Barnes & Noble's Pubit! About To Launch

I got an email yesterday from Pubit!, a new service that will allow writers to publish their own ebooks and offer them for sale on Barnes & Noble’s website, announcing Pubit!’s imminent launch. Barnes & Noble may be the world’s biggest bookseller, but Amazon is the world’s biggest ebook seller. According to the daily digest of publishing news I receive from Publisher’s Weekly, ebooks aren’t the future of the book business, they are what’s happening now.


Less than half an hour after I reopened the Pubit! email this morning, I was signed up. It took that long only because I spent twenty minutes studying the publisher’s agreement, royalty terms and content policies. I’ve been waiting for this site to launch all summer. In fact, Barnes & Noble had announced that it would be launched this summer, so maybe Indian summer is what they were really shooting for all along.

The royalty percentage is a little low at 65%, compared to Amazon's 70% for its Kindle Digital Text platform authors, but on a book retailing for $4.99 that translates into a twenty five cent difference. I'm guessing that this will rise to match Amazon's royalty rate once the surge of authors uploading books begins to slow down.

And the name...well, let's just hope the person responsible for coming up with "Pubit!" has been transferred out of the marketing department. 

There has never been a better opportunity, with such a low barrier to entry, for a writer to publish a book and get it distributed to a national audience by major booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The main caveat to this development is the increased amount of effort an author will have to put into drawing attention to his or her work.

Could this be one of the changes Leonard Riggio is betting on to turn Barnes & Noble around? PubIt! can quickly and cheaply put a big repository of ebooks on the web to counter Amazon’s vast library, and the millions of ebooks Steve Jobs claims his IBooks store contains.

The BISG’s “Survey of Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading” consists of three surveys taken over the course of nine months. The most recent findings and their implications for the industry include:

Thirty-seven percent of e-book buyers bought their first digital book within the last six months. Because so many consumers are only beginning to develop the habit of buying e-books, publishers have an opportunity to shape expectations about such things as pricing and the timing of digital releases.

 E-book Sales Statistics from BISG Survey

It’s very likely a case of too little, too late, but I am pulling for Barnes & Noble to make a comeback. In fact, I will be headed to the nearest store soon after posting this piece to look for some books I noticed in the New York Times Review of Books last week.

The best thing about this?

After all these years of being a loyal customer, I will finally get to see my own book on the shelves at Barnes & Noble…

…even if it's an electronic shelf.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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