parenthesis?

The news that Penguin is ending its relationship with Overdrive (which in turns stops library purchasing of Penguin ebooks for now) has me thinking about the idea of the Gutenberg Parenthesis again.

The Gutenberg Parenthesis is an idea that the printing press represented a massive shift in the recording and distribution of information. We rode that wave for about 500 years, but now digital distribution may represent an equally massive shift. The parenthesis opened with Gutenberg, but is it closing now? I’m afraid it may be for libraries.

Libraries were a major beneficiary of a printing press world. Information could be mass produced in an easily lendable book form, a form which was also difficult to restrict. Anybody who held the book could also access it, which provided a firm foundation for lending of material. There’s more to the parenthesis idea than just form of packaging, but it’s the part that I think most about.

The parenthesis and its inherent book-style packaging also represented a method for controlling content. We got lucky, and that control developed in a way benefitting libraries. Before the parenthesis opened, traditions were largely oral and couldn’t easily be stored in institutions. Inside the parenthesis, we got discrete objects without limitations that worked well for lending. Knowledge could be easily stored and accessed by many readers. But digital text may be the closing parenthesis, taking us back out of that easy and simple control.

In its easily copyable and non-permanent form, ebooks might be more akin to the earlier oral traditions than to physical printed copies. The potential loss of control over text, and its effect on their business model, is something publishers find terrifying. As a result they’re attempting to use DRM and other means to re-establish print levels of control over the digital world.

I think they’ve stumbled also on an unanticipated side effect of digital control – cutting libraries out of ebook lending. I have no idea where this quote originally came from, but I’ve repeatedly heard that “if libraries didn’t exist today, publishers would never let them be created.” I’ve also read repeatedly that publishers see it as essential to introduce ‘friction’ into the process of ebook lending. Digital text is trivially easy to send or copy, but borrowers might be required to go to a physical library to get the ebook or wait in line for a digital copy.

These restrictions strike me as particularly nonsensical. Publishers’ main competition for ebook sales is going to be the inevitable free pirated versions. Sellers have to be better than free to compete, a lesson the music industry took a long time to learn. Convenience and selection are the only ways to compete with a free product, but Penguin and others seem intent on putting up roadblocks to exactly those two elements when it comes to libraries.

Whether publishers can truly extend our time inside the Gutenberg Parenthesis remains to be seen. But they’re going to try their hardest. Will libraries match the effort to stay relevant and viable? We need to find a new model, because I don’t believe publishers will let the current one stand. It’s not too late yet, but it might be soon.

I hold out some small hope that Penguin’s withdrawl from Overdrive might be a good thing. Overdrive currently has an almost complete monopoly on popular fiction ebook lending for libraries. If Penguin goes to another vendor for library distribution instead, well then we’ve got competition. And that’s one force which applies equally both in and out of the parenthesis.