The long-awaited Mueller Report was released last week, and this week came the first commercially published editions, both print and digital. At Publishers Weekly, we took a look at how the various editions are faring, or are expected to fare.
Of the bestselling editions so far, Big Five publisher Scribner (part of Simon & Schuster) partnered with the Washington Post for its edition. Skyhorse chose Alan Dershowitz to write a foreword for theirs. Melville House, meanwhile, took a more direct approach—just the report. Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson calls it "the people’s edition.”
As a government report prepared at taxpayer expense, the text of the report is free for anyone to read, republish—and to profit from, as Ian Bogost writes in The Atlantic. Bogost offers a biting take on various efforts to use the report for commercial gain. "The end result of an investigation into the possible corruption of the highest U.S. office by a foreign power, cut apart and sold off for scrap," he writes.
I take Bogost's point, but I don't buy that commercializing public domain documents is necessarily a bad thing. Readers seeking a good, readable print book of the report should have that option. And I think it’s good that The Mueller Report gets a jolt of marketing and visibility in the nation’s bookstores and libraries, too, which publishers can reach far more efficiently than the federal government can.
The problem I do see, however, is that the digital version freely available for the public to download is simply too challenging for most citizens to read. It’s a low-quality PDF that renders poorly on phones and other digital devices, which is surely how most people who download the report will want to read it. In an interesting analysis that focuses on the technical aspects of the DOJ's digital file, the PDF Association this week concluded that it was “interesting—and deeply unfortunate—that the DOJ clearly used advanced redaction software, but nonetheless chose to deliver a paper-age ‘image only' PDF.”
After struggling with the DOJ's PDF for three days, I went ahead and paid $7.99 for the Scribner e-book edition, which is by far a better option for actually reading the report. And though critics like Bogost focus on the "government for sale" angle, my experience speaks to another criticism increasingly leveled at government these days: basic fairness. I had the $7.99 needed to get The Mueller Report in a readable edition. Not everyone does.
Of course, the DOJ’s decision to make The Mueller Report available as a PDF is not surprising. In fact, this is often how government reports are released to the public these days. But it is disappointing that not even the Government Publishing Office is making a public edition of the report available in a real, readable e-book format. GPO is selling print copies of the report, so clearly they've invested some effort here. But when asked why GPO hasn’t prepared a version optimized for digital reading, or whether such an edition may be forthcoming, GPO officials punted the question back to DOJ. “GPO was not involved in the production,” replied a spokesperson.
That's true, of course. The DOJ is listed as the "publisher" of The Mueller Report. Still, the GPO response is not exactly satisfactory. After all, in 2014, Congress officially changed the GPO from the "Government Printing Office" to the "Government Publishing Office" in an effort to get with the digital times. The press release from 2014 explains that the change was made to reflect “the increasingly prominent role that GPO plays in providing access to Government information in digital formats through the agency's Federal Digital System, apps, eBooks, and related technologies.” Yet with The Mueller Report, perhaps the most highly anticipated government release in memory, funded by taxpayer dollars, a report we should want as many citizens as possible to read for themselves, the public version is available only as a low quality PDF?
When it comes to important public releases like The Mueller Report, what would it take for Congress to ensure that such information is not only available to the public, but readable, too? This is the information age, after all. We have the technology. We have the resources. And we've been living in a consumer e-book world for well over a decade. The idea that Congress in 2019 would authorize tens of millions of dollars to compile The Mueller Report, only to make it available to the public in the least readable digital format possible doesn't make much sense.
Coming on the heels of last week's DPLAfest, I wonder, too, if there is a role here for libraries. Certainly libraries are going to be buying copies and offering patrons print editions of the report. But could a library coalition, like the Digital Public Library of America, which has committed to expanding access to e-books, pick up the federal government's slack and produce a real e-book edition of The Mueller Report, optimized for today's digital devices, and make it freely available to citizens perhaps via library websites or the expanding SimplyE app? I reached out to DPLA officials this week, who suggested it was a possibility.
Of course, none of this is intended to diminish the efforts of publishers working in good faith to put out their own editions of The Mueller Report. These editions can and do offer readers real value. If we've learned anything from the first years of the e-book era, it's that many readers still prefer the print reading experience. For readers who want a bound edition (or feel they need Alan Dershowitz's commentary) they should have options. At the same time, Congress must raise the bar when it comes to digital public releases. One shouldn’t need a credit card to participate in our democracy. At the very least, a library card should do the job.
The Mueller Report isn't the only important government report, of course. In November of last year Melville House took note of the rather quietly released United States Global Change Research Program's Fourth Climate Assessment. An example of what publishers can bring to the table with government documents, Melville House not only published a full-color paperback edition, they started The Melville House Climate Project—an effort to connect readers, booksellers, and librarians, with experts in climate science, public policy, and grassroots organizing.
This week, Melville House's Simon Reichley blogged about "a major milestone" for the effort: the first meeting of The Climate Change Reading Group, an ongoing partnership with the New York Public Library. The group will meet monthly at NYPL's Stephen A. Schwartzman Building. The first meeting featured Todd “Tif” Fernandez of 350NYC, and archivist and librarian Meredith Mann of the NYPL, who shared archival materials, including items from the first Earth Day, in 1970. Interested in learning more? You can contact organizers by email here, or check out The Climate Project site online.
Back to The Mueller Report, Washingtonian weighs in on the various editions, which includes a free 19-hour audiobook edition via Amazon's Audible service.
MarketWatch this week noted that Amazon had listed Scribner's audiobook edition at a curious price point: $19.84. "That pointed price tag appears to be a reference to George Orwell’s seminal novel, 1984."
The Mueller Report details the alarming extent to which outside actors sought to interfere in the 2016 election. But a report this week from NBC News suggests that such efforts are still ongoing, and perhaps growing more insidious with the rise of for-profit trolling operations. "A network of more than 5,000 pro-Trump Twitter bots railed against the 'Russiagate hoax' shortly after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report last week," NBC reports. "As social media platforms continue to prepare for the 2020 election, efforts to spread disinformation and sow discord remain an ongoing issue. And while operations sponsored by foreign countries are still a threat, the rise of for-profit trolling operations, which may include the new bot network, have added a new element for companies to counter."
Too big to regulate? The New York Times reports that regulators around the world are wrestling with how to handle Facebook. The social media giant is facing a fine of $3 billion to $5 billion for "violations of a privacy settlement from 2011, the highest penalty in the United States against a tech company," the Times notes. But will it matter?
Also from The New York Times, the Supreme Court appears ready to allow the Trump administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. The Library Community has been part of an effort to keep the question off the census, arguing that it would make the count less accurate.
And another from Washingtonian, a fascinating report on The Folger Shakespeare Library’s Project Dustbunny, which is looking for "human DNA and proteins harvested from dirt inside the Folger’s old books." The project's principals insist it's about more than determining whether Shakespeare or other famous people actually held the books on the Folger's shelves. “What would you do with the information in the genome of a dead genius? What’s the impact of that? What’s the reason to try and find that information, and what’s the reason not to? We need to prepare for a future in which it’s possible for people to ask those questions and face those choices, which is why this little experiment with a cute name actually points us at profound issues that we’re going to need to wrestle with as custodians of a very important historic collection—and also just as human beings.”
Has the open access ice finally broken? Elsevier and a consortium of Norwegian institutions this week announced a two-year "read and publish" deal. Framed as a pilot, the deal will enable researchers at participating Norwegian institutions to access Elsevier content and will cover their costs for publishing open access articles in Elsevier journals. The news comes as support continues to build for open access, and with a number of research institutions around the world threatening to walk away from their subscription deals, including in the U.S., where the University of California walked away from its Elsevier deal earlier this year.
Inside Higher Ed offered its take on Elsevier's deal in Norway: "This new kind of 'big deal' is a big deal because there are a growing number of librarians and negotiators who believe this model will reduce subscription costs while boosting open-access publications. Eventually, some believe, the model could eliminate paywalls altogether."
The Stanford Daily reports that Stanford University Press has been denied additional funding it was seeking. "Comparative literature professor David Palumbo-Liu argued that the value of a Stanford-branded publishing company could not be reduced to a mere dollar sign. 'At stake is our intellectual identity,' said Palumbo-Liu. 'University presses perform both an institutional and public good. They are not judged by an economic calculus, but by an intellectual value, and the value to the intellectual mind and the reputation of a University.'"
Via the Berkeley Library News, the University of California Library has launched an initiative "to boost data science expertise, services at UC Berkeley."
And, a Bustle contributor this week discussed what she's learned from working in a library. Including this: "Anyone who says libraries are dying hasn't been inside one recently. If they had, they would see—on any given day—a bustling playgroup in the children's room, an adult book group talking literature in the study room, a knitting circle crafting and laughing in the community room, or an organization hosting a blood drive in the lobby."