The Value of Edtiors

The advent of ebooks and online writing often brings to light an old argument about the value of editorial. The cost of printing and distributing a book, while hardly insignificant, is generally not as large as many people think. Nonetheless, ebook prices are set far lower than print books (compare the $AU14.99 average on the Kindle store to the $AU34.99 average RRP for a new release book). And this seems to be a persistent trend for digital content in general. People expect to get digital products for free or for a reduced price relative to the old analog version – irrespective of whether it is the same or better than the original. Nonetheless, the non-physical costs of producing a book are rarely seen as valuable. At their most powerful, editors are portrayed as dictatorial gatekeepers, controlling what the public gets to see and stopping true gems from seeing the light of day. At worst they are seen as insignificant – costs to be cut from the bottom line.

I’ve spoken about the value a publisher adds to books, but a blog post this week on Digital Book World has made me hone in more specifically on the value an editor adds to book publishing. The DBW post is specifically about the role of editorial in internet writing – a role that can be measured in a number of ways, as they detail in the post. The value of editing when it comes to trade publishing, however, is far harder to measure. You can’t, for example, release two versions of a book – one edited and the other not – just to see which one will sell better. (Would anyone choose the unedited version? Would any author allow their unedited manuscript to be printed?). The editor’s role in trade publishing, in almost all cases, is to remain invisible – to support the author and the author’s brand, to create the illusion that the books that authors write spring from their minds fully formed and are never touched again. Some books, of course, do spring fully formed from authors minds and require no editing. Some books are entirely re-written. The secret to editing is not being able to tell the difference.

Non-editor friends have often confided in me that this or that book was badly edited. However, the fact of the matter is, it’s impossible to tell from the quality of the book alone how good a job the editor has done. They may not have had much time to work on it or they may have had an obstinate author with a love of inconsistent spelling. Reading the book in a vacuum – as it should be read – is not conducive to understanding that process.

My question is: in a world where, increasingly, views, clickthroughs and even eyeball tracking can be used to measure the efficacy of different marketing, sales and writing techniques, how does one measure the value of an invisible job like editing? Can it be done? Should it be done? And if not, how can it be preserved? Should it be preserved at all?

NOTE: Hopefully by now you will have spotted my massive intentional typo. If not, read it again.

Kindle Sales Outstrip Dead Tree Books: Nobody Makes Money

Amazon announced this week that for the first time sales of Kindle ebooks have outstripped the sales of hardcover books. Is this a surprise? Not particularly. Amazon have been flogging their ebooks to death since the release of the Kindle, they’ve done a fantastic job getting publishers on board, and have the biggest range of ebooks of any store on the web. If it was going to happen to someone, it was going to happen to them. However, the news comes with some pretty massive provisos.

Firstly, the question of how much money is being made here is completely opaque. I know it’s gauche to wonder about the money – but for there to be a future to this ebook game (or any book industry at all) we need to know if there’s money and how much of it is being made and for whom. Amazon has been incredibly tight-lipped about sales of both the Kindle reader and ebooks. They’ve reported that the Kindle itself is now the single highest selling item on Amazon, but that doesn’t give us a clear idea of whether they’re making money from it. The prices for the readers are dropping, but all this proves is that Amazon is getting increased competition from Barnes & Noble’s Nook and to a lesser extent from Apple’s iPad. Despite the shift to the agency model, many publishers are still selling their books for the $9.99 price that Amazon set for Kindle books more than a year ago. What this shows is that, just as they did for selling dead tree books online way back at the beginning of the decade, Amazon are willing to be loss leaders to capture market share. As I’ve mentioned before, maintaining a profitable industry is a mug’s game when it comes to technology – market share is where it’s at. The fact of the matter is, if Amazon were making truckloads of cash on ebooks and Kindles, they would be reporting that, not the proviso-riddled fact that they have sold 143 Kindle books for every 100 hardbacks.

So is this announcement, as the New York Times said, ‘one for the history books – if those will even exist in the future’? Not quite yet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s quite impressive that Amazon have managed to increase sales of ebooks to such a huge extent so quickly. But this isn’t the death knell of the dead tree book – or even of the hardback. Until someone starts making a lot of money from ebooks – and can show that the money will keep flowing – the ebook will remain the poor second-cousin of the mighty hardback*.

*Australian readers can feel free to substitue trade paperback for hardback here, but it doesn’t sound as good to say ‘mighty trade paperback’.

Microsoft Turns Over an Old Leaf

News circulated around the web last week that Microsoft has filed a patent application for the visual look of the page turn on touchscreen devices. According to the NY Times:

The patent application states that when “one or more pages are displayed on a touch display” a “virtual page turn curls a lifted portion of the page to progressively reveal a back side of the page while progressively revealing a front side of a subsequent page.” Just like real pages in a paper book.

The application was apparently filed back in 2009, when work on Microsoft’s Courier tablet was still going (the device’s development was cancelled in April this year). What’s odd is not that Microsoft had the temerity to patent something that a few other companies had already implemented in their touchscreen applications (the Classics app on the iPhone was one, and the iPad’s iBooks app uses the same visual effect now). It’s not even particularly odd that a tech company can patent something that is so blatantly silly. There are some extremely weird software patents already floating about: Microsoft patented that creepy paperclip with eyes and no legs that used to ask you if you needed help writing a letter, and Facebook has a patent for the newsfeed (a concept which clearly derives from multiple other sources). No, the odd thing about this patent is that the technology itself seems so … unnecessary.

I mean, I’ve shown quite a few people the page turning animation in iBooks, and they have ooh’d and aah’d  as you might expect. It’s a very pretty animation. But having now used the iBooks application to actually read books, the animation is kind of a pain in the arse. It’s nice for showing off the touchscreen technology, and for making iBooks look more like a real book. But it offers no other functionality. For someone who is already used to reading ebooks, it is a superfluous, annoying bit of frippery. Most of us are already used to scrolling to read text, and if the page metaphor is important to the idea of the book, then nothing’s stopping an instant flick that changes the page. Why the extra trouble to make it look like paper? It reminds me of a learn-to-type program I used as a kid that made every key press sound like the a typewriter key, and every press of the ‘return’ key like an actual carriage return. It was absolutely maddening. Surely the noise was the worst thing about the typewriter? And surely the pages in a book are – if not actually annoying – then superfluous to requirements? What do you think? Are you so wedded to the dead tree format that even an ebook should have pages that can be turned? Or do you just want to get at the content? Sound off in the comments.

3 Ways to Finally Finish Ulysses

Speed reading for dummies – and rabbits!

In this post I’m going to go through a few speed reading solutions that I’ve tried over the last couple of years. Some are so fiddly that you may as well just read normally, and others will give you magical powers to read books faster than you have really ever wanted to.

1. Learn to Speed Read the Old Fashioned Way

There are a number of free, online courses to learn to speed read in the way nature intended (ie by learning a new skill that will last a lifetime). I’ve invested a couple of hours into a couple of these courses, and what I can tell you about them is this: proper speed reading is hard. I imagine learning the skill would be very useful, if you were the kind of person who could dedicate the months of time needed to learn it. Sadly, I am not that person. It reminds me a little of learning to touch type. I learned to touch type because I had a spare summer holidays and a typing program instead of proper computer games (I was a deprived child). Now, I know how to touch type, and the frustration of the learning experience is far behind me. None of the online courses are particularly fun, and the simple reason is that it’s not an easy thing to learn.

What these courses do give you, however, is a solid understanding of how speed reading works. Most people read the way we were taught to read, we sound out the words in our head. This is called ‘sub-vocalising’. The key to speed reading is learning to see a word and understand it without sub-vocalising it. And that’s pretty difficult.

2. An Easier Way

There are a number of iPhone and iPad apps for speed reading, most of which are utter rubbish. They crash, they lack the most rudimentary feature set, and ultimately fail at helping you get through your reading any faster than usual. Quickreader is the best of a bad lot. It’s basically a shortcut to real speed reading, the kind you have to work for, but requires very little effort. It’s technology-assisted proper speed reading. You can use any text file, or download one of the many free titles available through the app. The app then presents you with a screen (as below) and will highlight the passage you’re supposed to be reading for as long as you’re supposed to read it for. It forces you to move faster than you’re comfortable with, and by doing so teaches you to read faster. You can then test your reading speed in another part of the app. The upside is that it’s a good way to learn to speed read. The downside? It isn’t quite fast enough to be useful, and has none of the advantages of normal ebooks. You can’t search the text, look up a word in the dictionary or read it on another device.

I don’t know why you’d want to read A Room With A View at 800 words per minute. But if you want to you can.

3. Finishing Move

If you really want to get the job done, speed reading-wise, then use Zap Reader. Zap Reader requires no ability whatsoever, except the initial reading skill. The website works by flashing words at you at a rate you specify. You can copy and paste text into it from any other website, or from an ebook you have stored on your computer (so long as it allows you to copy text from it, which many DRM schemes do not allow). You can improve a lot with it if you use it frequently, by slowly increasing the speed and the ‘chunk’ size (the amount of words shown on the screen at any one time), but you can increase the speed pretty high from the get go. I recommend starting at about 400wpm with three words at a time, and slowly increasing it from there. If you’ve ever had to read something boring and long that you just want to finish and just don’t have the energy to sit down with the book – then give this a go. You can thank me later, lazy people. If you can be bothered.

Crush Ulysses – just as this long-haired gentleman is about to crush his muscular friend!




Speed Demon

A recent study by Useit.com has concluded that reading on an e-reading device is, on average, slower than reading a traditional book. The study used a Kindle, an iPad, a book and a PC for the study. The participants were given a comprehension test at the end to make sure all readers were understanding what they read, but were apparently no differences between formats for comprehension. Snip:

The iPad measured at 6.2% lower reading speed than the printed book, whereas the Kindle measured at 10.7% slower than print … Users felt that reading the printed book was more relaxing than using electronic devices. And they felt uncomfortable with the PC because it reminded them of work.

Aside from the fact that the study was only conducted on 24 people, and reasonable margins of error mean that they can’t say for sure which device is faster, what does a study of this kind mean for readers? Is the speed at which we read actually important to our choice of format? Personally, when I’m reading for relaxation, I don’t care how quickly or slowly I get through a book. But reading is kind of like chocolate cake. It’s excellent when you get to decide how much you eat, even if you sometimes overindulge and give yourself a stomach ache. However, if you were forced to eat six chocolate cakes in a row the experience is not as much of a treat. When I read for work I sometimes need to get through books as fast as humanly possible – without sacrificing my ability to understand what’s happening or work out whether what I’m reading is any good.

It’s a difficult balance to strike. I’m naturally a very slow reader, and tend to slow down the more absorbed I am. To get through something quickly, I need to constantly tell myself to move faster. It’s not a very pleasant experience. Nonetheless, it’s an experience that many people are looking for – sometimes we just need to absorb information as quickly as possible. As a format agnostic, I’ve looked at many ways to speed up my reading. The fastest I’ve found is to use a speed reading program. There are a number of paid software packages, but I prefer the web-based solutions, as you can get to them anywhere, and add any text you like by just copying and pasting in a web browser. Two good examples of this kind of thing are Zap Reader and Spreeder. Using these sites, I’ve sometimes reached speeds of around 700-800 words per minute reading, which is almost triple the average reading speed (most people read around 250-300 wpm). I can get through an average length book in an afternoon. However, there is a terrifying, brain-bending element to reading in this fashion. It feels a bit like downloading a new skill in The Matrix, and tends to give me a massive headache.

I know kung fu.

So, in the hunt for the fastest reading experience, in my next post I’ll be road testing a number of reading technologies  to see if I can balance speed with enjoyment. In the meantime, sound off in the comments and let me know whether you think speed is a plus or minus for you when it comes to reading a book.

Can Editors Keep Up With Technology?

An editorial clarification last week at The New York Times and the reaction to it has made me wonder if it’s possible for editors to keep up with how quickly language is changing in the face of technological development.

I had suggested that outside of ornithological contexts, “tweet” should still be treated as colloquial rather than as standard English. It can be used for special effect, or in places where a colloquial tone is appropriate, but should not be used routinely in straight news articles.

The reaction to the Times‘s editorial statement – a decision which would ordinarily have come under no scrutiny whatsoever – was intense and harsh. People sneered at the idea of the so-called ‘guardians of the English language’ for daring to pronounce on what should or should not be considered ‘standard’ English.

I can see both sides of this argument. As a writer and reader, I hate the idea that some kind of arbitrary standard should limit the way people can express themselves (though to be fair, I don’t think whether or not The New York Times uses the word ‘tweet’ is of that much importance). On the other hand, as an editor, standardised decisions like this make my job much easier.

Yahoo News, swiftly becoming a trusted source of news as well as an aggregator, has recently released a stylebook in the vein of the much celebrated (and much despised) Associated Press stylebook. They are selling printed versions of it, but it also exists as a website for free. But I have to wonder, is there really a need for a resource like this when we have Google? The Yahoo stylebook has a fairly comprehensive FAQ, including questions about standard spelling and SEO. SEO stands for ‘search engine optimisation’. SEO is basically the umbrella term for all the tricks a web developer uses for getting their website to the top of Google search results. A part of this is ensuring that the standard spelling used for a word throughout a website – particularly if it’s a key word – is the spelling most likely to be used by people searching on Google.

This raises an interesting question. If Google is (among many other things) a global and aggregated digest of common spelling and usage, then is a stylebook even necessary anymore? Google has already become my go-to source for standard spelling, hyphenation or spacing of a word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary. ‘How many pages are on Google?’ is often my first question when a fellow editor asks me for the standard way of writing something. As books are increasingly digitised and searchable, is it more important to be visible – or technically correct? Is there, in fact, even such a thing as ‘technically correct’?

Language is a tricky thing. There is a balance between authority and democracy to be struck, and the internet is tipping that balance toward democracy. It’s something that I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, the strength of the English language is its fluidity – it can change and adapt to the changes and adaptations of its speakers. On the other hand, the pedant in me screams at the idea that someone can start using ‘literally’ just to emphasise their point. But what if Google says it’s OK? Does that make it right? What do you think?

For Whom The Microwave Beeps

Twitter has become a great way of disseminating information to fans of a particular type of media. Sometimes it happens in a straightforward, linear way – the company or person involved in creating a book, movie or television series tweets something that gets re-tweeted by a bunch of people that are interested and then flows out from there.

Sometimes, however, information flows out in a far more interesting way, which, I would argue, is unique to the internet, and particularly common on Twitter. Someone makes a joke, and the joke is shared not directly, but by the person making up their own version of it and passing it on to their friends. The concept of the joke, idea or news is shared, but not the content. On Twitter this happens with hashtags (marked off with the # symbol). For example, the recent leadership spill in the Federal Labor party, which resulted in Julia Gillard becoming Australia’s first female PM, was marked off with the hashtag #spill. Users interested in following the spill on Twitter could search for #spill and find up to the second news and chatter about the story from random people, journalists and celebrities. Hashtags are tracked by Twitter and are kept track of in Trending Topics, which appear to the right of the Twitter feed on every user’s screen.

Sometimes the hashtag is not as serious or important as a leadership spill, but is just a vehicle for users to communicate ideas, jokes and thoughts. A recent hashtag on books was funny enough that I thought it might justify a blog post. The tag was #lesserbooks, and the premise was to come up with a pun on an existing book title that made it seem somehow … lesser. I first saw the hashtag in author John Birmingham’s feed when he tweeted one of his own book titles (Without Much Warning #lesserbooks), and saw a number of friends follow with their own interpretations.

Below are a few that made me laugh – I haven’t bothered to seek the original author, as it’s as likely as not that multiple people came up with the same titles at the same time. Sound off in the comments if you come up with one of your own.

  • Lionel Ritchie’s Wardrobe
  • A Brief History of Tim
  • Great Expectorations
  • The Bibble
  • Schindler’s Lift
  • The Merchant of Tennis
  • The Lord of the Files
  • Catch 21
  • Are You There God? It’s Me, Hitler
  • The Crepes of Wrath

The Failed iPad Potential

The thing I’ve noticed most about the iPad since I got one in April is how versatile it is. It’s hard to categorise; it could replace a low-end laptop and it makes my old Kindle look like one of those cheap yellow Tudor exercise books. However, one of its biggest selling points is its role as an ebook reader. Its strength in that department is its adaptability – unlike a Kindle, it can read books from a number of different sources (including the Kindle store itself). However, the native iPad reading solution – iBooks – leaves something to be desired. It’s a work in progress – and pales in comparison to the iPad itself.

It’s been six weeks since the iPad’s release in Australia, and there are still precious few books on the iBookstore, all of them public domain books, which do not violate Australian copyright territory agreements. It’s a disappointing experience to have the world at your fingertips, and yet not be able to get a copy of the The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo. Nonetheless, we can assume that, just like the Kindle store, the iBookstore will be populated over the months to come when agreements with Australian publishers are reached and the correctly formatted ebooks come trickling into the Apple vaults.

As an ereader, the iPad has come closer to comprehensive ebook access than any other reading device. It has a Kindle reader, Kobo reader, Borders reader (based on the Kobo one) the new Barnes & Noble reading app and the native iBooks app. There are also countless third-party reading apps, like the Amazon-owned Stanza, that have been developed to read non-DRM ebook files. However, there is no single window through which readers can get a consistent ebook experience on the iPad. Each reading experience is different, and has obvious pros and cons. You have to be fairly well educated about ebook formats and DRM to know whether you can get an app to read that new ebook you bought, especially if you purchased it from somewhere other than the app on which you’ll read the book. Most of the device independent DRM formats are not supported on any app (like Adobe’s AER, that the Sony Reader uses). As most Australian ebook vendors are still selling books protected with Adobe’s, Microsoft Reader’s or Mobipocket’s DRM it begs the question: why hasn’t someone got an app that can read the DRM for these ebooks on the iPad?

Google has been hyping their soon-to-be-released, device independent ebooks offering, to be called ‘Google Editions’, for months – but why hasn’t some clever software developer created an app that can be used with the existing device independent DRM schemes? If anyone knows the answer – let me know in the comments.

The Book Is Dead, Long Live The Book

Speaking to an ex sales rep friend the other day, I learned that the thickness of a book can contribute to its success or failure on the shelves.  Specifically, a very thick book will mean that only two or three books will fit in a ‘pocket’, which is the space one book facing out takes up on the shelves in a store. If only two books fit in a pocket then the bookstore is that much less likely to order more, as it will need constant maintenance and replenishment.

The physical limitations of the paper book permeate the entire process of writing, editing, publishing, selling, buying and reading books. Most books published fall somewhere between 300-400 pages long. Almost all books published as trade paperbacks are in multiples of sixteen pages. If there isn’t enough content to fill those sixteen page sections, then the end of the book can be filled up with advertisements or just have blank pages at the end. There are certain tricks used to squeeze a book into a smaller amount of pages, and tricks used to pad out the page extent when it won’t be long enough. Too short? Make every chapter start on the right hand page, with blanks beforehand. Too long? How about we put the dedication on the copyright page? In some kinds of books, the words themselves are changed so a sentence fits better on the page, or around an illustration.

At the moment, paper books are by far the dominant format, so ebooks inherit all the idiosyncrasies of the print world. But what if this wasn’t so? If you take away the physical limitations of a printed book, what makes it a book? How short can a book be before you still call it a book? Would you be less intimated to read a gigantic novel (like Gravity’s Rainbow or 2666) if you couldn’t feel how heavy it was in the hand, and see how much there was left to go? Will publishers be more likely to publish really big books, or illustrations and maps, if they know they won’t have to pay any extra to print it? One friend who has just started reading ebooks says that she feels ebooks give a false sense of progress as you read. Because you turn the page far more often than in a printed book, it gives the impression that you’ve read more than you have. What other ways that we can’t even imagine yet could electronic publishing change what we think of as a book?

At least these changes will not be sudden. Even the most enthusiastic forecasts don’t have ebooks making more sales than printed books for a very long time. Even when it does happen, it’s likely that the paradigm of the printed book will last beyond the limitations of technology. But eventually, it has to be assumed, what you think of as a book now may be a very different artifact. What do you think? What smell-of-books type things will you miss? Is there anything about printed books that annoys you? Sound off in the comments.

A Feature, Not a Bug

Excellent article in the Guardian this week about the internet. It seems almost laughable that someone could write a four thousand word essay about the internet these days, so central is it to the way we live our lives. But John Naughton has, and it’s excellent. He makes an excellent point about disruption being an essential part of the internet – a feature, not a bug:

One of the things that most baffles (and troubles) people about the net is its capacity for disruption. One moment you’ve got a stable, profitable business – say, as the CEO of a music label; the next minute your industry is struggling for survival, and you’re paying a king’s ransom to intellectual property lawyers in a losing struggle to stem the tide. Or you’re a newspaper group, wondering how a solid revenue stream from classified ads could suddenly have vaporised; or a university librarian wondering why students use only Google nowadays. How can this stuff happen? And how does it happen so fast?

Naughton argues that we are currently in the midst of a revolution (an actual revolution, rather than an evolution) the outcome of which is not by any means clear. He says that in the future, it’s likely we will look back on the internet in the way we look back at the Gutenberg press – tracing a clear line of consequence between movable type and such massive cultural shifts as the rise of modern science, entirely new social classes and professions and the collapse of the universal power of the Catholic church.

Of course, without the benefit of hindsight, it’s impossible to know whether the changes the internet and the age of digitisation will bring will be good or bad. It’s very likely they’ll be a combination of both. But nonetheless there is a certain inevitability about it – whether we want it to or not, change is coming.

What has this got to do with books and book technology? Quite a lot. Movable type and the Gutenberg press were at the centre of the communications revolution of the last millennium. The press allowed all sorts of new kinds of communication, and it allowed the rapid distribution and dissemination of books. Will the new communications revolution leave books behind altogether in its race to transfer information ever faster, or are books still a relevant means of communicating ideas in this new age? The answer, according to Naughton, will come to those who wait. In the meantime, of course, we can always speculate. What do you think? Will the book as a medium survive the next four hundred years? If so, why? What does it have to offer that no other medium has?

The Book of Last Resort

Speaking to a particularly ebook-wary friend the other day, I was told the only reason an ebook might be useful is when travelling. Years ago, he said, he travelled with half his pack full of cassette tapes and half with books, then stuffed a few pairs of underpants around them. After he started using an MP3 player he discovered he had a lot more room. Ebooks, he said, might reclaim the other half of his luggage. Presumably with the magic of electronic reading, he can now pack more than just underpants when he goes on holidays. The world sighs in relief.

This conversation got me thinking about book scarcity. When you’re relying on finite paper resources (or finite luggage resources) there are only so many books you can carry. There isn’t much space for the book that you don’t think you’ll read (but you might). Ebook buying, on the other hand, lends itself to this kind of purchase – the book that you really think you might never get around to, but at least you have it just in case. I’ve got many friends that treat their bookshelves like I treat my ebook reader. They’re full of books they’ll probably never get around to reading, but you never know – there may come a time when you really decide to commit to A Brief History of Time, Ulysses or Infinite Jest.

This all leads in to the title of this post. The Book of Last Resort. I think you all know the one. It’s the book that has crossed over from the ‘might never read’ category into a habit you can’t kick. The book that follows you around like a bad smell. You read a chapter in 2008, two chapters in 2009 and a few pages in 2010. It’s long, it’s difficult, it’s not particularly pleasant, but it’s there – mocking you. It’s the book you do take on holidays, but it remains unread while you plough through the Stephen King or Jodi Picoult on the rented house’s bookshelf. But it will always be there, at the bottom of your bag, or somewhere in the alphabetic calamity of your ereader.

My question for this post is to own up to your Book of Last Resort, whether it be electronic or not. What book can’t you quit, and why?

The Tower of eBabel Part Two

One commenter on my last post raised an interesting point that I’d like to draw out as a follow-up post.

A question – why are publishers ‘unlikely to stop using’ DRM, even if it doesn’t benefit them so much, as you indicate? I agree, getting rid of DRM is the way to go, but it won’t happen if publishers AND tech companies have some sort of stranglehold on the whole thing. What’s in it for the publishers?

I think DRM is a sop for publishers’ (and authors’) fears about selling their books digitally. Technology companies know better than anyone else that DRM is an ineffective strategy for stopping piracy. But they are motivated by reasons other than content protection – that is, if their particular brand of DRM is successful in dominating the industry and becoming a standard, they stand to benefit hugely. Music, movie and book content providers love DRM as well, because it is a straightforward, simple and relatively cheap way to oppose piracy. If an ebook ends up on a filesharing website, they can say “Well, we put DRM on it, so what else could we have done?” Meanwhile, DRM makes it difficult and confusing for consumers to buy digital products, locks consumers in to a single retailer and platform, and fails to stop piracy all at the same time.

I’m not saying publishers don’t have the interests of their authors at heart when they support DRM. They do. I believe many of them genuinely believe DRM is an effective deterrent to piracy as well. But I think they’re wrong – and here’s why.

Publishing is a black art. People feel their way by instinct, publishing books that they get the sense will work in the market. As publishers are fond of saying – publishing books is not like making sausages. Part of the reason the success or failure of a book is difficult to predict is that nobody really knows how people find out about books. For some reason, or for many reasons, some books just work. They are spoken about, shared around, bought second-hand and distributed in libraries far more than they are purchased outright. Bryce Courtenay admitted the other day that he gives away two thousand copies of each of his books to people who recognise him on the street. It has certainly been an effective method of getting people reading (and buying) his books – he’s frequently the top-selling local author in the charts.

The point is, we don’t really know what would happen if you took away people’s ability to share books. There is currently no metric for measuring this kind of legal book-sharing. No one keeps track of the sale of second-hand books in a way that publishers use. Nobody knows how many hands an average book passes through in its lifespan without money ever changing hands. But the more successful a book is, the more it is shared and passed around. This is a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but the point is – publishers don’t know.

There’s an incredible amount of obstinacy about digital rights management in the industry. I had one digital person in publishing the other day equate my stance on DRM with support for piracy. Partly this comes from the way that digital piracy is measured. Generally every ebook downloaded illegally is counted as a lost sale. But this is clearly not the case – it’s impossible to determine how many of the people illegally downloading a book would have bought it if it wasn’t available for free. Another digital publishing guru a few weeks ago claimed that DRM might not stop the sort of piracy that happens on filesharing websites, but it stops individual people emailing their legitimately purchased ebook to a group of friends. At best, I don’t really see this as a realistic proposition – are people who aren’t savvy enough to use filesharing websites going to be savvy enough to email book files around? All the Luddite ebook readers I know have had to be shown how to load books onto their ereaders five or six times before getting the hang of it, and still forget on occasion. I also don’t think people actually want to pirate books. If a book is available legitimately for a reasonable price and it’s easy to purchase – most people who have the money and the inclination will buy it. Those who don’t wouldn’t have bought the book anyway. In the worst case scenario – where a homespun email filesharing cabal springs into being – is this really the kind of sharing publishers want to stamp out?

I don’t believe there is any way to stop digital piracy. There will always be those willing to crack DRM and distribute intellectual property illegally. The only way to combat it effectively is to make digital product cheap and easier to acquire than pirated content. As the Tower of eBabel gets bigger and more companies start selling ebooks with different kinds of DRM and in different formats, the job for the average consumer gets more and more difficult. It won’t be long before it’s easier to download a pirated book than to buy a legitimate one (if this hasn’t happened already). DRM is just ass-covering, pure and simple – it’s lazy technology, and it has the potential to lock a generation of readers into buying all of their books from one company – who will skim a profit off the top for doing very little.

Publishers are the only ones in a position to change this situation. They can harp on all they want about a standard ebook format – but the format won’t matter a bit if every retailer is using a different type of DRM. As it has been said by people far smarter than me: obscurity is a far greater threat to books than piracy.

The Tower of eBabel

The problem with new technology is that it costs a lot of money. Technology companies frequently spend years and years without making a profit, shaping their business model, trying to ‘monetise’ their creation. Amazon, for example, was launched in 1997, but didn’t become profitable until 2002. Facebook only became profitable last year, and Twitter still doesn’t make money, despite all the people that use it. Nonetheless, when these technologies take off they often make a lot of money.

Most big technology companies have become massive by creating platforms that have ended up being the de facto standard. A platform, in the technology sense of the word (rather than a raised piece of floor), is the system used to manage certain kinds of content. Facebook, for example, is a social media platform. The iTunes Music Store is a platform for music. Amazon’s Kindle is a platform for digital books. The most useful outcome for consumers is that a single platform ends up delivering a single type of content. In the days of physical media platforms – CDs, DVDs, audio cassettes – there was a certain amount of disconnect between the company that owned the rights to the platform and the people who sold the content.

Digital media has changed this. Nowadays, the iPod and the iTunes Music Store are synonymous with buying music digitally. Amazon would like to make the Kindle synonymous with ebooks. Apple would probably like to do the same with their iBooks software on the iPad (and as of this week, the iPhone and iPod Touch too). People in the industry call this eBabel – as each new company enters the fray, they bring with them a different format with a unique type of DRM. This situation is absolutely horrible for consumers. People are locked into a single platform with their purchases because digital media cannot be transferred between competing platforms. I’m not going to try and stretch this into an awkward physical media metaphor – there is no equivalent. It’s just bad – frustrating, confusing and annoying for readers.

It’s easy to argue that a single format will win out in the end – it’s what has tended to happen with physical media (we have Bluray instead of HD-DVD, and had VHS instead of Betamax), but with digital media the result of a single format ‘winning out’ is dramatically different. The only settled digital format so far (digital video is still up in the air, as is the format for ebooks) is Apple’s iTunes platform. This model has succeeded by Apple being in complete control of the platform and the content delivery. In order to use the iTunes Music Store and the iTunes platform, you need to use an iPod. In order to use an iPod, you need to use the iTunes Music Store.

In the future, it’s easy to foresee a company like Apple or Amazon being the only place you can buy ebooks from. They control the hardware and the software – the platform and the content. Is this what we want for ebooks? I think the answer is an emphatic no (though by all means, please disagree in the comments!). Unfortunately there is no clear solution to this problem. Getting rid of DRM would be a nice start, but publishers are very unlikely to stop using it – even though it demonstrably benefits technology companies far more than it does content providers. I’d love to hear what you guys think – sound off in the comments if you have an idea or even just an opinon. How do you want to get your books in the future?

The Hedonism of the Digital

This is about the weirdest book trailer I’m come across in a while. For those without the patience or ability to view it, it is the trailer for a kids’ book – It’s A Book! by Lane Smith. The trailer presumably rehashes the story in the book; that is, a tech savvy donkey asking a series of questions of an increasingly frustrated chimp. “Can you scroll down?” asks the donkey. “Can you blog with it?” Inevitably, the donkey ends up playing with the book and is utterly sucked in, sitting and reading it for hours – promising to “charge the battery” when he is done.

Aside from the bizarre irony of a one minute internet book trailer about a book advocating reading paper over ephemeral electronic distractions it’s quite cute. And it underlines one of the things I’ve been banging on about over the last few weeks. The essential nature of reading. I’ve argued before that in order to leap into the digital age, publishers need to be prepared for new kinds of reading – the kind that people do while queueing up to buy a beer, while standing on public transport and while sitting on the toilet. It is a matter of debate whether this kind of reading privileges a certain kind of writing – the easy to pick up and put down, disposable experience. This is what dead tree enthusiasts fear will be lost if paper books go the way of the dinosaur.

These arguments, of course, are not without its advocates. I came across the video above last week, and again, aside from the irony of a TED talk about the perspective of time being summarised in an animated infographic to make it easier to concentrate on, it is fascinating viewing. The premise of the video is this: different people experience time in different ways. Some of us are future oriented, some past and some present. The current crop of electronic distractions, Professor Zimbardo argues, is turning us into a culture of present-oriented people – particularly young men. This has consequences for education, as in order to learn difficult things – like how to read – one must be able to delay gratification: do hard work now in order to fulfil the promise of greater things in the future.

While I disagree more specifically with some of Zimbardo’s points (like the fact that the average teen male has spent 10,000 hours playing video games and is therefore a hedonist without social skills), I find the overall point of this discussion comes with an in-built bias. Let me give you an example – reading. There’s no doubt that Professor Zimbardo has no problem with books and reading – these are part of traditional schooling and presumably all about delaying gratification. But my experience of the kind of wholly absorbing reading depicted in the It’s A Book! trailer above has nothing at all to do with delaying gratification. My most treasured and absorbing reading experiences are completely hedonistic. My experience of time vanishes, and hours go as if they were minutes. This experience has happened to me with reading on and off screen.

While I don’t pretend to know for certain that digital distractions aren’t transforming the newer generations into anti-social sybarites, my feeling is that these arguments come from fear rather than fact. They make emotional arguments using apparently self-evident truths that are anything but self-evident. “Digitally rewiring”, my ass. Just because the youngest generation is demanding that, for example, publishers give them the ability to read books when and where and how they want them does not, ipso facto, mean that they are incapable of being absorbed in the longform experience of reading. Digital is not a synonym for disposable. Sometimes you need to learn to read the signs in a different way.

Review: Borders Launches Ebooks in Australia

The launch of the Borders ebook offering in Australia finally brings a contemporary local ebook buying experience to Australians. The store is fresh and easy-to-use, and Borders is a recognised name in books in Australia. The prices look reasonable, and if all goes well they should soon have a reasonably wide selection of ebooks to sell as their existing relationships with publishers are finalised for ebooks.

Thus ends the good part of this review. While the front end of the store seems to be well set-up, the user interface end is not as good. Borders have reached an exclusive arrangement with Kobo to run their ebooks platform, but the Kobo platform is flaky at best. Kobo (previously Shortcovers) is a competitor to Amazon’s Kindle – they are both aiming for device independence. There are Kobo apps for the iPhone and iPad, there is a standalone Kobo reader (for the impressively low price of $199). Unfortunately, however, you get what you pay for. The standalone reader lacks the most rudimentary ereader features – like search and annotation – and supports only ePub and PDF (and does PDF badly, like most e-ink devices). The iPad and iPhone versions– since they are software only and not really limited by the physical specs of the standalone reader – should have, at the very least, a search function. But they do not.

Books purchased on one device can be downloaded for free to any other device – but how is the user supposed to figure out where they are up to? If I’m reading a book on my iPad, and then switch to my iPhone – there is no way to find the place that I’m up to. On the Kindle platform, this happens wirelessly and automatically through Amazon’s servers (through a service enticingly called ‘Whispernet’). I don’t necessarily expect this level of functionality – but at the very least let us search! What’s the point of being device independent if you still have to manually flick through hundreds of electronic screens to find your place?

This is not the only problem with the Kobo platform. Although the books that come with the reader for free (out-of-copyright titles including Alice in Wonderland, Pride and Prejudice, Dracula and so on) look great on the screen – other purchased titles are cut off at the edges and are nigh on unreadable (see images). Additionally, the App Store for iPhones and iPads features both a Kobo and Borders app – both of which are backed by the REDgroup (Borders’ parent company) catalogue of ebooks in Australia. However, consumers will need a separate account for each app (which look almost identical, save for branding), and if a book is purchased in one it will not transfer to the other.

I really want to love the Borders/Kobo ebook offering. But I emphatically do not. Kobo should be applauded for their attempt to do device independence, but the implementation is ultimately flawed. Borders should be applauded for taking a step forward with ebooks in Australia – but it’s a pity they have wedded themselves to this particular platform. There is a very good chance that over the next year or so software and store selection will improve and many of these problems will be ironed out. But how many readers will be burned in the interim? How many readers will turn off ebooks altogether because of a cheap entry-level offering that is clearly not ready for the market? And, more importantly, how much further ahead will the competition be by then? If you’re looking to get in on the ebook experience in Australia – your best bet, sadly, is still the Kindle.

Is the real-time web helpful for books?

Business Insider reported last week that the half-life of YouTube videos is now hovering around six days. For those who aren’t scientists or web developers, what this means is that 50% of the average YouTube clip’s viewers see the clip within the first six days that it is put up on the internet. This number has dropped from fourteen days in 2008. The half-life of YouTube clips is getting shorter – and we can theorise that a big reason for this is the real-time web. The ‘real-time web’ is a fancy way of saying Twitter, and the way that Twitter has affected other social media platforms. You could say (if you wanted to be entirely simplistic and make a crude generalisation based on these statistics) that we are now so efficient at instantaneously sharing and distributing pithy little videos around the internet that the majority of us never see something unless we see it within a week.

What, you might ask, has this to do with books? Well, with the increasingly close integration of social media and books (the latest firmware for the Kindle includes the in-built ability to post what you’re reading and quotes to Twitter and Facebook) we might reasonably expect the shelf-life of books to decrease along with other digital media.

Or can we? Interestingly, Google is putting a lot of effort into trying to turn web video into an experience that mimics television. Particularly regarding how much attention we pay to television – and for how long we watch it. The web – which by its nature privileges active browsing over passive viewing – is not very easy to monetise. This is obviously very important when your primary income comes from advertising. With the announcement of Google TV this week, we can see that the next frontier for the search giant is colonising our living rooms.

Is it reasonable to draw a similar line between Google and TV and Google and books? Shelf-life (or at least profitable shelf-life) for books that are published today is about six weeks at the maximum. Books that haven’t sold much in six weeks are very unlikely to sell more. Can the publishing industry survive a shorter shelf-life? Or will it just mean we buy more books (and perhaps read less)? Or are books by their very nature entirely different to other kinds of media – and therefore immune to the vagaries of the real-time web? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.

The Mongoliad: The Future of Reading?

Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and ‘friends’ this week launched a new media project called The Mongoliad. Part novel, part fan-fiction and part game, The Mongoliad is a new media experiment designed to explore the future of the written medium. There’s not all that much to The Mongoliad at present, but it raises a bunch of very interesting questions about what is possible – particularly considering who is involved.

For those of you who don’t know, The Mongoliad is a sort of serialized story, created by Neal Stephenson, and written by Neal, Greg Bear, Nicole Galland, and a number of other great authors. It will be told via custom apps on iPad, iPhone, Kindle, and Android, and will be something of an experiment in post-book publishing and storytelling.

Neal Stephenson, who from the reports appears to be the driving force behind this project, is a well respected SF writer with serious cyber– and steampunk chops. Anyone who has read his book The Diamond Age could be forgiven for seeing the similarities between the fictional Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer and this new project. In The Diamond Age, the Primer fulfills the function of parent, teacher, friend and entertainment. It is an interactive work of fiction intended to guide the reader towards a more interesting life, and plays a pivotal role in the novel.

I think if this project had been conceived by anyone other than Stephenson, I’d probably just snort with derision. These new media projects come along every once in a while, but they always seem to remind me of my childhood of reading choose your own adventure stories. They seem immature, poorly developed and lacking in essential depth. But Stephenson does depth very well. The scope and ambition of his novels have been on a grand scale to date.

So far, it seems, attempts at this kind of storytelling have not gained mainstream success or acceptance. They fall between mediums, and readers don’t know how to take them. But it seems there is a potential market for it, particularly now with the release of tablet devices like the iPad. A number of gamer friends of mine have been hooked on games like Hotel Dusk for the Nintendo DS and Heavy Rain for the PS3 but never read books. Could something like this project lure them into reading? What do you think? Will it bang or will it blow?

Evolution or revolution?

Covering the Sydney Writers’ Festival for this blog exposed me to many of the buzzwords that publishers and ebook proselytisers use to talk about the digitisation of the publishing industry. Among their favourites is the ‘digital revolution’. At last Thursday’s ‘Are Australian Publishers E-Ready?‘ panel, Sara Lloyd, Pan Macmillan UK’s digital maven, said that this ‘revolution’ was more of an ‘evolution’. Another buzzword? Or is there some sense to this rhetorical wrangling?

I’ve always found that the word ‘revolution’ verges on the hysterical when applied to digitisation. A revolution implies that a statistically small group of people are pushing the market towards digitisation before it is ready. In this picture, the only entity I can think of that would fulfil this role is Amazon. But I don’t think I can honestly say that Amazon alone revolutionised the digitisation of books. Amazon, Google and Apple, respectively, are going to be heavily involved in the future of ebooks, but none of them have exactly been on the raggedy edge of ebook adoption. I know people who were reading ebooks on their Palm Pilots in 1996.

Realistically, the digitisation of books has been going on for decades. Publishers faced a massive shift more than ten years ago when they turned the whole publishing process – which had been painfully manual – into a digital one. They didn’t do it because they were trying to revolutionise anything – they did it because it was cheaper, easier, more efficient and less prone to errors. Amazon, it could be argued, is helping to usher in the retail digital book age for the same reasons.

This scrutiny on the words used by the industry might seem pointless. But it isn’t. By talking about a ‘revolution’, pundits would have us believe that some maverick company or person is heroically changing the world around them. But they’re not. ‘Revolutionary’ isn’t a synonym for ‘new’. We already have a word for ‘new’ – it’s ‘new’. Revolutions are bloody scary things, and when we talk about ‘revolutionising books’, you’re bound to get a whole bunch of grumpy old people and anachronistic indie kids flailing their moleskines at us and harping on about the smell of books. An evolution, on the other hand, implies a gradual change that responds organically to the environment. It’s messy, and it tends to create eyeballs in weird places. That seems far closer to what we’re dealing with when it comes to ebooks. Except for the eyeballs thing.

An evolution also takes into account the years of preparation the industry has been going through to get to this point. Some bloggers and pundits are railing at the trade, publishers in particular, due to how slow they are perceived to be responding to this ‘revolution’. But the fact of the matter is, publishers have been preparing for years. And ebooks still only account for about one per cent of the industry in Australia – forecast to reach only 10-20% in the next ten years. So let’s all take a deep breath and calm down. The revolution isn’t coming. Don’t let rabid early adopters convince you that the sky is falling in.


The Gap

I came to a realisation yesterday while attending the Interrogating Twitter session at yesterday’s Sydney Writers’ Festival: there is a significant gap between those who get Twitter and those who don’t. And that gap may never be bridged. How can it? Those who despair of social media genuinely believe that it will destroy our language and do irreparable damage to our consciousnesses. But those who use social media can barely understand why everyone is complaining about it.

I don’t necessarily think this gap is generational. The panellists ran the gamut from the venerable Ruth Wajnryb through to the younger, hipper end of the spectrum with John Freeman and David Levithan. Nonetheless, all of the panellists seemed to be in agreement that there was nothing wrong with Twitter (or other forms of social media) and that we shouldn’t worry that it will cause the next generation of children to be illiterate. In fact, if anything, the panellists seemed mildly perplexed that this should even be at question. The only dissenting voices came from the audience, who managed to sound exactly like the fusty SWF grumpy-old-person stereotype.

So where does this gap come from? And why? Freeman’s new book, Shrinking the World, posits that each forward leap in communications technology has been greeted with scepticism, fear and contempt. The Gutenberg press was called the ‘devil’s machine’ by monks and the telephone was going to tear families apart. Nonetheless, Freeman cautions that Twitter, just like any other communications technology, is not necessarily benign. How could it not change the way we think, he says, when we can barely go a moment without checking our phones?

This is a conversation I’ve been having with a lot of people of late. And it perplexes me – maybe because I’m absolutely on the ‘understanding Twitter’ side of the gap. Why is there a persistent myth that those who participate in the brave new world of texting, Twitter and Facebook suddenly become automatons who cannot make the choice to switch off their devices and will have some kind of panic attack if they’re ever alone? Nothing I’ve learned by participating in social media has led me to believe this to be true.

This kind of Luddite moaning about the value of being ‘alone with one’s thoughts’ is ubiquitous on the other side of the gap. I had a conversation with another (very young) author at the SWF about travelling on the train. Nowadays, he says, it’s impossible to have a moment of quiet introspection while on the train, such is the cacophony of noise produced by communications devices. Since when, I ask you, has public transport been the most Zen part of anyone’s day? Human beings have spent thousands of years going to remote locations in order to be truly alone. How has that changed?

You always have the choice. Whether it’s to switch off, go somewhere quiet or to not participate in social media at all. As David Levithan said – if you’re not interested, don’t worry about it.

Review: iBooks on the iPad

Click on any of the pictures for a closer look

So, I’ve had my iPad for a couple of weeks now, and it’s high time to review Apple’s answer to the ebook question. I’m not going to review the entire iPad – unlike the Kindle, the it’s not a dedicated reading device, and there are plenty of other options for reading books, newspapers, magazines and blogs on it.

The iBooks app does not come pre-loaded on the iPad when you buy it, a choice by Apple that has more to do with their relationships with international publishers than it does with their determination to turn the iPad into a reading device. Unlike Amazon, Apple do not want its users to associate the iBooks app with no books on its bookstore.

Having said that, we don’t yet have much of an idea how much content will be available on the Australian version of the iBookstore (can I point out right now that I’m already getting sick of typing lowercase ‘I’s in front of every bloody proper noun in the Apple vocabulary?). When it launches in Australia on 7 June, the iBooks app will be available from the App Store, but we don’t yet have any idea what the range will be like. The US iBookstore, for what it’s worth, seems well stocked enough (by all reports, somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 titles). It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 400,000 available on the Amazon Kindle store, at the moment, but that’s likely as much to do with how long it has been available as anything else.

So what’s it like reading on this thing? Absolutely fine. Unlike the Kindle, the iPad uses an LCD screen, a source of much consternation for ebook nerds. I’ve heard comments that the backlit screen makes it ‘useless’ as an ereader. But this has not been my experience at all. For those of us who already spend a proportion of our days reading backlit screens on computers, the iPad is no worse and arguably a lot better than this. You can easily set the brightness levels to suit the ambient light, and the advantages of the backlit screen are obvious – it can show colour, embedded video and the refresh rate (how quickly each page turns and illustrations are shown) is light years ahead of the Kindle. You can also almost instantaneously flip the orientation of the book between a double-page spread and a single larger page by just turning the device as it suits. There are disadvantages as well, of course. The screen is not a patch on the Kindle for reading in direct light – you can forget bringing it to the beach with you (though I’ve never been inclined to bring my Kindle to the beach anyway). The ten-hour battery life is also nowhere near the Kindle’s ten days – though this is mitigated by the fact that the iPad can and would be used for more than just reading books.

For anyone used to reading ebooks, the iBooks app has most of the standard ereader features. You can look up words in the dictionary (I really like the implementation of the dictionary – it pops up in a small window overlaying the text so you can quickly check without having to leave the page), you can also search the book and bookmark it. For some reason iBooks does not have any annotation capability, though this may be something addressed in a future update.

One thing that really bugs me about iBooks, however, is the way you load books. If you buy books exclusively from the iBookstore, you can do it from anywhere and start reading instantly. However, if you want to load up your own DRM-free, out-of-copyright books you might have downloaded from somewhere like Gutenberg.org, then the only way to add books to the app is to plug it into iTunes, add it to the library and sync the iPad. For a device that sells itself as internet connected and as a netbook replacement, this feels like a massive (and unnecessary) step backwards.

Ultimately, the iBooks app is a very strong contender in the realm of ebook readers. However, the comparative feature set of this single app is not going to be what sets it apart. That’s because the iPad is not just iBooks. For readers who are hooked on the e-ink experience, I’d say that there’s no huge advantage to buying an iPad. Stick with your Kindle, your Eco Reader or your Sony. For people who are curious about e-reading, but can’t decide whether to an ereader is a waste of money – then an iPad is for you. It’s more expensive, but it does far more than an ordinary ereader. It is also much more likely to be future proof – whether it’s Amazon, Apple or Google books you’re after, it’s very likely that they will all be able to be read on an iPad long into the future.

The agency model: hot or not?

The Agency Model: A lot more boring than     this picture.

I’ve implied in the past that ebooks are likely to change the way we buy, sell, read and perhaps even write books in the future. One of the ways things are already changing is the way that publishers supply ebooks to booksellers. This is what’s called the ‘agency model’. The agency model has the potential to fundamentally change the way that publishers interact with people who read books, so it’s worth knowing the basics.

To understand it, though, you first have to get an idea of how dead tree books are sold now. In the current dead tree publishing model, the company sells a certain amount of books to a bookshop and ships them out in dead tree boxes. The bookseller tries to sell as many as possible. Whatever is left can be returned to the publisher. There is a recommended retail price (RRP), but the bookshop decides how much to sell the book for – and they’ve demonstrated a lot of flexibility in doing so. In Australia for example, the big discount stores (K-Mart, Target and Big W etc.) will sell books for a fraction of the recommended retail price. Borders, on the other hand, has been known to increase the price. In other words, books are sold pretty much like any other product.

The agency model is something that has come out of selling ebooks – specifically when Apple came on the scene with the iBookstore and the iPad. Basically what it means is that instead of the bookshop selling digital products directly to you, the bookshop becomes an ‘agent’ (hence ‘agency’ model) of the publisher. The publisher sets the price of the ebook and then give the bookshop a license to sell ebooks on their behalf.

I’ve covered the reason for this change in a previous blog, but the consequences so far have been steady prices for readers (Amazon have increased the prices of ebooks by a few dollars, but other ebook stores will eventually drop their prices). It also means that no single bookshop (I’m looking at you, Amazon) can artificially prop up a price point that no other store can match. This is essentially what K-Mart, Target and Big W do in Australia with dead tree books. You can get very cheap books in these stores, but not a big range. Smaller bookshops around Australia have closed as a result, and the sales for midlist authors (authors who don’t always sell in the big discount chains) aren’t as good as they used to be.

So, the questions is – is the agency model hot or not? As with all of these kinds of questions the answer is that it’s complicated. Do you prefer a good range or a good price? The prevailing wisdom is that the cheaper books become, the fewer risks publishers will be able to take on new and interesting authors. Having said that, ebook stores do not have the physical limitations of their dead tree cousins – the range of books they can supply is almost infinite. What do you think? Sound off in the comments.

Review: Remains Of The Day Audiobook

For a change I thought I’d review a book. Seeing as reviewing an ordinary ebook is essentially the same as reviewing the device you’re reading it from, I thought I’d go with an audiobook instead.

Audiobooks have become a staple of my reading habits. I cycle to work, so don’t have the luxury of reading on public transport. But I still like consuming stories in whatever way I can. My ideal book is one I could read part of in text, part of in audio, all synced between iPhone, Kindle, iPad and my computer. Because that’s not yet possible without a ridiculous amount of manual searching for your place, I usually have about four or five books on the boil at once, all on different devices. This, you might argue, is the product of a lack of concentration. I won’t disagree with you.

Having said that, the audiobook of The Remains of the Day was an absolute pleasure to listen to; a book that made me relish getting on my bike and riding, even on cold, hungover mornings. For those who don’t know the story, it’s an historical novel about an English butler named Mr Stevens. Stevens is an unreliable narrator, telling his story of the last great years of his time as a butler in recollection as he takes a ‘motoring trip’ across England to visit Miss Kenton, a woman who used to work with Stevens at Darlington Hall.

The book is narrated by the actor Nigel Hawthorne (best known for his role as Sir Humphrey Appleby in the TV show Yes, Minister). Hawthorne gets the tone of the book exactly right, and Stevens’s accent pitch-perfect. Audiobooks that are read by the wrong person or by someone who doesn’t seem to understand the tone of the book can completely ruin a story. In contrast, with the right voice actor the book seems to come alive. All the repression, self-censorship and selective memories vividly bubble under the surface in this reading – although Stevens never makes clear any of his personal feelings, you get the sense that they are just there, like the voice at the other end of a telephone line.

How does everyone else feel about audiobooks? Have you ever listened to one? Do you consider it ‘real’ reading or a pale imitation?

Review: International Kindle

As much as I would like to review my brand new iPad for this column, I feel that I haven’t yet had enough time to wrap my head around it, so I’m going to start my series of ereader reviews with Amazon’s International Kindle.

The Kindle has been around for quite a while now, first with the US-only Kindle 1, then the US-only Kindle 2 and the DX (the A4-sized reader). Late last year they finally opened up to the rest of the world with the international versions of the Kindle 2 and Kindle DX. As mentioned earlier, Amazon did not consult with any publishing companies or even the local telecommunications companies before launching the Kindle internationally – they struck an international roaming deal with AT&T in the United States in order to arrange wireless internet on the devices, and used their existing catalogue of books (which they have gone on to remove from many local Kindle stores because of territorial copyright claims).

Despite this, in comparison to other ereader devices available in Australia, the Kindle experience is overall the best (for now, at least).

The Kindle is an e-ink type ereader. This means that the screen is not backlit, and simulates the look of a page. For those who haven’t seen this technology before, it’s not quite as good as a printed page. It looks a bit like a giant calculator screen. The upside is you can read it in direct sunlight, and you can read it for hours without giving yourself eyestrain (or running the battery down – with wireless turned off, my Kindle runs for about two weeks without needing a charge). The other features of the Kindle are pretty standard – you can search your ebook, there’s dictionary support and you can highlight and make notes on your books as you go. It also has rudimentary free wireless internet access – which in Australia can only be used to search the Kindle Store and buy books. The Kindle can even read your books to you in a haunting computer voice that will probably give you flashbacks to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Kindle Store is the most comprehensive source of ebooks in Australia at present. Additionally, with a few simple tweaks it is quite easy for Kindle users to get around territorial copyright restrictions to get access to the full 450,000-book range of the US store (a pretty big drawcard, at least until Australian publishers make their content available to Amazon and other vendors in Australia). There are positives and negatives to the Kindle way of buying books. Obviously there are DRM issues, but that goes for every generalist ebook store at the moment. However, in addition to this, Amazon uses a proprietary ebook format and DRM that they purchased from Mobipocket (another ebook store, now going the way of the dinosaurs). What this means, for those of you scratching your heads, is that unless you crack the DRM on a Kindle book, you will never read it with non-Amazon software.

Additionally, the Kindle is incapable of reading any other form of DRM except its own. This means that if you buy a book from Barnes & Noble or Kobo or Dymocks you will not be able to read them on your Kindle (again, this is assuming you do not crack the DRM on your ebooks, and most people will not). This is Amazon’s way of keeping you in the family – they maintain the biggest range of ebooks, woo customers in and then lock them in forever. Apple did the exact same thing with the iTunes Music Store and the iPod – and Amazon are fighting to win in the ebook wars.

So basically the Kindle is a double-edged sword. It is feature rich, content rich and is cheaper than most other ebook readers available in Australia. However, it is fraught with problems: a lack of content on its Australian ebook store, DRM lock-in evil juju and even Orwellian removal of books after you have purchased them. Having said that, if you’re in the market for a dedicated e-ink reader – the Kindle is your best bet. If you’re sitting on the fence about ebooks at the moment – hold off for now (and read my iPad review when it goes up in a week or so).

How I Cracked The Slap And Lived To Tell About It

One of the first Australian ebooks I ever purchased legitimately through an Australian e-tailer was The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. And in order to read it I had to crack the DRM. DRM (digital rights management) is the extra bit of software attached to ebooks to stop people from copying digital products as they like. It’s a divisive issue, but it is at the centre of publishing ebooks in Australia.

At the time it was the only place I could find this book electronically (legitimately – there were plenty of pirated copies floating about). I was about to travel overseas with my Kindle and wanted to bring it with me without carrying the whole book. The book was sold as PDF with DRM by Adobe. Before I bought the book I googled whether it would be possible to crack the DRM, as I knew my iPhone and Kindle were not capable of reading the DRM on a PDF. There are thousands of people around the world interested in this kind of thing, so it took only a few minutes before I’d downloaded the software, downloaded the book and had cracked it using the software. These kinds of cracking programs pop up with different software authors every few months before getting shut down and then reopening somewhere else. They’re very difficult to stop, and I believe that as long as there is DRM there will be people willing to spend time and effort cracking it and making it available on the internet. From what I’ve read there is not a single major type of DRM that has not been cracked (the DRM used on the iPad is the only one that I haven’t seen a crack for – but I’m sure the situation is temporary).

All in all this is not something the average internet user would be bothered doing. Instead, they just wouldn’t buy the book at all. The current crop of people who read ebooks in Australia don’t significantly overlap with readers of paper books. If I want a book electronically, I either get it electronically or not at all.

The cracking process wasn’t difficult, but it helped to know a bit about the ins and outs of ebook formats and computers in general. However, the longer ebooks are available, and the more ubiquitous ebook readers become, the more readily available and easy-to-use these types of software packages will become. DRM generally makes early adopters pretty angry with publishers and record labels, because it makes the process unnecessarily difficult for legitimate purchasers. In general it is far easier to download a pre-cracked pirated version of a book than it is to crack the DRM on a legitimate purchase. DRM tends to push early adopters towards the easiest option – which in this case happens to be illegal.

I prefer to buy legitimate copies of books, because they tend to be formatted and typeset properly, unlike the scanned and digitised copies you are likely to see on pirate book websites. The care and attention given to them is (or should be) equal to a published book, and it pays off while you’re reading. However, I’m increasingly frustrated by DRM. Most of the people I know reading ebooks are doing so on their iPhone, their Kindle or their Sony Reader. Out of these three dominant readers (likely to be followed by the iPad shortly), very few Australian publishers support files readable on any of these devices. This type of scattered support is very frustrating for readers of ebooks – no publisher is ever going to be capable of covering every version of ebook format with DRM that can be read by every type of ebook reader. However, if books were sold without DRM in the first place, legitimate buyers of ebooks would be able to easily convert the book to the format of their choice – with the added benefit that the book would be ‘future proof’ (most types of current DRM will eventually become defunct and render reading of the copy-proof versions impossible).

Australian ebooks are currently sold at the same price as their paper counterparts. This is an economic decision I understand, but when you take into account how crippled the formats that are sold actually are, it is little wonder legitimate ebooks are selling so slowly.

What do you think? Have you ever cracked the DRM on an ebook? Does DRM turn you off purchasing ebooks? Are you willing to break the law in order to truly own a book you have paid for?

Books: Just ‘Fodder For Digital Chatter’?

It seems reasonable to assume that the future of book reading is at least going to involve more social networking. The newest ebook readers make connectivity a selling point – the built-in ability to share your views or quotes from a book on Twitter or Facebook is the next logical step, if it hasn’t happened already. This will be the digital equivalent of the bookshelf; except you won’t need to invite people into your home to brag about what you’re reading. Is there a chance, however, as suggested in this article in the New York Times, that this will mean books become merely ‘fodder for digital chatter’?

In my last post I talked about the rise and risks of self-publishing, and received an interesting response from one of the commenters:

I think we’re going to see more and more titles gaining success without going through traditional publishers. With most books being bought online, access to physical outlets … will matter less and less … I think it will come down to author reputation and following. The real success stories will be people who can get their book in front of influential people who will recommend it.

In other words, the future of publishing forecast by this commenter is democratic. Readers, through the medium of Facebook newsfeed algorithms and John Mayer’s tweets, will decide what gets through to you – in just the same way you heard about that funny cat picture. While this might seem both sad and unrealistic to some people, it’s a very common view, especially on the internet. The internet, in fact, has turned us all into writers, musicians, actors and journalists. There are so many people out there creating content that the vast majority of it remains unseen – at least until a highschool student from Idaho mashes up the video/poem/blog post and turns it into a meme.

Books, for the most part, have been immune to this type of thing. This might be because they’re long and not very easy to cut up into small pieces, but it might also be that there isn’t all that much digital access just yet. As this changes, it’s likely we’re going to see more “OMG LOL did u here about Banquo? Mbeth totally pwned his ass”.

Is this a terrible thing? I’m certainly not at the point where I have to tweet every funny line of every book I’m reading, but I’ll often turn to the person next to me and share something that made me laugh. At other times I’ll be itching to tell a particular group of friends about something specific I’m reading. Is moving this behaviour onto social networking so very wrong? It certainly feels … weird. Like a transgression of some kind. But I’m not sure why. What do you think?

Value Added: Is Traditional Publishing Obsolete?

A staggering 764,448 titles were produced in 2009 by self-publishers and micro-niche publishers, according to statistics released this morning by R.R. Bowker. The number of “nontraditional” titles dwarfed that of traditional books whose output slipped to 288,355 last year from 289,729 in 2008. Taken together, total book output rose 87% last year, to over 1 million books.

– Publishers Weekly

The internet and print-on-demand technology has made possible a gigantic leap forward in self-publishing in the last couple of years. Services like Lulu.com produce thousands of books per year by budding authors. In this environment, where anybody with the patience to sit down and write 70,000 words can get ‘published’, it begs the question – what value does the traditional publishing industry add to books?

This is especially pertinent with the rise in ebooks, as publishers defend the value of their intellectual property over their access to print and distribution services. If the author writes the material, and the publisher is no longer printing or distributing it – then what is it they actually do?

Matthew Reilly’s Contest was self-published before being picked up by a major publishing house. Last Christmas he was the biggest selling Australian author. Original copies of the self-published edition sell for over a thousand dollars.

Quite a lot, actually. The road to publication, from acquisition, through editorial, marketing, publicity and ultimately sales and distribution is one that traditional publishers have been perfecting for decades. I have witnessed books being torn apart and put back together by committed editors. Publicists, sales people and marketers work tirelessly to promote an author in whom they passionately believe, but who may have sold hardly any copies. Publishers develop their authors, book by book, over a number of years before seeing any kind of success. In other words: authors are not born – they are made.

The proof of this is in the pudding. Although the internet is full of people complaining that publishers don’t actually do anything, this doesn’t translate to the books people buy. There are very few self-publishing success stories – the fact remains that in order for a writer to be read, their book needs to get picked up by a traditional publishing house.

What do you think? Have you ever bought a self-published book? Do you regularly read self-published books? Do you think traditional publishers are obsolete? In what ways have traditional publishers failed their readership? If you are a budding writer – is self-publishing a viable option for you?

Why Amazon May Not Take Over The World After All

The comprehensive article by Ken Auletta over at the New Yorker this week about the Amazon vs Apple vs Google ebook free-for-all has prompted me to consider how close Amazon came to dominating the publishing industry – particularly when it comes to ebooks.

Now, I don’t want to point fingers or choose sides here. I believe that almost any company in the unique position Amazon has been in for the last few years would have done the same. But there’s a very good argument that what Amazon was trying to do was at least a little bit evil.

Amazon made a tactical error when it remotely wiped copies of 1984 from its customers’ Kindles. This did not prove to anybody that they were not evil.

Basically the story is this: Amazon had a virtual monopoly on the sale of ebooks with the Kindle. And to an extent, they still do. Although there are plenty of other ebook stores, none have the reach, connections, range, consumer trust and reliability that Amazon does. Amazon was trying to set the standard price of ebooks at $9.99. They did this by taking a loss on almost every ebook they sold. But Amazon has deep pockets, and the Kindle to sell, so it was worth it to them to try and grow the industry.

Unfortunately, looking forward, publishers the world over could see that this price point was unsustainable. They feared that as Amazon gained more power over the ebook market, they would force the wholesale price of books down. To quote from the New Yorker piece:

Traditionally, publishers have sold books to stores, with the wholesale price for hardcovers set at fifty per cent of the cover price. Authors are paid royalties at a rate of about fifteen per cent of the cover price. On a twenty-six-dollar book, the publisher receives thirteen dollars, out of which it pays all the costs of making the book. The author gets $3.90 in royalties. Bookstores return about forty per cent of the hardcovers they buy; this accounts for $5.20 per book. Another $3 goes to overhead costs and the price of producing and shipping the book—leaving, in the best case, about a dollar of profit per book.

Obviously these aren’t the exact same margins as in Australia, but they’re very similar, and illustrate my point. What the argument ultimately came down to was this – what is a book really worth? When you take away the cost of printing, which ebooks don’t incur, what should you reasonably pay for a book, and – perhaps more importantly – what does the industry need to receive in order to remain profitable and be able to keep producing books?

The number the industry came up with was $US14.99. They forced Amazon to accept this with the help of Apple and a liberal dose of chutzpah. Google, when it gets into the ebook selling game in the next little while, will help solidify this higher price point.

So, industry saved, right? Right? What do you think? Do you pay too much for books? Would cheaper prices lure you into buying ebooks? Is $AU16 too much for an ebook?

Why The Customer Isn’t Always Right

Reading the open letter posted up on Teleread this week made me realise something. When it comes to new technology, the customer isn’t always right. This open letter, addressed to ‘publishers’, covered ebook issues as varied as sales tax and ebook pricing, formatting of books and ebook reader firmware. Why Joanne, the author, believed she would achieve anything at all with this meaningless plea to the internet is beyond me.

Snip:

… I know a fair amount about being a customer, and I know it shouldn’t be this hard … Why does it have to be this hard?

It is understandable that consumers are frustrated with the publishing industry’s speed of change. I am too. But the process cannot and will not be hurried along by gnashing of teeth, stamping of feet, and throwing your toys out of the pram. The reason things aren’t all working perfectly at the moment cannot be chalked up to one organisation, person or even one industry. Nobody has the power to enact the changes Joanne wants to bring about, let alone bring them about right now. To expect any different makes you little better than the archetypal ‘consumer’ described below by the brilliant author William Gibson:

Something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth, no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote.

Why is it that arguments like Joanne’s are cropping up more and more in the blogosphere? My theory is that digital books, unlike dead tree books, are unique in that the process of getting recommendations, acquiring books and reading them are all achieved in one place. With a dead tree book, a friend might talk about a book, or perhaps you’ll read about it in a newspaper. Then you go into a bookstore, ask someone where you might find that book and then buy it. Then you take it home and read it. The process of finding out about a book, buying it and reading it – when it comes to ebooks – can all happen from your lap, perhaps even from one device. This is not conducive to a nuanced understanding of the industry.

So what are your other options? Read a lot. Ask a lot of questions. Find out who’s really to blame, and for what exactly. But most of all? Have a little bit of patience. Those of us reading ebooks right now are early adopters. Try to keep in mind that we’re not living in the future.

What are your chief complaints about ebooks – regardless of whether you read them? Ask me a question, and I’ll do my best to answer it in a future post.

Multimedia Does Not A Book Make

The release today of the stunning Alice for iPad video on YouTube (above) has made me wonder, yet again, whether these ‘enhanced’ ebooks that are beginning to pop up (mostly on the iPhone’s App Store) are anything other than a gimmick. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, an enhanced ebook is an ebook with bells and whistles. They range from the no frills, DVD extras kind of thing – perhaps a written interview with the author, at best – to the sort of multimedia extravaganza that was put together for the release of The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave. This iPhone enhanced ebook contains the full audiobook (read by Nick Cave) with backing music composed by the author (helpful that in this case the author is a musician), interspersed with video of the author in all his moustachioed glory.

For a long while, I’ve held the view that enhanced ebooks done properly (like Bunny Munro) are for people who don’t really like reading – and, in fact, aren’t even really books – and when done badly (I won’t name names), are just an excuse to charge $25 for something that is only worth $12. But I have changed my mind (at least about the former).

The new Bunny cover. Now with              less conspicuous female genitalia.

The argument is that by sticking audio or video into a book, it stops being a book (some would argue that this makes it a vook – those people are ridiculous; there is no such thing as a vook). Rather than ponder the metaphysical question of what really makes a book (I fear the answer may be full of smell-of-books style nostalgic silliness), I think it’s more worthwhile to think about how we – and by ‘we’, I mean me – consume books.

Nowadays, the way I read a book – ebook or not – is often peppered with mental interruptions, whether it’s wondering what a word means, questioning what the author is referring to or just following a trail of logic to its illogical conclusion. For me a book is not just the words on the page, but a series of associations I have made along the way. I’m not sure if this is a product of the internet age – where in order to understand what’s happening on Lost it’s necessary to have your laptop open and twelve tabs open in Google Chrome and be constantly flicking between each one before your attention runs out – but this is genuinely how I like reading. I suspect I’m not alone*.

The traditional paper book is, perhaps, the last great bastion of undivided attention and pure concentration. And that is lovely, for those times that you have great swathes of time and attention to spare. But the daily lives of many people sometimes don’t allow for that kind of reading experience. Should that mean that books get left behind other kinds of easy-to-consume media? I don’t think so. When I get off the train and want to keep reading, why not have Nick Cave continue reading me the story? And when the full brain freeze of reading is just too much for me, why shouldn’t I be able to check the news and reviews on an author simultaneously?

What do you think? Have you ever tried an enhanced ebook? Would you? How many books do you read a year? Do you think you might read more if they were a bit more accessible?

*Yes, I’m talking about you. You know who you are. You’re the one who looks up the name of every movie mentioned in a casual conversation on IMDB on your iPhone.

A Pirate’s Life For Me

The NYT’s The Ethicist created some controversy this week with an article considering the ethics of downloading pirated copies of ebooks. Specifically it responded to the question of whether it is ethical to download a pirated version of an ebook (when it is not available legally) if you purchase the hardcover edition of a book first.

Snip:

An illegal download is — to use an ugly word — illegal. But in this case, it is not unethical. Author and publisher are entitled to be paid for their work, and by purchasing the hardcover, you did so. Your subsequent downloading is akin to buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod.

Under the Dome: A bloody heavy book

Needless to say, this has caused a stir in some publishing circles, and a number of other blogs and opinion pieces have responded to the question and explored many of the flaws in the argument. There’s no clear answer to this conundrum. The central premise seems compelling – people are used to only having to buy one format – you don’t have to worry about illegal downloading when you buy a CD or a DVD, you can easily rip music and movies to your computer yourself. Why should books be any different?

From personal experience, I think the reason this is even an issue is to do with the failure of the book publishing industry to understand the market and to respond to technological (and the resulting cultural) change. I don’t buy an ebook because it’s cheaper than the dead tree version. I buy it for all the other benefits an ebook gives me – I can start reading instantly, it can be searched, I can look up words in the dictionary or Wikipedia, I can carry multiple books around without hefting a load of paper, I can even read it on multiple platforms (PC, iPhone and Kindle) depending on when and where I feel like reading. The $9.99 price point that Amazon tried to set for ebooks is very nice, but more expensive ebooks are not going to turn me towards paper books, they’re just going to turn me towards other, better-priced ebooks.

The publishing industry needs to do more than re-educate consumers about the value of books. They need to respond to consumer need. Since the advent of digital piracy, consumers have a way of getting what they want, when they want it – bugger the ethics or the legality. To combat this, publishers need to make it easier to buy an ebook legitimately than it is to get it illegally. Practices like windowing and DRM are destined for failure for this reason; they punish the ethical. Publishers cannot just expect to change behaviour without meeting their readers halfway.

What do you think? Would you feel bad about downloading a pirated book if you couldn’t find the ebook anywhere else? Do you think owning the physical copy entitles you to a digital one? What can publishers do to lure you away from illegally downloading ebooks?

Who’s to Blame?

I was going to spend this post systematically going through all of Louise Adler’s terrible arguments against ebooks in this weekend’s National Times, or perhaps manufacture some kind of conspiracy theory because the comments on her post were closed after only three hours … but I’ve decided I’ve done enough immature ranting and name calling when it comes to the anachronistic dinosaurs of the publishing industry.

Instead I’d like to focus on a point that Ms Adler raised that I think is quite valid. That is: the range of books available to ebook buyers in Australia. Adler was specifically referring to the Kindle’s range, but it can be almost guaranteed that the same problems will plague Apple’s iPad when it launches in Australia later this month.

Snip:

The catalogue is insular and American. Its vast catalogue is composed of obscure backlists and out-of-copyright titles and a disturbingly comprehensive list of self-published authors. Despite the belated local release of the device, no Australian titles are available in the Kindle “store”.

Aside from the fact that Adler is technically incorrect here (there are plenty of Australian titles available in the Kindle store), her frustration is understandable when you compare the Australian offering (less than 300,000 titles, a big chunk of which are out of copyright) with the fully fledged US Kindle Store (of over 450,000 titles). So who’s to blame for this situation?

I’ve read a lot of Australian commentary on the topic, and people (especially anonymous blog commenters) really like to say ‘they’. You know what I mean. ‘They really need to sort this out before they lose customers’. The slightly more informed split their contempt between Amazon and Australian publishers. Says one commenter on the tech blog, Gizmodo, ‘Amazon wants everyone to buy ebooks from them, so it’s obviously the publishers that are causing the problem.’ And another, responding to the same article: ‘Amazon does need to drag its rear into being global if it wants happy customers.’

Jasper Jones, by the Australian author Craig Silvey, is not available from the Australian Kindle store, nor the UK or       US store. It is, for some reason though, available in France. And on Boomerang     in paper.

The truth is that the situation has more than one side. Amazon can be given a pretty healthy portion of the blame for launching an ‘international’ Kindle without planning their relationships with local publishers first. Most of the publishing people I know in Australia knew about the release of the Kindle in Australia at the same time as the average punter who wanted to buy one. Amazon rushed in with half a Kindle store, and then sat back as Kindle buyers blamed publishing companies for the lack of content.

Publishers, on the other hand, do not get off scot free. In Australia, the importation of books by bookstores is restricted by parallel importation laws. Your local bookshop cannot buy a hundred crate-loads of Wilbur Smith books from the UK and then sell them on to you. However, there’s nothing stopping you from buying Assegai yourself from the US or the UK when you want it and at the cheapest price you can get it. This arrangement protects Australian publishers’ profits (the bulk of which comes from bookshops), and to some extent gives them the money to invest in publishing local Australian authors. It is territorial copyright backed up with legal import restrictions. However, this does not apply to ebooks. At all. There is currently no law stopping you from buying ebooks from international ebookstores, including the Kindle store. Nonetheless, almost all of these stores restrict people from buying books outside the copyright territory of their home country anyway.

Why? I don’t know for sure. It’s likely a combination of pressure from big international publishing corporations, and self-regulation to avoid legal import restrictions on ebooks. To an ordinary book buyer, however, this situation must seem absolutely absurd. Why should the format of the book (electronic or paper) determine whether or not you can legally buy it from Australia over the internet? The answer is that it shouldn’t. But it does. Doesn’t this go against the very idea of ebooks (and as Louise Adler so deftly put it – the ‘democratisation of knowledge’)? Probably, yes.

What this issue comes down to is the same question that fuelled the parallel importation debate that was getting publishers and booksellers all riled up last year. Do Australian publishers need protection, and if so, should they be protected? What is more important – cheap, convenient access to books, or the future viability of unique Australian stories (not to mention the jobs of editors, printers, typesetters and authors in this country)? There are no clear cut answers to these questions, but thinking about them is a lot more interesting than just shaking your fist at ‘them’ and pointing the finger.

Why the iPad is Not Going to Save Publishing

Today’s release of Apple’s iPad in the United States and the absolutely hysterical reaction to it is as good a time as any to take a moment and think about the impact of devices like the iPad on publishing.

As you may or may not know, many publishing companies, particularly in newsprint, are not faring well. Newspapers across the world lost billions of dollars in the last year – their worst result in recent memory, and the word is that it’s only going to get worse. Books are faring a little better, but publishing folk are looking askance at their newspaper buddies and getting worried. This fear is partially what fuels the distaste for ebooks in the first place.

But not everyone in publishing is a backwards-looking nostalgic with a Luddite agenda. Some of them are tragic optimists as well. In fact, many people in the book trade herald each new device as the ‘killer’ gadget, the one machine to save us all. People said it about the Kindle, they’ve been saying it about gadgets like Plastic Logic’s Que for years (it still hasn’t been released) and they said it about the Nook, until it turned out to be a steaming pile of fail.

There are also a lot of people like me, who believe – wrongly – that the killer device has not been released yet, but fervently hope that when it is all our problems will be solved.

The truth is that no single device is going to save publishing. Publishing of all kinds will save itself – or die trying. Just as with the digital music revolution and the average punter’s passion for music, there is still an overwhelming fervour out there for the written word in all its guises. We still buy millions upon millions of books, from huge bestsellers like Harry Potter or Twilight to stuff like The Slap. What all these purchases prove is that people still like to read books – content is king. At the moment, particularly in Australia, consumers simply do not have access to the electronic content.

I’m not trying to point fingers here; there are plenty of publishers who are putting off the inevitable when it comes to ebooks, and plenty out there doing great things (Allen & Unwin and Macmillan, I’m looking at you). Equally there are booksellers who have been on board with ebooks for years, and others that are doing nothing. There are also authors who have been on the digital bandwagon for years, and others who are still thinking about starting a MySpace page next year.

The point is that the future isn’t going to be any different because you drag your heels and moan about the smell of books. You’re just going to get left behind. The iPad isn’t going to save publishing either – it’s just a platform with great potential. If you have any ideas for how you want to read books (or make them) in the future, then educate yourself and start making demands now. Because whether you like it or not, things are going to change, but how it changes and into what is still up to us.

Why Everything You Think About Ebooks is a Filthy Lie

So this is going to be a blog about book technology. And I want to kick it off by talking about the title … The Smell of Books. In the last few years I have read hundreds of pages of blogs and newspapers about ebooks. I’ve also been working in a publishing company, where people love to read books, love to talk about books and love to own books. There is a significant proportion of early adopters out there who love the very idea of ebooks and e-publishing, and criticise ebooks only in the way they might criticise any of their beloved gadgets.

And then there is everyone else.

I’d like to start with three misconceptions you might have about ebooks and why you’re stupid for thinking them.

The Smell of Books

The amount of newsprint that has been wasted on the latest prehistoric pundit slash columnist road testing an ebook reader and decrying it as ‘not the same’ as a paper book is absolutely shameful. Their biggest crime, of course, is talking about the smell.

The experience of reading on an ebook reader (or any kind of electronic reading) is self-evidently not the same as a paper book. Nobody is trying to make it so. The advantages of electronic reading are manifold (you can expect me to expound on these reasons in blogs to come), but they do not include any of the following: being able to hand down a worn electronic copy of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to your grandson on his 21st birthday; sitting in a bubble bath reading Wuthering Heights to your girlfriend; or showing off to your friends how many of the Russians you have read.

From My Cold, Dead Hands

Nobody is trying to replace paper books with ebooks. Least of all traditional publishing companies. Most publishing companies are still making 95% or more of their profit from paper books, and most people still want to read dead trees. I cannot envision a point in my lifetime where there will no longer be paper books at all. There is no need to take a stand – you will only overbalance and fall over.

Why Try to Reinvent the Wheel?

Books have been in their current form for a long time. They are beloved objects of beauty. They are perfectly suited to all reading activities. Only two of the previous three statements are true. There are plenty of annoying things about dead tree books. Ever tried to haul a copy of Infinite Jest around over the course of the month or more it takes you to read? Ever got stuck reading Gravity’s Rainbow because you didn’t know what Poisson distribution was? Ever lived in a small town with a tiny library and no bookstore and couldn’t find the latest Dan Brown?

Ebooks have a place in the future of book selling, publishing and reading. It’s time to prepare yourself. Just because you don’t like the idea of them doesn’t mean you might not like them. Just because you don’t like them doesn’t mean they’re not here to stay.

[Image courtesy of smellofbooks.com]