Reaction to the European Court’s decision on VAT on e-books

Reuter’s reports that the French government has issued a statement, representing the views of Franch, Germany, Poland and Italy, requesting a revision of the law used by the European Court to demand that France and Luxembourg restore the higher rate of VAT on e-books. Reuter’s notes:

“Ministers call on the Commission to end discrimination against digital books,” the joint statement read. “The essence of a book is the work itself, not the means of accessing it, and the tax applied should be technologically neutral.”

Whether that notion that ‘the essence of a book is the work itself’ will play out in the courts remains to be seen, but it strikes me as powerful argument. If nothing else, the notion that the e-book is a service because you need a device to read it on, is completely illogical when we consider another digital product – the CD or the DVD – devices are needed to use these files, but a music CD is not sold as a service, but as a product, just as the vinyl disc was. To take the argument to its logical conclusion, the Court’s decision suggests that if I buy an egg, I’m receiving a service because I need a device – a frying pan – with which to fry it!

The wrong decision

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It has just been announced that the European Court has found against the French government and for the Commission in the matter of France’s reduction of VAT for e-books from 20% to 5.5%.  The French government will now have to restore VAT to its former level.

The reason for the Court’s decision is that the e-book continues to be regarded as the provision of a “service” rather than the provision of purchased good.  Quite why they come to this decision is not further explained in the news item I found on the subject, but exactly what kind of “service” is provided once you have “bought” an e-book seems difficult to discover.

The fact that it is not a service can be demonstrated by the question, if, at some time in the future, the e-book provider went out of business, who would continue to provide the “service”?  I would still have the e-book on my reader or iPad and could continue to treat it as a book, or I could delete it and never bother with it again. What kind of “service” continues to be provided to me if I no longer have the book?  It is gone, just as a physical book would be gone, if I put it in the waste paper recycling bin.

Perhaps we haven’t heard the last word on this – it would be interesting to hear the e-book publishers floundering as they tried to explain the concept of an e-book “service”!

Further comment from L’Express.

E-books and national digital libraries: preservation and access

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Posted for Elena Maceviciute

The recent fire in one of the biggest Russian libraries, the Academic Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences (INION), that happened during the night of January 30-31, 2015, has destroyed approximately one fifth of the huge collection of almost 15 million items. The Federal Agency of Scientific Organizations informs us that among 5.47 million lost items were books weeded out of the collection and duplicates. The library also hopes to re-create 2.32 million books with the help of other national and foreign libraries, publishers, and other organization. The biggest work, however, is to save what has not been burned, but is damaged by smoke, soot, and water and to rebuild the library building, which at present is not possible to use. Thus, the first boxes with the documents have been transported to places of salvation and restoration or temporary storage. The loss to Russian and international humanities and social science is difficult to estimate. However, the fire seemed to have lead to (or at least to speed up) work on changes to the law on legal deposit of documents, which has to be approved by the federal government by February 15 (i.e., right now) and sent to the State Duma. The bill deals with legal deposit of digital copies of all new publications that are issued to the public and are acquired by libraries.

The Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation also plans digitisation of all library collections starting with scanning of old manuscripts and also helping to restore the INION collection. Judging from the sum available for the programme at the moment (appr. 1.4 million Euro or 1.6 million USD), the realisation of the plans will take some time, though many digitisation projects in Russian libraries are already in progress. Thus electronic copies of newly published books provided as legal deposit should speed up the digitization of the national library collections and set up the foundation of a modern information system of all published materials. At the moment, the government expects to provide free and unlimited access to the future digital library, but also respect copyright and acquire the rights to use the books using the resources of the state budget. The Ministry is preparing the Law on the National Electronic Library. (see http://www.m24.ru/articles/65517?attempt=1)

One can only wish good luck to Russian librarians, but also be rather sceptical about the expressed plans knowing the problems that other National Libraries are meeting on the way to building their national digital libraries.

Quite a large number of national libraries (e.g., Canada, Finland, Iceland, New Zealand, the UK, etc.) have laws covering legal deposit of digital and online publications. Others are permitted to collect digital materials and build national archives (e.g., Australia, Israel, Japan, Slovenia, etc.). Some libraries, for example, Lithuanian Martynas Mažvydas National Library, approach the authors with a request to permit digitisation of their printed books (coming in as legal deposit) for preservation purposes due to restricted storage capacity for physical books.

Most of the libraries do not permit user access to their collections outside the premises of the national library and this service is available only to registered users. Usually, the constraints do not affect material that is in public domain.

The Norwegian plan of digitisation of all the books published in Norway is among the most famous and ambitious plans. It seems to be on its way to success. The National Library of Norway started the programme in 2006, but the initiative has attracted great attention from the foreign press when the legislators and the government have confirmed that the legal deposit act does not specify any specific medium, therefore all documents, regardless of the media and formats, are subject to legal deposit law. Thus, the project of digitising all Norwegian books also acquired new dimension. It pursues two goals: conservation of the national collective memory and distribution of copyright-free material. The plan is detailed and thought through taking into account interests of different parties, legal aspects, collaboration between different actors, organizational and funding matters. All digitised material is available on library premises in the digital reading hall. Digital books are distributed through the Bookshelf. It was launched in 2009 with approximately 50,000 books published in different periods of the 17-20th centuries. Some of the books are not free of copyright but are available through the agreement with Kopinor – the organization representing copyright holders of published works. According to the plan there should be 250,000 books available free online by 2017.

Bokhylla resources are available free to all with a Norwegian IP address. Copyright-protected books cannot be downloaded or printed. Authors and publishers are paid through the collective agreement maintained by Kopinor. The National Library also offers free downloads of 98 books (though the introductory text names only 38) through its own website. They represent a cross section of Norwegian litterature and are available in ePub format.

International Conference “Publishing Trends and Contexts 2014, Focus: Digital Authors and Electronic Books”, 8-9 December, 2014, Pula, Croatia

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Posted for Elena Maceviciute

The second international conference on modern publishing was organized by the Departments of Information Sciences in the universities of Zadar and Osijek during the period of the Book and Authors Festival in Pula. The co-organizers and supporters of the conference were the Association Sa(n)jam knjige Istria and the Ministries of Culture and Science, Education and Sports of Republic of Croatia. They have expected that the conference will increase a better understanding of the processes that are changing book trade and reading at present all over Europe.

In two days of the conference 26 presenters from nine countries discussed the issues of book markets, readers, new models of publishing, the state of publishing studies and education, challenges brought by e-books to authors and other actors participating in modern communication. The participants introduced 22 papers on these topics, but the most useful part was active discussions that took place in relation to these papers and questions raised in them. The discussions went on during the presentations, at the end of each day and during coffee or lunch breaks. Students of Croatian universities were listening to the discussions and took part in them. The atmosphere of the conference was friendly and all participants were not only interested in the topics they disussed but very knowledgeable. The intellectual level was high and horizons broad.

A more complete account of the Conference has been prepared for the March issue of Information Research, and is now online.

COST action IS1404 “Evolution of reading in the age of digitisation (E-READ)” started in November

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Posted for Elena Maceviciute and Skans Kersti Nilsson

The kick-off meeting of the Management Committee for the E-READ project was held on November 28, 2014. Twenty-six countries sent their representatives and, as each country could have two representatives in the Management Committee, there were over forty people in the meeting. Some of them were old acquaintances and colleagues whom we knew quite well from previous collaboration. However, the interdisciplinary nature of the action brought together many different researchers from education, psychology, neurology, information technology, publishing studies, library and information science, literature and language research. The main purpose of the first meeting was to solve the initial issues related to the governance, organization, coordination, and planning. The meeting acknowledged the commitment of the initiators of the project by unanimous vote for Dr. Anne Mangen (Stavanger University, Norway) as a chair of the action and Prof. Adriaan van der Weel (University of Leiden, the Netherlands) as a vice-chair. Stavanger University became the Grant Holder. The budget and the plan for the first year have been approved by the Management Committee. The plan includes the first workshops in Ljubljana in April of 2015 and Szeged in October, a training school in Berlin on experiential and neuro-cognitive methods in September of 2015, and short-term scientific missions. The training school in Berlin attracted so much interest that the Management Committee has reallocated resources from the regular workshops to increase the number of attendees to Berlin.

Though the first meeting was mainly devoted to official and administrative matters, it is worth presenting here the main goals of this COST action, which make it interesting to our project. This part of the post is based on the text from the Memorandum of Understanding and the presentation made by Anne Mangen (thanks for sharing the slides, Anne). As we are investigating the impact of e-books on a small language market and culture, it is impossible to eliminate the reading issues from it. We are looking into the social aspects of reading through the SOM institute surveys, but also into the behaviour of different reader groups in relation to the adoption of e-books in Sweden. The COST action is mainly concerned with the impact of digitization on reading and seeks to develop an aggregate measure of reading in any environment (on paper or on screen) based on the integrative model of reading. The integrative model of reading includes ergonomic, perceptual, cognitive, phenomenological and socio-cultural dimensions. That is why it is expected that researchers from different disciplines collaborating within this project will help us to increase understanding of reading process and the changes brought about by the spread of digital technologies. Support for different people in different contexts for coping with the new demands on reading is seen as one of the pragmatic outcomes of research activities in E-READ. Our project fits into the research of socio-cultural dimensions of reading and to some extent to the experiential and perceptual dimension research. We also expect to develop other research projects related to E-READ.

COST actions support the networking activities, but not research; therefore, the E-READ will be used for coordination of existing reading research projects, building collaboration between social sciences, humanities and natural sciences, and creating new interdisciplinary projects, including those fitting the Horizon 2020 framework. The action also includes considerable publicity measures, especially, communication with the main interest groups, such as educators, publishers, hardware and software agencies, reading promoters, policy makers, and citizens of European countries.

A common Scandinavian Master’s course on e-books

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Posted for Elena Maceviciute

A meeting for developing a course on e-books on the Master’s level took place at the Department of Archives, Library and Information Science of the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Science on November 19-20. The idea of the course was under the development by a team from the Oslo University College, Royal School of Library and Information Science (University of Copenhagen), Swedish School of Library and Information Science at the University of Borås, and the Reading Centre at the University of Stavanger from the start of the year. It was born out of the actual developments brought about by the spread of e-books and their impact on publishing, library work, and reading, but also from the research driven at the participating universities. Among the team members are the researchers of reading and literature mediation Anne Mangen (Stavanger), and Gitte Balling (Copenhagen); experts of e-book production technologies Tor Arne Dahl (Oslo) and Mats Dahlstrom (Borås); literature sociologists Kersti Nilsson (Borås) and Tonje Vold (Oslo), library and information access researchers Haakon Lund (Copenhagen) and Elena Maceviciute (Borås).

The learning outcomes of the big ten full-time week course were formulated earlier. Because of the high level of expertise and rich knowledge brought to the meeting there was little problem in outlining the contents of the course. It was agreed that the course will consist of four parts: Introduction, e-book production, dissemination of e-books, and digital reading. The course should meet the general requirements of library and information science programmes in the three Library and Information Science Schools in which it will be given. The students from the University of Stavanger would also be able to take the course.

As is usual with international cooperation in higher education, the most difficult and fascinating part is meeting organizational and bureaucratic requirements. After a long life in academia I know this quite well, but still always get amazed at the barriers one can run into in doing what actually is the normal everyday work of a university lecturer. Just consider the start of a term: it was different in all three universities. The difference was as large as a month and a half. One of the universities runs only a distance Master’s programme, one teaches on campus only. One has only elective courses on its Master’s programme, the others only obligatory courses. The requirements of writing a course plan, examinations, study forms, role of learning outcomes, approving of the course plans vary across the schools. The team managed to solve most of the problems by being flexible and accepting the realities. Thus, the common course will be run in each separate location, but using common course material, course literature and teachers.

Next, people responsible for the separate parts of the course worked in groups developing further the contents and the organization of the first classroom meetings with the students. It was interesting to find how similar and how different the situations in Nordic and Scandinavian countries are by discussing how much the course will address the local contexts and situations in each country. We hope very much that the students attending the course in the spring of 2016 will find it interesting and useful.

And yes, this is not a mistake – the course is planned for the spring of 2016. We need to approve the changes in the educational plans, pass the course plan through a number of quality control bodies, advertise the course for prospective students. All this will take no less than a year. It is obvious that much might change on the market and in the production of e-books. But we keep doing our research and monitoring the situation, so our future students will study the most recent situation when they arrive.

Settlement of Amazon/Hachette dispute

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The big news of the week is that Amazon and Hachette have finally reached agreement on the pricing of Hachette e-books, when sold from Amazon. Amazon has been trying to drive the price of e-books down, presumably on the assumption that cheaper sells more and increases the company’s profits; Hachette has been resisting, ostensibly because it claims that authors will suffer as a result of lower prices, since royalty payments are based on the price of the item sold. In fact, it too, is probably more concerned about profit – it is, after all, a commercial company with shareholders who want to see higher dividents.

The details of the agreement have not been revealed, but the Library Journal speculates that it will be similar to the agreement reached earlier with Simon and Schuster, “essentially a return to the agency model of 2010 wherein publishers control retail pricing and retailers—in this case Amazon—serve as agents through which customers make their purchases”. Ironically, this is the model that got Apple and the publishers into trouble with the US legal system. Curious that when a group of publishers and a retailer (in this case Apple iBooks) get together to sort out pricing arrangement, it is called collusion, but when Amazon does it one at a time with the same publishers, it’s OK.

Digital Reader blog draws attention to another factor that may have influenced Hachette’s decision to resolve the dispute, quoting Publishers’ Weekly:

Third quarter sales at Hachette Book Group USA fell 18.5% in the period ended September 30, 2014 compared to the third quarter of 2013, parent company Lagardere reported. The decline was attributed to difficult comparisons with last year when the company had an “unusually high” number of bestsellers led by The Longest Ride, Lagardere said. The “difficult situation” with Amazon also impacted sales and HBG also postponed some titles, Lagardere said.
For all of Lagardere Publishing, revenue in the quarter fell 2.9%, to 564 million euros. In addition to softness in the U.S., sales were down in France and the U.K., but rose in Spain/Latin America.

E-book subscription services

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The number of e-book subscription lending services appears to be growing pretty well continually. The best known in the English-speaking world are probably Scribd and Oyster, both with about half-a-million books available and with Scribd recently having announced the availability of audio books for, at present, the same monthly subscription charge. More recently, Amazon has entered the market with its Kindle Unlimited service, with more than 700,000 books available

These are not the only two services, however: other services have been established to serve other languages. In Scandinavia, there is Mofibo, based in Denmark but also serving the Swedish market and, in Sweden, Readly, which also operates an e-magazine subscription service in the UK. Also operating in Sweden is StoryTel, which has both e-books and audio books

Skoobe, established in Germany, has books in German, but also in English and in Portuguese and recently announced expansion into Spain. Scribd also operates in Spain, where there is competition with 24Symbols and Nubico (owned by Bertelsmann). Not surprisingly, given the non-physical nature of the operations, these companies are looking to expand in all kinds of directions. For example, the Russian service, Bookmate, plans expansion into Scandinavia, while the Spanish service, 24Symbols is in partnership with a Russian telecom, Beline, and may launch in Columbia (it already operates in Guatemala) and subsequently in France and Germany.

In other words, the subscription model is the focus of a good deal of experimentation around the world, with everyone in search of the holy grail of subscription service, that is, to become the “Netflix for books”. How many of these companies will fail against the competition and how many will get sufficient subscribers to survive is unknown and how many subscribers each service has seems to be a closely guarded commercial secret.

The only one of these services I have any direct knowledge of is Scribd, since I was given a free subscription following the purchase, I think, of some photo software. The first thing one learns about Scribd is that not many publishers have signed up to it, in fact, it consists, almost entirely, of the back lists of Simon and Schuster and Harper Collins. Still, these are two of the major publishers in the English speaking market and the availability of 500,000 books is not to be sneezed at. Additionally, Scribd has lots of voluntarily uploaded documents of various kinds, since it had its origins in providing just such a service, and stepped neatly into the e-book subscription business at just the right time. I haven’t used any of the ‘informal’ stuff on the site, so I can’t comment on its value.

The second thing one learns is that “back list” means just that: you won’t find the latest best sellers from these two publishers on Scribd. However, if you are prepared to wait a year or so, they will probably turn up. In the meantime, Scribd is excellent for a) discovering authors you haven’t read before, and b) re-reading favourites from the beginning of the author’s writing life. I hadn’t read much of P.D. James before, for example, but now I’ve been through the adventures of detective Adam Dalgliesh from the first book onwards.

Scribd presents its top page with a line of book-jackets for books that you are currently reading or have just read and, underneath that, various recommendations based upon the authors you have read, others in the same genre, New York Times best-seller list, and so on. True, you won’t find the latest Man Booker Prize winner, but you will find former winners if they have been published by either of these two publishers.

How many more publishers will sign up to these subscription services is unknown right now. I assume that they are waiting to see how it works out for those that have signed up and what they are betting on is that the income from the ‘long tail’ of books that are now available readily, when they may have been out of print for years, will justify their involvement.

Does this kind of service portend the death knell of public libraries? Mmm – a difficult question. We know that the majority of public library borrowers are solidly middle class and reasonably affluent and, if a significant number of such library users decide that they can afford $9.99 or thereabouts a month for access to more books than their local library is ever likely to have available, there may be traffic from the physical to the virtual world.

Will I renew the subscription that came to me for nothing? Probably, although I shall probably look around and see what is on offer from other services.

E-books vs. printed books

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Questions and news stories continue to rumble around the Internet on the virtues of printed books over e-books, and vice-versa, for learning. The most recent piece of research I’ve come across is from Anne Mangan of the University of Stavanger in Norway, whose work was reported in the Guardian back in August, but which seems to have reached the Daily Mail only a couple of days ago.

What Mangan’s work appears to show (I haven’t seen the full paper yet) is that, when presented with a short story, those who read the print version were better at reconstructing the timing of the plot than those who read the electronic version. Now, I don’t know about you, but when reading any fiction in print or on the iPad, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to reconstruct the plot and making the leap from this finding to the proposition, made by some, that learning will be adversely affected seems to me a jump too far. Our motivations for reading vary and we bring different degrees of concentration to the task, depending upon what we need to do.

When reading fiction, our concentration is affected, I think, by the extent to which the story grips our imagination. If the grip is tight we find it difficult to let go and will read all night to finish the story – whether in print or as an e-book. I recall, when I got the Sony e-Reader some years ago, trying to turn the page with my finger because I’d forgotten I was reading on the device. Similarly, when we read to revise for an examination most of us will also be making notes, comparing a text with our notes and engaging with the issue we are trying to master – the stronger the motivation in these circumstances, the stronger our attention will be.

There is also the question of learning styles to be taken into account – and I have yet to see any research on this issue that considers this factor. Some people learn best when text is complemented by audio or images, some learn best of all by listening rather than reading (dyslexics, for example), others may learn best of all when the material is presented in many different ways. Until the learning styles of the experiment participants are included I think one can say very little about the generality of the results.

Certainly, there are features (affordances in the jargon) of the printed text that are difficult to replicate in the electronic version, but there are also affordances possible with the e-version that are unattainable with the printed version. It would be interesting, I think, to test these propositions with the print version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Touch Press’s app of the same poem. The printed version gives us the text, the app gives us the text, Eliot’s original manuscript with its notes and emendations, the poem read by the author, and commentary by scholars. I don’t know what the outcome would be if these two versions were given to two groups of English Literature students reading for their final examinations, in which the poem was known to be featuring, but I know which I would prefer.

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