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.

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 Use Google Reader Pt 2

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

 

Saving and sharing posts

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

Advanced Hints and Tips

 

Keyboard Shortcuts

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

 

Forcing a feed to be full text

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

 

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

 

Sharing with other social networks

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

 

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

How to Use Google Reader Pt 1

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

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

 

Logging in for the first time

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

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

 

 

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

 

Adding a Feed to Google Reader

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Here are a few examples.

The Guardian’s webfeed:

 

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

 

 

As can the feeds for ABC News:

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

Viewing and sorting subscriptions

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neat freaks

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

 

Full text vs Brief

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

What Do You Want From Your E-reader?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Failure of REDgroup Means for Ebooks in Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple Screws the Pooch Pt 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple Screws the Pooch Pt 1

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

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

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

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

Amazon: Still Evil After All These Years Pt 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon: Still Evil After All These Years Pt 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Perils of Convenience

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

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

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

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

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

129,864,880 is the Loneliest Number

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Is the real-time web helpful for books?

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

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

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

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

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.

Why Amazon May Not Take Over The World After All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new era for BOOMERANG BOOKS

The new month has brought with it a new era for Boomerang Books, our brand new website is now live!

http://www.boomerangbooks.com.au

Pretty, huh?

But it isn’t just a fancy coat of paint. Here at Boomerang, we believe in providing our customers with an unparalleled user experience, something we feel this update does.

To celebrate the launch, we’d like to invite you and your friends to become members on the site for free. We’re giving every new member that signs up a $5 credit toward their first order as a member!

Sign up here: http://www.boomerangbooks.com.au/join

It only takes a couple of minutes.

So what’s new on the Boomerang Books website?

  • It’s much faster – searches are completed in milliseconds
  • It has a more contemporary design and slicker interface
  • Search results are presented in multiple formats allowing the user to find what they are looking for quickly and easily
  • It has new social networking features, including an RSS feed of ‘what’s happening’ on the site at any one time (and there’s more to come – watch this space)
  • It has smart Web 2.0-style gadgets, pop-ups and drop-downs to make the user experience more enjoyable, including ‘Someone just bought…’ and ‘Customers who bought this book also bought..’ selections
  • It features a new loyalty program called Boomerang Bucks. Buy books at Boomerang Books and earn Boomerang Bucks towards your next purchase
  • It’s integrated with Google Books, allowing the user to ‘look inside’ the growing list of books that have been digitised by Google
  • It’s integrated with Abebooks, giving you the option to purchase second hand copies of selected books
    There’s a new wishlist where you can store books that you might wish to purchase later on
  • It has a much-improved book review system, allowing users to submit their own book reviews and to provide a star rating for books they have read
  • It offers more payment options, including PayPal, BPay and bank deposit
  • Perhaps most importantly, the new website platform is extensible and we’re planning on some exciting developments in the coming months

So be sure to drop on by and become a member today! http://www.boomerangbooks.com.au/join