Remembering the future

I own a rather large library of paperback SF which I have been collecting since the late 1960s; it includes a lot of stuff that is now quite rare and half forgotten. I owe a great deal to SF and consider these books cultural treasures, The last few years I’ve been wondering if there’s any way to ensure that this treasure won’t be lost as conventional printed books get left behind and the remaining copies of the more obscure stuff crumble.

Maybe there is the beginning of an answer. Singularity & Co. – Save the SciFi! is a Kickstarter project aimed specifically at rescuing out-of-print genre SF from oblivion. It is not yet clear whether their methods will scale; scanning is easy but untangling the IP around these old books can be difficult. But the response to the project has been encouraging; they’re already 240% over their initial funding goal.

I have contributed $25, and offered them the use of my library. If it looks like they have developed a sustainable set of methods I will contribute a lot more. I think this is a worthy project and deserving of support from everyone who loves science fiction.

36 thoughts on “Remembering the future

  1. Thanks for passing along these details, I will contribute funds and my library as well. This is an issue I have been thinking about at a personal level for some time now – as I have gradually replaced titles from my paperback/hardback collection with electronic editions (those that are available anyway) I have wondered how best to preserve these gems, and how to get the rest of them converted legally. Glad to see a startup willing to take on the job, and especially happy that there is enough interest in this to see that they have exceeded their funding by donations.

  2. I’ve got a pretty complete collection of Astounding/Analog from the late ’40s up to about 1960 boxed away and have been wondering what to do with them, I’ll see if they are interested.

  3. What about computer print ephemera? Somewhere I have an IBM 7040 PoP manual, an assembler listing of York apl, and other random stuff. Science fiction is well represented by collectors (I have Astounding from the 30s), but the computer print material is probably much rarer, as they were not mass market publications.

    Speaking of computer ephemera, can anyone link to a 1980s humor post comparing the ISO 7-layer network model to medieval signal fires? Maybe it came out of IBM’s Zurich lab?

  4. I suppose it’s like a special-purpose version of Project Gutenberg.

    But since SF Serials aren’t books, Gutenberg will likely ignore them.

  5. A more generalized version of this effort to use crowdfunding to acquire rights is here: https://unglue.it/

    The IP for SF will be very thorny, because in a lot of cases, it’s not at all clear who has the rights. Bud Webster has a project underway for SFWA to collect author estate info and cut down on some of those issues.

    Another issue will be the one encountered by Eric Flint in attempting to get some classic work back in print by Baen Books – the estate has vastly exaggerated ideas of what the rights are worth,

    Still, gotta start somewhere.

  6. @karrde: “But since SF Serials aren’t books, Gutenberg will likely ignore them.”

    If you look at PG’s SF selection, you’ll see a fair bit of stuff that *was* originally serials. Copyright law at the time was different, and magazine serializations had different copyrights than the book publications. (And often differed in other ways as well.) In a fair number of cases, the magazine copyright was not renewed, and became fair game for PG.

  7. >Another issue will be the one encountered by Eric Flint in attempting to get some classic work back in print by Baen Books – the estate has vastly exaggerated ideas of what the rights are worth,

    Ouch, yes. I’ve had this conversation with him.

  8. “the estate has vastly exaggerated ideas of what the rights are worth,”

    How much “exaggeration” are we talking about here? Perhaps that would make it uneconomical to republish them as commercial works, but given enough interest we could pay the ransom and get these novels released in the public domain or under liberal free-content licenses.

  9. @karrde — the focus is a bit different than Project Gutenberg; PG is focused on books that are in the public domain, whereas these guys are interested in obtaining the copyright for out of print books. I would like it if they were planning on moving their books to the public domain eventually, but at the same time I like their idea for creating a sustainable income stream, so I’m willing to support them either way.

  10. >How much “exaggeration” are we talking about here?

    According to Flint, it’s not unusual for people who know nothing about publishing to belive that reprint rights to a backlist book are worth more than $100K.

    >Perhaps that would make it uneconomical to republish them as commercial works, but given enough interest we could pay the ransom and get these novels released in the public domain or under liberal free-content licenses.

    No, the absence of any expected revenue stream makes the ransom more difficult to pay, not easier.

  11. esr, yes, but a free release compensates for the “absence of any expected revenue stream” by making it more worthwhile for users to fund, compared to, say, subsidizing a commercial reprint (which still makes some sense, because users will benefit from preserving the work, and perhaps from buying it for less than their willingness-to-pay). This is assuming that the mechanism in question (i.e. assurance contract/provision-point funding/street performer protocol) can mitigate the collective action problems involved in any such proposal (The success of Fundable, Kickstarter and Groupon suggest that it can).
    There are some trade-offs nonetheless, in that the revenue stream from a commercial edition will also reflect demand from future users which are not currently in the market.

  12. No, the absence of any expected revenue stream makes the ransom more difficult to pay, not easier.

    To clarify, is this because the copyright holder doesn’t have an accurate yardstick to determine a reasonable price, or for some other reason?

  13. >To clarify, is this because the copyright holder doesn’t have an accurate yardstick to determine a reasonable price, or for some other reason?

    That was part of what I was thinking, but another part is that usually only profit-making operations have the cash-flow volume to continue buying rights. We’re looking for a sustainable model here, not just a one-off.

  14. @esr

    What is your attitude to e-books in general? Do you use them?

    I have been wary of moving away from paper books because I am worried about not being able to read them in the future.

    The Kindle seems great now, but will the the ecosystem that supports this format still be around in a decade?

    Even if ebooks were readily available in an open format today, I still would not be confident that in ten, twenty, thirty years there will still be reader devices being made that can handle that format. What if everybody decides to switch to something incompatible in ten years?

    Gutenberg provides their stuff in plain text format, of course, which I am sure will be readable practically forever, but the formatting is terrible. I like to have everything nicely typeset.

  15. >What is your attitude to e-books in general? Do you use them?

    I use them very little, so far. But I’m getting more familiar, and have increasing confidence in open and non-DRMed standards such as ePub.

    >Even if ebooks were readily available in an open format today, I still would not be confident that in ten, twenty, thirty years there will still be reader devices being made that can handle that format. What if everybody decides to switch to something incompatible in ten years?

    No ebook format with an open standard will ever die, in that sense. There are already open-source implementations of ePub, for example; thus, I think I should be able to trust that format. Also, all ebook formats not designed by malignant idiots are just text files with tag markup, so they’re readable on anything that can display ASCII/UTF-8.

  16. @esr

    Also, all ebook formats not designed by malignant idiots are just text files with tag markup, so they’re readable on anything that can display ASCII/UTF-8.

    That’s true, but I want to make sure I preserve all the formatting and pagination that goes into making a book a book and not just a big text file.

    ePub is obviously the best bet right now, but even with an open source implementation available, if people decide that there is a better standard at some point in the future, or evolve the ePub standard out of all recognition, I could easily see a situation in a decade or two where books produced today would be rendered effectively unreadable.

    I so *want* to use ebooks, but I think for now I will be sticking with paper. I just hope they don’t stop printing books any time soon!

  17. For quite a while (back in the day, mind you!) I read nothing but science fiction. A Wikipedia article might serve this cause quite well.

  18. I use them very little, so far. But I’m getting more familiar, and have increasing confidence in open and non-DRMed standards such as ePub.

    This may be somewhat off-topic, but do you know the state of desktop (or even Android) ePub readers at the moment? A couple years ago I bought some O’Reilly books cheaply in electronic format, and gave ePub a whirl as it was the one that seemed to inspire the most confidence in me in how well designed it is (it’s basically just HTML and CSS), but the software support was fairly abysmal… for both open source and proprietary readers. Honestly, I just downloaded said books in their PDF versions and used Evince, which is clunky but it worked.

  19. >This may be somewhat off-topic, but do you know the state of desktop (or even Android) ePub readers at the moment?

    I’ve tried Calibre. It seems acceptable.

  20. Caliber has a very poor UI but it’ll work. Stanza was quite good; unfortunately Amazon bought it and support is gone. I hear decent things about Bookle for the Mac.

    There’s a long, frequently updated list of reader software here.

  21. >There’s a long, frequently updated list of reader software here.

    Can any of them download free e-books from repositories, a bit like Linux package managers do? That would be convenient.

  22. @ Mike Swanson – ePub is pretty much a universal format – you can even get a Firefox addon that will display ePub documents – software like Caliber will let you easily convert from one format to another.

    @ Shenpen, a number of packages like Caliber will perform the kinds of automated harvesting of e-books. Obviously such customized operations are made via scrips which must be updated as the websites involved change which makes things like links, etc, go south fairly quickly.

    In general, ebooks are moving along the exact same trajectory as MP3 files did some years ago, only somewhat faster.

    Paper publishing is likely to move into more of a niche market just as vinyl-recordings have today.

  23. This may be somewhat off-topic, but do you know the state of desktop (or even Android) ePub readers at the moment?

    On Android, I like the port of FBReader and, for PDFs, Aldiko, which looks like a proprietary program that includes modules from FBReader.

  24. @BioBob

    Paper publishing is likely to move into more of a niche market just as vinyl-recordings have today.

    Wouldn’t a closer analog be CDs? I don’t think we’re at the point yet where CDs are niche.

    I really hope CDs don’t disappear any time soon. We still don’t really have the audio quality in most online music stores to replace the gold standard of CD music.

  25. There are Calibre plugins that can connect to various sources of e-books… and of course you can write your own (I don’t know how difficult would it be).

    Nb. I use Calibre to convert Kindle DRM-ed MOBI to non-DRM EPUB… which I can read anywhere that has a web browser (and where I cannot install either PC Kindle, or modern web browser for Kindle Cloud), and to protect against losing access to those books.

  26. A few notes to clear matters up: Project Gutenberg publishes some copyrighted works (Cory Doctorow’s books aren’t in the public domain, but they’re redistributable under a CC license); they strongly prefer public-domain works, but it’s not strictly necessary. I suppose it would depend on the licensing terms that Singularity and Co. ends up getting.

    Distributed Proofreaders (www.pgdp.net) is a production pipeline that goes from scanned images (usually with OCR’d text) to proofread text, marked up with the local style of formatting. It’s the primary source for new Project Gutenberg texts. Users can manage projects and do the post-processing themselves; the site’s source is open, and people can set up their own copy if they want, but the main site provides a large community of very diligent and talented people.

    ePub consists of some metadata and a bunch of HTML files in a ZIP file; you can unzip it and read it in a web browser. It’s as unobfuscated as a format can get while supporting a reasonable level of formatting.

    Project Gutenberg releases all texts (with a few exceptions like audiobooks) in text-only format, but almost all of them are also available in HTML, which converts somewhat nicely to ePub. (Most readers support HTML a little weirdly.) There was some talk about making the urtext TEI (an abstruse and academic XML dialect), and generating all other formats (like ASCII text) from it, but that turned out to be unwieldy. There’s been some more recent talk about making the urtext format reStructuredText with additions; the benefit here is that even if you lose the tools, you’re left with a readable ASCII or Unicode text file. Here’s an example with formatting (it’s been processed rather haphazardly; I’ll send in errata to fix the formatting errors); you can see that it’s reasonably featureful, and generates PDF, plaintext and HTML that look pretty good.

    My own workflow for making ebooks has been to take plaintext or HTML converted to RST with pandoc, mark it up a bit, and use pandoc’s RST-to-ePub functionality to make an ebook out of it to send to my reader. It’s very easy to do, and avoids mucking around with anything that’s not very simple, easy-to-use markup.

  27. @Tom “That’s true, but I want to make sure I preserve all the formatting and pagination that goes into making a book a book and not just a big text file.”

    Then you need to stick to PDF files, the only main format that keeps pagination and page layout. .ePUB, .Lit (Sony format), and .Mobi (also known as .azw) all use text with markups and all the readers allow re-flowing of the text to fit different screen size/font combinations. Unfortunately your selection will be severely limited for fiction reading since most publisher’s won’t do PDF versions of fiction, though it is more common for non-fiction books like RPGs, Textbooks, and Technical Manuals where fancy formatting and layout (side bars, charts, footnotes, fancier equations, etc) are important to the book and how you use it.

    Of course for a lot of folks that re-flowing of the text to fit the screen well is a Feature when applied to narrative text such as fiction or non-fiction without much formatting needed. Suddenly every book is a large print book for those that need them or you can easily read the same file on a 3″ smart phone screen, a 6″ eReader screen, or a 10″ tablet screen and it will look decent on all of them.

  28. Huh, this is an interesting project. I think I’ll go donate. I missed the golden age of SF (and I’m more of a fantasy fan anyway) but I appreciate the concerns that go into this sort of thing; I have many of the same regarding classic console video games.

  29. @Thomas

    Then you need to stick to PDF files, the only main format that keeps pagination and page layout.

    Apart from paper ;)

  30. Tom on Friday, March 30 2012 at 11:03 am said:
    Wouldn’t a closer analog be CDs? I don’t think we’re at the point yet where CDs are niche.

    It really is a judgement call but I think CDs are simply another souless “digitally” distributed medium. IMO, paper books like vinyl will always appeal to a certain elite segment of the market for first editions, signed copies, illuminated manuscripts, leather bound, etc where the quality of the medium itself is a larger concern rather than solely the content. CDs and hi sampled MP3 are more or less identical in that regard.

    We will see.

  31. It seems that Singularity & Co will be doing it the strictly correct way with regards to copyright, which is good–but they’ll probably need 3x as many books in the pipeline as they expect to come out of it. I shouldn’t be surprised if no one can even say clearly who has the rights to many of those old books.

    I kind of wonder if the best way to handle abandoned works is simply to start publishing them and see who complains. The answer is probably: no one. It does open you to possible legal remedy, but as long as copyright infringement remains a civil matter and up to the owner to enforce (which various parties are trying to change), if might be fairly unlikely to cause any problems, provided the material is chosen carefully.

    If “intellectual property” is going to be treated as real property, it could sure stand to be treated more like real property. Does it not seem odd that I can lose title to my land via adverse possession in 5-15 years if I abandon it, but I’ll keep copyright on everything I scribble for 180 years even if I forget I wrote it? If today’s courts could be counted on to apply Common Law, the EFF or somebody might be wise to try to apply adverse possession to copyright. While entirely just, I doubt it would work.

  32. According to Jeff Atwood’s Preserving The Internet… and Everything Else The Internet Archive includes part archiving books, obscure magazines, unusual pamphlets and printed items of a computer nature or even of things like sci-fi, zines…

  33. @grendelkhan:
    > Project Gutenberg releases all texts (with a few exceptions like audiobooks) in text-only format, but almost all of them are also available in HTML, which converts somewhat nicely to ePub.

    This thread is somewhat “over my head”, and I may have misunderstood what you said, but I just wanted to say that all the Project Gutenberg books that I’ve downloaded recently have been available in multiple formats, including EPUB; see http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/39333
    Thanks.

  34. Joseph, that’s okay; I phrased it funny. gutenberg.org converts HTML files into ePub books on-the-fly and automatically, even the ones that don’t use RST. (They also output MOBI, for Kindle readers.)

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