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.

Farewell, my little pixels, iPad 3 is here

Australians will be able to order the third generation iPad from today (or queue up for one on March 16 when it ships). They’ll do this because it offers retina-ish display (try a million more pixels than HDTV, at four times as many pixels per inch as the previous model) and a vastly improved camera (5 megapixels, in line with that of the current model iPhone).

At 9.4mm thick and 680g, it’s a similar size but a little heavier than the last model – in fact back to around the weight of the launch iPad. Pricing starts at $539 (the base model iPad 2 moves down to $429).

Apple says it sold 15.4 million iPads in the last quarter … that’s a nation-full of people who may be wishing they’d waited till this week.

When uBookish checked at 6am, orders were yet to open as the Australian version of Apple’s online store was closed. “We’ll be back soon … we’re busy updating the store for you and will be back shortly.” At 7am, the site crashed altogether. My browser offered this message: “The site could be temporarily unavailable or too busy”. (Update: By 8am the site was live for pre-orders)

The 4G-ready device (though there has been no announcement about 4G connectivity for the iPad in Australia) comes in black and white, like the iPad 2.

The camera and the 2047 x 1536 display (iPad 2 has 1024×768) are the reasons for this.

The retinal screen will display a million more pixels than HDTV, according to Apple, which also claims it’ll offer 264 pixels per inch and 44pc better colour saturation.

So from 15 inches, you won’t be able to distinguish a pixel, Gizmodo reports. It’s not quite as brilliant as the latest model iPhone display, which offers 326 pixels per inch for optimised viewing at 10 inches.

For readers, this is great news. The crystal clear rendering of text on the iPhone 4 makes for magical reading – better than on the printed page were it not for the screen size. App publishers will now rush to update existing and upcoming titles to make the most of the new display.

If only Apple would reconsider and launch a 7-inch model for ereading … the iPad really is too heavy to carry everywhere, leaving many ebook fans stuck with a Kindle, Sony Reader or Kobo as well.

As for the camera, its specs are on par with the latest iPhone at 5-megapixels with side-illuminated sensor, 5-element lens, infrared filter, auto-exposure, auto-focus, auto-face detection and HD video recording.

The device will sport an A5X chip with quad core graphics.

It’ll cost $539 including GST for the 16GB model, $649 for the 32GB and $759 for the 64GB. The Wi-Fi + 4G will start at $679 for the 16GB model, rising to $789 for the 32GB model and $899 for the 64GB.

Apple also announced that there are now more than 200,000 native iPad apps.

A new version of its Apple TV gadget is available for order now and will ship the same day as the iPad. It will cost $109.

It offers an updated user interface and improved program availability (the day after broadcast TV has its turn).

For a full wrap and a blow-by-blow look at this morning’s launch, check out Gizmodo.com.

Please note, this post was originally published at 7am AEST on March 8. This version is unchanged but was reinstated on March 12 following a server outage.

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.

Steve Jobs was Just My Type

Simon Garfield’s 2010 Profile Books title Just My Type: A book about fonts (which, incidentally, I downloaded from the iTunes store as an app for my iPad) opens with an introduction quoting Steve Jobs.

Which is appropriate, really, because Jobs is the father of digital type.

The quote is taken from Jobs’s 2005 Stanford speech, which you can watch on YouTube in full. I recommend it. It was the first thing I did after learning of Jobs’s death last week. In it he speaks candidly about confronting death after his initial cancer diagnosis, of his adoption, of dropping out of college, his sacking from his beloved Apple, falling in love with his wife (and while we ponder the great innovator’s legacy, spare a thought for her and his three children), and his passion for fonts.

“Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country,” Jobs told the Stanford graduates. “Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. ”

What an achievement. If that was all Jobs had achieved, aside from being a father and a husband, in his lifetime, it’d be enough to give him guru status.

The impact those fonts had on the publishing industry was profound. Desktop publishing led to professional looking uni newspapers (we used a program called Ready Set Go for the Mac at Woroni, the ANU paper, in 1990) and zines, streamlined production processes for books, magazines and newspapers (many of which have been produced using Quark Xpress, Illustrator and more recently InDesign, among other programs for the Mac). Later, the rise of the internet and html allowed us to publish websites and blogs featuring all manner of fonts. Today, publishers produce ebooks in ePub format, and ereading software and devices allow the consumer to choose their own font style and size.

My first computer was an Apple IIc. We’d had a groovy electronic typewriter before that that allowed you to edit a sentence or two back. For a passionate 12-year-old reader and writer, the introduction to word processing that personal computing brought with it was life changing. I was equally beguiled by the file and program structure of Apple’s first portable computer (we used to take it down to the beach with us – well, the beach house, at least), and spent the first few weeks reading all the manuals from cover to cover. I remember struggling to tear the hole-filled borders off the dot matrix printer paper without ripping final pages of essays and creative writing assignments for school. I remember floppy disks. And I remember playing Lode Runner and Lemonade Stand with my younger brother and sister on rainy days on the NSW South Coast.

Some family friends bought a Macintosh a few months later and invited me over to have a look at it (as you do). Their 13-year-old son showed me how it worked. I confess I had a crush on him (as well as the Mac) for years afterwards. Unlike my Apple love, that flirtation finally resolved itself on the other side of the world sometime early this century.

My first PowerBook.
At uni, I used one of the early PowerBooks (pictured in my somewhat alarmingly floral first group house bedroom). I remember feeling as though I were a pianist, creating beautiful music, as I tapped out Linguistics essays and on it. It was on one of these grey gadgets that I first experienced email and the web, in greyscale, but mind-blowing nonetheless. The PowerBook’s trackball was replaced in later models (one of which found its way onto my desk) with a trackpad.

The mid-90s belonged to Microsoft and particularly Windows. It might’ve been that in my first job as a tech journalist, I was busy reviewing laptops (and mobile phones – back when Nokia was king) from all the major computer brands (Olivetti had a gorgeous terracotta notebook, I remember, and the IBM ThinkPad was my favourite), and so had no need to be faithful to one brand.

To be completely honest, I didn’t really like the brash design of the iBook (I wish that name had been saved up for the iPad) and first iMacs.

It wasn’t until the MacBook arrived that I rejoined the fold. Sleek, white and slimline, it brought me back to Mac. Were I have stayed since, adding essential gadgets to the mix as Jobs and his magicians created them.

The iPod was clever, but from the minute I heard that Apple was working on a mobile phone, I knew that true handheld computing was finally on the way.

It was on my iPhone that I became a social media junkie, first read an ebook, finally learnt to budget via the Spend app, kept my to do lists in order via Things, replaced my audio recorder for interviews (with the SpeakEasy app), embraced cloud computing (with My Writing Spot and Dropbox), really began to use email on the go, gave up using our old stereo system (TuneIn Radio rocks), ditched my Filofax for Contacts and Calendar, gave up the Gregory’s for Maps and moved from restaurant guidebooks to Urbanspoon. With the 4 I’ve given up using a separate camera as well.

Don’t get me started on the iPad. If any one inanimate and inedible object has changed my life more, I can’t think of what it is offhand. Books, magazines, newspapers, television, film, writing, PDF annotation, Skype, photo viewing and video editing … and that’s just for starters.

What a legacy for individuals who have used his creations. What an inspiration for creative types everywhere. Thanks Steve, we’ll miss you.

This post was written on my iPad and MacBook and posted on my iMac.

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 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.

Easter Round-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Organise and Convert Your Ebooks with Calibre

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

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

 

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

This is not the wizard you’re looking for.

This is the wizard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Publishers Losing the Hearts and Minds of Readers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

GIVEAWAY WINNER

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

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

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

 

Reading Using Overdrive

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

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

 

Giveaway

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

How-to: Buy and Read an Ebook from Booku

 

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

 

What You’ll Need

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

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

 

Buying an Ebook

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

What Do You Want From Your E-reader?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Failure of REDgroup Means for Ebooks in Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Daily Pt 2

READ PART 1 OF THIS POST

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

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

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

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

Review: The Daily

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

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

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

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

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

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

READ PART 2 OF THIS POST

Apple Screws the Pooch Pt 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple Screws the Pooch Pt 1

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

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

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

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

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.

Typing About Comic Sans Criminals

Just My TypeOne of the most-important and most-used skills I’ve had to develop as a writer who works as an editor is steering clients away from their mystifying obsession with using the most heinous of all fonts every created: Comic Sans.

It’s the kind of noxious weed of a typeface that I have to cover my eyes, Command + A a document, and change its font to something more palatable like Garamond before I can even begin to take in or edit its contents.

I’m not alone, with Comic Sans, the font created to not look like a font and to add a playful, non-threatening element to a Microsoft program, now (as with most Microsoft products) the bane of writers’, editors’, and designers’ lives.

So much so that one designer has created a tongue-in-cheek website that uses humour to politely tell clients that no way, not now, not ever, is Comic Sans an appropriate choice of font. It’s called Comic Sans Criminal and you can order posters and stickers that bear the words like ‘You’re a Comic Sans criminal, but we’re here to help you’.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the first chapter of a book about fonts that I bought myself for Christmas (or bought just for having because I’m obsessed with typography) contains a story warning of the pitfalls of this font. Apparently some people thought it ok to use it on a gravestone. Yep. I know. It blows the mind.

Like the Comic Sans Criminal website, Just My Type contains some Comic Sans jokes. There’s the cartoon that states that every time you use Comic Sans, they’re forced to punch a bunny. And there’s the joke that when Comic Sans walks into a bar, the bartender says, ‘We don’t serve your type’.

But the book contains much more than diatribes against awful fonts and even more awful applications of them. It’s a comprehensively researched, thoroughly well put together thesis about the history of typefaces and their cultural impact.

In just the first few pages I learned that we have even more to thank Steve Jobs about than we thought, as he was the one who invented and brought a variety of fonts to computers. No, I’m not going to get into a how-Apple-is-better rant—I might be a Mac user, but I steer clear of that stuff and was, as I’ve previously mentioned, appalled by Stieg Larsson’s relentless naming of the now-outdated PowerBook in his Lisbeth Salander trilogy. But I am going to say that I’m bemused that many of the rubbish fonts that are now thorns in our sides can be traced back to origins within Microsoft’s evil empire.

Apple versus Microsoft arguments aside, the books outlines the history of the Transport font, which is used in the UK and Europe to clearly convey traffic directions and conditions. It introduces us to the founder of Gill Sans, a guy who had a dubious but well-documented relationship with a dog and his daughters (there’s a camp that believes we shouldn’t use the font on principle, and I’m inclined to steer clear of it now that I know its history).

The book also looks at the font being used for the 2012 Olympics in London and how fonts can have gender. It explains the now-iconic fonts Apple used to use up to the early iPods (Chicago). And, best of all, it contains on the inside covers an incredible and art-like periodic table of fonts.

I highly recommend Just My Type. I highly recommend dobbing in Comic Sans criminals. And if you know where I can obtain one of those font periodic tables in the form of a wall-mounted piece of art, please let me know.

Macbook Air Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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 is Google Editions and Why Should You be Excited?

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Australian Ebook Reader

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

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

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

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

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

The Future Is In The Past And Present

I’m not normally one to weigh in on the e-book debate, partly because I think others can say it better than me, partly because I’m bored.

I should explain that boredom with the background that I worked for the music industry on and off over the last 10 years as I put myself through uni. It’s perhaps also why, while publishers’ concern over the fast-moving changes sweeping the industry is warranted, it feels a little groundhog day-like for me.

I had the fortune (or misfortune) to gain an insider’s perspective on how not to tackle the advancing electronic era. And if there’s one lesson I have learned from observing objectively from the inside, it’s that the key to the future of the publishing industry is in the music industry’s past and present.

In the music industry’s defence, the changes were swift and previously unexperienced, so it’s unsurprising that they handled things badly. But the publishing industry? They’ve had some forewarning, and what I don’t understand is why they haven’t been pinning down and picking the brains of music industry professionals—those who survived, those who didn’t, and those whose developments changed the game. Because if I were pinned down and brain-picked, I’d put it this way: it’s not about the packaging—it’s whether the content, be it words or music, is delivered in a format the suits users’ needs. Ultimately it’s about providing them with what they want, how and when they want it.

Let me explain. The concept of the music ‘album’, replete with 12-ish songs, was created not by musicians or demanding fans, but by record companies who saw it as a way to bundle more content together and make more money. What it meant, though, was that artists released music less regularly as it took them a long time to come up with 12 good songs, albums were very often padded out with not-so-great ones that arguably decreased the overall value, and fans were forced to buy whole albums when they very often just wanted one, single, solid track. And that’s not counting the impracticalities of carrying around a bazillion CDs to parties or overseas. In short: the packaging and delivery didn’t suit users’ needs.

Then advances in technology gave users an easy, affordable alternative. Yes, for the most part that was an illegal one, but I’d argue that while illegal downloading was always going to appeal to some, there was a percentage of people who did this simply because they couldn’t get the content in the format they were after.

While artwork and having a physical CD to show off on your shelf were ok, they weren’t the driving reason why people bought CDs. The driver was the content: the music. What Apple recognised and what the iPod and iTunes, in particular, enabled people to do (like a revelation), was pick and choose tracks. They made music portable and placed the how and when and why decisions firmly back in users’ hands.

Which is where the publishing is—and should be—heading, with or without publishers’ tacit agreement: towards formats that are more in tune with users’ needs.

The look and feel of a book is important, but it’s not the sole book-buying driver. I buy a book because I want to read it. And I want to read it in a manner that suits my lifestyle, which is one that involves a lot of travel with a lot of heavy gear. For this reason, too-heavy, too-cumbersome, easily damaged hardcover books are completely impractical for me. But audio books that I can listen to while on a bus, train, or plane (times when ‘traditional’ reading normally makes me motion sick) or multiple e-books I can take overseas without having to worry about the weight of my luggage are perfect. Moreover, e-books that bookmark pages to remind me where I’m up to (a battle I constantly face as I can never seem to remember the exact page number and stalwartly refuse to buy bookmarks that only fall out anyway) are a godsend. Finally, it feels as though someone’s thinking about how I use (and need to use) books.

The publishing industry is focused on trying to resuscitate the book, as if it’s on its deathbed. They’re blaming the terminal e- and audio-book illnesses for its passing and are so caught up in grieving and making funeral arrangements, they’re not seeing the situation for what it is.

Books aren’t dying. The format they come in is just being updated or, indeed, not even that—just being joined by complementary electronic versions. The sooner the publishing industry understands that—and the sooner they recognise that the key to the publishing industry’s future is in the past and present lessons of the music industry—the better off we’ll all be.

Why Amazon Would Make a Bad Dinner Party Guest

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

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

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

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

Kindle Sales Outstrip Dead Tree Books: Nobody Makes Money

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

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

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

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

The Tower of eBabel

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

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

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

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

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

Evolution or revolution?

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

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

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

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

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


Review: iBooks on the iPad

Click on any of the pictures for a closer look

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The agency model: hot or not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: International Kindle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s to Blame?

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

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

Snip:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the iPad is Not Going to Save Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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