Goodbye Joel, hello Charlotte

As you would have read in the preceding blog post, our Smell of Books blogger Joel Blacklock has moved on to greener pastures and will be heading up Pan Macmillan’s new digital-only publishing house, Momentum.  Unfortunately his new job precludes him from continuing his blog on Booku.  Doh.

Joel, a big thank you from all of us at Booku/Boomerang Books – you have done a magnificent job and the number of followers and commenters that have responded to your posts is testimony to your fantastic writing ability.  You will be sorely missed.  We all wish you the very best of luck with the Momentum venture.  With you involved, it’s sure to be an absolute winner.  Be sure to enjoy your Unwin Trust Fellowship trip to the UK…and do stay in touch.

So we say a sad goodbye to Joel, but we’re really pleased to welcome Joel’s replacement, Charlotte Harper, who will be taking over the Booku blog mantle under the new handle, uBookish. Some of you will know Charlotte from her existing blog, eBookish, and she’s chosen to adopt a natty hybrid name from her existing blog and the Booku name – hence uBookish!

Charlotte is a Canberra journalist, editor and publisher who has worked in newspapers, magazines and online. She has written on developments in digital publishing and social media at ebookish.com.au since early 2010, and likes to spend her holidays at book industry conferences and festivals. A former literary editor of The South China Morning Post, Charlotte has also reviewed books for and contributed author profiles to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times. She has written on technology on and off for 15 years, once edited a mobile phone and gadget magazine, and is a published author, of a book about digital publishing – Weird Wild Web (Penguin Australia 1999).

We would like to welcome Charlotte aboard and look forward to her insights about the world of digital publishing and the future of books. We hope that the bevy of Joel’s followers will continue to follow and interact with us via Charlotte’s posts.

Clayton Wehner
Booku

New Direction, New Momentum

Plenty of things have been happening in the world of ebooks over the past few weeks, but for the first time I’ve been too busy working on an exciting project of my own to post about them. That project is Momentum, a new digital-only imprint of Pan Macmillan Australia, which was announced today. As a publisher for Momentum, I’ll be looking for books to publish globally, from writers who are digitally savvy, switched on to the possibilities of electronic publishing and, perhaps most importantly, know how to tell a good story.

Momentum will be launching in February 2012 with a truly amazing stable of frontlist authors. I am honoured to get the chance to work with each of these writers, and I look forward to the opportunity to work with new and established authors alike in the future.

We also want to hear from authors who have older titles that are out of print or yet to be digitised who want to inject new life into their old books. There are potentially thousands of books out there that can no longer be accessed online or off and no longer provide an income for the authors who wrote them. Momentum will give these writers the opportunity to breathe new life into previously published work and make them accessible for a new audience of digital readers.

Accessibility is going to be the name of the game for Momentum. Momentum ebooks will be available globally and at an affordable price. The Smell of Books has provided me with a wonderful excuse to listen to digital readers, and I think there is a lot I can do to make the relationship between readers and publishers as open as possible. This is going to be a tremendously exciting time, so I hope you’ll spread the word and contribute your thoughts, ideas and hopefully your books!

As part of this new direction, I’ll be shifting the Smell of Books to a new independent location. I’ll still be blogging on all things bookish, digital and tech, but as the demands of Momentum will be a bigger drain on my time, I’d like to make room for new voices here at Booku. If you’d like to keep up with the Smell of Books, please head over to www.thesmellofbooks.com where I’ll continue to post rants, analysis and news about the digital publishing world. You can also follow me on Twitter @joelnaoum. It’s been a blast, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the people here at Booku and Boomerang Books, especially Clayton Wehner and my fellow bloggers over at Boomerang.

To find out more about Momentum, visit the website at www.momentumbooks.com.au and follow Momentum on Twitter @momentumbooks.

 

Will Digital Publishing Bring Back the Short Story?

Digital publishing gives authors, publishers and agents lots of exciting opportunities that they do not have in print. The ability to play around with form is perhaps one of the most interesting. Not only have we seen interactive books, book apps and ‘vooks’ since digital publishing began to take off a few years ago – we’re also seeing a massive increase in the amount of short stories and shorter works available.

The blog TheNextWeb reported last week that Ars Technica (a popular and very detailed tech blog) made more than $15,000 in 24 hours on the Kindle store by releasing the 27,300-word review of Apple’s latest operating system on the Kindle store as an ebook. The review was available for free on Ars Technica (all 19 pages of it), but it still made thousands of dollars for the blog.

Although Amazon (as always) isn’t willing to talk numbers for their curated Kindle Singles program, the fact that it’s still going (and bringing in around three new works per week) means that it must be making headway. And that’s only through the curated program. A brief flick through any ebook store’s pages and you’ll come across thousands of shorter works (or collections of short works) from self-published authors (see Blake Crouch’s collection above). Most are priced very low – between $0.99 and about $4.99 – but considering their length this is a far more profitable and reasonable amount of money than the low-priced full-length self-published novels.

It’s not just ebook vendors that are making these shorter works available. Boutique publishers like the Atavist and Longreads are putting longer works of non-fiction into the hands of readers. They’re doing it in different ways – the Atavist provides editorial feedback as well as curatorial work, while Longreads is a kind of archive for longer form journalism on the web. But both are ultimately aiming squarely at the attention spans of a newer generation of time-poor readers. Longreads even gives readers the option to filter the archive by the amount of time available for reading (less than 15 mins, 30-45, 45-60 and 60+).

The availability of shorter works of fiction and non-fiction to readers is a boon for publishers and vendors alike. It creates viable price points for work that is either simultaneously available for free or would otherwise not be able to be sold for any amount. The overheads associated with traditional publishing have long ruled short stories (and even anthologies) out of mainstream publishing houses in all but the most popular or worthy cases.

Of course there are problems associated with this brave new world. If shorter works and longer ones are all mixed in together on an ebook vendor’s store, how is a reader supposed to know that they’re not paying $2.99 for a novel rather than a 10,000-word short story? Although vendors are trying to get around this by getting publishers to include page-length information in their metadata, a cursory look of the reviews on some of the better selling shorter works on the Kindle store shows that some readers are not getting the hint.

Publishers and ebook vendors will have to work closely to ensure that readers are informed about their purchases before they lay money down – and before the confusion becomes a problem that puts readers off entirely. Readers, concurrently, will hopefully soon learn that ebook stores have all kinds of work available and make a point of checking the available metadata before purchasing.

Not every experiment in form will work. Not every experiment will produce something that works as content or makes money. But early evidence seems to be suggesting that people are willing to part with (small amounts of) money to buy shorter works of fiction, non-fiction and longer form journalism, and this can only be a good thing in this era of newspapers and magazines failing and the race to the bottom for pricing ebooks.

Sound off in the comments if you’ve read any interesting bits of short writing in the past few weeks that you’d like to share, or any other thoughts on the future of reading.

Noni Hazlehurst Lays Waste to Our Collective Childhood

 

 

It was bad enough when Werner Herzog, professional hippy and filmmaker, read aloud the children’s-book-for-adults Go the F*** to Sleep and destroyed documentaries for me forever. But things just got worse and worse.

Even though I had heard Samuel L. Jackson, beloved star of such children’s classics as Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, drop the occasional cuss word, I wasn’t prepared for the aural onslaught of him reading Go the F*** to Sleep. University students the world over wept in their sleep as Pulp Fiction posters mysteriously dropped from dorm-room walls.


 

But then things got really bad. Noni Hazlehurst’s reading has literally destroyed my childhood. No seriously, don’t laugh or condemn my misuse of the word ‘literally’. It’s been several years since I watched Playschool, but I’m pretty sure it stopped existing when I stopped watching it. That’s how beloved children’s television shows work, right? At any rate, it was only right and proper that the boys at YouTube pulled the video off the site when they saw Noni destroying their childhoods as well. If you haven’t already seen it, and let’s face it, it happened a week ago now so you probably have, then just try to watch the video above and not cringe every time Noni’s gentle motherly lips frame the F-bomb.

What is next, I ask you? Barney the Dinosaur? The Teletubbies? Dame Judi Dench? Will the madness never stop? I think it would be best for everyone if we bring this evil to the surface now and then move on from the whole sorry business. So if you’ve come across any other readings of this vile piece of not-quite-children’s literature, please sound off in the comments below. And be sure to include a link.

Deal with the Devil – Ebooks and Exclusivity

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about exclusivity when it comes to ebooks. Self-publishing mavens Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler, in one of their increasingly long but still interesting chat logs, recently discussed the decision by Eisler to sign his ebook rights exclusively to Amazon; a decision he decided to make almost entirely on the perceived economic benefits. JK Rowling is making her books available exclusively through her own portal, Pottermore, and cutting out all the ebook vendors. And then there’s the post by Ginger Clark, an agent with Curtis Brown US, who wrote in Publishing Perspectives a week or so ago warning authors against global deals, espousing the potential gains authors can make by diversifying their rights around the world, ensuring that their books have publishing people on the ground in each territory they sell to who understand each market.

So who’s right? Is it better to sign a deal with an ebook publisher (or vendor) who can deliver your book to a worldwide market as one unified whole, or are you better off splitting your rights into portions and selling them separately everywhere? Is there any other option? Or is this even a choice open to most writers in a world where selling rights is more difficult than selling books?

Personally, I can see the benefits of Ginger Clark’s argument. If you can get multiple deals around the world, then you get multiple advances and marketing teams based on home turf. The problem with territorial fragmentation of ebooks is that it disadvantages the author until a book sells in a particular territory, particularly those in Australia, which has a relatively small local market. For example, an Australian author with an Australian publishing deal will generally have their ebook rights restricted to sell in Australia only – unless they have publishing deals in other territories. But there’s no reason why an Australian publisher shouldn’t make an Australian author’s ebooks available globally (and non-exclusively) until an exclusive deal has been struck with an overseas publisher.

The received wisdom from agents about this setup is that having an ebook for sale in a territory makes it almost impossible to convince an overseas publisher to buy the rights, but I’m yet to hear any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, of this actually taking place. (Though please do chime in if you have some – I’m intensely curious!).


The UK, Australian and US covers of Unearthly by Cynthia Hand.

Gosh, English-speaking markets really are completely foreign to each other.

It’s in an agent’s interest to chase advances rather than individual ebook sales, and in a publisher’s or ebook retailer’s interest to maximise sales – so it’s difficult to see where the sales pitch ends and the actual sales begin. Nonetheless, I do wonder whether authors are even going to have a choice in a shrinking Australian market. It’s going to be increasingly difficult to get a local publishing deal, and perhaps even more difficult to find an international deal on top of that. Are authors limiting themselves to Australia in the vain hope of securing a big advance overseas just deluding themselves and losing potential sales in the meantime? Or is this just sensible business practice, and I’m being a digital ideologue? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.

Pearson, REDgroup, Amazon and the Depository: The Market Concentrates

Big news the past couple of days! So very big that I’m still having trouble digesting it all. But here it is – Pearson, the parent company of Penguin Australia – have bought the online arm of the bankrupt REDgroup (that is, Angus & Robertson and Borders). That was a couple of days ago. And then in unrelated related news, Amazon bought the Book Depository – the only real international competitor they have for selling books.

This is big news for everyone in the Australian book industry (and possibly everywhere else). But particularly the Australian industry. The Book Depository represents only a small part of international book sales – and still only a small proportion of the UK book market, where the company is based. But in Australia? A massive chunk. Forget Amazon. The reason local booksellers are threatened by online bookselling is largely to do with the Book Depository and their loss-leading free-shipping tactics.

So what the hell is going on? Was there monopolistic Kool-Aid in the water supply over the past week? Or am I cynically bundling two vaguely related stories into one neatly packaged blog post? You be the judge.

Let’s start with Amazon and The Book Depository. The Book Depository was founded by ex-Amazon people, and I’ve always secretly thought they didn’t see the business model as particularly sustainable, and were waiting to be snapped up by Amazon at a later date and a decent profit, once they’d had off with as much investment money as they could garner (which, I should point out, they’ll pay off in spades with the sale of the company to Amazon). There’s no evidence I can find that they were profitable yet – though they may well have been eventually (or might have been already – I’m not one of their investors). According to some reports it appears that they were somewhat dependent on a massive discount from the Royal Mail – which they may not continue to get with Amazon in charge. At any rate, there is already speculation about investigation from various trade commissions into this new potential monopoly.

Either way it’s quite possible that the Book Depository will cease to be as good as it used to be at doing what it did best. And what the Book Depository was very good at doing was stealing market share from Amazon. That is without doubt a blow to competition. It’s certainly true that since the Depository has been around, books have been available more cheaply to readers – especially in Australia. But there’s also an argument to be had here that this was a bubble that was always going to burst – based as it was on investment rather than profit – and in the meantime it has contributed significantly to the decline of local booksellers (both on and offline).

Now to the Pearson–REDgroup Overmind. This is a real noodlescratcher. There’s a diversity of opinions here. Peter Donoughue over at Pub Date Critical believes that it’s a stupid move by Pearson. The intricacies and subtleties of running an online retailer are too great a burden for a mere publisher, he says. On top of that, it might be that the dual (and sometimes conflicting) responsibilities of being a publisher and a retailer will be too much for one company. But I guess if they run into trouble, they might ask Amazon for advice. It’s very likely that some publishers, as Donoughue says, will be deeply suspicious of Pearson’s intentions, and may refuse to work with them. Just as other book retailers have been unwilling to stock the books that Amazon’s publishing imprints are beginning to put out in print.

Once again, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, it seems to me that a massive corporation like Amazon needs to have competition from someone – and perhaps one day that’ll be from someone like Pearson. On the other hand, however, all this concentration of power into the hands of fewer owners doesn’t seem to me to be a good thing for anyone except the owners. Cultural diversity is a beautiful thing. Being flexible and nimble is also a good thing. Monopolies are traditionally not very good at fairness for their customers in the long run, nor at adapting to change. This has been the whole problem with publishing companies in the past few years – too slow to react, too massive and too conservative to change when a reaction is deemed necessary. You can see the Big Six publishers in the US (and Australia) are struggling under the same conditions now. Does it really make sense for Pearson and Amazon to be getting bigger and even more burdened by conflicting responsibilities in this climate? As always, I do not have the answer. But I’ll admit that this news makes me distinctly uncomfortable. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Special thanks to Twittervirate @ryanpaine, @mrconnorobrien and @felicetherese for the long email conversation this evening. Most illuminating.

News Roundup: The Potterless is More Edition

The Pottermore ship has landed. Or at least, it has been announced. For everyone who doesn’t already know, JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series of novels, has finally announced her secret plans (based on rumours that have been bouncing around the internet for a while). They involve an immersive online game based on the books and a portal to buy the Harry Potter ebooks.

I’ve had quite a few people ask me in the week since this was announced whether this news will drive adoption of ebooks. The answer is – probably not. It won’t hurt, but ebooks are pretty much driving their own adoption at this point. The Pottermore announcement is good news for Harry Potter fans who are also ebook readers, in that they no longer have to go to pirate websites in order to read the novels. It will probably also sell a truckload of ebooks. But it’s also interesting because it sounds like JK Rowling is going to try to sell her ebooks exclusively from her own site without DRM, which will be an interesting digital distribution experiment. It also means it will cut out ebook vendors like Amazon. (Though apparently the backend will be handled by OverDrive, the same people who do the backend for Booku – so you never know!). Having said that, it’s an experiment that won’t have many applications in the future. The Harry Potter series is virtually unique in the publishing world – an phenomenon, written by a living author (who owns her own digital rights) with unprecedented fan attention. It’s not an experiment that can necessary be replicated elsewhere. Nonetheless, it’s fun and I’m really looking forward to delving into the new site and the new movie.

In other news, self-publisher extraordinaire John Locke has just announced that he’s sold a million ebooks. That’s a million. With six zeroes. Despite the fact that there are a legion of (clearly quite jealous) snobs who are getting predictably sniffy about Locke’s writing ability and his $0.99 price point, you can’t argue that this is not a significant milestone. At any rate there are thousands of other authors on the Kindle store with books selling for $0.99 who haven’t sold anywhere near a million copies, so the guy must be doing something right, love him or not. And now he’s written an ebook explaining how he did it: How I Sold One Million eBooks in Five Months. Curious and curioser – Mike Shatzkin thinks he might be selling better and more profitably with a traditional publisher.

In related news, an article by Laura Miller on Slate (titled Spamazon) has drawn attention to the electronic spam onslaught facing Amazon as more and more entrepreneurial authors and collators of out-of-copyright material have cottoned on to the ease of distributing so-called ebooks for a buck or two. Without the curation of either Amazon, an agent or a publisher, the market for ridiculously low-priced ebooks have become so flooded with new material that it’s virtually impossible to tell the spam from the authentic writers. Miller worries that these junk ebooks may actually end up discrediting the whole bottom tranche of cheap ebooks on Amazon – driving legitimate purchasers to the upper levels just so that people buying them will take them more seriously. I’m not sure about this, myself, but it’s certainly something to think about when pricing your self-published books (and when buying them).

Death of a Bookseller


I can’t tell you how many times we’ve buried the book in my lifetime. The fact is that we haven’t buried the book, and however all this works out, we’re still not going to be burying the book. People are still going to be reading books, and whether they’re going to be reading them on a Kindle or as a regular physical hardcover book or a paperback or on their phones or listening to audiobooks, what’s the difference? A writer is still sending his or her work to you, and you’re absorbing it, and that’s reading. – Super editor Robert Gottlieb in an interview on Slate.com

If you’ve been reading the book news lately, you will have heard the media, the Australian Booksellers Association and cultural figures large and small ream out the Minister for Small Business, Senator Nick Sherry, for predicting the death of the bookshop. Just to jog your memory, here is what Senator Sherry said:

I think in five years, other than a few specialist booksellers in capital cities, we will not see a bookstore, they will cease to exist.

We don’t need to put our thinking caps on for too long to realise that the Minister for Small business probably made a bit of a tit of himself when he made this proclamation – as a piece of political rhetoric it was clearly a misstep. But just how wrong is the senator, and how upset should we really be?

The pundits would have us believe that we should be furious. As Don Grover, chief executive of Dymocks, said on the ABC: ‘I think it’s bizarre that he’s made that assessment … People love curling up on a lounge with a book, the physical nature of the product. The smell of a book still rates as one of the most significant reasons why people buy books.’

This from Mr Grover’s exhaustive study on the book-buying public entitled, ‘Why We’d Rather Smell Books Than Read Them’.

I mean, seriously, people. If the most significant reason for buying books is the smell, then the book trade is in even bigger strife than Nick Sherry believes. Luckily for those of us who love books, it’s not the main reason people buy them – and even if it were it wouldn’t save bookstores. You see, it is entirely possible to buy nice smelling books from the internet. And that is the threat to bricks and mortar bookshops – the convenience and range offered by online shopping.

The book trade is in flux, and that means physical bookselling is under threat. There will certainly be casualties. Some of them will likely be booksellers. Some of the fallout is likely to happen within the next five years. Get over it.

Conflating the ‘book’ as cultural artefact and the ‘bookstore’ as cultural institution is not helpful. Nobody thinks bookstores aren’t a big part of how people have traditionally discovered, obtained and fallen in love with books. But the changes confronting physical booksellers are an economic and cultural reality. Just as the bulk of independent booksellers were swamped by giant book chain stores over the last two or three decades, so the chains will be eclipsed by online booksellers. However, online bookstores do not, for the most part, provide the same kind of curation and community that bricks and mortar stores do. If booksellers want to remain relevant, then these are issues that need to be confronted head on – not ignored because we have dared question the viability of an existing institution. Not mentioning that bookshops are closing does not mean we didn’t notice the going-out-of-business sales all over the country.

The times, they are a-changin’, but that doesn’t mean we should panic. We are more literate and books are more accessible than ever before. They’re about to get even more so. How we help people find the books they want to read is one of the main challenges facing the industry. So let’s stop the hysteria in response to any suggestion that things are going to change. They are, but booksellers clinging to traditional models will not help them to reinvent themselves.

If it Looks Like a Publisher and Smells Like a Publisher – is it a Publisher?

Apple, the world’s biggest technology company, have often claimed that they are at the metaphorical crossroads of technology and liberal arts. Amazon, it could be said, are positioning themselves at a different crossroads: the place where technology and consumerism meet. And Amazon are scarily good at what they do. They’re adept at predicting and exploiting the appearance of that peculiar space where technology and retail meet. And now they want to publish books too. I’ve written before about why I think Amazon might fail at publishing books. But I was wrong. Amazon won’t fail. But they may not completely succeed either.

For the past month or so, Amazon’s publishing announcements have come thick and fast. First it was Montlake (a romance imprint) and then Thomas & Mercer (a thriller imprint). Then they announced they were hiring old-school publishing bigwig Larry Kirshbaum. We can probably expect other announcements to follow. According to the article linked to above, one New York agent summed up the US trade’s response to Amazon’s announcements in one word: “anxious”.

Should publishers be anxious about Amazon moving into the publishing sphere? The short answer is yes, probably. But the full answer is more complicated than that. Amazon seems to hold all the cards when it comes to their newest venture. They have a powerful and vibrant vertical retail presence. They have enviable access to their customers’ personal information – both buying and reading patterns. They are young and technologically adept in a way that big old traditional publishing houses are not.

So why do I doubt they’ll succeed at publishing? The answer is going to sound a bit namby-pamby. But it’s true nonetheless. Amazon lacks passion for books. They may like selling books and they’re clearly very good at it. But from the word go, Amazon have seen books as just another product to drive traffic and make money, along with milk, bicycle tyres and modular arch-shaped window shades (thanks, Amazon!). You only have to look as far as the initial acquisitions made by Montlake and Thomas & Mercer to see this pattern. All of the authors picked up by the new imprints are authors with track records selling books.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with acquiring books that you know will actually sell. Most publishers would probably love to do nothing but that. But there’s not a word about first time authors. There’s nothing in the marketing bumpf about developing or discovering new talent. And as any publisher will tell you, you can’t make a publishing company work long term without finding new authors. Bestselling authors make companies profitable – but if publishers stopped publishing everybody else, there would no longer be an industry.

So here’s how I see things proceeding. Amazon is going to keep the bastards honest. All the people who complain about publishers not tightening their belts will certainly see that happen in the next couple of years. Prices will drop. Print books will go the way of the vinyl record. And it will all be in the name of competing with Amazon. But publishers will survive, and they will modernise. And they’ll continue to find new authors, and develop existing authors in just the same way as they always did. Those authors will still be loyal to the people who found and nurtured them.

Publishing books is not just about selling product, it’s a labour of love, even if sometimes the emphasis is heavy on the labour and low on the love. It’s true that geniuses are sometimes born, but they’re far more often made – an idea that is very unpopular in this new democratised, self-publishing-is-the-future digital world.

So Amazon will keep selling books. They may even keep publishing them. But long term? Until Amazon starts actually contributing to the literary heritage of great authors without just buying them from other publishers or skimming them off the top of the self-published list, I won’t believe they’re anything but a digital clearing house with deep pockets and a really good fake tan.

News Round-up: The Consolation Prize Edition

So this week brought not one, not two, but three updates to major e-reader devices from (arguably) three of the biggest players in the market. None of the three are groundbreaking updates, but three in one week? That’s … well, actually that’s pretty common. There are so many e-readers out there now that they’re bound to start stacking up on top of each other. But they are beginning to feel like consolation prizes without any major changes.

The first update of least import: Amazon Kindle‘s ad-supported model (called the Kindle with Special Offers) now includes the 3G model as well as the Wi-Fi only. The new model will be $164 – yet another $25 saving from the version without ads. As I’ve said before, I don’t really think $25 is enough of a saving to feel like a complete sell-out, but Amazon is making a case that there are some people out there who want the ads. Their argument is that the ‘Special Offers’, like shopping centre coupons, will attract the thrifty – presumably a key Amazon market. Another argument has it that Amazon might be trying to startup a Groupon-like deal network. (Groupon is called ‘Stardeals’ here in Australia).


Kobo is also issuing an update to its e-reader. The new Kobo sounds pretty good, but until I’ve played around with it I’m still feeling a bit suspicious. The original Kobo reader felt a bit on the cheap and nasty side and the software was low on basic e-reader functionality. The new one, called the Kobo eReader Touch Edition, definitely sounds better: unsurprisingly it offers a touchscreen that is used to flip pages. Initially shipping to North America, it’ll be priced at $130, with the original Kobo slipping down to just $100.

Last, but certainly not least, is Barnes & Noble’s new Nook, apparently subtitled the Simple Touch Reader. This one has, you guessed it, a touchscreen. But it actually looks pretty good (pictured at the top of the page). The market B&N are aiming for here is the same as the Kindle. The new Nook is dead simple: no hardware keyboard, a simple interace, very light in the hand (lighter than the Kindle 3, I believe) and matching the Kindle 3’s excellent battery life. It has Wi-Fi only, and will sell for $139 (though only in the US for now). It claims to have only one button, but the press release also says there are ‘side buttons’, so I’m not sure if there’s a wire crossed there or what. It illustrates an interesting trend, though, towards touchscreens.

Personally, I like a touchscreen on a device that I can actually interact with at a reasonable speed – like Apple’s iPad. But on an e-ink reader? I’m actually kind of fond of the buttons on a Kindle, knowing that when it’s pressed, it’s pressed. The delay (and there will always be a delay with e-ink) doesn’t bother me as much because I know I’ve pressed the damn button and it’ll respond eventually. When I’ve played around with Sony Touch e-readers before there is sometimes a frustrating delay between swiping to turn a page and the device responding. What do you guys think about touchscreens on an e-ink reader? Touch is the preferred interface method with Sony’s readers, and people seem to love them – so perhaps I’m dead wrong. Sort me out in the comments below.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

Another Sydney Writers’ Festival comes to a close, and yet another talk about the ‘future of the book’, this time by acclaimed science writer James Gleick in the closing address of the festival tonight. Gleick’s talk drew heavily from his new book, Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. Talks of this nature have become so commonplace at writers’ festivals and in publishing circles that a significant amount of time was set aside to debunk, ridicule and then gently agree with some of the more egregious clichés in this particular genre of literary talk.

To wit: a certain amount of rambling about the smell of books. I’ll be eternally grateful to Gleick for introducing me to the term biblionecrophilia (borrowed from Ben Ehrenreich at the LA Review of Books). However, while he did a good job of making the smell of books feel like an unimportant issue, he spent a good ten minutes on the topic and still left me with the impression that he secretly loves a good whiff of the pages of a slim leatherbound volume. I can’t blame him: I don’t mind the occasional whiff myself.

Gleick also spent a lot of time on the myth of the death of the book. He rounded up a whole herd of related tropes: the death of publishing, printing, the author, the written word and the ‘long form narrative’. All were given a reprieve, thankfully, though he does think some traditional publishers might not “yet think that the experience of ebooks should be beautiful.” He also believes that the publishers who triumph will be those who “regain confidence in their traditional virtues”, especially the “art of editing”. I couldn’t agree more with both assertions, though neither are breaking new ground, as far as observations about the future of the book go.

Having said this, Gleick stopped short of allowing that the form of the book – whether it is within the container of physical pages or inside an e-reading device – will ever change dramatically. The book, he said, is a “narrow communications channel” – and that is a good thing. While he seemed emphatically against the idea of hypertext fiction, he seems to assume that the failure of that venture to make in-roads into serious literature therefore means that interactive fiction never will – and will always be something separate from ‘the book’. The videos, animations and other graphical quirks of ‘enhanced’ ebooks, are no more than improved versions of the photographs and line drawings found in traditional non-fiction books. “Books, after all, have contained pictures, along with words, from the earliest times.” However, he says:

I don’t want hyperlinks in my books, or in the books I’m reading; I don’t want social bookmarking, or opportunities for online dating, or any other form of multitasking. I don’t need a chance to create avatars for my favourite characters. I don’t want anything, that is, to take me out of the book. The book is not a multimedia spectacle with subtitles … They talk about mash-ups, where the creative user can mix and mingle fragments from books at will. They encourage user interfaces that allow annotations by the reader, not just in their private margins, but collective sharing … Books are to be liquefied, seeped out of their bindings. There are smart and famous people who talk as if this is a good thing. I think they couldn’t be more wrong about what books are and what they are destined to become.

Although I’m of two minds myself about the book transforming into a multimedia spectacular, I don’t rule this out as either categorically a bad thing or an impossible one. Not only that, but many of the features Gleick outlines as being both undesirable and impossible have already been implemented by Amazon and others in e-readers that are available for purchase right now. Yet the author, for all the research and historical evidence he has accumulated demonstrating time and again the inevitability of change – still firmly believes that the narrative long form book is both superior to other forms of storytelling and will not ever be superseded. Does this come from any kind of evidence? Or is this just what James Gleick wants to happen?

My question for you all today is what we talk about, now and in the future, when we talk about books. It seems clear that the establishment is (reluctantly) ready to accept the ebook as a tolerable receptacle of book-like knowledge – but what about the enhanced ebook? What about fully interactive book apps? Where do you draw the line? And how much do you think the boundaries of what we consider a book now will change in the future? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.

News Round-up: The Go the F**k to Sleep Edition

Lots happening around the ebook traps this week and last. You’d have to be living in a ditch not to have at least heard someone mention Go the Fuck to Sleep, a humorous children’s book that has gone viral on the internet. What’s interesting about this particular development is that the full colour, full text PDF of the book has been circulating via email and is freely available on the internet, yet that has not stopped the book from going to number one on Amazon. Now seems to be the perfect time to re-link to this post and re-iterate the argument I made therein: if your book has been pirated 500,000 times, you are not in danger of never making any money from it.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon has basically come out and said that the company will be making a tablet this year, and rumours are flying that they’re not making one tablet but several (or at least two), with different screen sizes and processor speeds. Their product codenames are “Coyote” and “Hollywood”, proving that no matter how cool the news gets, codenames will always be cooler. And if that news didn’t convince you that Amazon is trying to take over the world, then check this out. If they don’t own your soul yet, they soon will.

More news on the Apple 30% vig stories. The app (and store) iFlow Reader has decided to close its doors due to Apple’s policy. In case you don’t remember me writing about this earlier, Apple has introduced a policy (or, more accurately, begun enforcing an old policy) whereby digital content apps, including all book reading apps, must go through Apple’s in-app purchasing system in order to on-sell their content. Apple’s in-app system skims 30% off the top of all sales, making it impossible for smaller businesses (like iFlow) to make the numbers work. Apple will begin enforcing this policy from June 1, so there’s likely to be a bit of news about this in the coming week.

Despite this, other rumours have emerged that there is a loophole to this rule – companies that would like to allow their content to be read on iOS devices but not purchased need only remove any link to their store. So, for example, those of you who have used the Kindle app on their iPhone or iPad will likely see a little “Kindle Store” icon in the top-right hand corner of the main screen. Using the new loophole, Amazon would only need to remove this link in order to make the app compliant. I guess you could argue this is a good thing, but you have to wonder who this is really hurting. Are Kindle shoppers really going to stop buying Kindle books because the link is no longer inside the app? No, probably not. But smaller indie publishers and retailers with extremely low margins and non-existent brand recognition will likely close down or labour in obscurity until they fail. This move by Apple is anti-competitive, anti-user and ultimately bad for everyone except Apple. If you’d like to complain, you can do so here.

Booku features in Weekly Book Newsletter

 

 

From the Weekly Book Newsletter, 11 May 2011:

BOOKU REPORTS STRONG SALES IN FIRST TWO MONTHS; SELLS 11 EBOOKS PER 100 PBOOKS

Australian ebook retailer Booku has reported strong sales in its first two months, with close to 2000 ebooks sold since its launch in March.

Booku managing director Clayton Wehner said in a statement last week that the company, which also owns online bookstore Boomerang Books, has been ‘pleasantly surprised by the website’s traffic and sales to date’ given that the company ‘fully expected to lose money for a good twelve months’.

‘We’ve actually achieved positive cash flow in just our second month,’ said Wehner. ‘Clearly, there is an emerging market out there for ebooks.’

Wehner said that Booku received more than 1360 orders and delivered more than 1700 ebooks in its first two months of operation. ‘In April, we quadrupled March’s revenue and we’re already on track to double that again in May,’ said Wehner. ‘Amazon sold one hundred and fifteen Kindle ebooks for every one hundred paperbacks in January this year–as a comparison, we sold eleven ebooks for every one hundred physical books in March and April.’

Wehner has also been pleased with the volume of traffic to the website, with Booku currently attracting approximately 8000 visitors per day and achieving a higher level of visitation than Boomerang Books.

Many of these visits are from international customers, with readers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, India and New Zealand buying ebooks from Booku. ‘One third of all orders have come from Australia, but we’ve had lots of orders from markets that are more mature in terms of ebook uptake,’ said Wehner.

Wehner said that the business will continue to expand, with plans to increase the amount of Australian titles available through the website and to open versions of the store in the US, the UK and New Zealand.

 

Why Nobody Blames Authors (And Why You Should)

Whether it’s geo-restrictions, digital rights management (DRM), ebook pricing or ebook quality, it’s rare to hear a reader blame an author for the state of an ebook (unless it’s self-published, of course). And I can see why. Authors are the public face of what readers love about books. They are the creative geniuses behind all the amazing books you’ve ever read. And it’s not just that. Writing books is really hard, and most authors only do it for the love of it.

It’s for these reasons and many more that the last thing we want to do is hang all the things we hate about ebooks on our favourite authors. Especially not when there are publishers, agents and ebook vendors who perform that role very well indeed thank you very much. None of this, however, changes the fact that a big chunk of the blame for why the publishing industry is as slow-moving, old-fashioned and afraid of change as it is lies at the feet of authors. I’ve written before about the Luddite nature of most book editors. But that’s nothing in comparison to authors. Nobody talks about the smell of books more than traditionally published authors. Nobody is more wedded to the comfortable, cyclical traditional publishing model than authors. Most authors love book launches, writers’ festivals, tours, publicity and going into physical bookstores to sign copies of their books for their fans, despite what JA Konrath might say. A huge chunk of authors either support DRM or don’t know what it is, despite the fact that most authors have more direct contact with their readers than their publishers. Many authors don’t care about ebooks, or are afraid of them, and certainly don’t read ebooks themselves.

And then there are the digital holdouts. Publishers don’t like to talk about them, because at the end of the day, most publishers would prefer to protect their authors and keep selling their books than drag their names through the mud in order to deflect the blame. But there are more than a few authors out there who don’t want to sell their books as ebooks at all, and refuse to make them available out of fear, snobbery or greed. Some of them are very big. JK Rowling is perhaps the most high-profile of these, but there are others. Some of them are even Big and Fancy Australian authors.

The fact of the matter is, the reason many of the annoying things about the publishing industry exist are to protect or promote an author’s copyrighted material. Many of these things are not bad at all for authors. Geo-restrictions, as frustrating and exhausting as they are for global ebook readers, are the result of authors protecting their copyright. Authors have the right to sell their copyright in different countries to different companies. Those companies are sometimes in direct competition with one another. This means authors get better deals, are treated better and are publicised and distributed more widely than they would otherwise be if they were sold globally by one single company.

So next time you start working yourself up into a rage about the greed of publishers, agents, retailers and all the other ‘middle men’, ask yourself what the author you love has to gain from the situation they are in. If self-publishing ebooks were as easy and inevitable as it is often made out to be, why aren’t there more authors who are self-publishing ebooks without DRM at super-low prices? The answer is simple: because they’re getting as much out of it as their publishers.

And if you’re a traditionally published author reading this and thinking, ‘That’s not me! I love my readers! I want my ebooks sold at $0.99 without DRM internationally!’ Then please, comment below. And more importantly, speak to your publisher. Educate yourself about ebooks and digital publishing, and you can take advantage of the changes sweeping the reading world. Because ultimately it’s your book, and you get to decide how it reaches your readers.

Easter Round-up

Easter has come and gone, and big things have happened in the world of ebooks! Sorry about that, couldn’t help it. That really is a big creme egg. Apologies for my lack of posts the last week or so, the unholy trinity of Easter, moving house and my special lady friend leaving the country for two months has left me with little time to keep you up to date. But rest assured, I’ve been keeping up to date – so I can hopefully fill you all in on the interesting tidbits that have been floating around the ebook blogosphere of late.

Amazon still doesn’t have a tablet but everything indicates it is on its way – perhaps even as early as this year. Quanta, a Taiwanese notebook manufacturer, has reportedly received an order for between 700,000-800,000 tablets that have been traced back to Amazon for delivery in the second half of 2011. Now, don’t take this too seriously just yet, these kinds of rumours are rife when it comes to companies like Amazon and Apple. However, there is other evidence. E Ink, the company behind the technology that powers the Kindle, Sony and Kobo readers, has announced that there will be no improved displays this year, which suggests that Amazon may not launch an update to last year’s Kindle 3. Amazon has also taken a commanding position in the Android operating system community (the OS that runs on the majority of modern smartphones manufactured today) by releasing their own version of an app store for Android devices. Unlike Apple’s iOS devices (iPhones, iPod Touches and iPads), any company can set-up shop on Android. Amazon are pitching their marketplace as a more curated (read: Apple-like) alternative to Google’s in-built and often chaotic Android Marketplace. Like Apple, Amazon has access to millions of credit cards and a very slick one-click ordering system. Along with the Kindle app, this puts them in an excellent position to launch a reader-centric easy-to-use tablet for readers who aren’t swayed by the single-function Kindle readers (but who don’t want to buy an iPad). Stay tuned for more news on this topic – definitely something to keep your eye on.

Apple seems to have relaxed their grip on the reins just a tad in their own App Store. News surfaced this week that Apple has struck a deal with Time in which they will allow use of their in-app subscription service (i.e. magazines that auto subscribe to new content) for free to existing Time magazine subscribers (that covers Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and others). Previously Apple had forced magazine publishers to charge a separate subscription for iPad readers, thus ensuring they were the ones to collect precious subscriber information and a 30% slice of the revenue. It’s too early to tell if this reflects on a general loosening of the restrictions on content publishers in the App Store – but we should all keep our fingers crossed.

The Association of American Publishers released figures suggesting that of all trade books sold in February 2011, ebooks were the highest sellers. The surge has been attributed to recipients of Christmas e-readers stocking up on reading material, but it’s still a great result for ebook enthusiasts. Regardless of how the AAP reached this figure, it’s now impossible to deny that ebook sales are moving faster than most industry insiders had estimated (at least in the US). This was followed by the announcement by Hachette (one of the oft mentioned Big Six US publishers) that ebooks now account for 22% of the US arm of the company’s revenue.

Closer to home, our very own Booku has announced that despite expectations that they would lose money in the first twelve months they already have a positive cash flow. Ebook sales are startlingly good for a new start-up in this space – proving that there is an appetite for ebooks sold by Australian retailers.

Well, that about covers the major developments of the last couple of weeks. Stay tuned for more regular posts. Same bat-time (or a series of other similar times), same bat channel.

Insights into Australian eBook retailing – Booku sells 11 eBooks per 100 physical books

New local eBook download website Booku (www.booku.com) has been operating for two months and the business has had a positive start, according to Managing Director Clayton Wehner. 

‘When we launched Booku, we fully expected to lose money for a good twelve months, but we have been pleasantly surprised by the website’s traffic and sales to date. We’ve actually achieved positive cash flow in just our second month.  Clearly, there is an emerging market out there for eBooks’.

The company behind popular Australian online bookstore Boomerang Books launched Booku on 1 March 2011. The new site has more than 137,000 eBook titles available for instant download, including a growing selection of Australian content.

Booku’s eBooks are industry-standard Adobe ePub and PDF files which can be read on a PC or Macintosh; a purpose-built eBook reader, such as the Sony Reader or Kobo; or on mobile devices, such as the iPhone, iPad and Android phones and tablets.

‘In the first two months of business, we’ve had over 1,360 orders and delivered over 1,700 eBooks. In April, we quadrupled March’s revenue and we’re already on track to double that again in May.’

‘Amazon sold 115 Kindle eBooks for every 100 paperbacks in January this year – as a comparison, we sold 11 eBooks for every 100 physical books in March and April.’

In its short history, Booku has sold eBooks all over the world and is planning to open US, UK and New Zealand versions of its eBookstore.

‘It’s no surprise to us that many of our early eBook sales have come from overseas because Booku carries quite a lot of content with ‘worldwide rights’. One third of all orders have come from Australia, but we’ve had lots of orders from markets that are more mature in terms of eBook uptake’.

Apart from Australia, Booku’s sales have come from United States (24%), United Kingdom (6%), Canada (4%), France, Germany, Spain, India, New Zealand and Italy (between 1.4 and 1.8% each).

‘One thing that we have found surprising is the volume of traffic to the website. Booku is currently attracting around 8,000 visitors every day and it has actually eclipsed Boomerang Books in visitation.  Normally it takes several months to achieve any level of penetration in Google, but our organic traffic has been really good’.

Booku is currently working with local publishers to increase the amount of Australian content on the website.

‘We’re keen to enter into dialogue with Australian publishers to assist them to sell their content through Booku. We really pleased to be selling content from the likes of Allen and Unwin, Pan Macmillan, Exisle Publishing, Wakefield Press, New Holland Publishers and University of Queensland Press.  Publishers soon to come on board include Random House, HarperCollins Australia, Scribe Publications, Murdoch Books and Text Publishing’.

The Booku website is at . For more information about how to list your eBooks on Booku, please contact Clayton Wehner at [email protected]

Ebook Prices and Greed

So I’ve been thinking about ebook prices and greed lately. There are a few good arguments for lowering ebook prices, mostly to do with the win-win situation when cheaper books mean more sales and more profits (i.e. it doesn’t always work). What annoys me, though, is that a big proportion of blog chatter about ebook pricing seems to be based solely on a sense of entitlement. Do people deserve to be able to buy books at low prices? And how low is low? As always, The Smell of Books does not provide an answer, but I’ll do my darndest to run in ever tighter circles around the question.

But either way, yes, I think publishers are losing the hearts and minds of readers. After all, readers don’t have to know about the ins and outs of the publishing business—they just have to know how it affects their own pocketbooks …

So said Chris Meadows in a recent post he made responding to my post on publishers losing the hearts and minds of readers. And I find it hard to disagree with him. Despite eloquent arguments to the contrary, I find it difficult to even argue with my friends who want to buy cheap books overseas or cheat territorial restrictions to get cheaper ebook prices.

There are many ebooks that seem to me to be very expensive. And yet working as I do for a large publishing company, I know that margins are tight, that people are tense and that the future of publishing is by no means assured. This is the rub. People want cheaper books, but cheaper books will cripple the industry. The reason for this incongruity, I suspect, is that the people who love books (and are demanding lower prices) don’t fund their production. Books are an 80/20 endeavour. In other words, twenty per cent of the books (or less) make eighty per cent (or more) of the profits. The massive amount of irregular book buyers buying one or two overpriced books a year fund all the other books that more dedicated, passionate (and proportionately fewer) readers buy regularly and enjoy.

So what’s the solution to this conundrum? Publishers have used book windowing to try to address this issue – retaining profits while still (eventually) making books affordable. Book windowing, for those who don’t know the term, describes the practice of selling hardbacks or trade paperbacks (the bigger paperbacks) at a higher price on a book’s release, then selling smaller paperbacks at a lower price later. However, windowing is under serious threat from ebooks, and, it can be argued, doesn’t seem to make much sense in a digital world.

Some would argue that publishers simply don’t have a place in the book world any longer. I disagree vehemently (as you’d expect). There is still a valid role for gatekeepers in the chaotic world of indie and self-publishing (follow the link if you want a good argument for it – Rich Adin does it admirably well). The fact that traditional publishers successfully act as curators of book content is part of why they can charge more for their ebooks and still sell more copies than most self-published titles – yet still people complain.

So what is the solution to this problem? Or is it even a problem? Is the customer always right? Should book prices be lower than they are? Is windowing a fair way of distributing the cost of producing books? What do you think? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.

Amazon Intros Ad-Supported Kindles

Well, it was always going to happen – and I’m not surprised Amazon did it first. Since ebooks first launched people have been predicting that ads would be unceremoniously inserted into their reading material. They were right. The question is – are we bothered? As the focus on books, particularly ebooks, has become more and more about price, readers may well welcome the opportunity to decrease the price of both the books they buy and the devices they read them on.

First the facts. The Amazon offering, with the Orwellian name of Kindle With Special Offers, will be sold from May 3 for $114. This new Kindle is essentially a six-inch WiFi only Kindle with special software, without which it usually sells for $139. The ads it will load up, as shown in the image above, will be restricted to the screensaver (which only pops up when the device is turned off or goes to sleep), and in a discreet (it is to be hoped) banner along the bottom of the home screen. Ads will not be served up within books, so the reading experience is preserved. According to Russ Grandinetti, the vice president of Kindle content, the company has no plans to launch ads within books, and told Business Insider that the company is sceptical that ad-supported ebooks are something customers would be interested in buying. Amazon will be promoting some of its own deals using the advertising, as well as ads from early sponsors such as General Motors, Procter & Gamble and Visa.

So now to the questions. Is a $25 saving really enough to opt in for these ads? Personally, I don’t think it’s enough for me to risk having my reading experience compromised. Make the Kindle under $100, though, and you might have yourself a deal. But perhaps that is Amazon’s ultimate goal, and it is merely waiting to see how successful these ads are before dropping the price further (or waiting until the release of a new model of Kindle to drop their prices further). There is also a chance that Amazon is looking to sell advertising on the Kindle apps for other devices such as iPhones, Android smartphones and iPads.

Another question: why is Amazon ruling out the possibility of ad-supported ebooks? Although I’m not personally interested in subsidised pricing, it seems like an option some people would be willing to take advantage of. Price is fast becoming the hot button issue for all books, but especially for ebooks. If you could get free or very cheap books with the occasional discreet advertisement – so long as the option was there for to buy the full priced book – I really don’t see the issue. For some books, especially reference titles that contain info I’m used to seeing on the internet (supported with ads), I wouldn’t mind getting cheaper prices and seeing a few ads. What do you think of advertising in ebooks? Would you ever opt for ads to get cheaper books or a cheaper reading device? Do you think advertising and books can ever go together – or does it somehow spoil the whole enterprise? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.

How to Use Google Reader Pt 2

In my previous post, I introduced the wonders of Google Reader, a fast and easy way to keep up with your internet reading – be it blogs, newspapers, long form journalism or any content that updates regularly. In this post I’ll cover off how to save and share your posts, and a couple of extra tips that makes using Google Reader a bit easier.

 

Saving and sharing posts

If you come across a post that you’d like to save to read later the easiest way to save it is to use stars.

 

 

 

You can access your starred items at any time by finding it in the left-hand sidebar. Your starred items will remain here until you unstar them.

 

 

Sharing posts works in much the same way. You can choose to follow other people who use Google Reader, or allow other people to follow your shared items by clicking on ‘People you follow’ —> ‘Sharing Settings’. When you first sign up to Google Reader, you’ll be prompted to add people to share with (and to share from). You can import friends from your Google address book if you’re on Gmail, or using their email address if they’re not. Shared items on Google Reader also sync directly with Google Buzz, Google’s answer to Facebook and Twitter.

 

Advanced Hints and Tips

 

Keyboard Shortcuts

Like all Google apps, Google Reader has a full suite of keyboard shortcuts, which you can check out by clicking here. However, if you’re just looking for the basics, the basics are full screen (hit F), scroll down (hit the spacebar), next item (hit J) or previous item (hit K). You can also star items by hitting S, and share an item by hitting shift+S.

 

Forcing a feed to be full text

Use FullTextRSSFeed.com or WizardRSS.com. Simply copy and paste the URL of the feed you want to get in full text, hit enter and either of these two sites will produce a new URL. Plug that into Google Reader’s ‘Add Subscription’ box and you can read that blog’s full text without having to open a new window.

 

If you’ve got no idea what the feed URL is – click on the feed you want to expand in the left-hand sidebar on Google Reader. Click ‘Show Details’ in the top right-hand corner of the feed, and the Feed URL will be at the top of the page.

 

Sharing with other social networks

Go to Reader Settings (top right corner) —> Send To to set up other social networks. All the big sharing sites are already set up, just tick the boxes and authorise Google to access the site and you can share directly from Google Reader with one click.

 

That about covers the basics, and a bit more to get you on your way. If you have any further questions about feeds or Google Reader, please let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.

How to Use Google Reader Pt 1

Virtually every site on the web nowadays that serves up content has a feed. That feed is a way for people to keep up to date with their favourite blogs and news sites without having to visit twenty different websites a day. There are basically two kinds of feeds – RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and Atom. For the purposes of the general (non web-developer) reader, they’re pretty much the same, and Google Reader can use either one.

Google Reader is probably the best known feed reader, but there are lots of others, including some that live on your computer desktop.

 

Logging in for the first time

For the purposes of this tutorial, I’ll assume that you’ve already got a Google login. If you don’t, you can sign up to get a Google account by clicking here.

Once you’ve got your email login and password handy, visit http://reader.google.com to go to Google Reader.

 

 

This is the screen you’ll see when you first log in. Feel free to scroll through the first few introductory posts and have a read.

 

Adding a Feed to Google Reader

There are two ways to add feeds to Google Reader. The easiest way is to click ‘add a subscription’ in the top-left hand corner of your Google Reader account.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes for whatever reason, Google Reader can’t find the blog you want to subscribe to. In this case, you can click on the feed icon It’s a little different on each website, but the key is to look for the icon below or the words ‘Feed’, ‘RSS’ or ‘Atom’. They can usually be found at the top, bottom or on the sidebar of most blogs and news sites.

 

 

 

Here are a few examples.

The Guardian’s webfeed:

 

The Sydney Morning Herald feed can be found at the very bottom of the main page.

 

 

As can the feeds for ABC News:

 

Many bigger sites provide multiple feeds depending on the kind of content you’re looking for. Once you’ve found the feed you’re after, click it and you’ll usually get a jumble of code that looks a bit like this:

 

 

To get it into Google Reader, just copy and paste the URL into the ‘Add Subscription’ window on Google Reader and click ‘Add’.

 

Some websites are a bit more clever, and give you options to subscribe using a particular reader. In these cases, just click on Google.

 

 

Viewing and sorting subscriptions

Once you’ve subscribed to a few of your favourite blogs, you’ll probably want to start reading them.

 

I’d recommend using the All Items view to see all your subscriptions together. You can scroll through each new post using your mouse, or by hitting the spacebar to move a bit more quickly.

 

As each new item is viewed a blue box will surround it. This indicates that you have read the item, and after you’ve done so it won’t appear in Google Reader again.

 

 

 

You can also view each website by its source by clicking on the individual feed in the left-hand sidebar.

Once you add a few feeds to Google Reader, especially if you go on holidays or don’t have time to check it for a few days, you’ll learn that your unread feeds can skyrocket very quickly. The last thing you want a piece of technology to do is to make it more difficult to keep up with the news you visit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neat freaks

There are plenty of ways to keep your feeds organised – you can use folders and tags. To access these settings just click on the small blue down arrow in the sidebar and navigate to ‘Manage Subscriptions’.

 

Full text vs Brief

You’ll notice that depending on the source, you won’t get the full news story in Google Reader. This is a way big news companies have of forcing you to go to their website to view their advertising. Some sites only show the headline. There are a couple of ways around this, in my next post I’ll cover a quick way of getting around this. Most blogs, however, will have the full text of every post up in their feed.

 

Alternatively, if you like viewing your feeds as headlines only, you can remove the briefs by clicking ‘List’ in the top right of Reader.

 

 

 

 

Could ebook piracy boost sales?

Piracy is the bane of the digital content business, whichever way you look at it. If it didn’t happen, content producers wouldn’t spend so much time and effort pursuing it in a fashion that is almost as ethically dubious as the act itself. And if producers didn’t go to such lengths to protect their content, it’s likely piracy would be less of a problem.

Content publishers, be they music producers, movie studios, newspaper companies or book publishers, all seem to be virtually unanimous in their view that piracy is bad for business. These industries, via industry organisations like the RIAA, have spent millions of dollars trying to pursue illegal downloaders and ‘educate‘ people that piracy is bad through advertising.

Despite all this, people continue to pirate content. This in itself proves nothing except that people are greedy and willing to go to great lengths to get free stuff. Ethical problems aside, however, there is mounting evidence that piracy might actually encourage sales of certain digital products.

In a recent interview with Forbes Magazine (titled ‘Steal This E-Book’) Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, explained this argument:

… let’s say that if by putting DRM in it I sell 10,000 copies and I make my money, and if by having no DRM 100,000 copies go into circulation and I still sell 10,000 copies. Which of those is the better outcome? I think having 100,000 in circulation and selling 10,000 is way better than having just the 10,000 that are paid for and nobody else benefits.

The argument is basically this: the people who pirate content are not necessarily customers who were it otherwise would have paid money for what they downloaded. Given this, content producers can’t count each pirated download as a lost sale. If this is the case, in what way should content producers consider piracy?

Are content consumers who are not paying for content adding value? O’Reilly would argue they are. Utilising social networks and good old fashioned word of mouth, people who read pirated content help sell ebooks, in much the same way lending books and secondhand book stores help sales of paper books.

O’Reilly is not saying that piracy never hurts content producers, however. He argues that the damage is mostly focused on people (in this case authors) who have a ‘very desirable product’. We’re talking big name authors here who sell hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of copies. O’Reilly has actually written a paper about this called ‘Piracy is Progressive Taxation’, in which he posits that the trade-off from making content more available and visible is that the most desirable products are pirated more often (in the same way that tax brackets should – in theory at least – take more from the wealthy than the poor).

In a similar way, the exposure that you get from free content actually helps drive visibility and awareness for people who are unknown. So we’ve always sort of taken the approach that on balance it’s OK, and we’ve also taken the approach that it’s more important to establish social norms around payment. The way that you do that is by honoring people and respecting how they act, people pay us because they know that if we don’t get paid we don’t do what we do.

This business model seems quite flawed to the kind of publisher who stresses out every time one of their author’s books is discovered on a filesharing website. But there’s more than a grain of truth to it. Books in particular have always been a product that has subsisted on passion: passion from its producers (be they authors or publishers), passion from its sellers and passion from its consumers.

At the very least this issue deserves re-evaluation. Particularly at the low-end of publishing, as book publishers face increasing cuts to their midlist and more authors are dropped. In the case of these authors, at the very least, publishers and agents need to be forward thinking about piracy. As O’Reilly says: “If people wanted 10,000 pirated copies of a book, the publisher and the author would be very, very well off. If 10,000 people are willing to pirate it, there’s a very large number willing to pay for it.”

How to Organise and Convert Your Ebooks with Calibre

If you’re reading this blog then you’ve probably got an interest in ebooks. If you do, then you may have already heard about Calibre. Calibre is a free, open source, cross-platform (Windows, Mac and Linux) ebook reader, organiser and converter. If you’ve ever listened to music you downloaded from the internet, then you’ll probably be familiar with iTunes. Calibre is just like iTunes, but for ebooks, and not owned, locked in and operated by Apple. Did I mention it’s free? Download it here.

It’s a pretty big download, so it might take a while. Also, if you’re trying to install it on your work computer, you’ll probably want to get in touch with your IT department, because you need admin privileges to install it. If you’re at home, then fire away.

 

Installed? Great. The first step you’ll be confronted with once Calibre is installed and you open it for the first time is the wizard.

This is not the wizard you’re looking for.

This is the wizard

You’ll be asked to find a place on your computer to store your ebook files, and to determine what kind of e-reader device you use. Calibre supports a broad variety of e-readers, including the Kindle, Sony and iPad. If you use more than one kind of device, then don’t worry – Calibre supports more than one.

Look! It’s John Birmingham’s latest book: After America

The next window should be relatively familiar to anyone who has used iTunes. It has a library where you can filter your ebooks by author, title, series, publisher or rating. You can also search for keywords. All of those search functions will be pretty useless to you right now, though, because you haven’t added any books.

To add a book, hit the ‘add’ button, and find your ebook file. Calibre supports virtually every format you can imagine for an ebook, though you should keep in mind that if you bought that ebook from a store (like Kobo, Amazon, Barnes & Noble or even Booku) it’s likely it will be protected by DRM (digital rights management), which will stop you messing around with it. Never fear, though! Calibre still allows you to import books with DRM, organise them and load them quickly and easily onto your ebook reader (you just can’t convert it to another format or read it from within Calibre).

Also, strangely, Calibre does not support Microsoft Word format – so if you want to read something you only have as a Word file, open that sucker up in Word first and save it as RTF. Then add it.

There are plenty of places you can buy ebooks from that don’t have DRM, and there are plenty of places you can download ebooks from for free as well. You can find a few of them in the resources at Booku. For those ebooks, Calibre really comes into its own.

Calibre can automatically download the cover, publisher, publication date and blurb for your ebooks from the internet. You can save ratings and tag your books for easier searching.

Calibre will also convert your non-DRM ebooks from one format to another. Say you have a free ePub book, but you want to read it on your Kindle. By hitting ‘convert e-books’ in Calibre, you can easily and automatically convert your ebooks from ePub to Kindle’s Mobi format. Then to send it to your Kindle, all you need to do is hit ‘Send to Device’, and Calibre will automatically email the file to your Kindle (though you will need to tell Calibre your Kindle’s email address in ‘Settings’ first). If you want to send a book to your Sony reader, just plug it in and Calibre will automatically copy the book you select onto your reader. Calibre will even send your book via iTunes (or email) to your iPad or iPhone. It’s very versatile, and once you get the hang of it, it’s very easy to use.

Calibre can do a lot more than convert and organise your ebooks. It can automatically download news from your favourite blogs and news outlets, package them up and send them to your e-reader. If you’re a self-published author trying to convert your own ebook, it can pull apart ebook files so you can iron out the bugs. And it can do much much more. But those are topics for another blog post, and you don’t need to be interested in any of that to get some use out of Calibre. If you have any questions about Calibre, or any of the topics raised in this post, feel free to post them below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Ships in the Night: Hocking and Eisler Switch Sides

News has surfaced this week of two surprising defections from rapidly entrenched sides in the Great Publishing Wars of 2011. In the red corner is the reluctant indie/self-publishing darling Amanda Hocking, author of several self-published ebooks and POD (print on demand) dead tree titles. Hocking recently announced she had sold over a hundred thousand copies of her books via Amazon’s Kindle store. In the blue corner is Barry Eisler (Barry who?), author of the John Rain series of thriller novels (published by Penguin) and surprisingly good-looking (in the publishing business we call them ‘promotable’).

So what’s happened, and why should we care? Basically in the past week these two have switched sides. Eisler has turned down a $500,000 advance by his publisher to follow J.A. Konrath down the self-published rabbit hole, and Amanda Hocking, it is rumoured (by Amanda herself), is on the verge of accepting a deal with a traditional publisher.

Quite a bit of blog space has already been filled up with speculation and analysis of this situation by smarter people than me. So for this post I would like to concentrate on how I think this situation might play out long term – or rather, how it might turn out to be representative of how books will get published in the future.

Most publishers wouldn’t argue that discovering amazing writers is one of the hardest parts about publishing. And when I say ‘amazing writers’, I don’t just mean people who can write well. There’s a sort of magic that takes place somewhere between the author, the page (or the screen) and the reader. The best publishers try to pick up on this magic and publish books that people want to read. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? That’s how fortunes are usually made in books – both by the publisher who discovers and develops the talent, and by the author who writes the actual books.

The difficulty with this kind of publishing is that the signal to noise ratio is incredibly low. Lots of people write, and love writing. Very few writers, relatively speaking, are worth reading. When there are very few publishers (indie fanatics, read: gatekeepers), then the bandwidth is going to be terrible. Publishers have tried harnessing technology to solve this dilemma in the past (see: Authonomy et al.) But I’ve spoken about the problems surrounding community-based filtering before.

What the Eisler / Hocking switcheroo has shown us, though, is that self-publishing (at its low end) can provide a low-income microcosm of how traditional book publishing plays out. It’s far more market-driven than traditional publishing. And its cut-throat competitive nature ensures that only the authors who have the magic – and the persistence, hard work and nous – will make headway. In the years to come, the self-publishing arena will, I am sure, be a goldmine for traditional publishers.

And the price publishers will pay for this amazing organic filtering service? The risk of losing their existing authors to the clamoring, messy, dynamic horde of self-published writers. Publishers really will have to compete to hold on to their successful authors, particularly those that are self-starting, driven and ambitious. Some authors (like Eisler), will find that the odds are stacked in their favour. But many authors just want to write, and don’t want to spend their lives administering their own career (like Hocking). And there will be other authors still who are created in the self-publishing bubble and never leave – an option that could not have existed only a few years ago. All of this is great news for readers, authors and publishers. There will be better books, and more of them, they’ll be easier to find and (one hopes) the right books will find the right audience more of the time. In others words, it’s a great time to love books.

Are Publishers Losing the Hearts and Minds of Readers?

Here’s a fact that might not surprise you very much: the internet is full of idiots. The idiots come in many flavours, but the kinds of idiots who are annoying me this week are some of the people who write blogs about ebooks.

Let’s kick off this discussion with a few choice quotes from some blog posts I’ve read in the last week or so:

From Delimiter: Publishers in Australia refuse to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 19th century, let alone the 21st century … The Publishers in Australia are heavily addicted to the large margins that Australian books traditionally generate … Publishers are trying to protect their rivers of gold (book sales) by pricing eBooks in such way that makes them less attractive.

I kid you not – RIVERS OF GOLD, people. That’s what publishers are making from paper books: RIVERS. OF. GOLD.

From BookBee: In either case, Billbo posits that publishers are publishing poor-quality ebooks as a Cee Lo Green-style “f$&ck you” to the medium in general, because they’re frustrated … This is so out there that I hadn’t even considered it to be possible … But, really thinking about it, it may well be true. This is the kind of bloody-minded thing that a control freak manager who has had things go his own way for decades might actually do … Yes – sheer madness. Sadly, some publishers have form in the madness stakes.

That’s right, readers: publishers – particularly control freak publishers – are deliberately introducing errors into ebooks because they don’t like them.

I wonder if either of any of these bloggers has ever met or spoken to a real human being who works for a publishing company? Because I guarantee you that if they had they would learn two things a) the old stereotype of the boozy publisher with deep pockets full of cash died twenty years ago; and b) publishers are anal retentive freaks who hate the idea of errors slipping into the books they publish even more than their readers.

To think otherwise speaks of a genuine ignorance and a completely unfounded hate for traditional publishers. For the most part, people who work for publishing companies are in love with books. They love everything about them, and that’s why they work in an industry that pays them all so badly. Traditional publishers are not saints, but they are not the enemy of the reader.

To be fair, these bloggers aren’t the only voices out there. There are plenty of people on all sides of the new publishing paradigm that are speaking sense. Take the phenomenally successful self-published author Amanda Hocking (who I wrote about late last year), who wrote on her blog last week:

Traditional publishing and indie publishing aren’t all that different, and I don’t think people realize that … I just don’t understand writers animosity against publishers. So much of what I’ve been reading lately has made me out to be Dorothy taking down the Wicked Witch … Publishers have done really great things for a really long time. They aren’t some big bad evil entity trying to kill literature or writers. They are companies, trying to make money in a bad economy with a lot of top-heavy business practices … Traditional publishers are not evil any more than Amazon or Barnes & Noble are evil.

Which brings me back, finally, to the title of this blog post and the central question I want to ask of all of you out there. Do blog posts like the ones at the top of this post convince you that publishers are doing bad things for the future of reading? Because I worry that they do. Every time I read one of these posts it makes my blood boil. Not just because I work for a major publisher and know what goes on there doesn’t compare to the bad press they’re getting, but because Amazon and Apple – major companies with a lot more sway over the future of reading than publishers – seem to be getting a free pass. So, let me know what you think in the comments.

iPad 2 Sells Out in the US: Should You Buy One?

 

As some of you may already know, the iPad 2 was announced on 2 March, and released on Friday in the US to much fanfare. News has officially surfaced about the tablet sales over the weekend and it seems overwhelmingly good (for Apple, at least): the iPad 2 has completely sold out, and sold more than half as many again as the original iPad. What does this mean for Australians – and more importantly, what does it mean for you?

The answer? Not much. Going by the early reviews of the second iteration, your decision to get an iPad should not be much different from when the first one was launched last year. If you were waiting for Apple to iron out the bugs for the second version, then wait no more – the iPad is ready. If you were dubious about the iPad the first time around, then it’s likely you’ll feel exactly the same way now.

Almost a year on from getting my iPad, I realise that although it’s a desirable product, it is something I found a use for rather than found useful in and of itself. It is a gadget, and as a gadget lover it is a beautiful thing. As an editor, I’ve found the iPad far more useful than I thought it would be. It’s versatile enough to read any manuscript you can throw at it, and as a device for editing it is as good or better than a laptop. As an avid reader of websites, blogs and other social media, it is a device that fits somewhere between a smartphone and a laptop. It’s also fantastic for travelling – ten hours of battery life takes you a good long way into a long haul plane trip. It is not ideal for writing – the on-screen keyboard is great for short bursts of text but for the most part it is inferior to a laptop.

For most casual users of a computer who are not yet in the habit of checking social media sites or email every hour or so, it is less useful than a laptop, and not as specialised as an e-reader in either battery life, screen quality or heft. And that means it falls between use cases. I am not an average user, and the iPad is not an average gadget.

For the most part, people still don’t really know why they want an iPad (or any tablet for that matter). Apple seems to be adjusting their own expectations as well. The original iPad was launched with a keyboard dock and a suite of Office-like apps. The iPad 2 has dropped the keyboard dock and is now concentrating almost entirely on casual media creation – it sports new video editing and music mixing apps, as well as a photo booth app for taking and editing photos.

Having said all that, if you’re still entranced by the shiny new iPad 2, and you have the money, then you should get it. This is a purpose-defining gadget – something you will use once you own, because it is a pleasure to use. If you’re a reader of ebooks, despite all my reservations about the direction Apple is going in, it is still more open and more versatile than a Kindle (or any other straight e-reader).

 

GIVEAWAY WINNER

It’s my pleasure to announce the winner for my last post’s giveaway. Congratulations to Melinda! I’ll be in touch with Melinda by email this evening to arrange the $100 worth of Booku Bucks.

How-to: Buy and Read an Ebook from Booku Pt 2

This is a two-part post. To read part one, please click here.

 

Reading Using Overdrive

Booku ebooks are compatible with any reader that’s can read Adobe Digital Editions DRM. That means you can use it with a Sony eReader, a Kobo eReader or any other (and cheaper) brand that is compatible with Adobe’s DRM (most e-readers are compatible with this, with the exception of the walled-garden Kindle). For a refresher on DRM (Digital Rights Management software) click here. The Overdrive app on Apple’s iOS devices means you can also read them on the go (read: on the toilet) from a device that can fit in your pocket.

The Overdrive app is a pretty barebones affair at the moment. As far as I could see there was no dictionary, search or annotation functions, but we can expect the reader to improve over time. There is a bookmarking function, and you can use the table of contents to flip through chapters. Overdrive is also the supplier for most library ebook selections, so once you’re all set up it’s worth getting in touch with your local library to see if they offer any ebooks for loan (which will be absolutely free). Overdrive also supplies digital audiobooks, so I’m hoping for a homegrown competitor to Audible as soon as possible.

 

Giveaway

To celebrate the move of Smell of Books to this shiny new location, I’m giving away $100 worth of Booku Bucks credit in the new store. To enter the draw, just leave a comment below or send me a direct message on Twitter. Tell me something you’d like to read about at the new Smell of Books location – questions, criticisms and commentary are all welcome. Alternatively, if you run a blog or other website, link to the Smell of Books and I’ll also put you in the running. I’ll draw the winner from one of these sources (randomly, not based on some kind of qualitative analysis, so don’t be shy!), and will announce it in the next week or so.

How-to: Buy and Read an Ebook from Booku

 

Welcome to the new location for the Smell of Books. From now on you’ll find the blog over here at Booku. To celebrate the launch of the site at the new location, I’ll be giving away $100 credit in Booku Bucks. Read on to find out how.

 

What You’ll Need

To buy a book from Booku (pronounced, if you’re curious, as BOOK-OO, not BOOK-YOU) you’ll first need a couple of things.

  • Download the Overdrive Media Console app from the App Store on your iThing (skip if you use a Sony or other e-reader)
  • Sign up for Adobe ID by clicking here
  • Sign up for a Booku account here
  • Enter your Adobe ID in the Overdrive Media Console app by hitting ‘Get Books+’ then ‘Settings’ then ‘Authorize with Adobe ID’

 

Buying an Ebook

Once you’re all set up, buying a book from Booku is easy. For the purposes of this guide I’m going to buy a copy of The Finkler Question the winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize.

Many bestsellers are available on the front page of the site, but if you’re looking for a specific title, use the search function to put in the title, author or keyword.

Once you’ve found the book, hit the green ‘Buy Now’ button and follow the prompts to buy the book using a credit card or PayPal. You can do this via your computer or your iThing. To download the book to your iThing, however, you have to log in to your Booku Shelf, by going to: http://www.booku.com/member/myProfile.cfm

Once there you can hit ‘Download’ and your book will open up in the Overdrive Media Console app ready for reading.

To load your book onto your Sony or other e-reader, check your manual to see how to load Adobe DRM ebooks. It’s usually pretty straightforward, but each reader is different. If you want some help with this, leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to walk you through it.

 

This is a two-part post. To read part two, please click here.

Media Release: New eBook download website Booku goes live

Australian consumers can now purchase the latest bestselling electronic books from a new local eBook download website – Booku – at www.booku.com.

The company behind popular Australian online bookstore Boomerang Books have launched the new website today in Adelaide. The new site has more than 134,000 eBook titles available for instant download, including a growing selection of Australian content.

EBooks downloaded from Booku can be read on multiple devices, explains co-owner and General Manager Clayton Wehner.

“Booku offers industry-standard Adobe ePub and PDF files which can be read on a PC or Macintosh; a purpose-built eBook reader, such as the Sony Reader or Kobo; or on mobile devices, such as the iPhone, iPad and Android phones and tablets”.

“We’ve provided simple step-by-step guides on the website to get customers up and running quickly with their preferred device – it is really simple to get started and consumers will be pleasantly surprised with the convenient reading experience that eBooks offer”.

The Australian market has been slow to embrace the eBook phenomenon, but the eBook industry in the US and UK is maturing quickly. “Several weeks back, Amazon revealed that 115 Kindle eBooks were sold for every 100 paperbacks sold in the month of January. The New York Times now has a dedicated eBook Bestseller List. Forrester Research says that the eBook market in the US will triple to $3bn by 2015. There is a clear shift occurring and this will inevitably flow through to Australia”.

Despite clear growth of eBooks in overseas markets, many readers in Australia remain unconvinced about the new technology, although Clayton says that attitudes are changing.

“Many people argue that the tactile feel of a paper book cannot be replicated, but the latest reading devices have a great feel about them, their displays are soft on the eye, and page turns are smooth. On top of that, a reading device slips inside your pocket and can store thousands of titles at one time”.

“I think many people are quick to dismiss eBooks without giving them a go – I am certain that this attitude will change in the coming years, particularly as we have generations of book consumers coming through that are conditioned to using mobile devices. I’d encourage anybody who is sceptical about eBooks to try them out – you won’t be disappointed”.

The range of books on Booku is expected to grow significantly as the popularity of eBooks increases both locally and globally. Whilst most existing eBook content providers are focused on the US and European markets, Booku intends to maintain an Australian flavour.

“In keeping  with our Australian focus with Boomerang Books, we’re hoping to increase the amount of Australian content on Booku. Certainly, we’re keen to enter into dialogue with Australian publishers to assist them to come on board. We’re already selling content from the likes of Allen & Unwin, Pan Macmillan and HarperCollins”.

What Do You Want From Your E-reader?

Has the focus on reading – and reading anything you want – been swept aside in order to make it easier to buy content? Until very recently, relatively speaking, e-reading was all about what digital text you could get your hands on. Most of it was free, out-of-copyright stuff from the web. Some of it came via longform journalism (also on the web). And some of it, yes, came from piracy. Although nowadays content can be purchased easily from multiple sources, I would argue the e-reading experience as a whole has not improved as much as Apple, Amazon, Google and their ilk would have us believe.

I first started reading ebooks and other digital content on a Palm Zire in 2003. It had a tiny screen, no wireless capabilities, and the only two stores you could buy content from were Mobipocket and eReader (both of which have since been bought out and absorbed by Amazon and Barnes & Noble, respectively). At the time there were virtually no books available on these stores that I actually wanted to read, so my reading was heavily supplemented by free material from elsewhere. To add my own reading material, I had to convert the files manually, plug the device into my computer and transfer them across. Although wireless and screen technology are light years ahead of my old Palm Zire, the process of reading non-standard material  has not really changed dramatically since then.

At the time I owned the Zire, I also had a first generation iPod, which seemed to me to be the most amazing piece of technology ever. Just plug it in and fill it up with music. Conversion and transfer was all handled through iTunes, which could also organise your music library and play your music for you when you were at your computer. People have had their share of complaints about iTunes, and I certainly have issues with it in its current incarnation, but to begin with it was an incredibly freeing experience. The iPod was portable digital music. To your iPod, the music you got from a CD (or free off the web) was no different to the stuff you could buy (much later) from iTunes itself.

So where was the iPod moment for e-reading? It has never come. Although the Kindle ecosystem has come the closest to recreating the ease of use of the iPod it’s still not there yet, and may never be. Primarily it is a device intended to be used with purchased content – and that content has to come from the Kindle store. Can you imagine if you were only able to load songs onto your iPod if you’d bought it from Apple first? The iPod would never have achieved such a dominant position with such a narrow focus.

Where is the device out there that puts the act of reading at the centre of the experience? Where is the device that doesn’t care where your text comes from, but just wants you to read? My list of demands is not unachievable. Completely wireless loading and conversion of any piece of text I’d like to read; a built-in dictionary; highlighting and annotation (and wireless export of these annotations); Bookmark syncing between devices; and, of course, the sharing of passages and annotations through social networks. Most of these features are available to readers if you buy your books through Amazon or Apple and only read on a Kindle or an iPad – but what about other content? Reading has never been just about blindly buying what’s served up to you in a store – it’s an organic, social experience. And none of the major reading platforms cater to that.

My ideal reading platform has not been created yet. All the major players are far more interested in locking you into the device they make and the content they provide than wanting you to have an ideal reading experience. But I suspect that when that platform comes along, there will be another iPod moment. And the way things are going I very much doubt it’s going to be Apple or Amazon.

What do you think? What do you want from your e-reader? Are you happy with what’s already out there? Or do you think I’m just being a giant early-adopting whiner? Sound off in the comments.

What the Failure of REDgroup Means for Ebooks in Australia

Anyone who follows book news cannot have failed to hear about the collapse of REDgroup’s Borders and Angus & Robertson bookchains last week. But what does this mean for ebooks? Depending on who you listen to ebooks are one of the causes of REDgroup’s slide into administration. But is this true? Are ebooks destroying the common dead tree bookseller? And did video kill the radio star? Read on to find out more.

For those who don’t know, Kobo is a Canadian ebook platform that partnered with Borders in the United States, and Borders/A&R in Australia. As I said back at Christmas, it may not have been the brightest move on Kobo’s part to tie themselves so closely to Borders, but they did. And that means that even though Kobo is not REDgroup, they will suffer some of the consequences of the collapse, including the withdrawal of books by some publishers from their joint library.

Although I’ve complained about the Kobo ereader and their flaky platform before, they were the only real competitor to Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem and Apple’s iBookstore. They were unique in Australia because their partnership with Borders brought them mainstream, nationwide legitimacy and a physical retail presence – something neither Apple nor Amazon can compete with. From all reports this partnership has been relatively successful – it was one of the few areas of their business that REDgroup wasn’t entirely bungling. This is part of the reason why ebooks cannot be blamed for the collapse: like it or not ebooks are still only about 1% of the industry here in Australia – and REDgroup had already carved themselves a healthy chunk of that 1%. While that number is growing very fast, ebooks are not putting booksellers out of business just yet.

No, what destroyed REDgroup was incompetence and greed. While various pundits have tried to blame parallel importation, the GST, and even the internet as a whole – the fact of the matter is that REDgroup are the only Australian bookseller currently under administration. And while plenty of booksellers are struggling, they haven’t had fraught relationships with suppliers for the last twelve months, and they haven’t been jacking the prices of their books up over RRP. And they haven’t been selling barbecues instead of books.

Regardless of the outcome of REDgroup’s period under administration, the Borders brand has been seriously tarnished by this collapse, and that’s only going to get worse with issues like the recent decision not to honour customer book vouchers. You can safely predict that Kobo’s ascendancy in Australia will be slowed for a while to come.

So where does that leave ebook buyers and readers? Or rather – where does it leave readers who don’t want to submit to the Amazon or Apple gulag platforms? Well, with the recent news that Google are looking to partner with groups of retailers rather than individual booksellers, things on the indie front appear to look a bit bleak. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The annual post-Christmas survey in Bookseller+Publisher demonstrated that while the dead tree book industry is trembling under the threat of a shrinking market – ebook readers and ebook sales are healthy and growing. Not only that, but 40% of booksellers not already selling ebooks are planning to do so in the next year. This is great news for readers – with the freeze of Borders/Kobo, there is a lot of room for new growth. And new growth in books can only be a good thing.

As a culture, we’re currently undergoing one of the largest paradigm shifts in cultural consumption ever. It is now more than any other time that we cannot afford to have dead weight like REDgroup dragging the rest of us down. So I say the king is dead – long live the king.

Review: The Daily Pt 2

READ PART 1 OF THIS POST

Having said all that, what The Daily does not do is shift the pendulum back towards news as a single portal paradigm – and that is its ultimate downfall (and possibly the downfall of all printed newspapers and magazines). Nowadays when I read news, it isn’t through a single organisation’s curated (or created) window. It’s by flicking between links shared on Facebook and Twitter, and it’s a process frequently interrupted by sharing things I read with other people I trust.

Which is not to say The Daily doesn’t at least try to interact with Facebook and Twitter. It really does, and it does so in a way that makes it unique to paywalled news – you can share almost every article in The Daily, and people can read it through a web browser – it just isn’t as compellingly interactive as it is on the iPad, and you can’t browse the entire issue except in the paid app. But that isn’t to say that the process of sharing articles is easy.

What you get when you try and share an article from The Daily is a carefully crafted advertisement for The Daily. The link is still there, but this isn’t a click and go process, and that rather misses the point of the modern news sharing paradigm. News isn’t about where it comes from, it’s about who it comes from, what it is and who you trust. If I wanted a curated news experience on the iPad, I’d just use Flipboard and my Twitter stream. And that may not be the average news reader’s experience, but that is where it’s heading – and trying to dam the river with an app like this isn’t going to stop it.

That’s something that any digital industry can learn from The Daily. Digitising content isn’t just about making it available digitally – it’s about hooking into the new ways people have of finding, sharing and consuming content. Now we’ve just got to find a way to get people to pay for it – and that’s one experiment The Daily is pioneering that I suspect will be very interesting indeed.

Review: The Daily

There is no shortage of comparisons between the book industry and the music industry, despite their obvious differences. However, book publishers are loathe to compare the digitisation of books to the digitisation of newspapers and magazines. And that’s mostly because paper and mag publishing is (arguably) facing off against far bigger problems than the book trade. Chief of those problems is how to get consumers to pay for content. And that’s where The Daily comes in.

The Daily is Rupert Murdoch’s tilt at making paid newspaper and magazine content work online. For the moment it exists exclusively on the iPad, and it’s the first iPad app to leverage Apple’s contentious new subscription system. And it’s a good deal too. At the moment The Daily‘s content is free to try, but when subscriptions start rolling out in a couple of weeks, it’ll cost just $0.99 per week (and there’s an entirely new issue every day, with updates throughout the day).

Click on any of the images in this post to see them full-size.

So what’s the app like? I guess you could say it’s slick. If I were the kind of person who read a newspaper from cover to cover, I’d say it gave me almost everything a paper gives you and more: all the regular sections of a daily paper (arts and lifestyle, gossip, politics, technology, opinion and business), comprehensive (American) sports coverage, sudoku and crossword puzzles (which can be linked through Apple’s Game Centre to compete against friends) and much more.

The app’s interactive elements definitely have a bit of a wow factor – not because they’ve never been done before, but because the content is so fresh. This isn’t just a one-off app like an iPad book, or the gorgeous interactive table of elements app. This is immersive daily news. It’s a format I could get used to. There are photos with zoomed in hotspots, 360-degree photos, live polls, animated elements; not to mention most articles have an audio version (read out by a real person), and there’s a video that gives the highlights of each issue that can be interrupted at any time to go to the full story being talked about. You can ‘shuffle’ The Daily to take you to a random section of the issue you haven’t read yet, and flick through individual pages like you would in a physical paper or magazine.

Having said all that, what The Daily does not do is shift the pendulum back towards news as a single portal paradigm – and that is its ultimate downfall (and possibly the downfall of all printed newspapers and magazines). Nowadays when I read news, it isn’t through a single organisation’s curated (or created) window. It’s by flicking between links shared on Facebook and Twitter, and it’s a process frequently interrupted by sharing things I read with other people I trust.

READ PART 2 OF THIS POST

Apple Screws the Pooch Pt 2

It was either ‘Apple Jumps the Shark’ or ‘Apple Screws the Pooch’. But which do you prefer – the scary apple or the adorable puppy?

This is the second part of a two-part article. To read the first part, click here.

Here’s where Apple made even me suspicious. In its clarification yesterday, Apple said that it isn’t only in-app transactions that it is forcing onto its system, but any transaction. To use Apple’s own words:

We are now requiring that if an app offers customers the ability to purchase books outside of the app, that the same option is also available to customers from within the app with in-app purchase.

This great big steaming pile of crap basically means that any platform that wants to make an app for the iPad or iPhone to sell and/or read books has to at the very least give their customers an option to buy books through the Apple-sanctioned method – which gives Apple 30% of the profit. And it’s not just the profit. It’s the transaction – which means Apple can leverage the data collected (who bought the book, when they bought the book, how often they buy books and from which apps) to optimise their own book store – and they get that information for doing absolutely nothing. There’s also a massive doubling up of energy and effort here: Amazon, Google, Kobo, Overdrive and every other book reading app that offers a store already has a store. Apple skimming 30% off the top is nothing but pure greed. And if they stick with it, they will fail. And here is why.

Those who know me well (or know me at all) are probably acquainted with my pile of Apple gadgets and my willingness to justify spending vast amounts of money on the latest and greatest from Cupertino. That’s because despite every anti-competitive, backwards-thinking, mean-spirited thing they do on the iTunes or App stores they still make pretty things. Very pretty things. In fact, they make billions of dollars from selling pretty things for exorbitant prices. Just a small example of this: it was announced today that despite having only having 4% of the global smartphone market share, Apple still makes 50% of the profit from sales of the iPhone. That means there are a lot of people out there who are willing to spend a lot of money on Apple hardware.

And that’s because they make good hardware. It was the reason the iTunes store and the App Store were created. To sell more hardware. Apple may have revolutionised music sales, and made a killing doing it, but they did it by selling iPods – not by selling music. If they try and take complete control of ebooks on iOS (the iPhone and iPad operating system) in this way, then all it will mean is that ebooks will fail on iOS. Books are not like music. There are already quite a few established sellers of ebooks with more market share than Apple. And books are already too expensive, and too unprofitable for Apple to skim yet another 30% off the top.

So Apple have screwed the pooch. What are they going to do about it? The views on this story seems to be entirely negative. Will they try to spin it into something positive for consumers? Or will the famed Apple marketing machine fail? Only time will tell, but unless Apple rolls over on this issue it will be a bad thing for books in general.

Apple Screws the Pooch Pt 1

News has surfaced in the last couple of days about Apple and how they’re once again ruining it for everyone. Why, Apple, why? I didn’t want to believe it myself at first, but now Apple have clarified. Yup, definitely evil. But it’s not just evil – it’s really stupid. And here’s why.

To summarise: two days ago, The New York Times reported that Apple had some made some changes to the App Store rules which meant that Sony could no longer sell ebooks through their reading app on the iPhone. Instead, Apple would force Sony to use a system called “in-app purchasing” – which means that every transaction made within an iPad or iPhone app goes through Apple and the iTunes store. That means 30% of every book sold goes to Apple. There was a massive (I argued) overreaction to this, as every man and his dog predicted that Apple was being evil and trying to take over ebooks. I thought they were evil, but I thought they were being evil in the same way they always are. Apple have always had it in for software developers trying to sell things directly through their apps. This is why Kindle’s iPhone and iPad apps force you to go to the browser to buy a book, but Apple’s own iBooks app lets you do it without going to the web browser.

I thought (wrongly as it turns out) that this meant apps like Kindle and Overdrive wouldn’t have to change, because all of their transactions take place on the open web. If you don’t know what that means, let me explain: I open the Kindle app on my iPad; I want to buy a book; I click a button in the app which takes me to the Amazon website; I buy my book; the Kindle app re-opens and I can start reading. In Apple’s iBooks app, on the other hand, I press a special button inside the app; there’s a fancy-pants animation that turns my bookshelf into a secret rotating door; I buy my book; the secret rotating door rotates again and I can start reading. In other words, there’s not that big a difference, save for the magic rotating door.

This is the first part of a two-part article. To read the second part, click here.

The Not-so Silver Lining of Cloud Ebooks

I’ve talked about ebooks in the cloud on this blog before, but with the launch of Booki.sh (partnered with Readings) and the imminent arrival of Google eBooks, we have two very viable cloud ebook systems setting up shop in Australia. Despite very different backing and support, these two platforms share a similar philosophy – ownership of and access to a book is essentially the same thing.

Technically, if you buy an ebook these days, you’re not really buying the book itself. It’s a common complaint and criticism of ebooks – the ebooks that are for sale are crippled with unreadable and ignored user agreements and with DRM (copy protection software). You can’t resell an ebook and you can’t share it with a friend (with some notable and limited exceptions). You don’t actually own anything physical, just the bits and bites of ones and zeros inside your e-reader or computer.

The Booki.sh  and Google eBooks systems don’t really give you any fewer rights to your book than if you bought it via the Kindle or iBooks stores. The difference is that there is no file to download. Instead, you access your book directly from Google or Booki.sh’s servers using your e-reading device. Your computer may temporarily store (or cache) a copy of the book so that you can read it while you’re not connected to the internet, but you never actually download a file to your desktop that can be moved around, copied or accidentally deleted.

The functional difference between accessing your ebook through the cloud or by downloading a file is negligible, and the possibilities offered by cloud ebook systems (instantaneous bookmark/notes/social network syncing etc) are exciting. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that a book I buy through a cloud ebook store is not really mine.

I do understand the frustration of people like Joseph Pearson, one of the people over at Booki.sh, who spent some time this week defending the concept of ebook ownership in the cloud to readers on the company blog. As he says:

And this is the point: if you “own” the ebook file, locked up with DRM — that’s actually the most anemic definition of “ownership” I can think of. I don’t see how — short of hacking it — that file is any insurance of your continued access to the book if you’ve purchased it from any of the major ebook platforms.

And this may well be the rub. When I buy an ebook, I like to think that given some light Googling and a bit of an investment of time, I can probably strip the DRM off the sucker. That means I own that file no matter what happens to Amazon or Apple’s servers. I don’t, in reality, bother doing this very often – but I know I could if I had to. Relying on cloud-only access to my book makes it feel more like rental than ownership – even if the DRM on an ebook makes it functionally the same.

Having said that, I doubt most ebook buyers think about this at all. So I’m interested in what you think. Do you buy ebooks? If so, where from? Would you consider buying ebooks through a cloud service like Booki.sh or Google eBooks? If not, why not? Do you consider the ebooks you do buy and download to be yours, and is DRM a consideration when you purchase? Even if you’ve never bought an ebook in your life, let me know whether this is something you think matters or would affect your purchase (or even the price you’d be willing to pay). Sound off and let me know in the comments below.

Amazon: Still Evil After All These Years Pt 1

Last week I discussed, among other things, the rise and rise of Amazon’s Kindle in the ebook space over the past few months, and how difficult it is going to be for other retailers to get into this space. Despite this, I’ve been happy with my choice to buy a Kindle, and still think that Amazon has the best overall ebook platform for readers. I also said that I hoped Amazon would not do anything too evil in 2011.

Then I read this. For those who don’t have the time to read a ten-page investigative report on Amazon and the book trade, allow me to break it down for you. For a number of years, Amazon has been using their clout (they are responsible for about 75% of online book sales in the US) to demand larger and larger discounts on sales from publishers. This is pretty much par the course for large booksellers, and it’s been happening the world over since the 80s. What disturbs me more than this, however, is what booksellers call the ‘co-operative advertising’ element of Amazon’s demands on publishers.

For those who don’t know, co-operative advertising, or promotional allowances (known as co-op) is the term used by big booksellers for the fees charged for premium placement at the front of a bookstore for that publisher’s books. For example, if you go into a Dymocks or Angus & Robertson bookshop, the books that are placed right at the front of the store in big carousels and piles are not there by accident. Their publishers have paid to ensure that they get good placement in the store. These payments even extend to the so-called ‘Top 10’ areas in many stores – which are often not even the real top ten or bestseller lists at all, but a list of books that publishers have paid to be placed there. Evil, you might say, but these payments are pretty standard now, and according to the Boston Review article linked to above, publishers (at least in the US) now allocate approximately 4% of their net revenue for co-op payments.

Where Amazon is different is the scope of what they can charge for, mostly because of the technology they have access to. For those of us used to using Google, we assume when we search for products on a store’s website, we’re getting a kind of ‘best pick’ attempt to find what we’re looking for. Apparently this is not so:

“Amazon also may turn off the search options to publishers’ books, making it possible to find a title only when the correct name of the book or the ISBN is entered.” What publishers were supposed to get in exchange for this co-op, was, essentially, not being made to disappear from the Web site.

This is a two part post. Please click here for Part 2.

Amazon: Still Evil After All These Years Pt 2

The following is the second part of a two-part post. Click here for Part 1.

More amazing to me is the co-op payments involved in Amazon’s recommendation engine. If you’ve ever bought anything from Amazon, you’ll have seen the panel at the bottom of every screen telling you what other products people who liked this bought. I’ve always seen it as a useful way to discover books I may not have heard of, through the purchases of readers who buy similar books to me. I assumed there was some kind of mysterious Google-like search algorithm at play, and that it was designed for me to find books I want to read. Not so:

Most customers aren’t aware that the personalized book recommendations they receive are a result of paid promotions, not just purchase-derived data.

But wait – there’s more. Not only are Amazon’s explicit advertising, search and recommendation algorithms a result of publisher co-op payments – the very price you pay for a book on Amazon is determined by yet another algorithm.

Algorithms can also affect how much customers pay for books. Individual customers may get different discounts on the same book depending on their purchase history. The practice is euphemistically called “dynamic pricing.”

So, Amazon is certainly not the benign dictator I kidded myself into thinking they were. But here in Australia, where we don’t have a homegrown Amazon distribution network, and people still have to pay exorbitant shipping fees to get their books out here, one has to assume they have far less sway.

That is until ebooks really take off. Despite the fact that we don’t have a local Amazon presence, this makes absolutely no difference whatsoever for Australian ebooks. And Australian ebook sales are overwhelmingly dominated by the Kindle, and are likely to remain so for some time. At the moment, it’s unlikely Amazon is charging these kind of co-op fees for ebook promotion, because very few publishers are making enough money out of ebooks to justify payments. But you can guarantee they will.

So my question for you today – what do you think of Amazon’s bully boy tactics? Is this just the new reality and publishers should simply get used to it? Or should they be fighting the web behemoth every step of the way? Does information like this make you less likely to buy from Amazon? Does it even come as a surprise? Sound off in the comments and let me know.

Self-publishing Success Stories

I’ve generally been quite sceptical of self-publishing success stories in the past, largely to do with the prevalence of traditionally published authors turned self-publishers among their ranks. However, as was pointed out on JA Konrath’s website the other day, there are a number of self-published authors finding success using new digital publishing techniques who cannot be claimed by traditional publishing in any way shape or form.

One of those success stories is Amanda Hocking. According to the figures linked to above, Hocking sold – hold on to your hats people – over 100,000 copies of her books (both digital and print-on-demand) in December of 2010 alone.

Hocking sells her frontlist digital books for $2.99 and backlist for only $0.99, and sells the paper copies (through Createspace and Lulu.com via Amazon) for only $8.99. Considering Amazon’s cut for digital royalties is 70%, this means that Hocking made a minimum of $US70,000 in December alone – and it’s far more likely to be significantly higher than that.

This incredible success story looks to have only started in the last year – according to Amazon, the first book came out in March 2010, and she has put out more than a book a month since then (I presume some of them, at least, were written before she started putting them up on Amazon for sale – perhaps after she failed to attract a traditional publisher – but perhaps not). They’re not short either – the first book in her vampire series (pictured above) is just a mite over 80,000 words – respectable for a YA author.

Now, I haven’t read any of these books yet (although I’ve bought one, and am looking forward to having a read), so I can’t attest to their quality. But I don’t think that this issue is especially important. Selling a hundred thousand books in one month – even if they’re cheaper than a magazine – is something almost any traditional publisher would be willing to put aside their delicate sensibilities for. But it’s hard to imagine why Hocking, or those like her, would ever be tempted into the world of traditional publishing when they’re making a 70% royalty rate by self-publishing and selling in such volume.

And it’s not just the royalty rate. Without a traditional publisher behind her, Hocking is free to sell her books to any international market (Australian Kindle readers will be happy to know her books are available here for the same price as the US), she can experiment with pricing, release schedules, giveaways and social media in ways traditional publishers can’t hope to compete with purely because of the hulking bureaucracy such large companies drag along behind them means they’re just too slow.

Obviously it’s not all roses. I don’t know the full story here. It might be that these sales figures aren’t quite accurate, or there’s another missing piece. And it’s also the case that stores like Amazon are packed to the rafters with millions of self-published authors who have never (and will never) achieve this kind of success. However, this is the first time I have seen how and why a self-published author might get this level of success and not be lured into a contract with a traditional publisher.

At any rate, I look forward to reading Amanda Hocking’s books and having a chat with the seemingly delightful young author at some point in the future.