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).

Revinenting The Wheel

Mention the future of the book and people will immediately begin discussing digital versus physical. The Kindle versus the iPad. They will either be pro-digital and speculating on which format will win (I say the iPad without question over the Kindle, but beyond that who knows?) or will tutt tutt about the inevitable demise of the bound paper book that smells familiar and organic and has pages that bend and yellow with time.

But rarely will they discuss new ways that physical books might stay in our lives. Which is why it’s pretty exciting to find out that the David Garcia Studio has combined old school with new school and has, quite literally, reinvented the wheel.

The Archive II is a circular, mouse wheel-like bookcase that’s propelled by walking and its practical applications could be fantastic. They include not having to pack your books into boxes that you then lug to a new home, by instead offering an all-in-one storage and moving device. They also include not having to locate and battle an Allan key to dissemble your bookcase and then try to remember how to assemble it sans instructions (that you of course never kept) at the other end.

What appears simple and beautiful in design might not be so effective in practice—c’mon, tell me you aren’t wondering how they stop the books from falling out or how one might steer such a device while trying to read and walk—but it does make us think outside the square a little. That is, that portability doesn’t necessarily equal electronic. That it doesn’t mean forgoing something of beauty.

The Archive II also reminds us that while we can get caught up in the debate about the form and delivery of books, books are for us much more than words on a page. Who needs artworks on the walls when you can combine beauty and function in a talking-point bookcase? I, for one, would love such a bookcase just to recline inside and think and read.

The Archive II might not be coming to an Ikea near us anytime soon, but it does inspire us to think of our other connections to, uses for, and ways to celebrate the physical book. And surely if the David Garcia Studio has been clever enough to design something so beautiful and practical, they’ve also designed it to be assembled without some too-difficult instructions and a useless Allen key?

Multimedia Does Not A Book Make

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.