Hello ereading

Given that most of my work is digitally based, most people are surprised to find out I don’t yet own an ereader. It’s not because I’m dinosauring it up, dragging my heels and wailing that nothing will ever replace the smell of books (then sniffing physical books in a slightly creepy way). It’s just that I’ve been waiting for the format wars to end and for someone to release the ereader I’m after.

And by ‘someone’, I mean Apple. I’m actually ashamed to admit this, but I’m such a staunch Apple supporter and such an it’s-not-pretty-enough snob that I’ve turned my nose up at the previously released devices from other suppliers that have come close but not close enough.

I’ve resolutely steered clear of Amazon’s Kindle for reasons that I realise could just as easily be levelled at Apple itself: with their device and their one-of-a-kind file type, Amazon try to lock you in to their store.

Besides, Kindles utilise the nostalgic Etch-a-Sketch magnetic filings and they-used-to-be-handy rocker button technology, but deep down I’ve always known that LCD touch screens were the way of the future.

Combine those issues with region restrictions and the fact that Kindles aren’t the ugliest device ever but that certainly aren’t the prettiest and, well, despite desperately wanting to get in on the ereading world, I’ve been sitting, arms crossed, on the fence line.

Until now.

After weeks of others predicting it (it truly was one of the worst kept secrets in the company’s recent history), Apple released the iPad Mini. Despite Steve Jobs’ now-wrong prediction that no one needed a device sized in between the iPhone and the iPad (yep, even the best don’t always predict it right), the company’s relented and I’m, frankly, fist-pumping euphoric.

The iPad’s always been too large to be an ereader and it’s roughly the same size as my 13” laptop, making it a little redundant (and back-straining) to carry around both. But the just-over-seven-inch iPad Mini is, as Goldilocks would say, just right.

I will concede that this inaugural iPad Mini edition isn’t as speccy as it should be—with technology matching the now outdated iPad 2, it’s lacking such improvements as retina display.

But I also know I’ve held out on investing in an ereading device for too long to hold out even longer for Version 2. Besides, close inspection of the iPad Mini evokes in me words (superficial as they admittedly are) I’ve not been able to coo about any ereaders preceding it: ‘It’s so pretty’.

One of the things I find most interesting about the whole ereading and ereader world is that the content and devices through which to devour them are controlled not by publishers but by companies whose primary businesses include retail (Kindle), hardware (Apple), and advertising (Google).

That speaks volumes about publishers’ tech-unsavvy heel dragging and missed opportunities, although it arguably also says much about ones emerging from out-of-the-box thinking by publishing non-experts.

Likewise I’m intrigued that although everyone originally complained about backlit screens hurting the eye, that’s all but disappeared with the release of retina display. We may have unknowingly been complaining about the wrong thing (and yes, I realise that retina display absence is yet another reason why I should wait until the next iPad Mini version comes out … but won’t).

I’m also unsurprised but happy nonetheless that people with ereaders both purchase and read more books rather than the feared fewer (cheap prices combined with ease of purchase combined with not seeing the money disappear from their credit cards should never be underestimated).

And, as this infographic shows, ebook revenue is only on the up too, with ebooks now making up more than 10% of 36% of publishers’ revenue. Ebook sales are also starting to outstrip physical book sales, with that much-touted figure that Amazon sells 114 ebooks for every 100 physical books it sells. Imagine if publishers embraced the opportunities and got themselves across the technology, eh?

The infographic is a few months old, though, and I wonder how the iPad Mini will change its data. The graphic shows that Amazon owns the content corner, but people prefer reading on the iPad.

With the more portable, more manageable iPad Mini on the market, this market share will likely go up. Sure, it’s one behemoth stealing market share from another, but it’s a behemoth with a better looking device. I’ll let you know how I go with the iPad Mini (I’m thinking of getting the white one—what do you think?) once I’ve had a chance to properly road test it.

Why Nobody Blames Authors (And Why You Should)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Algorithm and Blues

Image copyright Nick Gentry ©

On the eve of the election, two things I have read this week have combined in my head and I have not been able to stop thinking about them. The first thing is the excellent comment that Dave Freer left on my post earlier this week. The second is this video by music critic Chris Weingarten. The subject of these two influences – or at least the tenuous connection I have built between them – is the conflict between the benefits of technology and the tyranny of numbers.

OK, so even to me that sounds a bit dramatic. But it is true. I’ve touched on this topic before in a previous post, and I came to the conclusion that optimisation of artistic expression by algorithm may well be possible, and even useful, but it’s really bloody depressing. I still feel this way. I was at first skeptical of Dave’s explanation of how mathematical modelling of book acquisition could be possible, but he convinced me. Snip:

At the moment, you have your gut feel and the bookscan figures to decide what you buy. If you had better quality data (ie. laydown, returns, normal sales of that sub-genre and laydown within each geographic area … you could say which … would make your company more money, which had the lower risk, what was actually a reasonable ask for the books in question. It could also tell the retailer which were good bets for their area, and publisher where to push distribution. It doesn’t over-ride judgement, it just adds a tool which, when margins are thin, can make the world of difference.

I am forced to agree with Dave that if such a tool were available it would be of great use to publishers to help decide what to buy, and in a great many instances, what books would sell (if you still don’t believe it, I recommend reading the whole thing). Nonetheless, it fills me with despair. As Weingarten says in the video I linked to, most of us who got into the world of writing did so because we suck at maths. But it’s not just that. There’s a kind of ethical issue at stake here too. The availability of a tool like this would make publishers lazy. I once heard the use of test audiences for TV pilots and films described as being more about ass covering than actually predicting the success or failure of a film. And I have to say the same thought occurs to me about the statistical modelling of book acquisition.

This is not to say the information wouldn’t be useful, but it would mean that when a book that tested well in the model bombed, publishers could throw their hands up in the air and say, “Well, it tested well.” It would be a tool that sales directors and corporate executives would use to dampen creativity in publishing. Presumably (though correct me if I’m wrong, Dave!) the sales of statistical outliers that don’t easily fit into a pre-existing genre or sub-genre would not be easily predicted under this model. And there are a lot of books that don’t fit into genres. I’ve heard it said that when it comes to books there are almost as many genres as there are books. Does that mean that publishers would just use their own judgement? Or would they be even more unlikely than they already are to take on books that aren’t safe bets?

Of course, Dave will probably tell us that this amazing statistical model would only be a tool. It wouldn’t ‘override judgement’ as he says in the quote above. But humans like to rely on machines and numbers – especially when it comes to difficult decisions. Sometimes that comes at the cost of something difficult to quantify. And perhaps on this day, when the leaders of our country are trying to win an election based as much upon the statistically predicted thoughts of a few key voters in a few key marginal seats as any true leadership, beliefs, policies or moral character, I fear that ceding our decision-making to an algorithm has the potential to take away far more than it gives us. What do you think?