Amazon, Project Gutenberg, and Italian Literature

This post starts in the strangest of places. The other night, my mother was complaining how few free Italian books are available on the Kindle Store.

Turns out, a friend of the family, who also has a Kindle, has been enjoying reading free English older books on hers. As my mother does not speak or read English, she’d been complaining that the same is not possible in Italian.

The books she’s referring to are older books, the copyright of which expired, and that are available on Project Gutenberg. Indeed, the selection of Italian books on that site is fairly limited, and it is something that I have indeed been sadden about before.

What has Project Gutenberg to do with Kindle? Well, Amazon appears to collect books from Project Gutenberg, convert them to Kindle’s native format, and “sell” them on the Kindle Store. I say “sell” because for the most part, these are available at $0.00, and are thus available for free.

While there is no reference to Project Gutenberg on their store pages, there’s usually a note on the book:

This book was converted from its physical edition to the digital format by a community of volunteers. You may find it for free on the web. Purchase of the Kindle edition includes wireless delivery.

Another important point is that (again, for the most part), the original language editions are also available! This is how I started reading Jules Verne’s Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours while trying to brush up my French to workable levels.

Having these works available on the Kindle Store, free of both direct cost and delivery charge, is in my opinion a great step to distribute knowledge and culture. As my nephews (blood-related and otherwise) start reaching reading age, I’m sure that what I will give them as presents is going to be Kindle readers, because between having access to this wide range of free books, and the embedded touch-on dictionary, they feel like something I’d have thoroughly enjoyed using when I was a kid myself.

Unfortunately, this is not all roses. the Kindle Store still georestrict some books, so from my Kindle Store (which is set in the US), I cannot download Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso in Italian (though I can download the translation for free, or buy for $0.99 a non-Project Gutenberg version of the original Italian text). And of course there is the problem of coverage for the various languages.

Italian, as I said, appears to be a pretty bad one when it comes to coverage. If I look at Luigi Pirandello’s books there are only seven entries, one of which is in English, and another one being a duplicate. Compare this with the actual list of his works and you can see that it’s very lacking. And since Pirandello died in 1936, his works are already in the public domain.

Since I have not actually being active with Project Gutenberg, I only have second hand knowledge of why this type of problem happens. One of the thing I remember having been told about this, is that most of the books you buy in Italian stores are either annotated editions, or updated for modern Italian, which causes their copyright to be extended do the death of the editor, annotator or translator.

This lack of access to Italian literature is a big bother, and quite a bit of a showstopper to giving a Kindle to my Italian “nephews”. I really wish I could find a way to fix the problem, whether it is by technical or political means.

On the political side, one could expect that, with the focus on culture of the previous Italian government, and the focus of the current government on the free-as-in-beer options, it would be easy to convince them to release all of the Italian literature that is in the public domain for free. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t even know where to start to ask them to do that.

On the technical side, maybe it is well due time that I spend a significant amount of time on my now seven years old project of extracting a copy of the data from the data files of Zanichelli’s Italian literature software (likely developed at least in part with public funds).

The software was developed for Windows 3.1 and can’t be run on any modern computer. I should probably send the ISOs of it to the Internet Archive, and they may be able to keep it running there on DosBox with a real copy of Windows 3.1, since Wine appears to not support the 16-bit OLE interfaces that the software depends on.

If you wonder what would be a neat thing for Microsoft to release as open-source, I would probably suggest the whole Windows 3.1 source code would be a starting point. If nothing else, with the right license it would be possible to replace the half-complete 16-bit DLLs of Wine with official, or nearly-official copies.

I guess it’s time to learn more about Windows 3.1 in my “copious spare time” (h/t Charles Stross), and start digging into this. Maybe Ryan’s 2ine might help, as OS/2 and Windows 3.1 are closer than the latter is to modern Windows.

The Italian ISBN fraud

Photo credit: Moyan Brenn

The title of the post is probably considered clickbait, but I think there is a fraud going on in Italy related to ISBN, and since I noted on my Facebook page that I have more information on this than the average person, even those who are usually quite well informed, I thought it’s worth putting it down on paper.

It all started with an email I got from Amazon, in particular from the Kindle Direct Publishing service, which is how I publish Autotools Mythbuster as a Kindle book. At first I thought it was about the new VAT regulation for online services across Europe that are being announced by everybody and that will soon make most website give you ex-VAT prices and let you figure out how much you’re actually paying. And indeed it was, until you get to this post-script:

Lastly, as of January 1, 2015, Italy has put in place a new law. Applicable VAT for eBooks sold in Italy will depend on whether the book has an ISBN. All eBooks with an ISBN will have a 4% VAT rate and eBooks without an ISBN will have a 22% VAT rate. This is the rate that is added to your price on January 1st and is the rate deducted when an Italian customer purchases your book. If you obtain an ISBN after January 1st, the 4% VAT rate will then apply for future sales but we will not adjust your list price automatically.

Since I’ve always felt strongly that discriminating books on whether they are paper or bits is a bad idea, the reduced VAT rate for books was actually good news, but tying it to the ISBN? Not so much. And here’s why.

First of all, let’s bust the myth of the ISBN being a requirement to publish a book. It’s not, at least not universally. In particular, it’s not a requirement in either Italy, Republic of Ireland or the United States of America. It is also not clear for many that in many countries, including at least Italy and Republic of Ireland, it’s privately held companies that manage the ISBN distribution. In other countries there’s a government agency to do that, and it may well be that it’s more regulated there.

In the case of the UK agency (that also handles Republic of Ireland and is thus relevant to me), they make also explicit that there are plenty of situations in which you should not apply an ISBN, for instance for booklets that are not sold to the public (private events, museums, etc.). It might sound odd, but it makes perfect sense the moment when you realize what ISBN was designed to help with: distribution. The idea behind it is that any single edition of a book would have an unique code, so when your bookstore orders from the distributor, and the distributor from the publisher, you have the same ID over the place. A secondary benefit for citing references and bibliographies is often cited, but it is by far not the reason why ISBN was introduced.

So why would you tie the VAT rate on the presence of an ISBN? I can’t think of any particular good reason off the top of my head. It makes things quite more complex for online ebook stores, especially those that have not been limited to stocking books with an ISBN to begin with (such as Amazon, Kobo, …). But even more so it makes it almost impossible for authors to figure out how to charge the buyers, if they are both in Europe. All is still easy of course if you’re not trying to sell to Europe, or from Europe — wonder why we don’t have more European startups, eh?

The bothersome part is that there is no such rule about VAT for physical books! Indeed many people in Italy are acquainted with schemes in which you join a “club” that would send you a book every month (unless you opt-out month by month, and if you don’t you have to pay the price for it), and would sell books at a price much lower than the bookstore.

I’m sure they still exist although I’m not sure if Amazon makes them any interesting now, it was how I got into Lord of the Rings, as I ended up paying some €1.25 for it rather than the price of €30 for the same (hardcover) edition.

All those books were printed especially for the “club” and would thus not have an ISBN attached to them at all. One of the reason was probably to make it more difficult to sell them back second hand. But they have always been charged at 4% VAT anyway!

But the problems run further and that’s hard to see for most consumers because they don’t realize just how difficult the ISBN system is to navigate. Especially for “live” books like Autotools Mythbuster, every single revision needs its own unique ISBN — and since I usually do three to four updates to the book every year, that would be at least four different ISBNs per year. Add to that the fact that agencies decided that “ebook” is not a format, ePub, Mobi and PDF are, and you end up requiring multiple ISBNs per revision to cover for these formats.

Assume only two formats are needed for Autotools Mythbuster, which is only available om Amazon and Kobo. Assume three revisions an year (I would like to do more, I plan on spending more of 2015 writing documentation as I’m doing less hands-on work in Open Source lately). Now you need six ISBNs per year. If I was living in Canada, the problem is solved to begin with – ISBNs assignments in Canada are free – but I live in Ireland, and Nielsen is a for-profit company (I’ll leave Italy aside for a moment, will go back to it later). If I were to buy a block of 10 codes (the minimum amount), I would have to pay £120 plus VAT and that would last me for almost two years — but that requires me making some €300-400 in royalties over those two years to break even on the up-front cost — there are taxes to be payed over the royalties, you know.

This means well over two hundreds copies of the book to be sold — I would love to, but I’m sure there aren’t that many people interested in what I write. Not the two hundreds, but two hundreds every year — every update would have a hidden cost due to the ISBN needing to be updated, and if you provide the update for free (as I want to do), then you need to sell more copies incrementally.

Now I said above I’ll leave Italy aside — here is why: up until now, the Italian agency for ISBN assignment only allowed publishers to buy blocks of ISBN codes — independent authors had no choice and could not get an ISBN at all. It probably had something to do with the fact that the agency is owned by the Italian publishers association (Associazione Italiana Editori). Admittedly the price is quite more affordable if you are a publisher as it is €30 to join and €50 every 10 codes.

But of course with the new law coming into effect it would have been too much of a discrimination against independent authors to not allow them to get ISBNs at all. So the agency decided that starting this January (or rather, starting from next week, as they are on vacation until the 7th) they will hand out individual ISBNs for “authorpublishing” — sic, in English, I wonder how drunk they were to come up with such a term, when the globally used term would be self-publishing. Of course the fee for those is €25 per code instead, five times as expensive as a publisher would pay for them.

And there is no documentation on how to apply for those yet, because of course they are on vacation still (January 6th is holiday in Italy, it’s common for companies, schools, etc. to take the whole first week off.) and of course they only started providing the numbers when the law entered into effect, to avoid the discrimination. But of course it means that until the authors can find the time to look into the needed documentation, they will be discriminated. Again, only in Italy, as the rest of Europe does not have any such silly rule.

Now, at least a friend of mine was happy that at least for the majority of the ebooks we’ll see a reduced VAT — but will we? I doubt so, as with any VAT change, prices will likely remain the same. When VAT increased from 20% to 21%, stores advertised the increased price for a week, then they came back to what they were before — because something priced at €3.99 wouldn’t remain priced at €4.02 for long, it’s even less convenient. In this case, I doubt that any publisher will change their MSRP for the ebooks to match the reduced VAT — I think the only place where this is going to make a difference is Amazon, as their KDP interface now matches the US price to the ex-VAT price of the books, so that the prices across Amazon websites no longer match across markets as they apply the local VAT, but I wouldn’t be surprised that publishers would still set a MSRP to Amazon to match the same in-VAT price before and after the 22%→4% change, essentially increasing by over 10% their margin.

I’m definitely unconvinced of the new VAT regulations in Europe; they are essentially designed as a protectionistic measure for the various countries’ companies for online services. But right now they are just making it more complex for all the final customers to figure out how much they are paying, and Italy in particular they seem to just be trying to ruin the newly-renewed independent authors’ market which has been, to me, a nice gift of modern ebook distribution.

Passing the passport test

In the previous episode of my SSL odyssey I accepted that StartSSL needs a secondary ID verification, and the only sane choice I could make was getting a passport, since I wouldn’t make use of a copy of my birth certificate for anything else. On the other hand, I knew the passport would have costed me not little, and as I made noticeable I’m not currently overflowing with cash.

Luckily – or so I thought at the time – the website of the Italian Police (the entity taking care of passports here) told me that I could get the EU-restricted passport for less than €50, and then extend it to the rest of the world once needed. I only needed to show up at the local Police command, with two photos, a compiled form, a current ID and a receipt for the wire transfer of €42,50 through the Italian Postal service.

A note here: for whatever reason, most of the payment for government documents and electricity/phone bills, the default system has been the Italian Postal service; it made sense as long as it was a government institution, but it has since become a private entity and it’s now actually a full-fledged bank. Unfortunately that also means that you have to pay them at least €1.1 – much more if you want to pay online with credit card or via your own bank – whereas the standard wire costs me just €1. But whatever.

Anyway, since today I was at a customer’s whose office is in the same block as the local Police office (as well as a post office), I made some time to deliver the documents. Unfortunately, as soon as I reached the office that takes care of passports; first I had to apologise for not bringing with me a photocopy of my ID card as the sign outside the door told me to do… the site didn’t talk about that. Then I asked for the EU-restricted passport, and they frowned at me.

Turns out that the EU-restricted passport is not going to be any useful: from one side, since June, they haven’t heard yet from the Ministry how they are supposed to amend the passports that gets upgraded to be usable anywhere in the world; from the other side, they told me some very scary things. For instance, even though Switzerland should be, as much as I know, part of the Schengen Area they told me that I could be asked for a passport at the Chiasso border, and if I were to present an EU-restricted (given that Switzerland is not part of EU), I’d receive a €300 fine. Or also, that the different text on the EU-restricted passport have stopped people from entering the United Kingdom before, because their text differed from the “regular” passports (and I can attest that the London Gatwick border guards tend to be … picky: I almost was unable to pass through last November, because my – dot matrix – paper-printed ID card was difficult to read and the guard couldn’t tell whether it was 1985 or 1995 on my birth date).

With all of this considered, I ended up requesting a standard, full passport, which required me to spend another €40.29 and will require me to spend as much each year to renew the validation. Now even the StartSSL certificate starts to appear not as cheap.

On the other hand I at least am not going to have trouble with the extended ID cards that a number of other people got; up to a few years ago, Italian ID and eID cards had five years validity and then expired; they changed it by law to ten years (even though I admit I would have done something like “five, then ten”, given that it’s released to sixteen years old, which definitely changed a lot by they time they reach 26 years of age). But for once they did it in a backward-applied way: old cards emitted with five years validity can be extended at t he local administrative office, usually with a stamp on the back of it (for the paper version — the eID cards, since they cannot be stamped, force you to keep with you an A4-printed certificate, way to go when you choose the eID for the smaller form factor!).

Unfortunately, the stamps and certificates are only written in Italian, so a number of Schengen area countries are known not to accept these extensions. So you either have to get a passport, or get the ID card renewed forcefully (which means paying €25 for the eID card, which is also the original reason to extend the validity from 5 to 10 years).

Sigh. Just gotta love the Italian system.

Oddissey of a taxpayer

I’m not used to write about politics and bureaucracy, but I think this is worth the entry…

So, to continue having a job to pay my bills, I was told to start looking for taking an identification with the Italian tax offices (a “Partita IVA”) to declare incomes and VAT paid. Now, not knowing too well how the declarations goes, I tried looking for an accountant, still knowing it could have been a quite high price… the first accountant I asked, told me of a “good price” at €700 for an year, YIKES!

Now, I had an appointment with my brother-in-law’s accountant tomorrow, but for a series of reason, I had to drop it, so I’ll be asking him in another moment. But I also wanted to take a look to what the accounting would be about, just to know if the price is right when I’m told an amount.. and where should I go, if not the site of Italian tax office

Okay, let’s go around in the documentation section, to find something.. but no, I cannot find anything; I try with the search engine of the site, and the page I need is the 6th, after two copies of two pages (one about real estates, the other about non-Italian resident people. Now, I understand that they are as important as me, but if I’m looking in Italian tax office documentation looking for “Partita IVA”, give me a pointer on what it’s needed for and how to require one!

So, the page I needed is there, under 8, yes, EIGHT subpages! If I was their webmaster, I’d have already killed myself after looking at the results, but we know not everybody has a sense of usability, or even a sense of common sense.

Now where it should explain the composition of the 11 digits of the identification number, the table is also wrong, because the cell does not span between the columns to show that the first 7 digits have a meaning, the 3 after have another, and the last one is a checksum.. But let’s ignore that. (it might be appearing correct in IE or Firefox, for what I know).

To see the important points to get the identification, I’m told to look for a certain form… too bad the link is a 404. Luckily I just need 3 subpages to find the link to the form and, in a perfect American way that remembers me when I tried to file the W-8BEN form to get paid by NewsForge (I was never able to get a cent out of them anyway), a 12 pages explanation on how to compile the form itself, with half a page “wasted” on privacy laws concerns, and the remain remaining quite vague.

At the end, you can also see that you need to declare your income online, where you can still do it with paper forms if you don’t have an identification number. And of course, the software is available… for Windows and System 9, ignoring an Italian directive that would require reuse of software as much as possible, starting from Open Source solutions, as declared by the Senator Bulgarelli, of the Italian Green Party.

I think I’ll end up asking an accountant, but it’s ridiculous that I have to spend many hundreds of euro just because our tax office does not provide enough information for a private to handle the paperwork (or the e-work) needed, or requires the user to use a software that does not run on free operating systems.