Category Archives: ebooks

shift happened

I do my reading almost exclusively on screen. I’ve got a kindle, an ipad, an iphone, a blackberry, and a laptop, but this weekend, I did something radical and old school, I checked a big thick book out of the library and attempted to read it.
This is going to sound incredibly lazy, like someone who gets in their car to drive a few blocks rather than walk, but the physicality of the book, having to hold it open then lift and turn each page, was a lot more exhausting than I remembered. All of that holding and lifting and turning distracted me from the act of reading, took me out of the story if you will. A few pages into it I gave up, logged in to Amazon, and bought the Kindle book.
Like many people, I’ve romanticized the feeling of paper books, so I was surprised at how easily I spurned the one used to love. I’ve been watching the evolution of reading devices for the last seven years, but it was the experience I had with this library book that made me realize that the shift is no longer about to take place, it has taken place. Other readers are switching allegiance from paper to screen as quickly and irreversibly as I did. What does this mean for the publishing industry? For bookstores? For libraries? How will they reinvent themselves to attract screen-smitten readers?

printable mini-books revisit eighteenth-century pamphleteers

London-based creative studio and social think-tank Proboscis has put impressive effort into thinking through the incarnations and reincarnations of written material between printed and digitized forms. Diffusion, one of Proboscis’ recent-ish ventures, is a technology that lays out short texts in a form that enables them to be printed off and turned, with a few cuts and folds, into easily-portable pamphlets.
For now, it’s still in beta, though I hear from Proboscis founder Giles Lane that they’re aiming to make this technology more widely available. Meanwhile, Proboscis is using Diffusion to produce Short Work, a series of downloadable public-domain texts selected and introduced by guests. Works so far include three essays by Samuel Johnson, selected by technology critic and journalist Bill Thompson; Common Sense by Thomas Paine, selected by Worldchanging editor Alex Steffen; and Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism, selected by myself.
Though the Short Work pieces are not exclusively from the same period, it’s interesting to note that all these guest selections date from the eighteenth century. It can’t be simply that these texts are most likely to be a) short, and b) in the public domain (though this no doubt has something to do with it). But the eighteenth century saw an explosion in printing, outdone only by the new textual explosion of the Web, and the political, intellectual and critical voices that emerged from that Babel of print raise many questions about the ongoing evolution of our current digital discourse.

fight path

“Writers of the world arise! It’s time to throw off the shackles of traditional publishing contracts and face a brand new digital future with a brand new set of priorities.” So starts an article on the Guardian ‘Comment Is Free’ blogs by Kate Pullinger, writer of fictions in media old and new. Kate argues forcefully that authors are in danger of being short changed by publishers as they rush to secure digital rights before anyone susses how different the dissemination of a digital text is to publishing the printed word.

student designer envisions a more credible kindle

Engagdet points to an award winning Australian student design for an e-book reader that combines the gesture-based “multi-touch” interface of the iPhone with the e-ink display of the Kindle.
LIVRE design concept -? Nedzad Mujcinovic, Monash University
“Interaction happens via a thin capacitive touch screen mounted on top of an electronic paper screen (‘eINK’). Browsing pages happens by striking the screen from right bottom corner towards the centre of page to go forward or from the left hand corner to go backwards. Doing that using one finger will browse one page, two will browse ten pages and three will browse fifty pages at a time.”
If simple reenactment of basic black-and-white, illustration-light print reading is your goal, I’d say that this is a far more viable proposition than Amazon’s clunky gadget. (Thanks, Peter Brantley, for the link!)

e-read all about it

An article in Publishing News this week suggests that UK publishers are bracing themselves for the arrival on these shores of the Kindle or a rival to it soon. Much discussion of e-royalties is going on; HarperCollins and Random House US are putting some whole works on line for free; meanwhile Francis Bennett, the consultant who has been gazing into the crystal ball for the booktrade re digitisation, admits to being “baffled by Amazon – they never do what you expect them to.”
Consultant (and ex-Penguin boss) Anthony Forbes Watson is more definite (maybe): “The competition will be between the best of the closed networks. Perhaps Amazon will rope in Abebooks. Perhaps Barnes & Noble will join up with a partner to combat Amazon, perhaps Amazon will develop something with Apple. But I don’t think the market will be that big. I’d be surprised if it goes above 3%, or 10% tops.”
Well, nothing to worry about there then. Meanwhile we’ve been talking to friends in the booktrade who point out how little publishers will do for their huge slice of the cake these digital days, once printing and physical distribution are out of the picture. Do the e-royalties being offered reflect these changes? Do they hell.

harpercollins offers free ebooks

The New York Times:

In an attempt to increase book sales, HarperCollins Publishers will begin offering free electronic editions of some of its books on its Web site, including a novel by Paulo Coelho and a cookbook by the Food Network star Robert Irvine.
The idea is to give readers the opportunity to sample the books online in the same way that prospective buyers can flip through books in a bookstore.

nominate the best tech writing of 2007

digitalculturebooks, a collaborative imprint of the University of Michigan press and library, publishes an annual anthology of the year’s best technology writing. The nominating process is open to the public and they’re giving people until January 31st to suggest exemplary articles on “any and every technology topic–biotech, information technology, gadgetry, tech policy, Silicon Valley, and software engineering” etc.
The 2007 collection is being edited by Clive Thompson. Last year’s was Steven Levy. When complete, the collection is published as a trade paperback and put in its entirety online in clean, fully searchable HTML editions, so head over and help build what will become a terrific open access resource.

the future of the sustainable book

On New Year’s Eve, I got lost in Yonkers trying to take my son’s gently-used toys to the Salvation Army. The Yonkers store was the only one I could find willing to take them. The guy on the phone hesitated, “Are they in good condition?” he asked, clearly unhappy about my impending donation. I assured him they were, and he sighed and told me to come on over.
On principle, I try (really hard) to give away anything that is not completely worn out. But it is getting harder and harder to do. Nobody wants my old furniture or clothes or books. And they especially don’t want used children’s toys. My attempt to give them away was ill-fated. A police barricade stopped me at Nepperhan Avenue (a construction site disaster). Then I drove around for forty minutes until I found an alternate route but was twarted at Ashburton Ave (building on fire, streets blocked). I gave up and went home. With stomach full of guilt, I put the plastic toys in the dumpster. My son didn’t mind because he had a brand new pile of toys in his playroom, Christmas gifts from relatives and friends who couldn’t be dissuaded.
Point is, it seems increasingly difficult to opt out of the cycle of waste-creation. Plastic kids’ toys are just one example. I’m also guilty of consuming and transforming lots of other things into waste: clothes, computers, cell phones, magazines, all sorts of complicatedly-packaged food and beverage items, etc… So yesterday, when I contemplated how best to spend 2008, I decided to focus on figuring out how to create a more sustainable lifestyle. And since I work in book publishing, job one is to figure out what it means to create a sustainable book. Lots of models come to mind. Good ones like Wikipedia (device-neutral and always in the latest, free, edition) and bad ones like the Kindle, (which tries to create a market for an ebook reader with designed obsolescence).
Anyway, I thought it might be useful to weave the sustainability discussion into if:book’s ongoing consideration of networked ebooks, because at this stage in their developement, networked books could be shaped with sustainability in mind. So, I’m hoping to stir up some interesting discussion and serious contemplation of the perfectly sustainable book: one that is constantly revised, but never needs to be reprinted (or repurchased); one that is lean and simple and doesn’t require a small server farm or a special device; one that makes an enormous impact, but leaves a teeny tiny carbon footprint; one we can live with for ever and ever without getting bored or satiated.

kindle maths 101

Chatting with someone from Random House’s digital division on the day of the Kindle release, I suggested that dramatic price cuts on e-editions -? in other words, finally acknowledging that digital copies aren’t worth as much (especially when they come corseted in DRM) as physical hard copies -? might be the crucial adjustment needed to at last blow open the digital book market. It seemed like a no-brainer to me that Amazon was charging way too much for its e-books (not to mention the Kindle itself). But upon closer inspection, it clearly doesn’t add up that way. Tim O’Reilly explains why:

…the idea that there’s sufficient unmet demand to justify radical price cuts is totally wrongheaded. Unlike music, which is quickly consumed (a song takes 3 to 4 minutes to listen to, and price elasticity does have an impact on whether you try a new song or listen to an old one again), many types of books require a substantial time commitment, and having more books available more cheaply doesn’t mean any more books read. Regular readers already often have huge piles of unread books, as we end up buying more than we have time for. Time, not price, is the limiting factor.

Even assuming the rosiest of scenarios, Kindle readers are going to be a subset of an already limited audience for books. Unless some hitherto untapped reader demographic comes out of the woodwork, gets excited about e-books, buys Kindles, and then significantly surpasses the average human capacity for book consumption, I fail to see how enough books could be sold to recoup costs and still keep prices low. And without lower prices, I don’t see a huge number of people going the Kindle route in the first place. And there’s the rub.
Even if you were to go as far as selling books like songs on iTunes at 99 cents a pop, it seems highly unlikely that people would be induced to buy a significantly greater number of books than they already are. There’s only so much a person can read. The iPod solved a problem for music listeners: carrying around all that music to play on your Disc or Walkman was a major pain. So a hard drive with earphones made a great deal of sense. It shouldn’t be assumed that readers have the same problem (spine-crushing textbook-stuffed backpacks notwithstanding). Do we really need an iPod for books?
UPDATE: Through subsequent discussion both here and off the blog, I’ve since come around 360 back to my original hunch. See comment.
We might, maybe (putting aside for the moment objections to the ultra-proprietary nature of the Kindle), if Amazon were to abandon the per copy idea altogether and go for a subscription model. (I’m just thinking out loud here -? tell me how you’d adjust this.) Let’s say 40 bucks a month for full online access to the entire Amazon digital library, along with every major newspaper, magazine and blog. You’d have the basic cable option: all books accessible and searchable in full, as well as popular feedback functions like reviews and Listmania. If you want to mark a book up, share notes with other readers, clip quotes, save an offline copy, you could go “premium” for a buck or two per title (not unlike the current Upgrade option, although cheaper). Certain blockbuster titles or fancy multimedia pieces (once the Kindle’s screen improves) might be premium access only -? like HBO or Showtime. Amazon could market other services such as book groups, networked classroom editions, book disaggregation for custom assembled print-on-demand editions or course packs.
This approach reconceives books as services, or channels, rather than as objects. The Kindle would be a gateway into a vast library that you can roam about freely, with access not only to books but to all the useful contextual material contributed by readers. Piracy isn’t a problem since the system is totally locked down and you can only access it on a Kindle through Amazon’s Whispernet. Revenues could be shared with publishers proportionately to traffic on individual titles. DRM and all the other insults that go hand in hand with trying to manage digital media like physical objects simply melt away.

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On a related note, Nick Carr talks about how the Kindle, despite its many flaws, suggests a post-Web2.0 paradigm for hardware:

If the Kindle is flawed as a window onto literature, it offers a pretty clear view onto the future of appliances. It shows that we’re rapidly approaching the time when centrally stored and managed software and data are seamlessly integrated into consumer appliances – all sorts of appliances.
The problem with “Web 2.0,” as a concept, is that it constrains innovation by perpetuating the assumption that the web is accessed through computing devices, whether PCs or smartphones or game consoles. As broadband, storage, and computing get ever cheaper, that assumption will be rendered obsolete. The internet won’t be so much a destination as a feature, incorporated into all sorts of different goods in all sorts of different ways. The next great wave in internet innovation, in other words, won’t be about creating sites on the World Wide Web; it will be about figuring out creative ways to deploy the capabilities of the World Wide Computer through both traditional and new physical products, with, from the user’s point of view, “no computer or special software required.”

That the Kindle even suggests these ideas signals a major advance over its competitors -? the doomed Sony Reader and the parade of failed devices that came before. What Amazon ought to be shooting for, however, (and almost is) is not an iPod for reading -? a digital knapsack stuffed with individual e-books -? but rather an interface to a networked library.

amazon raises paperback prices

An interesting twist in the Kindle story reported at Dear Author:

Amazon’s pricing for mass market books has suddenly gone full retail, no discount since the release of the Kindle. When questioned in Newsweek about the low pricing, Bezos said “low-margin and high-volume sale – ?you just have to make sure the mix [between discounted and higher-priced items] works.” It looks like Bezos is hoping to make more money off the high volume of sales from those mass market purchasers.
…I guess this is one way of forcing readers to purchase the Kindle. If Kindle success rises or falls on the backs of the mass market purchasers, this is going to be ugly because I see a whole bunch of Amazon purchasers being pretty upset about this turn of events.

Thanks to Peter Brantley for the link.