By Australian, Buy Australian

8There’s been a bit in the news lately about how Amazon have finally entered the Australian book market and are selling Australian titles for the first time. Not only have they done this in an underhanded manner using a third party to fulfill their book orders but they have also done it in a way to minimize their tax bill in this country.

10They haven’t made this move because they love Australian authors and stories. This is just another piece in Amazon’s strategy to have a monopoly on all books sales around the world.

Here at Boomerang Books we love Australian authors and stories. It is the reason why we went into business in the first place. 14We have always had a distinct focus and emphasis on Australian books, Australian authors and Australian publishers. We also love Australian independent bookshops, in fact we’re owned by one making us Australia’s online independent bookstore!

We truly care about the Australian Book Industry and we don’t want to see Amazon gut the industry from the inside out and become like the UK book market where books must either appease the giant supermarket chains or one retailer’s internet algorithm. What a boring, stale literary culture that would be for Australia. 

Show your support for Australian books and when you want to buy a book by an Australian writer make sure you buy it from an Australian bookstore!  We’ll make it even easier for you by offering you great discounts on Australian books and free postage if you use the promo code OzBooks.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

 

The big gorilla is firing up

The Kindle Fire.

Amazon looks set to give the Australian book market a mighty shake-up.

The Sydney Morning Herald has reported that Amazon is seeking warehouse space in Australia.

The Australian’s IT section has this week run a piece outlining rumours that the Kindle Fire’s arrival in Australia is imminent.

It seems the greatest of all the ebook industry gorillas (so-named by Scribe founder Henry Rosenbloom during a speech he gave at an Australian Publishers Association conference last November) is finally setting up shop in Australia.

The SMH says Amazon.com.au changed its name to Amazon Corporate Services last year, and “has appointed two vice presidents of the American parent – Michael Deal, associate general counsel, and Jason Bristow, the online retailer’s treasurer – to the local company’s board”.

It also reports that several marketing staff have been hired here.

If it’s true that Amazon is about to make a big push into this market, what will this mean for us readers and for the rest of the industry?

In my view, it will be very bad news for any ebook retailer that has not already established a niche for itself here – I’m thinking about the Copia-powered Australian Publishers Association/Bowker Titlepage Plus solution here, but also any of the independent booksellers yet to implement an ebook strategy, and those who will have to rethink existing strategies in coming months, like Booktopia and Dymocks, who learnt just before Easter that their supplier Google was pulling out of reselling.

Kobo’s Malcolm Neil reflected at a Copyright Agency Limited event earlier this year that while Kobo still has strong market share, this had fallen as new players including Apple and Google set up shop here. Kobo was a pioneer in the Australian market, selling local ebook titles via its own site and partner retailer RedGroup for some time (starting in May 2010) before entrants like Booku, Booki.sh, ReadCloud, Apple and Google joined the fray.

Amazon’s Australian ebook stocks were limited when Kobo launched, but they had the advantage of offering the Kindle device, locked into the Kindle store, to this market for seven months before the Kobo and iPad arrived.

With a dedicated, local marketing presence and the prospect of local multimedia content (music and video in particular) becoming available via the affordable and portable 7inch Kindle Fire colour tablet here, Amazon would have the power to shake up not just the book industry, but the television, film, music and gadget market too.

Given the outcome of international legal action on book pricing has gone in Amazon’s favour, a local push will likely see further drops in ebook prices here. This will benefit consumers in the short term but will hit publishers’ bottom lines hard and is unsustainable. The greatest risk it brings is that consumers’ expectations on price will be locked in at these unsustainable levels, impacting on the future viability of many of our beloved book publishers and booksellers.

Me? I’m anti-Amazon because of this pricing strategy, and because I like to be able to choose to buy my ebooks from whichever retailer I like, be that a gorilla, Kobo or (and this is always my first preference) a local indie like Booku and those who have partnered with Booki.sh and ReadCloud.

But I have to say I’m tempted by the Kindle Fire. After nearly two years of lugging my iPad around in my handbag, I have finally given up. It stays home. My Sony Reader comes out to play. A device that has been designed for reading and offers many of the benefits of the iPad in a smaller form has definite appeal – not as much allure as the mythical iPad mini (of which there are rumours again), but a little more than the Kobo Vox, which had plenty of pluses but didn’t quite nail it for me. The rumoured Google Nexus tablet would be worth a look too.

Meanwhile, Bookseller + Publisher has a couple of big ebookish stories this week.

The first wraps up the ongoing legal stoushes in the US and Europe over the agency pricing model used by Apple and major book publishers. B+P points readers to this piece in The Bookseller.

B+P also reports that Kobo is expanding into new international markets and is set to launch its global self-publishing program within months.

JK Rowling and the great Pottermore scandal

For around the 475th time this decade, I’m angry on behalf of independent booksellers.

This time, it’s with JK Rowling, who in signing affiliate agreements with Sony, Barnes & Noble and Amazon for the sale of the Harry Potter digital editions has supported the giants but locked out the indies who have hand-sold her books to millions of children all over the world.

Last week, on Tuesday, Rowling finally made the Harry Potter series available as ebooks via her Pottermore website, www.pottermore.com. The Potter stories had been conspicuously absent from ereading devices and ebookstores over the past two years as Rowling pondered and negotiated a digital way forward for the books – she had retained digital rights when signing contracts with her publishers and wanted to get the model just right.

I have no problem with her subsequent decision to sell direct to readers, ensuring that as the author, she will rake in most of the profits.

As a huge Potter fan, I can’t wait to experience the full Pottermore site once it launches in the next couple of weeks. Digital Quidditch, anyone? I’ll also be buying the entire series as ePubs and reading them all over again, and can’t wait till my toddler is old enough to read them himself.

On a positive note, Rowling has signed partnership agreements with key publishers of the print editions, like Scholastic and Bloomsbury, to provide them with an undisclosed share of ebook sales via Pottermore, which seems only fair, given the vast resources they have devoted over the years to editing the books and marketing the Potter brand as well as Rowling herself.

My problem is with the great author’s decision to allow only Sony, Amazon and Barnes & Noble to sign affiliate deals for the ebooks. This means the three retail giants (intriguingly, neither Apple nor Google has got a look in) can direct their readers via website links to Pottermore in exchange for a cut.

Indie booksellers who have hosted Potter events with schools and libraries as each of title hit the shelves, who have made their staff dress up as Ron, Hermione, Harry and Dumbledore and open the store early, or stay back late, and held competitions for the best Potter costume among their junior customers, have been shut out all together. They’ve filled window displays with Potterabilia, and held tie-in events with the film adaptation, but when it comes to digital, it was all for nought.

Rowling must provide indies with the same opportunities to promote her titles to their customers as Sony, Barnes & Noble and Amazon. She owes it to them, as a mark of gratitude for the years they have spent selling Harry Potter to bookshop lovers, helping to make her the success she is today.

Indies here in Australia and all over the world are making the transition to digital. Dozens of stores here have opened ebookstores during the past 18 months. Rowling shutting them out will impact on their brands in this fledgling market, as well as on their bottom lines, indeed their futures.

Come on, JK, give your greatest supporters the respect and the opportunities they deserve. Open your affiliate program to the indies today – and at the very least before Pottermore’s big launch.

Self-Publishing for Muppets

SwitchedThe article had me at ‘self-publishing’ for ‘Muppets’. It refers not to self-publishers being muppets as in the derogatory term, but rather a cash-strapped wannabe writer who self-published some books on Amazon in the hope of scraping together the cash to go see the Muppets. The rest, as they write, is JK Rowling-worthy history.

Amanda Hocking’s is the kind of story that simultaneously draws derision from those in the industry and raises the hopes of those who aren’t but want to be. I have to say that I think the truth is somewhere in between.

Reading this Guardian article I realised Hocking might have been unpublished, but she wasn’t unpracticed or unpolished (if those terms make any sense). She had written a bunch of novels over a nine-year period and, in the process, honed her skills.

She’d approached a stack of publishing houses and been rejected by them all. More importantly, she filed the rejection letters, quashed any discouragement, and kept writing and investigating ways to get her work out there.

With traditional publishers not opening their doors, Hocking went the non-traditional route. She posted her book online with the short-term goal of selling some copies to families and friends over a six-month period in order to raise the $300 she needed for the Muppets trip.

She achieved a bit more than that, selling 150,000 copies of her books and making around $20,000 in that time. She’s now surpassed 1.5 million book sales and $2.5 million in profits (and I consider them profits because she published with largely free online tools and is not having to share the spoils with any agents or publishers. Well, apart from the chunk Amazon carves off).

Those are the stats people are generally interested in. I’m actually more interested in the work she put in to get there. I see it as less rags-to-riches than hard-work-pays-off (with a little luck thrown in, admittedly, because in this industry there’s always a touch of right-place-right-time luck required).

OutliersFrom what the article shows, Hocking’s always been a huge reader and writer so has put in the hard yards to reach those magic 10,000 hours of practice. As in the magic number of hours that unlock the key to perfection we hear about from the likes of authors like Malcolm Gladwell. Speaking of Gladwell, he’s been quiet of late—surely he’s due another book soon?

Anyway, back to Hocking. My point is that despite the fairytale angel we’d like to hope for, she’s not an example of a publishing miracle the equivalent of winning the lottery on your first try. It’s something she’s also clearly keenly aware of: ‘People built me up as a two-dimensional icon for something I was not. Self-publishing is great, but I don’t want to be an icon for it, or anything else. I would rather people talk about the books than how I publish them,’ she told the Guardian. That is, she wants to be judged for the quality of the work, not how she got rich quick through what most deem amateur, low-brow means.

Hocking obviously has some writing and marketing talent. Bad books are quickly found out. Were she a poor writer, she might have sold a few. But she wouldn’t be into the millions of sales if the books weren’t gripping and well told (please refrain from sending me the emails saying ‘Um, but Twilight’s into the millions and it’s terribly written. True, but quibble about its writing quality however you will, it’s definitely gripping.)

Utilising new and social media channels to effectively promote her work—that is, blogs, websites, Facebook, Twitter, and the like—have clearly been key (even if they’re something the article, perhaps subconsciously in line with the old-world newspaper publication it’s part of, skims over). In fact, that’s what I’ve taken away from this story: Hocking’s success is less about striking it lucky and more about hard work and creating her own opportunities. Of course, the Muppets as catalyst is a fantastic hook too…

Please don’t buy a Kindle this Christmas

I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with the Kindle. It’s a nice gadget, and I like nice gadgets. But Amazon makes it hard for Australians to buy the model of their choice (the white Kindle 3 wasn’t available here, the Kindle Fire isn’t available here, the Kindle Touch isn’t available here).

In my view, as such they treat rest of the world non-American customers as second class citizens.

And once I actually got my hands on the model I wanted after a friend visited the US last year, I found the buttons clunky, the shape unwieldy for handbag carrying, and the lack of Australian content infuriating. I sold it on eBay two weeks later.

This Christmas, my feelings have swung further to the negative, so far, in fact, that I can’t see any way back.

When I discovered that my film director and academic sister, who loves indie bookshops nearly as much as I do, had bought her second Kindle, I felt the muscles in my shoulders tense.

When I learned that the communications director of a nearby not-for-profit writers centre had bought a Kindle for her partner for Christmas, I scolded her publicly.

But when I saw that the Copyright Agency Limited was giving away five free Kindles to entice members to fill out a survey, I was livid. Furious. Incredulous. I mean, seriously. As far as I’m concerned, the non-profit rights management organisation giving away Kindles is like the Slow Food Movement giving away McDonald’s vouchers.

After learning that Amazon has some 60 per cent of the US ebook market and perhaps a similar stake here, I decided the time had come to take anti-multinational giant action, so here I am, imploring you to reconsider your ebook and ereader buying plans.

Sure, Amazon’s books are cheap, but are you willing to sacrifice the livelihood of all our indie booksellers for the sake of a few bucks? When did you last attend a book launch, with free wine and cheese, in an Amazon store? And do you really want to own an ereader that locks you in, preventing you from buying and reading ebooks from other retailers like Booku.com, Gleebooks, Readings, Pages & Pages, Avid Reader, Shearers, Books for Cooks, Kobo, Apple and Google?

Can’t you see that it is the people behind our indies that promote great Australian writing? When did you last receive and act on a personal recommendation on an Aussie novel from an Amazon staff member?

I’m hoping you’re keen to buy books from a variety of sources, to support diversity in bookselling and in our literary culture. And I’m imploring you this Christmas to consider an iPad, an Android tablet, a Sony Reader or a Kobo instead.

There’s a red Sony Reader in my Christmas stocking, and it’s lighter and better looking than the Kindle (review coming soon). I’m just about to unwrap the Kobo Vox, which looks like a great low-cost tablet option too (review coming soon too).

Non-Stop News November: Part II

Gleebooks’s ebooks site.

Google has announced that it will power ebook offerings from national retail chains The Co-op Bookshop (which sells primarily academic and trade books on-campus) and QBD The Bookshop (a clearing house and discount specialist) soon (in addition to those of launch partners Dymocks and Booktopia, whose Google eBooks-fed sites went live three weeks ago).

Like Amazon, Google has an affiliate program whereby booksellers, publishers, web site operators and bloggers can sign up to take a commission on books sold when they refer their users to Google eBooks.

It sounds tempting to a blogger like me until you consider the fact that you’re sending your readers’ money offshore, rather than supporting a local business like Booku or your local bricks and mortar indie, an thus potentially encouraging the contraction of the market. One of the main reasons I still buy the odd printed book is to make sure my local indie, and its equivalents in various holiday destinations, stay in business.

Hopefully the indies are looking at options for offering a similar set-up to like-minded bloggers and publishers.

Speaking of indies, other adventurous bricks and mortar bookshops (in addition to those working with ReadCloud as mentioned in the previous post here) that will face the search engine results challenge from Google are those in partnership with another cloud-based ereading start-up, Melbourne’s Booki.sh.

Booki.sh, which is based on a web browser rather than downloadable file model, partnered with Victorian indie chain Readings to launch a pilot store in January this year. In November, they helped Sydney favourite Gleebooks, Tasmania’s Fullers, Queensland’s Mary Ryan’s (also in Byron Bay), Melbourne’s Books for Cooks and Brisbane’s community minded Avid Reader to enter the ebook market.

All of the indies battle existing giants The Book Depository and its new owner Amazon as well as Apple and Kobo (which powers Collins Booksellers’ ebook offerings here as well as the now Pearson-owned Borders/Angus & Robertson online store and the standalone Kobo online store).

Speaking of giants, Pearson is the parent company of Penguin Books, and speaking of a big month in the book industry, Canadian-founded Kobo was bought out (for $US315 million) a few weeks back by Japanese ecommerce company Rakuten in a move expected to encourage its growth.

On Kobo, did you know that like Dymocks, it has recently followed in Amazon’s footsteps and announced plans to publish books as well as being a seller of them?

Are you keeping up with the nation’s most recent book news? It’s exhausting, isn’t it?

I haven’t even gotten to the Federal Government’s Book Industry Strategy Group, which handed down its final report on November 9 (the same day as the ReadCloud/Pages & Pages event and the day after Google eBooks arrived in Australia), or the planned Australian Publishers Association/Bowker Titlepage-based ebook retail platform (the final piece in the ebook retail puzzle in this country).

My take on those in the next post, Part III, coming soon to uBookish. Read Part I here.

Infuriating Amazon spurns us again

International customers are furious with Amazon this morning, because neither the new Kindle Fire, a $US199 7-inch tablet, nor the e-ink Kindle Touch, a $US99-189 6-inch keyboard-free ereader, will be available outside the US in the foreseeable future.

There had been an Apple-like build-up based on rumour and hype in the lead-up to Amazon’s Kindle Fire announcement overnight.

Some of us had been hoping that, as Apple, Kobo and Sony do, Amazon would schedule an international rollout for its new gadgets that would include Australia.

Instead, there was no mention of timing.
We’ll have to be content with the $US79-109 (prices for all e-ink models vary depending on whether you are prepared to wear special offers and sponsored screensavers, and for the Touch models, on whether you choose wifi or 3G) “all-new Kindle”, which is wifi-only and has a 5-way controller rather than a multi-touch screen, or one of the older models with the clunky keyboard. Thank God that’s on the way out.

Shoppers on Kindle’s UK website vented their anger after the launch, but those posts have mysteriously since disappeared.

Here in Australia, we’re used to being treated as second-class citizens by Amazon. The previous Kindle was available in graphite or white in the US and certain other markets, but only graphite in Australia (the new price for this soon-to-be obsolete model is $US99-189).

I got round that by ordering a white one to be sent to my stepbrother in New York. He handed it on to my father who delivered it after a US trip a couple of weeks later.

It felt like Christmas for a day or two, until I realised that most of the books I wanted to read weren’t available via Amazon, and that fruitless hunting for them using the appalling keyboard was infuriating.
I couldn’t transfer my existing non-Kindle ebook library to the device (not easily, anyway, there are workarounds, but I’m looking for a seamless, one device solution for ereading).

Because the Kindle lacked email, video, diary, Australian newspapers and social media, I found I had to carry my iPad with me as well.

So I sold it, and said good riddance.

Am I considering ordering a Kindle Fire or Touch the same way I did the last model?

No. And nor should you.

The Kindle Fire, like all the Kindles, is largely locked into Amazon’s content line.

Amazon has not yet got to the stage where they’ll allow you to easily read books bought from Booku or any other retailer on their devices.
Amazon’s cloud storage, a key feature of the Fire, is not available outside the US. Nor is Amazon Prime, the retail giant’s movie and TV streaming service.

While the device is based on Google’s mobile operating system, Android, it’s a tweaked version, so there are no guarantees existing Android apps will work on the device.

There’s a dedicated Amazon Appstore, but again, it’s unlikely its contents will be available to Australian customers without complex workarounds.

In any case, for the foreseeable future the iPad is the way to go if you want access to all ebookstores and existing libraries, the best apps and dedicated Australian content. You won’t be able to watch ABC iView on the Fire.

As for e-ink, given the Kindle walled garden, you would be better off looking at the new Kobo eReader Touch, due in Australia next month, or the next generation Sony Readers, which offer wifi and touch screens and are available for pre-order now from Sony’s Australian website (I note with some sadness that they’ve discontinued the cute little silver PRS350SC, which was the 5-inch model, though – probably because at that screen size, we may as well read on our smartphone).

Speaking of smartphones, stay tuned for the iPhone 5 launch at 4am on Wednesday (10am Tuesday, California time). I’ll be blogging about it early that morning.

Charlotte’s posts on books, digital publishing and social media also appear on Twitter (@ebookish), Facebook (www.facebook.com/ebookish) and at ebookish.com.au.

Will Digital Publishing Bring Back the Short Story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deal with the Devil – Ebooks and Exclusivity

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News Roundup: The Potterless is More Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News Round-up: The Consolation Prize Edition

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

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


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

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

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

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Nobody Blames Authors (And Why You Should)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon Intros Ad-Supported Kindles

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

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

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

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

Ships in the Night: Hocking and Eisler Switch Sides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Publishers Losing the Hearts and Minds of Readers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do You Want From Your E-reader?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Failure of REDgroup Means for Ebooks in Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple Screws the Pooch Pt 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple Screws the Pooch Pt 1

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

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

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

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

Amazon: Still Evil After All These Years Pt 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon: Still Evil After All These Years Pt 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-publishing Success Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ebook News Christmas Wrap-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Google eBooks Launch: What You Need to Know Pt 2

Read first part of review…

Other software features and annoyances

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

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

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

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

DRM, territorial restrictions and piracy

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

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

In summary

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

Google eBooks Launch: What You Need to Know Pt 1

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

Unique features

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

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

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

Rest the rest of review…

The Tyranny of the Digital

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

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

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

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

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

If You Guys Were Publishers, You’d Publish Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Author Tony Park Pt 2

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

Does anything about the experience of reading ebooks annoy you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you reading now?

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

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

Interview with Author Tony Park Pt 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon: Defender of Free Speech?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Booki.sh: A Potential Australian Alternative

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

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

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

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

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

The Perils of Convenience

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

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

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

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

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

The Return of the Short Story

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Kindle 3

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

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

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

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

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

What are Facebook Pages and Why Do You Need One?

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

What and Why?

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

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

How to Set Up a Page and Use One

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

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

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

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

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

‘Like’ another Page                                    Install an application on your page

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

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