Ebook News Christmas Wrap-up

So the silly season has come and gone, bringing with it what is most likely the biggest shift in consumer behaviour in regards to ebooks that has ever occurred. As I’ve been saying for the past six months – the future isn’t just coming sometime soon, it’s already here. Here’s a wrap-up of the ebook news over the past couple of weeks that you might find useful.

As predicted, Amazon made great strides this Christmas into the ebook space. They announced that the Kindle is now their best-selling product of all time. This means it has outsold the final Harry Potter book, so we are talking millions of Kindles out there over the Christmas period. And due to the instantaneous nature of ebook purchasing, we’re quite likely to see a spike in ebook sales over the few days of the Christmas period – though we’ll likely have to wait a while before anyone releases those figures. Guestimates so far have pegged the number of books sold as close to 3 million, which is damned impressive.

A poll has shown that almost a third of internet users say they already have a Kindle or plan on buying one in the next year, and that 40% of iPad owners already have a Kindle or are planning to buy one – which seems to support the assertions of Jeff Bezos (Amazon’s CEO) that the Kindle and the iPad are not in direct competition.

All in all this has been a superb holiday period for Amazon’s Kindle – all the more reason to hope they don’t do anything (else) evil in 2011.

Google has hinted at a timetable for the Australian launch of the Google eBookstore initiative, indicating they may launch early this year.

The Borders/Kobo tagteam appears to be coming apart at the seams – at least one major publisher in the US has halted shipments to the embattled chain and Hachette are considering doing the same. This is bad news for Kobo, which has tied itself quite closely to Borders in the US and here in Australia (Australia’s REDgroup – which includes Angus & Robertson and Borders – has been considering cuts and facing disappointing sales for months).

Choice magazine has named the Sony Touch the best ereading device, which is good news for the ereader (and for the potential fortunes of other independent ereading devices that aren’t chained to a single retailer).

Forecasts are showing that tablet sales will more than double this year in the US, which is great news for Apple and the iPad, which will likely snap up a big chunk of that.

2011 is shaping up to be the biggest year yet for digital reading. Thanks for reading in 2010, and I look forward to your comments and support if you decide to stick around this year. If there’s anything you’d like to see covered or analysed in more detail – let loose in the comments or get in touch on Twitter.

The Wisdom of Crowds

The inimitable Cory Doctorow‘s latest project, With a Little Help, is a self-conscious attempt at creating a book that not only bends the traditional rules of publishing and distribution, but of editing, marketing, sales and just about every other aspect of book publishing you can think of. Like a few of Doctorow’s other books, With a Little Help will be available as an ebook in various formats from his website for free (you can download it for free or buy a paper copy here). What’s different about this one, though, is that it is the author’s first foray into self-publishing. There’ll be a low-price print-on-demand paperback version, a special high-price limited edition hard cover, an electronic audio edition for free, and a low-price CD audio edition.

There are a lot of very interesting things to be learned from this project, and I could go on about it for hours, but what I’d like to concentrate on right now is one of the ways Doctorow was able to put the project together, which is laid out in the title of the collection: with a little help. But he didn’t just get help from his friends – he opened up donations in time, money and expertise to the open web in a way that is usually described as crowdsourcing.

Just a few examples: he offered one reader or group of readers the opportunity to commission one particular story for the collection (for the princely sum of $10,000), fans from other languages or who use unusual ereaders can translate or convert his books and have them posted up alongside the official versions, he crowdsourced proofreading (giving typo-spotters a shout out in the endnotes of the book), web design, cover design (there are multiple covers) and even book packaging (he’s using discarded burlap coffee sacks to cushion the high-end hardcovers en route!).

What I love about this project is the sheer audacity of it. There are so many moving parts, so many different levers and buttons that Doctorow decided to press for the hell of it along the way that will make it a very interesting prospect to track as it makes its way into the marketplace. The crowdsourcing aspect means that all of his readers and helpers are all sharing a little in the outcome of the book (though not, it is to be assumed, in the financial outcome – if there is one). It is a grand experiment – the kind of thing that a major publishing company should be able to do, but usually doesn’t. My question for everyone today is this: what do you think of all this crowdsourcing? Is it inevitable that the quality of the book will slip? Would you proofread a book for free if you got a credit at the end for any typos you found? What do you love or hate about this project? Let loose in the comments.

How To: Edit on an iPad

The iPad has been hailed as a boon to readers of books, newspapers and the web since its release at the beginning of the year. And it’s a great device for passive consumption of multimedia content and for sharing – but what about working? Well, having tried to use it for writing, I’d say its potential for writers is limited. But what about for editing?

Unlike editing on a traditional computer, the iPad provides a more paper-like electronic editing experience. It’s still not perfect, but for less mark-up heavy edits (like proofreads, light copyedits and report-based structural edits), it’s excellent.

iAnnotate

I’ve tried a bunch of different PDF editing apps on the iPad, but the standout is iAnnotate by Aji. It sells in the App Store for about $12.99, which is a bit pricey for an iPad app. However, if you’re an editor and you already have an iPad, it’s definitely worth it. You might also want to invest in a stylus for the iPad if you foresee using it for editing on a regular basis. Although the device is optimised for a finger (and in fact doesn’t work with a normal touchscreen stylus), for fine-level work and writing freehand it’s easier to use a stylus. Aji has a deal with a company called brvsh to provide discounts, so it’s worth checking it out (under the help menu after purchasing iAnnotate).

Mark-up

The easiest way to load a PDF into iAnnotate is by email. Email yourself the PDF you want to edit, and you can easily open it up in iAnnotate. The app takes a little while to index the PDF, making it possible to search and annotate the text. If email doesn’t suit you, or the PDF to be used is too big to email, you can also load PDFs into the app via iTunes or by downloading a PDF from a website directly.

There are a bunch of different ways to mark up the PDF itself, but the main ones – crossing out text, underlining, highlighting, commenting and so on can be accessed on the customisable right-hand side palette. There is a similar toolbar at the bottom of the page used for navigating the document – searching, flipping pages, going to a particular page number or accessing and jumping straight to existing annotations.

One useful tip for editors is the ‘stamp’ function. Using this tool, you can save any single piece of mark-up (such as the delete mark, as above – click to enlarge) as a stamp, which can then be accessed on the palette. This means you don’t have to physically draw each piece of repetitive mark-up, it can be inserted into the document at the tap of a finger.

All mark-up, once inserted, can easily be moved around, deleted or changed. The page can be zoomed in (using the iPad’s pinch to zoom multitouch movement) so any fine editing can be easily done on spacing or punctuation (without straining your eyes).

Exporting

When you’ve finished editing and the time comes to get your document back onto your computer (or directly to the author or typesetter), there are a few options. Using iAnnotate’s sharing feature, you can choose to email the entire PDF, a textual summary of the corrections or both. If you choose to send the PDF itself, you can send just the pages that have mark-up, or the entire PDF. You also have the option (shown above) of exporting the annotations in full (so they can be edited using Adobe Acrobat software on a computer by the author or another editor), as flattened mark-up(which means the annotations can’t be modified, but can be viewed with any computer or printed instantly) or the unedited, unannotated version of the PDF (which iAnnotate preserves). This gives you lots of options to send corrections to the typesetter or back to an author to check.

What’s Missing?

Although iAnnotate is the most full featured PDF editor on the iPad, there are still a few annoyances. Chief among these is the search function, which doesn’t seem to recognise spaces. This means you can search for individual words in a document, but if you’re looking for a few words or a phrase – too bad. Another missing feature is the ability to use the keyboard to write in-line notes directly onto the PDF (like the Typewriter feature on Adobe Acrobat). However, these are small annoyances, and it’s likely Aji will address these in future updates.

Questions?

Editing is a big subject, and using the iPad is another big one – so if there’s anything I haven’t covered (or haven’t been clear about), please let me know in the comments below and I will update this post.

Google eBooks Launch: What You Need to Know Pt 2

Read first part of review…

Other software features and annoyances

Other than the unique features above, the Google eBooks platform is missing some ebook reader features that some readers may consider standard.

It does allow the user to choose the font, size, line spacing and justification of text, and includes a day/night mode (black text on white background or vice versa), as well as a (thankfully optional) 3D page turning animation (similar to the iBooks app on iPhones and iPads). There’s a contents page on most books, and it also has a search function, which is predictably quite good coming from Google. The software also supports syncing your place between devices, and, unlike the Kindle, it syncs your most recently read spot – not the furthest read – meaning you can flick back and forth in a reference text (or a book with endnotes) without messing your bookmarks up. However, there’s no ability to manually force a bookmark sync, so if you finish up reading on your iPhone in an out-of-service area and want to pick up where you left off later, you’ll be out of luck. You also can’t sync your bookmarks if you read a Google ebook on your Sony, Nook or other dedicated reader.

As far as software features go, that’s really about it. There’s no highlighting or annotation here, no dictionary, no ability to share snippets on social networks and the software doesn’t even support landscape mode. While the Google eBookstore website is pretty good, it is the only way to purchase books – there’s no in-app store like the Kobo and Borders apps. The platform also doesn’t support loading personal documents, which is disappointing from an ‘openness’ standpoint. Basically if you want to get free books from places other than Google, or read your own work documents or long-form journalism from the web, you’ll have to use a different app.

Having said all this, Google’s software is often released with a basic feature set and expanded over time. However, considering how late in the game Google has launched its ebooks platform, it will want to ramp up these features sooner rather than later if it is to compete with the juggernaut that is the Kindle.

DRM, territorial restrictions and piracy

Before launch, Google was touting Editions as being ‘ebooks without DRM’ – a concept that most people who know a little about ebooks thought was a bit fuzzy. The books were all supposed to be tied to your Google account and that was it – no other encryption or restriction, the books were all stored ‘in the cloud’. This turns out not to be the case precisely. Because Google eBooks also supports standalone readers like the Sony, Nook and a bunch of others, it has built-in support for Adobe’s Digital Editions DRM scheme. The good news for pirates (and bad news for publishers) is that this DRM scheme was cracked years ago, and will make Google’s ebooks just as easy to pirate as those from any other store.

Insofar as territorial restrictions go, however, Google has the store sewn right up. Unlike Amazon’s Kindle, whose territorial restrictions basically function on an honour system, Google restricts access to its US ebook store by determining where your IP originates (meaning you have to do complicated network messings-about to access the store) and also does not allow purchases from non-US credit cards. Australian readers who currently like to get the full range of US ebooks by pretending to live in the States will not be able to do this with the Google eBookstore. It also means that global travellers will need to ensure their books are purchased and pre-downloaded before they leave home – as their own eBookstore will not be accessible outside their home country from the device of their choice. Not a particularly ‘open’ system for Google to set up, but it will probably make old-worlde publishing types who want to restrict territorial copyright quite happy.

In summary

The Google eBooks platform is a welcome addition to the ebook world, particularly when it comes to their support of indie booksellers. With that said, the actual feature set they are offering is, at this time, still miles behind Amazon’s Kindle, and that’s assuming they really can compete with Amazon on range. Google has the resources and the connections to make this platform something pretty damn amazing, so while I’d recommend hedging your bets for now (especially as it won’t officially launch in Australia until next year) – stay tuned and keep an eye out – Google eBooks could be something really interesting very soon.

Google eBooks Launch: What You Need to Know Pt 1

After much anticipation, Google eBooks (formerly Google Editions) launched this week in the US. Claiming to have over 3 million books available (most of which will be free out-of-copyright titles), Google is likely to be the first ebook store to compete with Amazon in terms of range and availability. And the best part? They are offering to partner with independent bookstores worldwide to provide the backend of an ebooks service – giving indies a chance to get in on the ebook game. It’s impossible to know whether Google eBooks will succeed in the long term – but for now, here is a summary of all the available information since the launch.

Unique features

Like any ebook platform, Google eBooks has launched with a few features that make it different to most of the other services out there. Foremost among these is Google’s commitment to openness. Ebooks purchased through Google (or partner sites) will be available to readers on any platform Google supports – and they support a lot. They’re available through a web reader (a feature Kindle has plans to implement, but hasn’t done yet), through iPhone, iPad, Android devices and for a whole host of dedicated ereaders including the Sony and the Nook (but not including the Kindle, which says more about Amazon’s closed door policy than it does about Google). By opening Google up to partner book stores across the world, Google are also dedicating themselves long-term to a sustainable book industry in the digital age. It also means they get to leverage existing retail relationships with readers without having a significant online retail presence (unlike Amazon).

On the software front, the reader itself offers a few features that are rare, if not completely unique to Google eBooks. Because Google has procured much of their content through directly scanning books, they offer an option to flip between the scanned version of a page (as in the image of the book page) and reflowable text. On smaller devices like phones this isn’t going to be much use, but on the iPad, for example, where a general page size is smaller than the screen, this gives readers the opportunity to see the original font, spacing and little touches that many people miss from paper books.

Following on from this, Google’s page numbering system is also unique to their ebook platform. Instead of using a location scheme (like the Kindle’s cryptic “5826-36” system) or a percentage of the book read, each Google book is linked to a definitive paper version, and tells you what page (or pages) you are on and the amount of pages overall. This addresses one of the chief complaints I’ve heard about ebooks from dead tree enthusiasts – that reading ebooks doesn’t give you a clear idea of how far through a book you are. It also means that if you’re switching between an ebook and a paper book you have some idea of where you’re up to in both (though different editions of paper books do tend to have different page numbering – so usage may vary).

Rest the rest of review…

Old Before Our Time: The Future of Editorial Part 2

The following is the second part of a talk I gave at the APA’s Don’t Stet: Thinking About Tomorrow panel session on the future of the editor. You can find the first part here.

So, things are changing. But there are a lot of things we as editors can do to prepare ourselves.

We need to move away from the mental definition of a book being a printed object. Books are going to be different. Nobody knows exactly in what way, but the only way we can know what is going to work and what isn’t is to try new things. We need to experiment with publishing things that are probably not going to make much money, in the same way that we buy authors who aren’t going to make money because in three books’ time they might write a bestseller.

We also have to experiment with different kinds of reading. Below is a comment on a blog post I read recently about why someone would never want to start reading electronic books.

There is something about folding a paperback to snuggle down into the covers of a night. There’s something about being able to underline and use a highlighter for parts that stand out to you when reading and being able to put a date next to those. About being able to write notes with thoughts that have occurred when reading passages …

ALL this will no longer be possible if we lose the traditional book.

Books are my friends. Have been ever since I was young. They are an escape from life for a few hours to a distant land. A chance to grieve and mourn with others of a time long past when we read history …

Books in their printed hard or soft cover form also have something over the Kindle and other electronic forms of ‘books’. They will never run out of battery right in the middle of a really captivating part of the story, they can be read by anyone who can read the written language, so you don’t have to be up on the latest electronic gadgets. There is also the cost of a book compared to these newer readers.

Libraries also are WONDERFUL places to visit. The smells of the old books and the newer books as well.

I SO HOPE the paperbacks and hard covered books NEVER get taken away.

When I read this, I thought – what an idiot. And it’s not just because you can use a Kindle to write notes and highlight passages, or even that nobody is going to try and take printed books away  from anyone. It’s not even that line about books being the commenter’s friends. It’s because this kind of thinking is really common in the publishing industry, especially among editors.

And it is hubris to think that there is a right way and a wrong way to read books. Especially if you’re in the publishing industry. We are not passive consumers of books. Our choices help to define what a book is.

I know a whole lot of editors have ereaders already. But if you’re like the editors I know, you only use them so you don’t have to carry manuscripts around. When you want to relax with a book, you still curl up with the paper version.

Now there’s nothing wrong with having a preference for paper. There’s nothing wrong with this nostalgic, rosy-tinted view of books and reading. There’s also nothing wrong with thinking that books are your friends, either. But if you’re in the publishing industry, especially if you’re an editor, and you think of books in this protective ‘from my cold dead hands’ kind of way, then in less than five years time you’ll be ignoring the experience of a third of readers. And editors are supposed to be the reader’s advocate.

If we want to remain relevant, we need to innovate faster than our readers. We need to understand what readers want before they want it. Part of that is working out what kind of stories and content people want to read, and that’s something editors and publishers are already pretty good at. But another part of it is understanding how people want to read, and that’s not something we’ve had to think about for a long time. And if we start letting Amazon and Apple work that out for us, then we are going to end up working for Amazon and Apple. So we need to seek out new reading experiences, and try to understand them before they overtake us.

In our roles as author wranglers, we’re going to have to become, for some of our authors at least, the technology interpeter. If you’re not already familiar with the way Facebook and Twitter work, then it’s worth playing around with them. You can’t break the internet. Most authors in the next few years are going to have to develop a deep social networking presence, and if we want to remain relevant to them we have to know the answers before they start asking the questions.

Most of all, we need to learn to look past the limitations of technology and embrace the benefits. We no longer have the luxury of being precious about technology. It’s not worth focusing on the fact that you can’t read an ebook in the bath, or that you prefer the smell of paper books. The readers of the next ten years aren’t going to care about that. And if we want to publish books for those readers we need to know what they do care about.

And so to finish in the spirit of the structural edit, I just want to remind you that this is just my opinion – this is your industry. I eagerly anticipate your revisions.

Old Before Our Time: The Future of Editorial Pt 1

The following is the first part of a talk I gave at the APA’s Don’t Stet: Thinking About Tomorrow panel session on the future of the editor.

In a room full of editors I thought it would be appropriate to take the approach of a structural edit for this talk. You know the one: open with a few flattering remarks before saying what you really think.

So … I love books and publishing, and I think books and publishing are still relevant. And I believe editorial is one of the most important parts of the publishing industry. I also think that so long as we are willing to change, we will all find a place in the editorial department of the future.

Having said that, the publishing industry has been predicting its own demise since the printing press. So, in the spirit of pessimism, here are the reasons why I think we might all be unemployed in ten years.

The publishing industry hasn’t had to change for a very long time, and the changes we do make are usually slow. This has two effects: one is that we’re really bad at dealing with change, and the other is that people who don’t like change like to join the publishing industry.

Editors and publishers are probably the worst of the lot. I’ve spoken to editors with a fetish for particular brands of pencils from the 1970s. Some of us go weak at the knees for a nicely bound B-format hardback. Editors wear their disdain for technology like a badge of honour.

When I first started in the industry, we still relied entirely on a fax machine to send corrections to second pages to the typesetter. I mean, I’d read about fax machines on blogs and stuff, but I’d never actually used one until I became an editor. Until a few months ago, we still had to physically print out the 400-odd final pages of a book on our horrible and prone-to-breaking-down photocopier, then pay a courier to take it interstate to the printer where they would compare our print out with the version they had printed out from the same file on thousands of dollars worth of printing equipment. Just to see if there were any errors.

Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that publishers and editors like to do things in a certain way, and they usually don’t like experimenting.

So we’re not very good at changing, and we don’t like it when we have to do it. On top of that, the industry is run – let me say this delicately – by really really old people. And I don’t mean just in age. I’ve met some very old 25-year-olds since becoming an editor; it’s a cultural gulf. This isn’t just a problem because you have to talk to a lot of people who ask what a Facebook is, or constantly try to explain why anybody would ever in their right minds want to use Twitter, or even those people who still think the biggest roadblock to ereader adoption is that you can’t take a Kindle in the bath with you. No. The biggest problem with the generation gap in the publishing industry is that for all the sound and fury about the digital revolution, the people empowered to save the industry still seem to be playing the wait and see game, hedging their bets until the definitive digital model emerges.

Which leads me to my final reason for why I think we might all be unemployed in ten years. Those people are wrong. The industry is changing really fast. Or rather, people’s reading habits are changing fast and the industry is not keeping up with them. I’m sure you’ve probably heard the statistics. In the US the latest I’ve read is that 9% of the trade is now ebooks, which is up from about 3% the year before. We’re looking very realistically at a third of the industry being digital in the next five years. And after that the predictions are all over the place, because our business model is dependent on paper books. The long and short of it is is that we’re probably going to have to find other ways to make money. And if we don’t, somebody else will. And those people are going to take our jobs.

Stay tuned next time, folks, for the thrilling conclusion to this depressing topic!

The Leak That Launched a Thousand Political Memoirs

News surfaced today of a cache of over a quarter million confidential US diplomatic cables between embassies and consulates and the US State Department. The leak has been released to news organisations and has been made available to the public via the website WikiLeaks, a not-for-profit organisation devoted to releasing confidential documents that may have relevance to public debate. You can read an initial breakdown of the latest and greatest leak on the New York Times website.

The leak, the scale of which is unprecedented, cements WikiLeaks as an institution on the web and as an important tool for journalists the world over. It also raises the stakes for the organisation, as the leaks look to be quite embarrassing for the United States. But although WikiLeaks itself may eventually be destroyed by outside forces, lack of funding or its sheer infamy, it is representative of what the open web means for modern publishing.

The instantaneous availability of confidential source material to anyone with an internet connection is something the publishing industry is really only beginning to respond to. The existence of WikiLeaks (or any organisation like it) is further motivation for publishers to move faster and simultaneously provide deeper and more comprehensive analysis in order to justify the longer schedules involved in putting a full-length book together based on this kind of information.

The other big issue the open web raises for publishers is accountability. Traditionally, publishers rely on authors to do the due diligence in terms of fact checking in non-fiction. Although potentially contentious books are checked by lawyers, and editors certainly do a certain amount of fact checking, the buck generally stops with the author. As readers find it increasingly easy to check facts themselves on the web, it will become more important for this most basic level of quality assurance to take place before publication.

Quite aside from any of these points, there’s something essentially unromantic and lacking in smell-of-bookishness that turns me off WikiLeaks. Although the Watergate scandal would still have happened without All the President’s Men, there is something a bit depressing about Deep Throat uploading his information to WikiLeak’s online drop box.

My question for you all today is this: what do you look for in book-length journalism? Do you want a narrative? Do you want a big-name journalist attached? Does the story just have to be so huge it justifies the length and price? What draws you to reading journalism of this size? Or is the art of book-length journalism dead? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

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The Tyranny of the Digital

News surfaced this week of Rupert Murdoch’s plans to launch a newspaper exclusively on tablet devices. It’s the kind of plan that sounds great in a press release. Murdoch knows how to put a newspaper together – The Daily, as it will be called, will be housed in a real office, with real journalists, but it will not have a print or web edition. The only edition, which will be released seven days a week for 99c, will be available solely on the iPad. Murdoch, I fear, has finally jumped the shark.

It’s not that a new newspaper (can you even call it that if it’s not printed on paper at all?) is something to sneer at. Or that newspapers don’t need to experiment with new models to succeed. But the distribution model – locked to a single kind of device and behind a paywall – fails to acknowledge that people who read the news no longer do so in isolation. A huge proportion of digital natives rarely, if ever, get their news from a single paper delivered to their front door; news comes piecemeal from diverse sources like Facebook, Twitter and from multiple websites, RSS feeds and email. Most importantly, news comes from trusted colleagues, friends and family members – through connections that are more important than loyalty to a brand of news. Murdoch’s The Daily will not be able to join in on this participatory news experience, which is increasingly becoming the norm. It will be edged out by content that is more easily shared. In essence, like many follies in the digital era, Murdoch is trying to replace the analogue experience of a newspaper with a digital facsimile, and it is not going to work.

It’s a similar story with ebooks. Publishers would much prefer it if ebooks were just like real books, only digital. The problem is, they are most emphatically not. Digital content is completely different – it can be easily shared, copied and moved around. These things are all good things; they’re what make ebooks cheaper to produce, easier to carry and faster to buy. They are why ebook readers buy more books than regular dead tree book readers. But ebooks could be more successful than they are, and the reason they are not is that publishers (and retailers) are still trying to control the content in a way that is even more restrictive than the dead tree books they are trying to emulate.

Why, to pick just one example, are ebook loaning rights so restrictive? Barnes & Noble’s Nook already has the ability to lend books, and the Kindle is soon to join it. However, owners of digital books will only be allowed to lend a book once for a period of two weeks. Does anyone in their right mind really think that the book business is going to be sunk by giving ebook readers the ability to loan out their books to a single person at a time for as long as they want as many times as they like? This is a basic feature of any dead tree book, and the benefits to the book industry are obvious. Anyone in publishing will tell you that the basic problem with selling books to people is getting people to read books. To paraphrase Tim O’Reilly, obscurity is a far greater threat to the book than piracy. It’s why publishers give away paper books to drum up interest in it. It’s one of the cheapest ways to market a book. Why not harness the word-of-mouth power of social networks to get books out there to at least as many people as it was already getting out there with the paper edition?

But no. Where producers are able to restrict, they restrict. What producers of content are not doing is working backwards from what their consumers want. Consumers want fast, cheap, easy access. Producers of content want to be paid enough to keep doing what they’re doing. There is a compromise position between these two points that allows both to be achieved. But it won’t happen when producers are sticking their heads in the sand and trying to recreate the analogue in an increasingly digital world.

If You Guys Were Publishers, You’d Publish Books

So I watched The Social Network the other day, and there was a particular scene that grabbed my attention. In the scene, Mark Zuckerberg (the inventor of Facebook) tells a group of Harvard grads who are suing him: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.” It took me a moment to parse this zinger, and once I did I thought it might just be stupid. But a couple of items in the ebook news this week made me think of it again.

The first was Joe Konrath’s invented dialogue on his blog between an author and acquisitions editor. To spare you wading through the whole thing, the gist is this: digital avenues to publishing have made traditional publishers rip-off merchants who gouge authors to line their pockets. It plays into a deep vein of mythology in the aspiring author world – publishers are out to get authors, steal their work and change it, steal their profits and then dump them when they prove not to be profitable anymore. And to those authors, I say this: if you wanted to self-publish your book, you’d self-publish your damn book. To Joe Konrath’s credit, he has actually done this, and made a very decent living doing so. But a brief flick through the comments of his blog post are a sideshow of authors who agree with him, but haven’t actually found success by self-publishing their work – digitally or otherwise – all beating the same drum: the publisher is dead, long live the self-publisher.

The other bit of news that has been flittering around the blogosphere over the past week is that Amazon is setting up a script assessment arm. Essentially they’re creating a space for writers to critique each other, with the best scripts that float through the system being passed along to Warner Bros in an exclusive first-look deal. There’ll be cash prizes throughout to motivate writers, and any writer that does get their script successfully turned into a film is guaranteed $200,000 from Amazon. Many bloggers, understandably, are seeing this as the death knell for script assessment, and can easily see Amazon turning their vast infrastructure into doing the same thing for book manuscripts.

I can see the same thing happening. But I’m not as convinced that it’s going to work. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love it if it did. When Authonomy first started, I thought it was a fantastic idea. Get a community of writers together to assess each others’ writing, and the best will surely rise to the top, to then be skimmed off by enterprising publishers. But to the best of my knowledge, this hasn’t worked fantastically well for HarperCollins. And I don’t believe it will work fantastically well for Amazon either.

The thing about publishing books is that there is a massive proportion of people who read who also want to write. Massive. And here’s the other thing: most of them are bad. So while the theory behind getting writers to do their own filtering is enticing, the logic is flawed. You can’t ask bad writers to assess other bad writers and expect them to find gold. This is why the industry uses a pool of readers, editors, agents, publishers and even other writers to help filter out the bad from the good. All of these people are talented and have a stake in the outcome, and work very hard to maintain a standard of quality in published books. And readers still complain that too many bad books are published. And writers still complain that there are too many ‘gatekeepers’.

So, bring on the self-publishing revolution, I say. Let all would-be writers who cannot get noticed by an agent or publisher publish their own work. And let us see if it succeeds. Because I strongly suspect that if these writers and companies were publishers, they’d already be publishing books.

Interview with Author Tony Park Pt 2

Tony Park is an author, adventurer and reader of digital books, so I thought I’d interview him to get his unique point of view on the experience. Tony’s currently hooning around somewhere in Africa in his Land Rover, writing his next book and doing the occasional safari, but he was kind enough to take some time out to talk to The Smell of Books. This is Part 2 of the interview. You can read Part 1 here.

Does anything about the experience of reading ebooks annoy you?

There are a couple of things I’d like to see Amazon change on the Kindle. Firstly, I think there should be a ‘blurb’, the back cover summary of what the book’s about, up front when you start the book. Also, there seems to be little easily accessible information about a book, other than reviews by readers, when you actually buy the book online or via wireless. Having said that, I’ve actually found it quite fun to start a new book and not know the first thing about the plot.

Secondly, the Kindle expresses your progress through the book as a percentage of the total book, at the bottom of the page. Honestly, I’d rather know I’m up to page 221 of 663, rather than be told I’m at 33 per cent.

How long have you been reading digitally now? What positives about the experience stand out that you think digital sceptics might not have thought about?

We’ve had our Kindles for about two years now. I’ve found that two of the best things about Kindle that the sceptics probably haven’t thought about are swimming and drinking.

If you’ve just come out of the pool or walked out of the sea and you’re dripping wet and/or covered in sand, you can prop your Kindle a little way away and just reach out with one (dry) finger and turn the pages. You don’t end up with a book whose pages are caked in sand and swollen around the edges from water damage, and you don’t lose your page if the wind picks up.

Same goes for drinking (and eating). It’s a lot easier to turn the pages with a single finger while eating chips and drinking beer than it is to do all that and keep a book balanced on your tummy.

Oh, and another good thing is that you can have several readers on the one Amazon account. This means that both Nicola and I can be reading the same book at the same time, which avoids the fights we’d have over who’s going to read a paper book first.

As an author, do you worry about piracy in a world of easily downloadable books (and devices to read them on)?

Yes, that does concern me. However, it’s a bit like someone telling me that they’ve read one of my books that they borrowed from a friend, or bought at a second hand shop. There’s no money in either of those cases for me, but as an author who’s still relatively new on the scene and hoping to build up my readership I’m just happy that that book is being passed around, so I can get some more exposure. If I was at the other end of the authorly spectrum – selling millions of copies like Wilbur Smith, then I’d probably have too much money to be worried about piracy.

What are you reading now?

Michael Connelly’s The Reversal, on my Kindle, of course. I just finished Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants on Kindle and if I’d had that as a paper book I would have needed to buy a trailer for my Land Rover to transport it.

That’s it, folks, thanks for reading. While you’re waiting for Amazon to ask for Tony’s endorsement of the Kindle (“It’s a lot easier to turn the pages with a single finger while eating chips and drinking beer”), you can read a sample chapter of The Delta here, and if you like it – buy it. His backlist is here. You can visit Tony on the web here.

Interview with Author Tony Park Pt 1

Tony Park is an author, adventurer and reader of digital books, so I thought I’d interview him to get his unique point of view on the experience. Tony’s currently hooning around somewhere in Africa in his Land Rover, writing his next book and doing the occasional safari, but he was kind enough to take some time out to talk to The Smell of Books.

What was it that convinced you to finally go digital for reading?

My wife, Nicola, and I had been talking about ebook readers for a while, after seeing a Sony that a friend of ours from the UK was using. We travel in Africa for six months of every year in a Land Rover that we leave with friends in South Africa. As avid readers one of the biggest logistical challenges for us has always been having enough to read while we’re on the road. We read a lot while travelling (more so than at home), and it’s not unusual for us to be out in the African bush away from shops for weeks on end. Outside of South Africa it’s also hard to find decent bookshops on this continent. So we would carry a hell of a lot of books with us. To put it into perspective, we had four large plastic storage boxes in the back of the Land Rover for all our gear and one of these was devoted entirely to books. We thought that an ebook reader would be the ideal way to cut down on weight and bulk while travelling, and, as we tend to move in and out of internet reception, we liked the idea of shopping online or wirelessly for books.

Are you a digital convert for music, movies or TV? Or just books?

Books and music so far. I like the idea of downloading movies, and maybe TV series, but I haven’t cracked the code on how to do that yet. Our internet connection while travelling in Africa is getting better each year (we connect using a mobile phone connected to the laptop), and while it’s no problem to download books to the Kindle and songs to the computer, the speeds we get are not good enough to download movies. I’m evolving, though, and might look at downloading some movies before our next trip.

Why did you decide to go with Amazon’s Kindle?

I was doing some freelance writing work for a PR company in Sydney and one of their American clients had a Kindle (this was before they were released in Australia). I really liked the look of it and the guy offered to get us one and bring it back to Australia on his next trip. Nicola and I decided to give it a test run. It was a bit of a dodgy deal, as we had to register it with a US address, and we couldn’t use the wireless download function in Australia, but we loved it, right from the start. While we were away travelling in Africa the Kindle was released in Australia so we immediately ordered a second ‘proper’ one, and got Nicola’s mum to bring it to us in South Africa when she came to visit us. Before the second one arrived we were fighting over who would use the Kindle next.

Is there anything about good old fashioned books that you (or your wife) miss? And are any of those things enough to drag you back to paper books?

No and no. The first thing people who have never used an ebook reader say when you try and tell them how good they are is, “Oh, but I just love the feel of a book, and the smell of the crisp new pages … blah blah blah.” That’s a load of crap. I don’t miss the paper or the smell or the weight of a book!

However, if I’m in Australia (not travelling) in a bookshop and I see a new release by a favourite author I’ll buy the paper book version if I know it hasn’t been released on Kindle yet. It’s all about the words and the writer, not the medium, so I’ll grab a paper version – even a hardback – if I can’t wait. I’ve also got a few signed copies of books, which I treasure.

Tune in next time, folks, for the final instalment of the interview. In the meantime, you can buy Tony’s latest book, The Delta, and/or visit Tony on the web here. Check out his blog: he’s a seriously funny bloke.

Amazon: Defender of Free Speech?

I’ve written about Amazon and censorship in a past post, lamenting the possibility that Amazon would begin censoring its top lists of erotica for fear of annoying conservative shoppers. To their credit, Amazon hasn’t yet censored the erotica, but they have gone in the other direction, and allowed a book titled The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child Lover’s Code of Conduct into the store.

Now, when you read a title like that, you tend to have an automatic reaction. Probably disgust. In the realm of moral arguments, pedophilia is pretty much an absolute – like Nazis. But if you’re like me, you might have thought … well, it can’t possibly be what it purports to be. Pedophilia, although completely unforgivable and disgusting, is a kind of mental illness, isn’t it? And perhaps this is a guide (with an unfortunate, and perhaps deliberately inflammatory title) that purports to help people suffering from this illness. A niche product, you might argue, certainly distasteful, but presumably not inciting anything illegal.  The book’s description is somewhat confusing on this point:

This is my attempt to make pedophile situations safer for those juveniles that find themselves involved in them, by establishing certian [sic] rules for these adults to follow. I hope to achieve this by appealing to the better nature of pedosexuals, with hope that their doing so will result in less hatred and perhaps liter [sic] sentences should they ever be caught.

Amazon responded to the massive outcry on its forums and in the reviews section of this book, claiming:

“Let me assure you that Amazon.com does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts; we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions.”

“Amazon.com believes it is censorship not to sell certain titles because we believe their message is objectionable.”

The outcry is probably what caused the book, when I last looked, to shoot to #60 on the Kindle charts within the day, as people who wanted to know whether this book was as objectionable as it seems paid money for it. Nonetheless, I still hadn’t read any of the book, and had only read the bile-filled rants of the people who wanted it taken down.

And then I read this. I should warn you that the link will take you to an extract of the book, which may disturb you. The gist is that this book is not a helpful guide for repentant pedophiles, but a how-to guide on how to commit pedophilia without getting caught or harming your victim too much. That’s right. In the hours since this debacle, Amazon seems to have removed the book from its database, put it back up and removed it again. It hasn’t been posted up since.

So, in the most unambiguous example that I can think of – what do you think about the principle of free speech in this instance? Was Amazon right to take this book down? Or should they have stood up for the principle despite the outcry? I was a vigorous opponent of the ‘Clean Feed’ that the Australian government was attempting to inflict on the Australian public, which was (however half-arsedly) trying to stop Australians from accessing information just like this (along with actual images of child pornography and the websites of dentists). It seems, to me, to be a separate issue, but there are probably those who would argue it’s all one and the same. There’s also a big difference between a private company deciding not to sell a product because it offends paying customers, and the government banning a book. What do you think? Did Amazon do the right thing? Should this book be banned altogether? And if it were banned, do we honestly think we could block the content of the book from leaking? Or that there isn’t already information just as bad already out on the internet?

And after you’re done commenting, why don’t you watch this unicorn chaser. It will make you feel much better.

Macbook Air Review

On this blog I’ve reviewed a few dedicated ereaders, as well as the iPad, but I’m yet to look at a single one of the most popular digital reading devices out there – the modern personal computer. PCs probably provide the worst digital reading experience, yet most people still do the bulk of their digital reading on a computer of some kind. Not just that, but the vast majority of novels are written on computers. And seeing as this is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I thought I’d take the opportunity to review one of the latest laptops available: the Macbook Air.

Conversations about what kind of computer you use are kind of like political discussions – generally only interesting if you agree. Otherwise everything that comes out of the other person’s mouth sounds like absolute twaddle, and you can’t find common ground. So for those people out there who hate everything to do with Apple, it may do you good to read no further.

Nonetheless, let me say what a delight this laptop is to use. The model I’m reviewing is the 11.6″ Macbook Air. As far as pure grunt goes, it’s a complete lightweight. It has only a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor with only 2GB of RAM, both of which are upgradeable at purchase time (but not after, as everything is soldered to the board). Plus it only has a 128GB hard drive. But this computer does not feel like a lightweight. The hard drive is an SSD (solid state drive), which is the kind of memory those USB sticks have inside them. In other words, they don’t spin like optical hard drives (making the Air completely silent), and they’re very fast and small. The SSD makes the Macbook Air feel much faster than its specs would have you believe (if specs are something that have you believe anything, that is). I’ve been using a 2007 model Macbook for years, which had upgraded RAM and a faster processor than the Air, and it feels horribly sluggish in comparison. Applications like Word and iTunes, which take several seconds to load on a normal computer open instantly on the Air. It wakes from sleep instantly, and boots up in 14 seconds. Not that you really need to shut it down, as it boasts a deep sleep mode that can apparently conserve the battery for up to 30 days on standby. Although from the numbers alone it should seem like an expensive, underpowered machine, the Air does not feel at all slow.

Where the Air comes into its own is its size. Having a full size keyboard and very decent screen means that you get the same experience writing (or reading on the web) on the Air as you would on a much bigger laptop, except it weighs only a little more than an iPad, and is only a couple of inches longer. Unlike an iPad, you don’t need a heavy or bulky case, either, as it’s made of solid aluminium. I’ve now written a few thousand words on this thing, and it’s a beautiful experience. It’s so light it doesn’t feel like there’s anything on your lap, and it doesn’t heat up more than a couple of degrees even after hours of use.

When I first used an iPad, I thought it could completely replace my laptop for almost everything. That turned out to be not so true. The iPad is an excellent device for consuming content (with the notable exception of flash video) – be it on the web or through an app to read books and PDFs. It also has a ten-hour battery life, which blows the Macbook Air’s five hours out of the water. But the iPad falls down when it comes to content creation. I’ve tried writing on an iPad, even with an external keyboard, and it’s a pain in the arse. The touchscreen interface is not ideal for writing or editing text.

If you’re considering going digital when it comes to reading, then the Macbook Air, or something like it, should be a consideration. If you’re someone who writes for a living and likes to read, I’d recommend the Macbook Air and a dedicated (and far cheaper) ereader like the Kindle. If you’re someone who mostly consumes content and writes the occasional email, then an iPad with a cheaper, bigger and faster computer is a great combination to cover your digital reading needs.

NaNoWriMo Procrasti-tools

For those of you who are not masochists, you may not have heard of NaNoWriMo. It stands for National Novel Writing Month, and happens every November. Participants attempt to write 50,000 words over thirty days and thirty nights in an often vain attempt to make some headway on that novel many of us have stored in our brains and nowhere else. As an editor, I hear about these novels all the time. “Oh, I’ve got a great novel idea.” Many people do. But few people actually have the chops to sit down and write it. Hence NaNoWriMo: an opportunity to get a support network together to help motivate, cajole, plead, coerce and bribe you to write roughly 1700 words per day every day for thirty days.

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo for the past few years and have never finished. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t useful. But I am an epic procrastinator, and NaNoWriMo does not reward procrastination. I can find ways to procrastinate that would blow the minds of lesser procrastinators. One of those ways, especially around NaNoWriMo time, is to investigate software that helps you write. As you can imagine, as someone hooked on gadgets, this always seems to be a worthwhile way of spending time and inevitably ends in seven hours of procuring software and no hours of writing. So to save those of you out there, like me, who like to software procrastinate: here are some software options to help you finish NaNoWriMo.

Scrivener was my writing software package of choice for many years, and if you’re on a Mac, is still one of the best choices out there (it’s coming to Windows early next year). It’s an absolutely fantastic program for starting a new writing project, as it keeps everything you might need for writing a novel in one place, from storyboarding and research to a full-screen distraction-free writing mode that keeps you in the zone when you need to be.

I discovered Write Or Die last year when I was a week from the end of NaNoWriMo and had written about five thousand words. Unlike Scrivener, Write or Die provides little in the way of procrastination options, but is great for forcing you to write. It is utterly diabolical. Available on the web and as a downloadable desktop program, Write or Die detects when you stop typing and then gives you a little leeway (which is customisable) before the screen starts flashing and then a loud beeping sound reminds you that you shouldn’t be staring at your screen, but typing goddammit! After this warning, the words you have already written will begin to delete, one word at a time, until you start typing again. Scared? You should be.

The Pomodoro Technique is less a piece of software than a productivity approach, but there are tons of software options out there to help you Pomodoro. The basic Pomodoro premise is that you set an egg timer for twenty-five minutes and work steadily without looking at any distractions for that amount of time. That’s one pomodoro. After twenty-five minutes you give yourself five minutes to stretch your legs, check your emails and tweet about #pomodoro. Then get back into it. As I said, there are a lot of software options out there, but a good web-based one is Tomatoi.st and one I use for my iPhone (or iPad) is PomodoroPro.

So there you have it, all the procrasti-tools you’ll need not to complete NaNoWriMo this year like me. Now, I best get back to the novel.

Booki.sh: A Potential Australian Alternative

Widely reported in Australian book news over the past couple of days is the decision by Melbourne indie bookstore Readings to use a new Australian start-up’s web technology to launch an ebook initiative. This is big news for essentially everyone in the trade in Australia, not because the offering is especially mindblowing, but because of the relief we all felt on reading this that at least this particular piece of news had nothing to do with Amazon.

The new start-up is called Booki.sh and is a Google Editions-esque web-based ebook platform. Essentially what this means is that instead of using an app (like the iBooks or Kindle app on the iPad and iPhone), or a dedicated reading device (like the Kobo, Sony or Kindle reader), you access your books directly from your web browser. The service uses HTML5 technology, the newest implementation of the programming code that underpins the web.

A significant feature of HTML5 is that it allows websites to store files on your device. This means that when you first buy a book on Booki.sh through the website, your web browser downloads the book files in the background, so that even when you’re not connected to the internet, you can still read that book through your browser: on the iPad and iPhone, you can even add the book to your homescreen and access the book whenever you want to read it. The service even works with the Kindle 3; I tried the demo through the browser on my Kindle 3 and although it wasn’t quite as smooth as reading a native Kindle book, it was nothing like viewing a web page through the Kindle’s terrible browser – it even utilises the Kindle’s turn page buttons!

The demo service that Book.ish has made available is not without its kinks. Although it’s fairly slick, it’s not quite as slick as using an app or a dedicated reading device to read your ebooks. It’s also missing some pretty key features that I have started to rely on – like an in-built dictionary, annotation and highlighting. It’s also missing bookmark syncing, though you have to assume that when an account system is built in it will include this fairly obvious feature (ie if the book is already on the web, you may as well be able to sync bookmarks across every device that accesses it). It’s also not clear just yet whether readers will be able to use their own documents on Booki.sh, like the Kindle Personal Documents service.

Nonetheless, this is a very promising proof-of-concept that could become something quite interesting with the support of indie booksellers and a bit more development. Whether they’ll be able to compete with the likes of Google Editions, once Editions launches, is another thing entirely – but we have to hope that the little guys like this still have a chance. There’s also the concern I’ve raised in an earlier post about cloud-based services, and whether readers will be OK with not owning a ‘thing’ when it comes to reading – but rather access to a thing. Either way, this is one to watch.

The Perils of Convenience

Around the blogosphere, especially among gadget-obsessed early adopters, you hear a lot about what various content industries that have latterly gone digital “should be doing”. They (and sometimes me) justify everything from breaking DRM to piracy by saying that if the industry in question were only doing things right – making things convenient for said gadget-obsessed early adopters, and thereby everybody else – then they would have an alternative to cracking, pirating, dodging restrictions and other apparently nefarious deeds.

This doesn’t apply just to books. Rightly or wrongly, music, movies, games, books and software are all under threat because they haven’t adapted to the changing digital sales environment quickly enough. Some are doing better than others. And you can see from looking at a few examples that those that are recovering are often doing so because a single player has risen up and utterly monopolised the industry, making it easier for content producers to sell their product to people in a way they find convenient. This is true of Apple’s iTunes Music Store, and it’s becoming increasingly true of Amazon and the Kindle.

It’s also true of Google Book Search. For those who don’t know, Google Book Search is exactly what it sounds like. It allows you to input a string of text from any book that Google has in their database and find out what book it is, often giving you a chance to buy it or, if it is what’s called an ‘orphaned work’ (a book whose copyright owner cannot be located for some reason) it allows you to read the full text online for free.

Clearly this is an excellent state of affairs on one level, because it means that works previously abandoned to time can be rediscovered and shared with the world – and the revenues will eventually trickle back to authors and publishers. The problem, as Cory Doctorow points out in a recent Boing Boing post, is the way that Google acquired its massive database of books. It scanned them. Just bought a whole bunch of books and scanned them, then used its software to index the text. When the Authors’ Guild (the US one) found out what was happening, they sued Google. They have now reached a settlement, the details of which are complicated and not relevant to my point. This now means, as Doctorow points out, that the only way for another organisation to ever hope to compete with Google in both the indexing and searching of books and making orphaned books available to the public is to “illegally scan the books and then hope for a good outcome when slapped with a class-action suit by all the country’s publishers”.

So my question for all of you is this: is it worth it? Is the price of convenient, easy access to content and services worth the perils of a monopoly? There are a lot of people, for example, who’d like to see the Kindle succeed in the way the iPod has succeeded in the music world – and they aren’t all employees or stockholders of Amazon. Some people just want to be able to buy an ebook, and then not think about it. I love the idea of Google Book Search, but have we (or rather, the US Authors’ Guild, on our behalf) just invested in Google the may-as-well-be-exclusive use of all the world’s published knowledge? Or am I just being hyperbolic? (Spoiler: I usually am). What do you think?

The Return of the Short Story

There’s a popular idea that the rise of the internet has given us short attention spans. It’s something book and long-form journalism publishers have been bemoaning for years. The internet is a compendium of short form content – short videos, pithy reportage, compendiums of weird and wonderful things and, of course, there’s 4chan. Content was originally limited by bandwidth, but now that technological constraints have been lifted? Content on the net is still short – but it’s limited instead by our attention spans. If I see that a YouTube video goes for more than about five minutes, I will sometimes not bother watching it. Seriously. It’s become that bad.

Although this short attention span has (arguably) given us lots of good things (nobody with a long attention span could have thought up Twitter), it’s also made it more difficult to sell books. Even with digital books, which take out much of the chore of going to an actual bookstore, browsing for a book, buying it and then thumbing through pages – books still sell to a limited range of people. People no longer have the free time or the levels of concentration required to read a whole lot of books.

But, of course, people have never really had a lot of time (or concentration) to read a lot of books. It’s just that back in the days before the internet, TV and radio there were fewer other things to distract oneself with. Back in the bad old days, people would sometimes read this thing called a short story. And now Amazon (at least to begin with) intends to bring it back.

Last week Amazon announced Kindle Singles, their attempt at rejuvenating the short form with two heavy-handed blurbs: “Compelling Ideas Expressed at Their Natural Length” and “Kindle Singles, Which Can Be Twice the Length of a New Yorker Feature or as Much as a Few Chapters of a Typical Book, Coming Soon to the Kindle Store” both of which manage to make this announcement sound like the most boring thing of all time. Nonetheless, the announcement is a very interesting one for publishers and authors, many of whom have complained about being forced into a cost effective length in order to make publication in paper form possible. Well, actually, it’s only the publishers who say that. The authors say, “I’ve got this great idea for a short story,” which the publisher quickly shuts down because it isn’t cost effective to publish it. Even short story collections are pretty rare nowadays. They’ve become like the literary equivalent of a Best Of album – only ever awarded to writers at the end of their career. And so the short story has been forced to the margins – awarded to the already-successful author, or sold by hand for $2 a pop by a crazy person on the streets of Newtown.

So what do you think about this development? Would you be tempted to buy an attractively priced short form text? Or is this just not something you’re interested in? Will the lure of other short form distractions get the better of readers and distract them from this new/old one? And authors – are you excited to get a chance to bring that short story to the masses? How successful can this endeavour actually be? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Review: Kindle 3

I’ve been using the new Kindle 3 for a couple of weeks now, and I think this is the first ereader device I’ve used that gets almost everything right. I’ve been using my iPad for months now to read books, and while the experience reading on the iPad is great, my attention span is often tempted out of the reading apps into checking email or Twitter when I should be absorbed in a book. It’s great, but it’s not as absorbing as reading from a paper book. My previous Kindle (the Kindle 2), was an excellent reading device, but the screen on the new one is far sharper, with better contrast, and the other extras make it an all round better experience.

Screen comparison. The contrast on the Kindle 3 is much higher.

I have the version with WiFi and 3G wireless, so this is the first Kindle I’ve used that you can transfer personal documents wirelessly without paying a fee (if you use the 3G connection, Amazon charges a nominal fee of a dollar or two, depending on the size of the book. Books you buy from the Amazon store are transferred free). In some ways this even trumps the iPad, which can’t accept ePub books in the native iBooks app unless you plug the thing in. The wireless connection doesn’t just give you access to books though. You can use the built-in sharing feature to immediately share a quote from a book you’re reading on Facebook and Twitter. This might sound like the last thing on your mind, but if you’re a compulsive social networker, sometimes you can’t help but want to share the perfect line from a book with your 300 closest friends.

The Kindle 3 is also lighter and smaller than its predecessor, which was already pretty small. With the case it feels a bit like a B-format hardback book to hold in your hands, which is just about my favourite book size to read. The new cover I got with it (people with Kindle 2s beware – your old cover will not fit), has an integrated light that runs off the battery of the Kindle, something version 2.0 couldn’t do as far as I know.

The keyboard, like the old Kindle, is not great, but that’s hardly a massive issue, as if you were buying something like a Kindle to do a mass of typing, you’d have bigger issues. Along with the new price drop, I’d have to say this represents the best value single purpose ereader on the market at the moment bar none. Having said that, it’s almost certain that the price will drop further and the next version will be even better – so if you’re not sure it would still pay to wait.

What are Facebook Pages and Why Do You Need One?

Having recently gone through the abject torture of setting up a Facebook Page for someone, I see the usefulness in a a rough and ready guide on what a Facebook Page is, whether you need one and how to use it once you have it.

What and Why?

Facebook Pages are used for public figures or business of any kind trying to reach out to people who might be interested in them. That’s the simple answer. They solve the problem inherent in Facebook – that most people are not interested in being ‘friends’ with a business or an author they admire, but they still might like to use Facebook to check up on that person or business. For authors, Facebook Pages allow you to connect with your readers without the slightly creepy idea that you have 10,000 ‘friends’ just because 10,000 people like your book.

So should you start a Page? If you are trying to use the internet to reach out to your audience, customers or readers, then probably yes. Pages are a very easy way to have a social networking presence without the hard work and constant attention involved in setting up a website or blog.

How to Set Up a Page and Use One

Like a lot of things on Facebook, starting a Page is not something that is as straightforward as it could or should be. There’s no direct link from your existing Facebook profile to start a page, but if you search for ‘Pages’ in the help, it will eventually lead you to the Create a Page site (or you could just follow that link). From there it will ask you to specify the type of page (be it for a writer, a business etc etc), and confirm that you are the official representative of that person or business.

If you’re already on Facebook and looking to start a Page, you do not need to sign up with a different email address or login. Just start the process and you’ll become the main ‘administrator’. The good thing about Pages is that you can also sign on other administrators, such as publicists or marketing people from your publishing company, who can sign on temporarily or for good to add information to your page. But for now, just go for it

Once you’ve started a page, you’ll be greeted with a page of options like this:

If you already have a Facebook profile, uploading a photo and filling out this basic information shouldn’t be too difficult for you. From this page you can also advertise your Facebook Page, but for starters that probably isn’t something you need to worry about. You can also suggest that your existing Facebook friends ‘like’ your new Page – let’s face it, if your own friends don’t do it at this point, how can you possibly expect anybody else to?

It’s at this point that I got quite confused about how to use the Page to interact with the rest of Facebook. Pages can’t have ‘friends’. So how can you, for example, instruct your Page to ‘like’ a fellow organisation, writer or business? And how can your page access Facebook applications, in order to sync info between websites like Twitter, Shelfari or Amazon? After all, it’s not really social networking if you can’t actually connect with others.

‘Like’ another Page                                    Install an application on your page

It’s not immediately apparent, but it’s all done by using the text under the logo or profile picture in the top left of the Page or application you’re interested in. Everything you want to add to your Page, you do through that point. If you try to ‘like’ something as you normally would with your Facebook profile, then the ‘like’ will be recorded on your personal profile, not on your Page.

OK, so that’s about it for this getting started guide. If you have any tips or questions about this process, please let me know in the comments.

Ebook the Cannibal

Basically since ebooks were first mooted as a possibility, there have been arguments about the ‘cannibalisation’ of the traditional book market by electronic books. On one side of the argument you have the optimists, who say that the availability and lower price of ebooks means that once people have bought an ereader they will buy more ebooks than they did before. On the other hand, you have the people who are saying that it won’t matter if people buy more ebooks, the lower prices will mean that ultimately publishers (and authors) will lose a certain amount of profit from the success of ebooks.

Sceptics – let me just say that there are people on both sides of this argument inside the publishing world, so don’t start throwing wild theories out there that the publishing industry as a whole has dragged its heels in order to retain the profitability of the industry.

Last week, new information emerged that suggests that in the two leading ebook sales generating genres (fantasy/sci-fi and romance) cannibilisation is definitely occurring. Snip:

Julie Meynink, business development director of Nielsen BookScan, said though it was early days, data from Nielsen BookScan US, which globally represents the biggest share of e-book sales, showed a decline in print sales within these two sectors. In the year to date sales of romance books in the US are down 7.5%, while science-fiction and fantasy sales are down, even when the effect of Stephenie Meyer is stripped out.

Of course, BookScan went on to point out that ebook readers in general buy more books and that 80% of people surveyed would never consider buying an ereader at all:

So in the end, the book-selling world may lose 25% or so of its print customers to ebooks, but those customers will likely buy more product than they would have if they didn’t use an ereader.

The question remaining, however, is whether this is a problem. Eoin Purcell seems to think so. As Purcell points out, the loss of 25% of sales of paper books to electronic books undermines the entire publishing economic model. As the cost per unit goes up, there is less room to do the deep discounting and price promotions that customers are used to getting when they buy books.

What Purcell’s ultimate point is, is that if the print run itself isn’t viable (and that may be the case for print runs between about 3000 and 10,000 copies), then the book won’t be published in the first place.

This leaves publishers with two solutions, either increase the price of the print book (which is likely to cause more people to go digital and/or fewer people to buy the book in the first place), or go completely digital for some titles. Purcell’s idea is that some titles would be digital only (perhaps with an option for print-on-demand), in order to fill this gap in profitability. This would mean publishers would have to become advocates for e-reading and have to actively convince readers to go digital – which isn’t something most publishers are doing right now.

My question for you all is whether you think this is viable. Would the availability of some titles in digital only entice you to buy an ereader? Those of you in sales probably have more of an insight than me into the old ‘pile them high and sell them cheap’ mantra of traditional bookselling, which would be adversely affected by this model. What do you think?

The Internet is for Porn (And So are Ebooks)

We all know it’s there, and there are a lot of us out there who use it – so why does the civilised internet like to pretend it doesn’t exist? That’s the question James Ledbetter asked in a column in Slate this week, when talking about erotica appearing on the Kindle store. Snip:

As I write this, the most downloaded item for Amazon’s Kindle is a novel by Jenna Bayley-Burke called Compromising Positions. Here is part of the plot description: “David Strong knows how to do a lot of things—run an international fitness company, finesse stock portfolios and stay out of emotional entanglements. That is, until he gets tangled up with Sophie Delfino and her Sensational Sex workout. He’s supposed to help her demonstrate Kama Sutra positions for her couples-yoga class. … And his co-instructor unexpectedly tests his control to the limit.”

As Ledbetter goes on to point out, one of the many reasons Compromising Positions (go on, look it up, I’ll wait) appears on the top list for fiction is that the publisher is giving it away free to promote the author or the series. This is one of the many ways in which producers of adult entertainment (and by adult, I mean porn) push the envelope of what is possible and experiment with new technology. And by that I mean with sales, distribution, content and marketing, not teledildonics.

Rule 34: If it exists, there is porn of it.

What annoys me about the article in Slate, however, is the presumption that given enough time and attention from the wrong sorts of people, Amazon may be forced to censor their listings.

Is it valuable to the company to goose interest in the Kindle with erotica giveaways, or will the presence of e-books like Compromising Positions at the top of Amazon’s charts sully the e-reader’s reputation?

My question for you today is simple: is this something we need to worry about? Is this another example of the way American prudishness is ruining the internet? Or should we be thinking of the children? Is erotica something we ought to be scared of, or something we should be happy about because at least people are reading it, instead of having it injected into their eye sockets? You decide – sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.

Three Ways to Deal with Ebooks and Airplanes

Anyone who has ever read an ebook and flown on a plane (or perhaps just sat next to me on a plane) will know that you can’t read ebooks on a plane during the crucial moments of take off and landing. To anyone with the attention span of a baby monkey (like me), these moments of dead time can leave you shivering with lack of stimulation. What makes it worse is that the reasons for these restrictions are half-baked, like a lot of airline policy, and I’ve always thought it’s geared around shoring up the authority of the flight attendants rather than the actual safety of the plane. After all, newer ebook readers that use e-ink, like the Kindle, Kobo and Sony readers, emit about as much power as a digital watch – so unless every electronic object on the plane could cause it to drop out of the sky it seems pretty arbitrary.

Nonetheless, this rule is still enforced, ignorant or not, so what can the discerning reader of ebooks do about it? In this post I run through three potential options for dealing with this most horrible of first world problems.

1) Lie and Cheat

As I’ve demonstrated in previous posts, I’m flexible when it comes to rules. And in this case, breaking the rules won’t hurt anybody. The best way to conceal a Kindle or other ereader is in a cover that looks like a book. Failing that, you can usually slip it into the inflight magazine and hold it upright whenever the attendant walks by. Be careful not to appear too interested – nobody really likes those magazines, so you don’t want to give yourself away. If you’re travelling alone, ensure the person next to you isn’t crazy or a Federal policeman so you don’t get dobbed in.

2) Wait for an Official Solution

As Diana Dilworth pointed out on eBooknewser this week, it’s really only a matter of time until airlines begin integrating ebook reading into the inflight entertainment system. Kindle, Nook and iPad owners already enjoy the ability to sync whatever they’re reading between whatever device they happen to be reading on, so it would be a cinch to have whatever book you happen to be reading pop up on the screen in front of you for you to read without even using the batteries of the iPad/laptop/e-ink reader in your bag.

3) Take a Boat

If all else fails, take alternative transport. Today’s e-ink devices have a battery life of over two weeks, so you can probably go for a pretty long boat voyage before you run out of something to read. This plan is pretty failsafe, but does require some forward planning.

So there you have it, three ways you can avoid dead time on a plane. Sound off in the comments if you have any further suggestions, but please don’t waste our time by pointing out that I could just sit quietly and look out the window for twenty minutes. That is simply not an option.


Is Piracy a Legitimate Part of our Culture?

For my fiftieth post (yes, my fiftieth!), I’d like to revisit a topic close to my heart. Piracy. In the world of digital content, piracy has been around longer than most legitimate forms of digital purchase. Anyone who claims to have been reading ebooks since they had a Palm Pilot probably at some point acquired illegal digital books. Piracy is at the forefront of innovation when it comes to distribution and accessibility and yet, because it clashes with most of our current economic models, it is considered a Very Bad Thing.

So my question for today – can piracy ever be good? Is piracy a legitimate part of our culture? Are the old economic models broken? Like almost every question I post up on this blog, I don’t have an answer. But I think there are lots of reasons why people rush to defend piracy (and it’s not just because pirates are cool).

First of all, there are lots of reasons why people pirate things. I think most of those reasons are not that defensible from a traditional ethical standpoint. That is, people don’t like to pay for things they don’t have to. Piracy enables people with a certain level of technical expertise to not have to pay for things they want. This is the most basic reason for piracy, and it’s the most basic reason why anti-piracy groups want to stop them. On the one hand you’ve got a group of people technically able and willing to get things they want for free, and on the other hand a group of people making things who want to be remunerated for that.

The problem occurs not because one of these urges is unethical and the other isn’t. Or even because the former precludes the latter. The problem is that most of our cultural industries view a pirated thing as exactly the same as a stolen thing – or more importantly – as a lost sale. However, it’s evident to anybody who has ever pirated anything that this isn’t the case. Making a digital copy does not mean that you are depriving someone else of that thing. People who pirate things still buy things. And a person who pirates something wasn’t necessarily ever going to buy it. Piracy, from numerous studies, doesn’t even seem to affect legitimate sales one way or the other.

So if piracy is done for the wrong reasons, but the consequences aren’t bad – what is it? I prefer to think of it as a form of unpaid, uncontrollable viral marketing. It’s clear that the most successful books are also the most pirated. And anyone who has ever tried to sell a good book will know that the best way to boost sales is to get more people reading that book – through the always-elusive word of mouth. Piracy is dodgy, but it is also the most efficient way to distribute a digital product. And so long as there is an easy-to-use, affordable, legitimate alternative to piracy, most people will still prefer to buy it. And for those in-between cases, like people with disabilities, library sharing and proof copy distribution (problems that have yet to be solved by traditional publishers in regards to ebooks) – the availability of illegal copies means that those people who wouldn’t or couldn’t otherwise read your book will be able to do so. To quote the excellent Tim O’Reilly, e-publisher: “Obscurity is a far great threat to artists than piracy.”

So the way to fight piracy, then, isn’t to try and make people who pirate things feel guilty. If they felt that guilty about it, they probably wouldn’t have done it in the first place. It’s also ethically iffy to sue people for lost sales when they’ve pirated content, as it isn’t clear that all of that content would have been purchased if it hadn’t been acquired illegally. I also don’t see the point in locking up digital purchases with DRM, as it unfairly punishes those of us who buy things legally, and makes piracy a more attractive option. At its best, book piracy is a way of getting people talking about a book who wouldn’t otherwise be reading it. At its worse it’s a bunch of dodgy people whose technical expertise and lack of ethics means that you’ll never be able to stop them getting hold of your product without paying anyway.

What do you think? I’d especially love to hear from authors who have seen their own books end up on filesharing websites. Do you see it as a good or bad thing? How would you prefer your publisher deal with the issue of piracy? And for everyone else: have you ever pirated a digital something? How would you defend your choice to do so?

What is Google Editions and Why Should You be Excited?

I’ve heard a whole range of responses to the announcement of Google’s answer to the ebook question, from the pessimistic (this won’t change anything), to the hysterical (this development is going to single-handedly save the book industry worldwide!). As with most of the stuff I cover on this blog, the answer is probably somewhere between the two.

To begin with – what the hell is Google Editions? Editions is Google’s response to the current ebook retail solutions. Hardly surprisingly, it is very Google-ish. Instead of a single device that reads books sold through a single store (like both Apple and Amazon), Google Editions will be as open as possible. It will be accessible from launch on any device with access to the web through the login most of us already have with Google. They’ll do this by hosting their ebooks in ‘the cloud’ – a fancy way of saying on the internet, specifically on Google’s vast server space. They’ve already got the content – when they launched Google Books a couple of years ago they got the books from scanning a vast library of out-of-print and out-of-copyright paper books, and have spent the time since cementing relationships with publishers and authors in order to get more recent books (and the permission to use the books they took it upon themselves to scan in). When they launch they’ll likely have a bigger library of ebooks than any other retailer on the web. More importantly than any of that, Google will be opening up their library of ebooks for sale through other retailers, acting as the backend for independent booksellers and other booksellers who, for whatever reason, lack the resources or wherewithal to put their own ebook store together.

In theory, this should mean that those of us who read exclusively digital nowadays will still be able to support our local indie bookstore and continue to read ebooks. It wouldn’t even need to be done through a website. In the most optimistic view, I imagine a world in which I head in to my local bookstore, browse the selection they have there and come across a couple I’d like to read, then proceed to a terminal or the front desk to order them sent to my personal digital library in the cloud to read at my leisure later. That would combine the singular experience of browsing a bookstore (far more enjoyable, in my opinion, than any ebookstore has yet managed to create) and the convenience of ebooks.

So what’s the catch? Well, the cloud solution to ebooks is nice in theory, but it stretches the software licence idea of ebook ownership to a new level for consumers. When you buy an ebook from Amazon, you’re not really buying the file you download, you’re buying a licence to use that file and cannot legally use it in any way contrary to that licence. This is completely different to a physical book, which, after you’ve purchased it, you can do anything you like with – including sell it on to another person or a secondhand bookstore. Google Editions wouldn’t be any different to the existing ebook offerings in that regard, but you wouldn’t even be downloading a file – you’d be accessing that file through the internet. It remains to be seen whether consumers will embrace this difference or not.

Other question marks hang over the Google Editions project as well. If the file can only be accessed from the cloud, what do you do when you’re not connected to the internet? Does that mean you can’t read the book? One presumes this isn’t the case, Google have been experimenting with ‘offline’ apps (such as offline Gmail, Calendar and Docs) for years now, but people still tend to fundamentally think of books as an offline, almost anti-internet experience – and I wonder if that will make a difference to how Google Editions is viewed.

At any rate, Google Editions is a welcome addition to the offerings already out there, and has the potential to do some very interesting stuff to the industry, especially to independent booksellers.

Sony Reader (Finally) Launches in Australia

Sony’s line of ereader devices have been around since 2006, but for the first time the company has made them available for sale in Australia. Sony has done a content deal with the Kobo / Borders ebook store so owners will be able to load up ePub books from those stores. They’ll be making two models available, the Sony Pocket ($229) and the Sony Touch ($299), but sadly don’t have any plans for now to release the Sony Daily Edition, a model that uses 3G wireless technology so that readers can download books on the fly.

So is this too little, too late? These latest models of Sony readers have been around for a year, and have already been superseded by the cheaper and some would say superior Kindle 3. There are some things about the Sony readers that are unique, but more importantly than that, Sony’s move into Australia is evidence that the rest of the English-speaking world is finally taking us seriously as an ebook market.

So is the Sony worth buying? Your answer depends largely on your philosophy. For the most part, the Sony readers are considered technologically inferior to the Kindle, but more open. The screen technology is a little more advanced on the Kindle, particularly noticeable in the Sony Touch, whose touchscreen layer detracts from the screen contrast, making the text seem a little less sharp and a bit greyer on the vaguely grey background. Nonetheless, it is an e-ink device, so that means you can read it full sunlight and the battery life is long (in comparison to something like a laptop or an iPad). The touchscreen itself is kind of fun, but to those who are used to using iPads or even an iPhone, they do feel a bit old hat and unnecessary. The Kindle just has buttons, but they work just fine. The touchscreen does enable you to take notes on the pages of the book you’re reading with the stylus, but there’s no way to export these notes, so the editors among my readers won’t really get much use out of this function. Additionally, the Kindle ebook library, via Amazon, is massive in comparison to what you can buy for the Sony readers via Kobo or Borders.

So in that case, why would you buy a Sony? The benefits of these devices are accessibility. Unlike the Kindle, which exists in an entirely closed environment, managed completely by Amazon, Sony readers can access almost every kind of DRM (except Amazon’s), and read multiple file types, including PDFs, Word files and rich text – without having to be converted for use. These features make the Sony readers a great choice for those of us who desire interoperability above all else. The Sony Readers will also be available in physical stores in Australia, unlike other readers, giving them an edge when it comes to selling in.

Having said that, for my money, the Kindle 3 is still the best e-ink reader out there for now. It’s far cheaper, and the process of buying books, annotating and checking words in the dictionary – not to mention the access to your books you’ll have through your PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad or Android phone through Kindle software there – is worth the trade-off of being stuck in the Amazon ecosystem. For now. I’m happy to see a Kindle competitor launched in Australia, but I’m looking forward to something a bit meatier from Sony in the future – if they manage to hold on against the Kindle juggernaut for long enough.

50 Books You Can’t Put Down

It’s that time of the year again. The Get Reading campaign kicked off at the end of last month and for the first time they’re offering an iPhone app to help readers connect with books.

The app is free from the App Store, and I’m surprised to say that it is excellent – far more useful than the Get Reading brochure available from most good book stores.

For those who don’t know, the Get Reading campaign runs every year and is designed to get people who wouldn’t usually read a book to have a go. The way it works is that there’s a list of 50 books broken down into a few basic categories: non-fiction, new authors, page turners and escapist reads. If you buy one of those books from a participating store you get a free exclusive book written specifically for the campaign. This year you get a choice between 10 Short Stories You Must Read in 2010 and Tickled Onions by Morris Gleitzman.

The iPhone app is great for browsing the books available and with the click of a button you can read the first chapter of the book or find a bookstore near you to buy it integrated with Google Maps. You can even find a place to read the book, as the app contains a directory of coffee shops (cute!). The app also has a schedule of Get Reading events that are being run throughout the month, which you can pinpoint and get directions to if you decide to go.

One-off apps of this nature are often a bit gimmicky, but I, for one, am all for them, so long as they are well made and actually useful, as this one is. Over the past year I noticed a Sydney Festival app and the Good Food Guide, and I’m hanging out for an app of this nature for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which has a notoriously annoying schedule.

My only gripe, predictably, is that ebooks are not included in this year’s Get Reading campaign, though this is hardly the fault of the iPhone app. Nonetheless, it’s disheartening to see that in a campaign run by the government to get people reading at any cost, they have not managed to include reader-friendly ebooks as part of the promotion. (To be fair, they may have tried and failed – the only real Australian ebook retailer is Borders/Kobo, and they may have declined). Ebooks are incredibly easy to buy – and it wouldn’t be difficult for retailers to rig up a system for giving away the free books in a package (it is definitely possible with online retailers of dead tree books – cheers Boomerang! – so it should be possible for ebooks). At any rate, I applaud the effort, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with next year.

You can download the iPhone app here.

Where in the World is Lisbeth Salander Pt 2

In my last post I wrote about the issues facing ebook distribution in Australia as it pertains to territorial copyright and parallel importation. To recap: the current situation is that if I want to buy an ebook that is published by a US or UK publisher in Australia it is more than likely impossible. I can buy the Australian version of that ebook where it is available, but I cannot (except in the very rare case where the overseas publisher owns worldwide digital rights) buy the overseas version, even when that ebook is not published electronically by an Australian publisher. Even when the ebook’s Australian rights have not been purchased at all, it is still more than likely impossible to buy that book in Australia. This all despite the fact that I can buy any paper book from any publisher anywhere in the world and have it posted to my front door.

It’s a very complicated issue that faces all publishers worldwide. In fact, it is an ongoing issue with all producers of digital content. Digital TV streamed overseas through services like Hulu and the BBC’s iPlayer are not available in Australia at any cost. Music services like Spotify and Pandora are also not available here due to territorial copyright restrictions. There is no obvious solution to this problem, but in this post I’ll cover some of the reasons why this occurs.

The main reason ebook availability is so patchy at the moment is time. When Amazon (the biggest seller of ebooks in the world, and the first mainstream ebook retailer to enter the market in this country) first made the Kindle available to Australians in November 2009, they had not approached any Australian publishers to organise the distribution of ebook files and organise sales contracts. They did not, in fact, begin speaking to Australian publishers about terms until well into 2010. Concurrently, Amazon’s agreements with US publishers specified what copyright territories they were allowed to sell to – and most of these did not include Australia. Amazon decided not to mess with territorial copyright law (which, as I pointed out in the last post, are a legal grey area when it comes to ebooks) and honoured territorial copyright.

For the most part, that problem has now been fixed, but there was a massive delay in distribution that is still being felt by consumers looking to buy the newest releases for their Kindle or other ereaders even now. Given time, many ebooks that were not available at the launch of your favourite ebook reader or are not available straight after the print release date will eventually be sorted. The same goes for older backlist titles that have not yet had their rights cleared to be published in electronic form in Australia. This is a massive administrative and legal issue that most publishers around the world are slowly and surely dealing with, and it’s not something unique to Australia. Given time and resources, publishers the world over will sort it out and a greater range of titles will be available to everyone.

Having said that, this problem is representative of a larger issue. Why should Australian publishers be scrambling to get territory-specific rights to ebooks and inefficiently doubling (or tripling, or quadrupling) the workload when virtually identical ebook files are being created by their counterparts in the UK and US and they are all being sold from the same international retailer? You can kind of understand how it can be more efficient for publishers to print books in the country they sell them to, and you can understand why Australian publishers would look after the ebook files of Australian authors, but for identical electronic files to be produced and supplied separately to the exact same international retailers? It’s madness.

So why is it happening, and how can the industry as a whole move towards a more global system? And perhaps more importantly, should they? The answers to those questions essentially boil down to the same issue. Australia’s publishing industry is protected by the government with the enforcement of parallel importation restrictions; these restrictions enable Australian publishers to print more books locally, giving jobs to editors, printers, publicists, sales representatives, typesetters and, of course, authors. If we are moving towards a system in which a significant proportion of the books sold are electronic, and we give up on that protection of the industry, it will inevitably shrink. If Australian publishers make less money, they will likely publish fewer Australian authors, and fewer Australians will be employed in the publishing industry as a whole.

As a person employed by the publishing industry, my bias is for protection. Nonetheless, I do think consumers have a point when they complain that the US Kindle store has almost twice as much content as the Australian store – a restriction that is purely about protecting revenue streams rather than technical limitations. So if we assume that publishers are going to continue to protect these revenue streams, and that the current system will, for the most part, function as it is – what can be done to make it fairer for ebook readers?

Join me in the thrilling conclusion of this series of posts about ebooks and the fascinating world of territorial copyright, as I uncover some of the potential (and partial) solutions to this problem.

Where in the World is Lisbeth Salander? Pt 1

Those who have dipped their toes into the chilly waters of ebook purchasing have likely done so through an international portal like Amazon. But when you buy an ebook from Amazon, where is your money going? Are you buying that book from an Australian publisher? Or is it going to a big American or British company? And why is it that your mate in the States can buy a copy of Mockingjay from the Kindle store but you can’t? The answer is territorial copyright and parallel importation restrictions.

For those who have no idea what those two phrases mean, allow me to quickly explain. Territorial copyright is the legal licence sold by the owner of a copyrighted work (in this case, the author of a book) to a publisher so that they can reproduce that work for sale in a particular territory. Parallel importation restrictions are the laws that force Australian booksellers to sell the Australian version of a book where it is available (to stop them from importing cheaper versions of the same book from overseas and cutting out Australian publishers). However, this protection of Australian publishers is not absolute. The rule that governs parallel importation in Australia is known as the 30 day rule, which essentially means that so long as an Australian publisher gets a book printed and available for sale within 30 days of its publication overseas, Australian booksellers can only buy the Australian version.

There is another loophole in the parallel importation rules, and that is for single copies of books. Booksellers are allowed to import a single copy of a particular book for a customer, and individuals are allowed to import their own single copies of books from overseas (from stores like Amazon).

So what does this mean for ebooks? At the moment, every copy of an ebook sold is sold as a ‘single copy’. Nonetheless, every major ebook retailer respects parallel importation restrictions and does not allow the sale of ebooks to Australia unless the publisher who is providing the file to the retailer has explicit rights to sell that ebook in Australia. Is this a legal requirement of our parallel importation restrictions? Well, at the moment, nobody is sure. That’s why ebook retailers are playing it safe and keeping Australian publishers happy.

So we’ve ended up in a bizarre situation. I can buy a copy of any book I like from any publisher I like anywhere in the world and have it posted to me here in Australia. But ebooks? No. I can only get a copy of an ebook that has been explicitly produced and given to an ebook vendor by an Australian publisher (unless the overseas publisher owns worldwide digital rights – quite a rare situation). Is this crazy? Yes. Is it fair? Probably not. But the solution? Unsurprisingly, it is not going to be a cakewalk. Tune in to the next blog, folks, and I’ll see if I can make sense of why this is happening and what cleverer people than me think might be done to sort it out.

Do Ebook Readers Read More Books?

There’s a persistent nugget of common sense that keeps floating around the web indicating that people who read ebooks read more books than those who read paper books.  It’s reared its adorable little head again on the WSJ this week, and I think it’s worth analysing it a bit deeper. Snip:

A study of 1,200 e-reader owners by Marketing and Research Resources Inc. found that 40% said they now read more than they did with print books. Of those surveyed, 58% said they read about the same as before while 2% said they read less than before. And 55% of the respondents in the May study, paid for by e-reader maker Sony Corp., thought they’d use the device to read even more books in the future.

You can see why people want it to be true (people other than Sony, that is). Ebooks are a bit of a boogeyman for publishers and booksellers – some of them like to pretend that ebooks spell (variously) the end of the book, the end of reading and the end of the bookstore. However, if it turns out that ebook readers read more books than paper book readers (and more importantly, buy more ebooks than paper book readers) then the amount of money that books make for everyone will increase, which will reverse a worrying downward trend in both reading and book buying over the past decade.

But the questions is – is it true? It’s obviously a very difficult thing to prove at this point. As the WSJ points out itself, it’s a bit too early to tell if the increase in reading will continue after the lure of the new gadgetry wears off. Nonetheless, let us indulge ourselves in some idle speculation.

It’s true that the early adopters of ereaders are likely to be both gadget-fiends and fairly big readers already. However, it’s very likely that the penetration of ereaders and ebooks into the ordinary book buying public will occur for a few key reasons, each of which, I believe, is directly related to why ebook readers read more books than paper book readers.

Firstly, there’s what’s called interstitial, or cereal-box reading. That is, ereaders and ebook technology lends itself towards the type of reading you do from the back of a cereal box while scoffing down your breakfast. And, let’s face it, the average person spends three years of their life on the toilet – what better time to finally finish Ulysses? (Especially if it’s already sitting on the iPhone you have in your pocket).

There’s also the ease of purchase. Despite the teething problems readers are experiencing at the moment in regards to book availability, pricing and territorial copyright, the digitisation of other industries has proven that these things eventually settle down. Not only are we already in a position to quite easily read The Passage while lining up in the pub or waiting for a YouTube video to load (two of the most distasteful waiting times in a modern human’s life), we can also buy, download and begin reading Mockingjay when we finish it without leaving our spot.

Tied in to the ease of purchase, of course, is the availability. How often have you gone into a bookshop looking for a book and left without it because it wasn’t in stock? How often do you end up tracking that book down elsewhere? If you’re lazy like me – almost never. When the ebook teething problems are sorted out, that will be a problem of the past.

So, to sum up: when it’s easier, faster and cheaper to get books, and you convert more interstitial time into time to read books – you will probably read and buy more books, irrespective of whether you’re a gadget freak or a book lover. What do you think? Are you convinced by my tenuous argument, or do you think the ebook is the end of civilisation? Sound off in the comments.

New Australian Ebook Reader

Australian-based IT and consumer electronics accessories company LASER Corporation has launched a new ebook reader, priced at $149.95. The company said ebook files and content on the EB101 ereader ‘can be shared with friends, rather than having to continuously download from the web’ because its Digital Rights Management (DRM) functionality ensured ‘access to supported content for playback’. I confess that I don’t really know what that means. Spokesperson Christine Kardashian (no relation) told the Weekly Book Newsletter that, ‘Non copy-protected ebook files … can be shared between users – just like you would with music files.’

There is no DRM format that I know of (other than the heavily gimped Nook) that supports the sharing of copyrighted books … so I’m not quite sure what the former statement might mean, but I’d jump at the chance to take a look on behalf of readers. The EB101 is LASER’s first ebook reader and supports a range of formats including ePub and PDF. ‘With MP4 capabilities, the lightweight, portable EB101 is fitted with a 5-inch Thin Film Transistor (TFT) screen and unlike many other [ebook readers] on the market, allows users to store and view photos, watch video and movies in full colour, as well as listening to music – even while reading,’ said the company in a statement.

LASER managing director Chris Lau said the ereader, which weighs ‘no more than 300gms in total’, was ‘like having a large MP4 player – you can comfortably read books, watch video in full colour and listen to music, along with sharing content with friends’.

This new reader is one of many products capitalising on the ebook/tablet market that has been opened up with Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad. My suspicion is that the EB101 isn’t on the same level as either of these products, but I also doubt they’re attempting to compete with these two massive companies directly. The biggest selling point is the price – which is low, even for a product without e-ink. The specifications include a 6-hour battery life, an SD card reader and a 5-inch screen. Six hours battery life is negligible, especially in comparison to e-ink devices like the Kindle – but then again, the Kindle can’t play movies. The iPad has a 10-hour battery life, and can play movies, but it costs closer to $700.

Without having actually seen this new product, I’d say it’s biggest potential drawback is its patchy support of ‘DRM’. From the marketing bumf I surmise that it supports Adobe’s DRM scheme, a format sold through a number of Australian publishers and e-tailers (including ebooks.com and Dymocks). However, it’s not going to be compatible with the massive Kindle library. Nonetheless, I congratulate the manufacturer on taking a punt and getting an Australian product out into what is shaping up to be a bit of a crowded market.

Algorithm and Blues

Image copyright Nick Gentry ©

On the eve of the election, two things I have read this week have combined in my head and I have not been able to stop thinking about them. The first thing is the excellent comment that Dave Freer left on my post earlier this week. The second is this video by music critic Chris Weingarten. The subject of these two influences – or at least the tenuous connection I have built between them – is the conflict between the benefits of technology and the tyranny of numbers.

OK, so even to me that sounds a bit dramatic. But it is true. I’ve touched on this topic before in a previous post, and I came to the conclusion that optimisation of artistic expression by algorithm may well be possible, and even useful, but it’s really bloody depressing. I still feel this way. I was at first skeptical of Dave’s explanation of how mathematical modelling of book acquisition could be possible, but he convinced me. Snip:

At the moment, you have your gut feel and the bookscan figures to decide what you buy. If you had better quality data (ie. laydown, returns, normal sales of that sub-genre and laydown within each geographic area … you could say which … would make your company more money, which had the lower risk, what was actually a reasonable ask for the books in question. It could also tell the retailer which were good bets for their area, and publisher where to push distribution. It doesn’t over-ride judgement, it just adds a tool which, when margins are thin, can make the world of difference.

I am forced to agree with Dave that if such a tool were available it would be of great use to publishers to help decide what to buy, and in a great many instances, what books would sell (if you still don’t believe it, I recommend reading the whole thing). Nonetheless, it fills me with despair. As Weingarten says in the video I linked to, most of us who got into the world of writing did so because we suck at maths. But it’s not just that. There’s a kind of ethical issue at stake here too. The availability of a tool like this would make publishers lazy. I once heard the use of test audiences for TV pilots and films described as being more about ass covering than actually predicting the success or failure of a film. And I have to say the same thought occurs to me about the statistical modelling of book acquisition.

This is not to say the information wouldn’t be useful, but it would mean that when a book that tested well in the model bombed, publishers could throw their hands up in the air and say, “Well, it tested well.” It would be a tool that sales directors and corporate executives would use to dampen creativity in publishing. Presumably (though correct me if I’m wrong, Dave!) the sales of statistical outliers that don’t easily fit into a pre-existing genre or sub-genre would not be easily predicted under this model. And there are a lot of books that don’t fit into genres. I’ve heard it said that when it comes to books there are almost as many genres as there are books. Does that mean that publishers would just use their own judgement? Or would they be even more unlikely than they already are to take on books that aren’t safe bets?

Of course, Dave will probably tell us that this amazing statistical model would only be a tool. It wouldn’t ‘override judgement’ as he says in the quote above. But humans like to rely on machines and numbers – especially when it comes to difficult decisions. Sometimes that comes at the cost of something difficult to quantify. And perhaps on this day, when the leaders of our country are trying to win an election based as much upon the statistically predicted thoughts of a few key voters in a few key marginal seats as any true leadership, beliefs, policies or moral character, I fear that ceding our decision-making to an algorithm has the potential to take away far more than it gives us. What do you think?

Do You Believe in Ebooks?

You may not have heard, but the publishing industry is not doing all that well at the moment. The market is shrinking in lots of ways. It might bounce back, but it’s likely that there is a general trend towards publishers needing to seek new ways of making money from the written word. If not now then soon. In this climate, ebooks are not something to be feared, yet there is a general tendency, especially among people who don’t understand, don’t use or don’t like ebooks to build them into a monster of mythic proportions. The fact is, however, that ebooks are not changing the industry. The industry is changing itself.

An author asked a friend of mine the other day if the decline of the second format market (that’s cheap paperbacks) was the fault of ebooks. Another friend who passed this blog along to an acquaintance was actually asked “Do you believe in all that stuff?” All that stuff, presumably, means ebooks – as if ebooks were magic pixie fairy dust that would be influenced by our collective belief or non-belief. Don’t they realise that every time you say you don’t believe, an ebook dies?

Seriously, though, ebooks are not something to be feared. They are at worst another potential revenue stream, and at best a whole new way of looking at telling stories. My beliefs on the matter (which make less than no difference to the outcome) fall somewhere between these two. At any rate, the future, whether you like it or not, will very likely include ebooks to some extent.

But for how long? Is the ebook itself already an old way of thinking about writing and selling stories? If so, what will come next?  Clay Shirky, author of the excellent Cognitive Surplus wrote a post some time ago about the death of the newspaper industry called ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable‘. Much of what he says there about newspapers applies equally to publishing books. Snip:

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift … It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

We in the book publishing industry are far further away from demise than the newspaper industry, but it doesn’t take a massive leap of imagination to put us in the same situation. I’ve seen it myself. “Leadership,” Shirky writes, “becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en bloc.” Sound familiar?

All of this isn’t to say that the book is dead. Newspapers and books aren’t the same, and the internet has not had the same effect on books as it has had on newspapers. But that is not to say that the digitisation of publishing – a process which started long before ebooks and will continue after them – is not going to have a profound effect on the way written stories reach readers. The one thing we can be sure of, though, is that the stories themselves will still be there. You might not believe in ebooks, but you can believe in that.

129,864,880 is the Loneliest Number

The number of books available to readers is one of the biggest selling points of the potential of ebooks. Ebooks allow instantaneous transfer of books, and also allow readers to carry an entire library with them wherever they go. However, only a tiny fraction of all of the books ever published are available to readers of ebooks. The Google Books blog this week published a number (probably already out of date), of every book ever published (in paper). That number is 129,864,880.

How to put that into perspective? If we say every book is on average about a few hundred grams, we’re talking about about 390,000 metric tons of books. That’s 170,000 African elephants, 144,000 blue whales, or almost one and a half times the entire Empire State building. I don’t know about you, but I was actually surprised by how few there were. Seriously, you could fit every single book that has ever been written onto gear you could buy from Dick Smith’s for a few thousand bucks.

However, the problem with digitising books will likely not be about catching up with the massive backlist, it will be about keeping up with the books published from this point onwards. There are a lot of books published every year. UNESCO monitors the number of books published each year per country, and they say there are about 200,000 published per year in the United States alone (Australia publishes just under 9000). Worldwide the number is likely to be over a million, though it is very difficult to get accurate statistics.

Amazon, the world’s biggest seller of ebooks, has just under 700,000 ebooks available in their US store (the Australian store has about 400,000) – a number which likely includes a huge number of self-published, niche and out-of-copyright titles. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a drop in the bucket.

But don’t worry. In your lifetime, even if you read a lot, you’re probably only going to get through a few thousand books. So the problem isn’t how many books you have access to, but how you’re going to decide which book to read next. You are really going to want to make it count.

*I apologise in advance for any poor mathematical workings-out that appear in the above post.

Closing Arguments: Or How We Will Never Agree

So in my last post I tried to start a blog fight between me and JD of Book Bee. I even got Darryl from Oz E-Books to chime in. And JD responded. It would be easy to frame my response here as flogging a dead horse (or milking a cash cow), but I do think many of the points from these two worthy gentlemen are worth responding to.

First of all, there are two distinct issues here that are generally related (in that they are about books in Australia) but not fundamentally connected. These are basically: Why are books so expensive in Australia and why are we so behind the US in terms of ebooks availability?

I’ve discussed the parallel importation issue in other posts before, so I won’t go into a massive amount of detail here about it. But it should be mentioned here for the record that the economies of scale, when it comes to dead tree publishing and distribution, are vastly different to the UK and the US. Books are more expensive here because it is more expensive to make books and get them into stores. Both of those countries have Australia’s population several times over and relative to this have a much smaller amount of area to spread their distribution networks. They also have healthier competition between retailers than Australia, where the vast majority of our books are sold through a couple of chain stores and department stores. Despite this we do have a healthy publishing industry, and unlike many other small countries have a stable of homegrown authors who make their living from writing books. The decision of whether to end the protection of Australian publishing is a complex one, and I don’t pretend to be an authority on it. But it is not intimately connected to the ebook issue JD originally posted about, and it does not mean there is an Australian publishing conspiracy.

JD contends that his theory (that publishing companies have strategically stopped the rise of ebooks in Australia in order to skim profits from the dying paper book industry) has been confirmed by his publishing insider. Not only do I think that a single insider is not in a position to confirm an industry-wide practice that basically amounts to a price fixing cartel, I have asked multiple people in the industry since this discussion began and all have denied it and are utterly confused by the accusation in the first place. Quite aside from that, it’s just common sense. Publishing companies are businesses and are constantly seeking new revenue streams. People can argue all they like that publishers are slow to the ebook party, but there is not a conspiracy against ebooks in order to retain the ‘cash cow’ of paper book publishing. There is no cash cow. Book profits in Australia are just enough to retain a local industry, whether or not you think books are overpriced. Publishers would never ignore a potential revenue stream. There isn’t enough money in the industry for them to ignore ebooks, but there also isn’t enough money in ebooks for them to have invested heavily in it.

That’s right – there’s no money in ebooks right now, and Australian publishers are not on the raggedy edge of the worldwide ebook frontier. Most Australian publishers only employ one or two people to work on the digital side of their business. They could have invested more a lot earlier, but, for the same reason that our books are more expensive, the economies of scale here in Australia are different. No Australian retailer invented an ereader or pushed it to consumers like Amazon did with the Kindle in the US. Sony still doesn’t distribute their first-to-the-party ereader in this country. Publishers may be slow to change and slow to embrace new technologies, but they need to have a foundation on which to build. Despite the assertions of early adopters like JD, there is no massive grassroots demand for ebooks that has been ignored wholesale by the publishing industry. Until last November, when the Kindle arrived here, there was not even a device that more than a handful of people actually owned. Many Australian publishers have made their books available digitally to the book buying public for years, but they have barely sold a single copy, even through ebook stores that have been open for years (like Dymocks and Ebooks.com). That’s because there are not enough people out there buying ebooks – and there have not been devices to read them on. Until this year, the vast majority of ebooks sold in Australia to Australians were read on laptops. And that was a vanishingly small number.

So to summarise – chill out. The world is changing. It’s just not changing fast enough for some of us. But that’s OK. Ebooks are taking off in a big way, and everyone in the industry realises this. Those who haven’t moved fast enough up until now will fail. There is no need – or grounds – to blame any single group for how things are. We can look forward to a day in the very near future where we will be able to buy in seconds virtually any book ever written electronically. That is enough of an achievement for a very short decade.

The Grand Old Publisher Conspiracy

I admit it. Sometimes what I do here on this blog is very silly. The wonderful and sick-making ebook blog drinking game devised by the bloke behind Bookavore is testament to how silly ebook blogs can get. Oh yes, readers, The Smell of Books is not the only ebook blog – heavens, no. There are hundreds, if not thousands of us. I imagine if we were all to get together in a single room, there would be an overabundance of Star Wars T-shirts, iPads and discussion of the perils of the agency model. It would be awesome.

Nonetheless, although my blog is sometimes very silly, I do try not to needlessly hype or fearmonger. But I fear that is what has happened today on Book Bee. JD’s argument seems to be based solely on a single conversation with a ‘publishing insider’, who speculated that publishers may have been dragging their heels on ebooks as a strategic decision to make more money off overpriced paper books. Snip:

But to have it spelled out to me as a strategic decision that many major publishers have taken, at the expense of the reading public (it has been demonstrated that at least some of whom, if not all, want to embrace ebooks), well that takes my breath away.

But it gets worse. JD then goes on, fist probably shaken at the heavens the whole time, to declare the entire dead tree publishing industry at an end, and that it’s just too late for traditional publishers to catch up to the ‘little guys’.

Even if the change-resistant publishers suddenly embrace ebooks tomorrow (stop laughing, please), they’re now too far behind to catch up. Their paper book cash cow is dwindling, and they haven’t got a piece of the growing new action. They’re screwed from both ends.

As much as I would like to blame a massive publisher conspiracy or strategy for the mess consumers are in with ebooks, there is no conspiracy. (There is also no cash cow – but that’s a different argument altogether.) Publishers have been given plenty of false starts with ebooks, they’ve been expecting the changeover to digital to happen since those horrible CD-ROM books back in the 90s. But the change didn’t catch on. It’s happening now, and although it’s speeding up, it’s still a slow change. Very little money is changing hands, and it’s difficult for the people on the ground in publishing houses to get massive corporations to spend millions of dollars setting up an infrastructure that will still only be about 5% of the industry in several years time (in Australia).

So let’s take a deep breath and a step back. All bloggers who write about specific topics tend towards tunnel vision. We ebook bloggers tend to project our own desire for universal ebook availability and perfection onto every other person. But hardly anyone in Australia is reading ebooks right now. Most people don’t even have the slightest interest. Publishers don’t need to concoct a vast conspiracy to slow the uptake of ebooks, they just need to tap into our nation’s most abundant resource: laziness. Publishing houses may be Luddite behemoths, they may be creakingly slow to make technological changes – but they are not evil masterminds hell-bent on stopping innocent readers from reading.

The Kind of the Rest – My New Novel

In my last post I wrote about a nightmarish scenario in which books we read are created automatically by a software algorithm. I’ve had time to think about it since then, and to use the wonderful TweetWriter, a promotional tool for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. TweetWriter takes the body of writing that makes up your Twitter feed and creates a customised book based on your style of expressing yourself, which, as everyone knows, is usually at its finest in tweet form. Here’s my automagically customised back cover blurb:

When asked to described the real Joel Blacklock, Joel would often say “I am the walrus”, but 127 loyal fans will always know Joel best as the prolific writer who published over 1643 works, all written from Joel’s secluded playboy style mansion in Sydney, Australia.

In this astonishing latest work, ‘THE NAME OF THE KIND’, Blacklock’s writing is both mesmeric in tone and labrynthine in structure, and is surely destined to achieve the status of a contemporary classic.

Hear that? ‘Mesmeric in tone and labrynthine in structure’. One hundred and twenty seven fans can’t be wrong!

Let’s just say the software algorithm that will write a true bestseller is some time away. Quite aside from the fact that the back cover blurb is littered with errors and the title of the book is different on the front and back (I tend to think The Name of the Kind is better than The Kind of the Rest – thoughts?) I can’t imagine a single person would even pick this book up off the shelves.

Nonetheless, for the curious and the lazy, here are a few of Twitter’s finest minds at work.

The always adorable @stephenfry:

The redoubtable @johnbirmingham, erm I mean John Birmingha:

The terrifying @tara_moss:

What about our potential prime ministers? Here’s Red:

And the Mad Monk?

Check out your own book titles and link to them in the comments.

The Melbourne Writers’ Festival runs from 27 August to 5 September 2010.

Why Amazon Would Make a Bad Dinner Party Guest

Have you ever met one of those people at a party who within minutes seems to know your life history, sexual proclivities and history of insanity? They ask a lot of questions while at the same time manage to reveal nothing about themselves. Data miners are a scourge of the modern social gathering, and they make a lot of people uncomfortable, and for good reason – information is power. Most people aren’t comfortable with the idea that someone they barely know suddenly knows what colour underwear they are wearing. In the era of Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google, however, the data miners have started selling us back the benefits of collecting our secrets. Amazon and Apple can recommend products to us based on what we already like, Google and Facebook read our emails and messages and serve up ads based on what we’re talking about. We take these recommendations and automatic tailoring of services for granted. It isn’t a person, after all, prying into our buying habits and personal data in order to create a profile based on our likes and dislikes. It’s an algorithm. A piece of software. No biggie, right?

Right. This is 2010! Those of us who engage in online shopping and social media have obviously at some point decided that the benefits outweigh the invasion of privacy. Maybe we don’t like to think about it very much, turn a blind eye to it to some extent, but we still want what these companies offer us. Nonetheless, we should never forget how incredibly valuable this information is. When it comes to the buying habits of readers, this data has traditionally been very difficult to collect. A book publisher once told me that the only way to afford market research in publishing is in fact to publish books. Publishers try things out by instinct. If the public likes it and the company makes money, they stick with it. If not, they discard the author or the genre as easily as they came across it. All things considered, publishers would still prefer to publish fewer books that make more money. Thankfully for the reading public, it has ordinarily been difficult to know what sells and what doesn’t. Publishers aren’t constrained by absolutes – although they might have to run their books past the gauntlet of previous sales figures, the reason many books make it out of the slush pile is that the publisher has a ‘feeling’.

The point is, in the digital age the information about what people like to read and who they are can be collected more easily than ever before. If you buy books from Amazon, Amazon knows your age, your gender, where you live, what kind of job you have, how much money you generally spend on books, what books and authors you like – they may even know why. For a multinational conglomerate, it is not that much of a stretch to collate this data and see what kind of books are working in the market right now. This, ultimately, is why publishers are terrified of companies like Amazon publishing books. Although Amazon lacks the traditional technical expertise of a publishing house, they possess this new kind of information that publishers have never had access to. What might they do with it?

Can you imagine a world in which each book is dissected based on the plot line (three acts? four?) the number of words (people nowadays really prefer only books under 100,000 words), the number of female characters and so on and so forth until publishing books for particular markets turns into a paint-by-numbers drawing. It’s not like there aren’t enough authors out there who would write anything in order to get published. Previously, it has been impossible to imagine as complex a thing as a book being understood as a collection of data. But with the data now available to retailers like Amazon and Apple on the internet, what’s to stop them using this information for more than just recommendations? And would this be a bad thing? Perhaps in this future I am imagining we will shrug off the sterilisation of our entertainment by algorithms in the same way we have shrugged off the sterilisation of our social interactions in the same way. Perhaps these new improved algorithm-based books will be so much more entertaining than regular old books that we will turn a blind eye to the process? What do you think? Is this a ridiculous sci-fi nightmare? Or is this something you can imagine playing out for real?

Does Your Local Library Deserve to Survive?

Come on a hypothetical journey with me. Imagine a future where ebooks are the dominant format of books. It’s a world many people don’t think will ever exist. Boomerang’s own Aimee Burton is one of them (I’ve challenged her to a blargument, but until she picks up the gauntlet I threw down this will just have to be hypothetical). But let’s just imagine dead tree books are now the poor cousin of ebooks. Kind of like CDs already are to MP3s. In this world, there are still rabid collectors out there who buy every antique Stephenie Meyer out there, but for the most part, most people do their book reading electronically. In this world is your local library something you want your tax money spent on?

Before the mouth-breather with the orthopaedic shoes starts throwing the kids’ books around in the quiet corner, just think about it. I love local libraries. I love how empty they are. I love how many books are there. I love the crazy old cat lady who works there two out of every four days. But in the world I’ve just mentioned, what role does a local library have that cannot be fulfilled by every person’s internet connection in their own home?

The answer, at least for now, seems to be free access. Try as they might (read: they are not trying) the publishing industry is yet to come up with a way to make the full range of ebooks that are out there commercially available to government subsidised libraries. John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan US, recently described libraries in the digital age as a “thorny problem”. As the excellent Eric Hellman paraphrases:

In the past, getting a book from libraries has had a tremendous amount of friction. You have to go to the library, maybe the book has been checked out and you have to come back another time. If it’s a popular book, maybe it gets lent ten times, there’s a lot of wear and tear, and the library will then put in a reorder. With ebooks, you sit on your couch in your living room and go to the library website, see if the library has it, maybe you check libraries in three other states. You get the book, read it, return it and get another, all without paying a thing.

It’s hard to see a sound business reason why a publisher would ever want a workable system for library ebooks. And yet, as it stands, it’s up to publishing companies to come up with a solution to this problem. Ultimately, however, when you look at the depth and breadth of knowledge available for free on the internet nowadays, it’s hard to make an argument that every person needs free access to books. Many libraries are already shifting their focus away from merely being repositories of dead trees. Knowledge is no longer contained solely within paper covers. But, of course, knowledge was only one reason I used to go to libraries. Without my local library, there are a number of dodgy fantasy writers I never would have read.

So my questions today are these: Does your local library deserve to be saved? If so, how? If not, will you mourn the passing of the local library? If so, why? Share your library stories in the comments below.