Getting an ebook for free, and what that means for journalism

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Today, I downloaded a book for free, but it wasn't in the format I wanted, so I transcoded it. In that sentence lies the future of the news media.

My father referred me to a book called Storyteller Uprising earlier today. The book's about page intrigued me: it's about how people's increasing distrust of the legacy media is leading them to create new media. It looks quite interesting, especially to an Ag Comm major like me.

The book's website helpfully tells me how to get it: buy it from a number of ink-on-paper publishers or download a free Kindle version from Amazon. The author is distributing it for free, which means I should be able to find it for free somewhere online, download it, read it and, if I like it, buy it.

Enticing readers with free copies of a book has worked for numerous authors before. Popular author Cory Doctorow achieved his current success by offering his books up for free, so it pleases me whenever I see someone doing likewise. I was introduced to science fiction writer Charles Stross by someone linking me to the full text of his book [Accelerando][]. (It's an excellent pre- and post-singularity trip.) If I like Storyteller Uprising, I might buy a hard copy of it.

I can't find the full text of Storyteller Uprising online, though. Having Creative-Commons-licensed material be unavailable feels wrong somehow, like having to pay for access to federal court records.

It's free on the Kindle today, so I go to Amazon's store and open it in the Amazon Cloud Reader, a in-browser app that supposedly caches your downloads for offline reading.

It's not the format I want, though. I want to be able to read it offline on my Nook, which doesn't have effective browser caching. I want to pull the book out of my browser's cache, reformat it to fit on my Nook and read it there at my leisure.

Fun fact: Cloud Reader transmits the book's contents as a series of encrypted strings inside JSONP containers. I can't pull it out of my browser's cache to save it in a format I can read on my Nook. The web approach has failed me. What to try next?

Well, my Nook is running Cyanogen Mod, a custom version of Google's Android operating system that lets me install programs through the Android Market onto my Barnes and Noble Nook. I install Barnes and Noble competitor Amazon's Kindle app.

Now I have the book inside the Kindle app, but the Kindle app is not the app I want to use to read the book. It has nowhere near the number of features that Moon+ Reader does, and the Kindle App isn't letting me at the file.

Storyteller Uprising was stored on the unprotected SD card, in a place I could get at from my computer. I opened it with the free, community-developed e-book program Calibre. From Calibre I am able to transcode it as I will.

I now have Storyteller Uprising in any format I want, for free. It's increasingly trivial to turn something from one format to another.

The format no longer matters. It's the content of the file that matters.

As legacy media adopt a more and more web-facing approach to news publishing, the means of consumption will lie more and more in the hands of the consumers, not the hands of the producers.

Ten years ago, when I bought this book it would remain as physical as it was on the day it was published. Today, I download the book for free and I can turn it into any medium conceivable. I can print it out on paper, view it on any screen, hear it from a text-to-speech engine, even print it out in three dimensions.

Authors have lost their say in how media is consumed.


Note: transcoding the work in question is allowed under section 3 of the CC-BY-NC-ND license applied by the author, specifically "The above rights may be exercised in all media and formats whether now known or hereafter devised. The above rights include the right to make such modifications as are technically necessary to exercise the rights in other media and formats..."