Archive for September, 2007|Monthly archive page

Mobile Mania

A couple of people pointed to a piece on O’Reilly Radar yesterday, which itself referred to an article in the Wall Street Journal. It seems that the Japanese are beginning to embrace the idea of reading novels on mobile phones:

In Japan, the cellphone is stirring the nation’s staid fiction market. Young amateur writers in their teens and 20s who long ago mastered the art of zapping off emails and blogs on their cellphones, find it a convenient medium in which to loose their creative energies and get their stuff onto the Internet. For readers, mostly teenage girls who use their phones for an increasingly wide range of activities, from writing group diaries to listening to music, the mobile novel, as the genre is called, is the latest form of entertainment on the go.

Or even more intriguingly, some authors are actually writing their novels on cellphones. And Japanese book sales mirror international trends (down, down, down), books that began their life on cellphones and migrated to paper are selling well. Like, ‘over a million copies’ well. I’ve read a few things on my smartphone (more on that to come) but my life doesn’t totally revolve around my handheld devices. At least not yet.

iphone first impressions

So in the interest of research, I got my hands on an iphone the other day. Because it’s not officially available in Australia, I had to spend the best part of Tuesday morning ‘unlocking’ it. (For those who are interested, I used this guide). First impressions – a beautiful screen and fantastic interface. Incredibly readable – webpages, emails and RSS feeds look terrific on this device. I’m on the local optus network, and data is usable, but slow-ish, but at home or at uni, the wifi kicks in, and it’s all good. I’ve had a quick trawl through – and I’ll look at the other ebook options in the next week or so. Expect a full iphone as ebook reader review shortly…

Virtually Beautiful

The great thing about the ebook format is that the reader might have more control over how the book actually looks; they can change the font size, fiddle with the leading and actual font selection. All to make it more readable and convenient. The terrible thing about the ebook format is that the reader might have more control over how the book actually looks; and the input of designers will amount to little. There’s a terrible tension there that’s worth exploring – an honours student of mine suggests that aethetics and usability need to be able to coexist, and that we can’t ignore one for the sake of the other. He’s probably right. All of which is a long-winded introduction to the a link to the open library. Because they have recreated the look (and arguably, the feel) of old printed books online. Make of it what you will, but there is something quite charming at work…

(via downloadsquad)

Borders Security

Whilst many of us love the independent bookshops, the sad reality is that most people’s book buying experience is limited to the discount department stores or big bookstore chains. In many parts of Australia, that pretty much means Dymocks, Borders and Angus and Robertson, having lost Collins a while ago. Now, of course, Borders in Australia in up for sale, as its US parent continues to bleed red ink. Confirmation in a Reuters story yesterday that Angus and Robertson is one of the bidders for Borders’ 24 Oz outlets. Given recent history, it’s one that booklovers probably want to keep an eye on. The fact that private equity firms (like the one that controls A and R) are interested in bookshops merely confirms the feeling that, for many, the book industry is nothing more or less than a business, regardless of what some of us might hope for.

Let the Battle Begin

Booklovers get pretty protective about books. And E-bookers are as passionate about their portable e-reading devices. The following aren’t my talking points, but some of them are pretty funny (paper cuts!?), some are totally irrelevant. But they’re a pretty good summary of the back and forth (the huffing and puffing) that goes on whenever I suggest that e-books should replace p-books. I’m sure you can think of more… for both sides of the argument 🙂

Ten Reasons Why EBooks Suck from Rob Neville

• Books are incredibly portable, especially smaller paperbacks
• Books do not require batteries or any electricity to use
• Books are not fragile (at least relatively speaking in comparison to electronic gadgets)
• Books are easier on your eyes for long periods of reading (again, in comparison to LCD displays for example)
• Books are shareable and re-saleable – the only “compatibility” issue is the language it’s written in
• Books are CHEAPER. A device that costs $400??? Are you kidding me? My entire Amazon wish-list isn’t $400.
• Books have a faster operating system – I can flip pages without an hourglass or having to wait for my eyes to render the new page
• Books have better browse-ability – I can thumb through pages very quickly and can easily eyeball 1/3 of the way through a book or the last 25% of the book because the information I want was somewhere in that section.
• Books have low-tech, cheap built-in DRM – it’s a pain in the arse to copy them….doable but a pain
• I could think of more, but I’m too lazy

10 Reasons Why Paper Books Suck from Adam Boeglin

• While a single paper book is portable, when you start collecting them, the size adds up quickly.
• Paper is difficult to search through, and hard to reference. Want to quote a snippit of a book? You have to rewrite it.
• Paper degrades over time. It starts to yellow, and will eventually fall apart.
• Distribution: Looking for a specific book? Go search through your local book stores, when you don’t find it there, buy it online. Then wait for it to show up. Loose interest and/or excitement by the time it arives.
• Environment: Books are dead trees. Trees make oxygen. We breathe oxygen. The more paper books you read, the more you’re killing the rest of us.
• Portability. I’m pretty sure I have mild ADD. You might as well. When I get bored with one thing, I move on to another for a while. If I carried around all the newspapers and books I could *possibly* want to read, I’d have a bad back too.
• You look like an old person when you read paper books. Look at all the kids running around with their ipods and cell phones. Do you think you look cool reading that old fashioned stack of papers? I don’t think so…
• Paper Burns. You’ve probably read the article about the guy who’s house was declared a fire hazard because of his paper book collection. If he collected ebooks, his house would be clean and tidy, and he’d still be living there.
• Personal Injury. The edge of a sheet of paper can be as dangerous as a razor blade. When I was in grade school, I would use a sheet of paper to cut my unsuspecting friends. I bet they wished that I had an iLiad back then. You can’t get a paper cut from an ebook device. Also, ever hear the phrase “throw the book at him”? You wouldn’t do that if it was an ebook reader. You wouldn’t want to risk breaking it by throwing it at someone.
• Data integrity. If I spill something on a book, drop a match on it, or if it gets caught in a paper shredder, I’m stuck with a clump of useless wood pulp. I can’t get another copy of it without buying it again, and there’s no way to recover it. With an ebook, I can go back to where I bought it from, and simply download it again. No hassle, no fee, just a few clicks, and my collection is back.

Jon Evans’ iTome

Jon Evans is the author of politically motivated thrillers, whilst I am a mere reader of such fictions, But he and I share a vision of the future. In the September 07 issue of Canadian magazine, The Walrus, he writes that “Book publishing is a dinosaur industry, and there’s a big scary meteor on the way.”

To Evans, there will be an ebook revolution, once ebook readers are good enough (and he appears to think the Sony Reader is actually good enough.

He continues…

Suppose Apple released an electronic-paper iTome, I thought, and suppose it was easy to use, reasonably priced… Suppose, further, that it was convenient, even sexy. Would there still be something sacred and special about bound sheaves of paper? Or would we soon see them supplanted by iTome on the subway, in the classroom, even curled up beside the fireplace? Doesn’t sound so bad to me. But the idea is like a can of poisonous snakes to most book publishers…

Read it here.

Responding to a response

The Sydney Morning Herald published my op-ed yesterday. The subbies there called it Leave the Antibooks on the Shelves (which probably wasn’t the snappiest of titles, but I couldn’t come up with anything better myself). I got a couple of supportive messages from publishers, but the letters section of today’s paper included a comment from the chairman of Allen and Unwin, Australia’s largest independent trade publisher:

If Sherman Young claims to be an authority on Australian publishing, heaven knows where he gets his statistics. To take just one example from his column, he refers to 32 Australian novels published in 2004 and implies that this figure is in terminal decline. Over the next 12 months Allen & Unwin alone will be publishing 32 novels by Australians.

My response?

I’m not privy to any publisher’s internal plans, and only drew on publicly available data for the op-ed piece. The declining number of Australian literary novels being published (by the big trade publishers) comes from research done by Mark Davis from The University of Melbourne, and has been widely cited; including in an Australian article which canvassed this territory (in much more detail than an op-ed allows) last year.

(See Rosemary Neill, Lits Out, The Australian, March 18th 2006, )

I note a comment from A&U in that piece:

Allen & Unwin initially tells Review its commitment to local fiction has not waned during the past decade. Then it consulted its records and found that in 1996 it published 12 literary Australian novels. This year it will publish seven.

But if the pattern from 1996-2006 is part of a longer cyclic one that is now trending up, that’s great.

I for one look forward to much more Australian literary fiction in the near future!! But I suspect that the A&U response is not acknowledging the distinction between literary fiction and other fiction, which should have been made clearer in my piece. Mea culpa!

Sony does it again

No, I’m not talking about the newly revised ebook Reader, but the company’s recent history of stumbles. They ceded the mp3 player market to Apple, then managed to annoy its remaining music customers in “the great Sony rootkit scandal”. In the book space, the reader had mixed reviews, so a revision which addressed its shortcomings was expected.

But did they need the rather the strange advertising campaign that accompanies it. For some reason, the honchos at Sony have decided that the slogan “Sexier than a Librarian” is a good idea. And yet, any thinking person would realise that it doesn’t work on soooo many levels. Flickr photo here. (via Lisnews).

The Book (review) is dead

Whilst not yet conceding that The Book is Dead, Steve Wassermann in the Columbia Journalism Review laments the decline of book review sections in newspapers and goes into bat for the book itself in the face of adversity:

Readers… know in their bones something newspapers forget at their peril: that without books, indeed, without the news of such books—without literacy—the good society vanishes and barbarism triumphs

He’s right, of course. Civilised humanity needs the slow, thoughtful conversation that only books can provide. What he doesn’t want to acknowledge is that books don’t have to be printed on paper, preferring instead to cling to dead trees. His argument, using Bill Gates as an example, is simply wrong:

Even Bill Gates, that Yoda of the virtual world, has been unable to resist its seductions. When, in 1996, he wanted to tell us about “The Road Ahead,” to commit the vision thing, what did he do? He had the Viking Press publish his book. He did not post his Delphic pronunciamentos on his Microsoft site.

Apart from confusing market success with innovative genius (we won’t go there though) and insulting Yoda fans the world over, Wassermann is suggesting that the web as we know it is the only alternative to the printed book as we know it. Millions of e-book readers the world over would beg to differ. True, Gates chose to publish a p-book, but that was 1996 not 2007. And things have changed in the last decade. As Wasserman’s article itself proves.

It’s not just me…

Stephen Matchett, writing in The Australian on Saturday, takes on the Angus and Robertson debate, echoing many of the sentiments I’ve expressed earlier. As he says:

Retailers cannot be expected to stock books they do not expect to sell, however. And 15 years ago this is where the argument ended, with publishers and booksellers enjoying an iron monopoly on the distribution of information in printed form.

Where we differ is his apparent suggestion that books can be replaced by the web in its current form. Whilst his main example (public policy) is a realm where there is robust web-based discourse, I still argue that books play a different role. They slow the conversation down, and allow deeper insights in the matters at hand. Books should still be published – there is a desperate need for ideas and authors who have devoted enought time, thought and energy to writing a book about those ideas. But books don’t have to be printed.