JK Rowling and the great Pottermore scandal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Google eBooks Launch: What You Need to Know Pt 2

Read first part of review…

Other software features and annoyances

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

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

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

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

DRM, territorial restrictions and piracy

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

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

In summary

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

Google eBooks Launch: What You Need to Know Pt 1

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

Unique features

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

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

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

Rest the rest of review…

Interview with Author Tony Park Pt 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Ways to Deal with Ebooks and Airplanes

Anyone who has ever read an ebook and flown on a plane (or perhaps just sat next to me on a plane) will know that you can’t read ebooks on a plane during the crucial moments of take off and landing. To anyone with the attention span of a baby monkey (like me), these moments of dead time can leave you shivering with lack of stimulation. What makes it worse is that the reasons for these restrictions are half-baked, like a lot of airline policy, and I’ve always thought it’s geared around shoring up the authority of the flight attendants rather than the actual safety of the plane. After all, newer ebook readers that use e-ink, like the Kindle, Kobo and Sony readers, emit about as much power as a digital watch – so unless every electronic object on the plane could cause it to drop out of the sky it seems pretty arbitrary.

Nonetheless, this rule is still enforced, ignorant or not, so what can the discerning reader of ebooks do about it? In this post I run through three potential options for dealing with this most horrible of first world problems.

1) Lie and Cheat

As I’ve demonstrated in previous posts, I’m flexible when it comes to rules. And in this case, breaking the rules won’t hurt anybody. The best way to conceal a Kindle or other ereader is in a cover that looks like a book. Failing that, you can usually slip it into the inflight magazine and hold it upright whenever the attendant walks by. Be careful not to appear too interested – nobody really likes those magazines, so you don’t want to give yourself away. If you’re travelling alone, ensure the person next to you isn’t crazy or a Federal policeman so you don’t get dobbed in.

2) Wait for an Official Solution

As Diana Dilworth pointed out on eBooknewser this week, it’s really only a matter of time until airlines begin integrating ebook reading into the inflight entertainment system. Kindle, Nook and iPad owners already enjoy the ability to sync whatever they’re reading between whatever device they happen to be reading on, so it would be a cinch to have whatever book you happen to be reading pop up on the screen in front of you for you to read without even using the batteries of the iPad/laptop/e-ink reader in your bag.

3) Take a Boat

If all else fails, take alternative transport. Today’s e-ink devices have a battery life of over two weeks, so you can probably go for a pretty long boat voyage before you run out of something to read. This plan is pretty failsafe, but does require some forward planning.

So there you have it, three ways you can avoid dead time on a plane. Sound off in the comments if you have any further suggestions, but please don’t waste our time by pointing out that I could just sit quietly and look out the window for twenty minutes. That is simply not an option.


Closing Arguments: Or How We Will Never Agree

So in my last post I tried to start a blog fight between me and JD of Book Bee. I even got Darryl from Oz E-Books to chime in. And JD responded. It would be easy to frame my response here as flogging a dead horse (or milking a cash cow), but I do think many of the points from these two worthy gentlemen are worth responding to.

First of all, there are two distinct issues here that are generally related (in that they are about books in Australia) but not fundamentally connected. These are basically: Why are books so expensive in Australia and why are we so behind the US in terms of ebooks availability?

I’ve discussed the parallel importation issue in other posts before, so I won’t go into a massive amount of detail here about it. But it should be mentioned here for the record that the economies of scale, when it comes to dead tree publishing and distribution, are vastly different to the UK and the US. Books are more expensive here because it is more expensive to make books and get them into stores. Both of those countries have Australia’s population several times over and relative to this have a much smaller amount of area to spread their distribution networks. They also have healthier competition between retailers than Australia, where the vast majority of our books are sold through a couple of chain stores and department stores. Despite this we do have a healthy publishing industry, and unlike many other small countries have a stable of homegrown authors who make their living from writing books. The decision of whether to end the protection of Australian publishing is a complex one, and I don’t pretend to be an authority on it. But it is not intimately connected to the ebook issue JD originally posted about, and it does not mean there is an Australian publishing conspiracy.

JD contends that his theory (that publishing companies have strategically stopped the rise of ebooks in Australia in order to skim profits from the dying paper book industry) has been confirmed by his publishing insider. Not only do I think that a single insider is not in a position to confirm an industry-wide practice that basically amounts to a price fixing cartel, I have asked multiple people in the industry since this discussion began and all have denied it and are utterly confused by the accusation in the first place. Quite aside from that, it’s just common sense. Publishing companies are businesses and are constantly seeking new revenue streams. People can argue all they like that publishers are slow to the ebook party, but there is not a conspiracy against ebooks in order to retain the ‘cash cow’ of paper book publishing. There is no cash cow. Book profits in Australia are just enough to retain a local industry, whether or not you think books are overpriced. Publishers would never ignore a potential revenue stream. There isn’t enough money in the industry for them to ignore ebooks, but there also isn’t enough money in ebooks for them to have invested heavily in it.

That’s right – there’s no money in ebooks right now, and Australian publishers are not on the raggedy edge of the worldwide ebook frontier. Most Australian publishers only employ one or two people to work on the digital side of their business. They could have invested more a lot earlier, but, for the same reason that our books are more expensive, the economies of scale here in Australia are different. No Australian retailer invented an ereader or pushed it to consumers like Amazon did with the Kindle in the US. Sony still doesn’t distribute their first-to-the-party ereader in this country. Publishers may be slow to change and slow to embrace new technologies, but they need to have a foundation on which to build. Despite the assertions of early adopters like JD, there is no massive grassroots demand for ebooks that has been ignored wholesale by the publishing industry. Until last November, when the Kindle arrived here, there was not even a device that more than a handful of people actually owned. Many Australian publishers have made their books available digitally to the book buying public for years, but they have barely sold a single copy, even through ebook stores that have been open for years (like Dymocks and Ebooks.com). That’s because there are not enough people out there buying ebooks – and there have not been devices to read them on. Until this year, the vast majority of ebooks sold in Australia to Australians were read on laptops. And that was a vanishingly small number.

So to summarise – chill out. The world is changing. It’s just not changing fast enough for some of us. But that’s OK. Ebooks are taking off in a big way, and everyone in the industry realises this. Those who haven’t moved fast enough up until now will fail. There is no need – or grounds – to blame any single group for how things are. We can look forward to a day in the very near future where we will be able to buy in seconds virtually any book ever written electronically. That is enough of an achievement for a very short decade.

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.