Archive for October, 2007|Monthly archive page

The Book Cartel

A fascinating post over at O’Reilly Radar. Peter Brantley examines the German book market, which for years has been operating as a government approved cartel:

Germany’s book culture is sustained by an age-old practice requiring all bookstores, including German online booksellers, to sell books at fixed prices. Save for old, used or damaged books, discounting in Germany is illegal.

Of course this can be seen as supporting independent bookshops, which can then afford to carry a more diverse range of stock, without the threat of Big W style price wars. Somewhat counter-intuitively is has also resulted in lower book prices (although it would be nice to find some more thorough comparative data.) Recently Swizerland (with its significant German language population) has chosen to break with tradition and allow discounting, which makes it a book market worth watching. The Swiss Competition Commissioner conceded that the change might result in a less diverse range of books. In an interview with the New York Times, he suggested:

“They said the system fosters a broader, deeper market for books, that discounting will hurt the small booksellers who support the small publishers, and then you will have fewer books and more focus on best sellers…

… But nobody can read one million titles, so the question is, is it better that more people read fewer books or that fewer people read a lot of different books?”

Brantley suggests that these are questions that still have relevance in a digital environment. Maybe, maybe not. But definitely food for thought.

iPhone as eBook Part 1. The Screen

OK, so this is the first part of my look at using the iphone as an e-reading device. A couple of caveats before I begin. Firstly, I’m going to break down the review into a number of components – reflecting what I think are the major gotchas in ebook devices so far. Secondly, whilst my iphone is hacked, it’s only hacked to make and receive phone calls in Australia. I haven’t installed any other third party apps, and for the purposes of this review, I’m treating the iphone as out-of-the-box. Because whilst some of us are happy enough to fiddle with our toys, most people aren’t. (I know that’s contradictory, but until apple will sell me a phone in Australia, it’s the best I can do.)

That said, here goes. I’ve had the iphone for about a month now, and read one and a half novels, lots of webpages and more than a few shorter word and pdf documents. I suspect the novelty of the device will wear out (it hasn’t yet) so read my impressions in that light. Note that this is NOT a review of the iphone overall. There’s plenty of those.

Instead, I’m focussing on the iphone as ebook reader, right here and right now. And the first thing people ask about when considering an e-reading device of any sort is the screen.

The Screen.
I’ll cut to the chase. The screen is a thing of beauty. The specs don’t seem special (480 x 320 pixels, and 3.5 inches in diameter, about 163 dpi apparently) but in real life, it’s bright, surprisingly readable even in sunlight, and easily the nicest handheld screen I’ve used. What’s amazing is that the home screen doesn’t look like it’s a screen at all – it’s sharp enough to look like a sticker – which probably has something to do with the icon design too.

Did I mention that it’s bright. You can read this bugger outside. I’ve set the brightness to about a third of its maximum setting and it’s still too bright to read in a darkened room. So daytime settings need to be turned down for the bedtime read. Pity the brightness control is buried a few levels down in the settings screen – and the brightness sensor doesn’t really do the job automatically.

I haven’t tried the VGA screens on some of the PDAs like the Dell Axims. Nor do I have a Nokia N810. But compared to my old Treo 650, the iphone has a pin-sharp screen. Even scaled down webpages are readable; almost by inference – because the type is minute. Reading webpages and the like is actually pleasurable, especially with the very handy double tap and pinch interface. I have to confess to browsing in rooms of the house where I shouldn’t be allowed to browse.

And the anti-aliased text is simply beautiful, making the words and sentences of an ebook a delight. I read geek mafia, which pans out at about 100,000 words, and am slowly munching through The Bourne Identity (don’t ask – blame the film). Geek Mafia was html, sized pretty well. And I resized a pdf of Bourne to suit. About 200 words per page in Times New Roman is perfectly readable – and enjoyable. And the slightly nauseous feeling I sometimes get from reading an LCD screen only happened when I was reading on a bus into the city. For me, that also happens with ink on paper books.

Size Matters
But the iphone is not perfect for ebooks – yet. Why? I think that for most people, the screen is probably too small for reading long form narratives. One pocketable device which combines web access, email, ipod, youtube, telephone and ebook reader demands compromises which convergence geeks like myself might accept and embrace. But an iphone is much smaller in real life than pictures on the web suggest (which in most instances is a bonus).

For reading emails, webpages and short documents, the screen size isn’t a problem. But for something like a novel, it’s not quite right. When the text is sized for comfortable reading, there’s not really enough words on the screen. Rotating the screen doesn’t help. You get more words per line, but the number of words per page is no better. At normal print font sizes, the words are beautifully readable. But the iphone is a third the size of a paperback, so with the same font size, there’s a third as many words on the page.

In all honesty, the problem isn’t the screen but the need to interrupt your reading with constant ‘page turns’. You find yourself hitting the next button or scrolling the page way too often. It interferes with the quest for immersion in the text. But I think the solution might be pretty straightforward. I suspect that e-reading software which provided some kind of auto-scrolling mechanism would be all that’s required to overcome the screensize limitation. Something that let you set a scroll speed, so that the iphone could do the work of page-turning, leaving you to do the reading. Bring on the iphone SDK.

For the moment, it’s not a deal breaker. The iphone has a screen to die for and is perfectly usable as an ebook reader (it’s definitely as good as a Treo, Jasjam or any other smartphone out there) but for non early adopters, the screen may just not big enough to be totally comfortable. I’ll definitely be using it as an e-reading device, especially when travelling. But I’m not your average user…

However, screen size isn’t the only issue that needs addressing. In Part 2, I’ll look at getting books onto the iphone…

Using the New to push the Old

Another Wired piece, this time looking at the example of Dzanc Books, a publisher of print-on-paper books. Started by a former car-parts supplier, Dan Wickett, Dzanc is an independent publisher doing OK at a time when independents are doing it tough. The Wired piece looks at how a company like Dzanc uses the net to do business, focussing on working and building communities around its titles. From the article:

[Dzanc] avoids traditional advertising and relies on viral marketing. The company has hit hundreds of online journals, blogs and web writers with promotional news.

“I have been as much of a pain-in-the-neck presence online as I could have been in last five years,” says Wickett. “We have developed fairly large communities of readers and writers we believe will support us. If half of our members ran out and bought a book, it would be more successful than many small-press books.”

Of most interest to me is the net experience. On the back of the myspace and music experience, it seems clear that authors and publishers *can* reach a global market by finding and building communities of interest around their titles, and Wired cites a couple of examples of the experimenting that is going on:

To promote Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown, Soft Skull Press put up a MySpace page for Pocahontas, one of the novel’s main characters. Unbridled Books produces regular YouTube videos and podcasts.

But the question that remains is who’s going to do all the extra online work. Publishers, on the whole, don’t have the resources required to maintain countless blogs; let alone spend the time online required to build communities. They probably expect authors to do it all as part of their unpaid promotional duties. But it’s hard, and time consuming work – and every blog post authored, every comment posted on somebody else’s forum is time not spent on the new novel… I guess sleep will just have to become optional 🙂

Wired’s Big-Idea Book Generator

It’s the weekend, so a quick link for laughs. Coming up with a best-selling book (or a feasible doctoral thesis topic) can sometimes be broken down into some simple rules, resulting in some pretty funny titles. It’s an idea that’s been around for a while, but it’s nice to see that Wired can see humour in a genre that it seems to promote incessantly. All that’s missing is the random phrase generator…

The World Digital Library

A quick link to an item about The World Digital Library. Modelled after the US Library of Congress’ American Memory Project, the World Digital Library will be free, multilingual and provide online access to rare archival material.

Reporters in Paris got a peek Wednesday at a prototype for the World Digital Library, an online initiative by the U.S. Library of Congress, the U.N. cultural body UNESCO and international partner libraries. Officials are aiming for a 2008 launch of the online site…

The international digital library will be free and multilingual, with contributions from around the world, including rare books, films, prints, sound recordings and musical scores.

The project also has the support of libraries and technology companies including Google, Apple and Intel. Interestingly, the article suggests that “Apple Inc. employees brought along mobile devices for demonstrations.” Vague enough for those hoping for a electronic reading tablet from their favourite fruit company.

Another Sony Reader Review

This time from engadget. In the book, I suggest that the definitive ebook device is on its way; despite the fact that it’s lagging behind the development of things like digital cameras and mp3 players. It may be taking a while, but the ebook is following a similar development trajectory. I haven’t played with a Sony Reader yet, but I don’t think it’s *the one*. (But if anyone out there has one – even an old one – I’d love to play with it) But as Engadget suggests, those of us who remember the Diamond Rio can see the pattern…

it really does remind us of the early MP3 players back in the late 90s: maybe the content isn’t as readily accessible as we might like, but the hardware is starting to come into its own (we have a feeling 3rd generation will be prime time), and damned if we don’t want to start using this thing for all our bookwormish purposes post-haste.

And yes, the iphone as ebook reader review *is* coming; I’ve just finished reading one novel on it, and started another. About enough screen time to pass judgement, methinks. Watch this space 😉

Pre-Frankfurt Survey

The funny thing about any industry is that it’s often the people who work *inside* who are the last to appreciate what is happening to ‘their’ industry. They continue along their merry way, defending their turf against ideas that appear threatening, until the day comes when the industry has evolved so dramatically that their attempts at change seem ludicrous. Think American car manufacturers in the 1970s as the Japanese invasion was shaping up. Or closer to home (and at the risk of boring everyone) the Music Industry since the development of the mp3 file format. In both instances, consumers saw something new (and with advantages of cost, accessibility and quality – at least in the case of Japanese cars v American cars) and embraced that new thing, forcing the old to adapt or die.

Now, I’m the last to argue that change is inevitable. Rather, I’m simply making the point that industry insiders aren’t always the best people to turn to for predicting the future. So, read the Guardian’s report of a pre-Frankfurt Book Fair survey of “top book industry professionals” in that light. Despite that, at least a few of them see the writing on the wall, so to speak…

Almost a quarter of the 1,324 industry professionals who took part in the survey predicted that the high street bookseller would no longer exist in 2057, while only 11% thought that the printed book would be obsolete.

(Update: For those not in the book trade, Frankfurt is one of the world’s largest book trade fairs, where much of the wheeling and dealing of who and what gets to publish who and what takes place.)

Radiohead and all that

As I suggest in the book, there are lessons to be learnt from the music industry. And over there, the buzz is on major artists bypassing the major labels. First, Prince with his ‘free CD’ with every newspaper strategy; then Nine Inch Nails dumping their record company and more recently hints that Madonna might be doing the same. But the biggest buzz has been around Radiohead releasing its new album online and asking fans to pay what they see fit for the music. Now, initial numbers are in, and a survey by The Times in London is crowing about how the average price paid by fans is ‘only $9.’ (For the moment, we’ll set aside questions about the methodology of the survey, and note that Radiohead has not yet provided any ‘official’ data.)

Two points to be made in response to that article. Firstly, it suggests a price that fans are willing to pay. Remember, there was no coercion here, they could pay nothing for the new album if they wanted. But the overall average ‘donation’ was nine bucks. Which to me suggests that if record companies charged nine bucks for good new music (instead of thirty in Australian CD shops) then people would pay rather than ‘steal’.

Secondly. Radiohead probably made more money at nine bucks a copy direct from fans than thirty bucks a copy via the traditional intermediaries…

Of course, not every band – or author – can do this; but the reality of the download is that you *can* cut out some middlemen, reward the artist appropriately, and keep the fans happy. In the book world, many have suggested that giving away e-books is a good way to sell p-books; and there is much to be said for experimenting with new models for earning a crust from books. I suspect this isn’t the last we hear of such examples…

Books by the Yard

When bookshops are selling books the ways carpet shops sell floor coverings, then it says something about the real purpose of books. My friend Rachel sent me a link to a lovely piece in The New Yorker about Strand Books, and how it provides what amounts to an interior decorating service for its clients. They sell books by the foot, to quickly fill up people’s otherwise empty shelves. It’s not a new service, having been around since the mid 1980s, and as well as filling up blank space on film sets, probably uses up a lot of otherwise unread books 🙂

Customers can choose from eighteen basic library styles, for purchase or rental. “Bargain books,” a random selection of hardbacks, is the cheapest, at ten dollars per foot of shelf space. For thirty dollars, clients can customize the color. For seventy-five, they can get a “leather-looking” library, which, as the Strand’s Web site puts it, “is often mistaken for leather.”

That Horrible Man…

I was on the Richard Stubbs’ ABC Melbourne radio show a few weeks ago, talking tangentially about the book, when he changed the topic to an sms he had just received. Which said “That horrible person wants to close down libraries.”

Apart from the fact that I don’t think I’m all that horrible, the sms-er has a point of sorts. Libraries, as we know them, might have to change. If we think of libraries as a way to get books themselves, it’s easy to imagine what I like to call the ‘heavenly library’, an online service in which every book ever published is available for download. Think of an itunes store for books; it would bring more books to more people than any library ever has. And what better way to address issues of equity and access than to use existing library infrastructure to provide a way to get access. Perhaps even with a collection of ebook readers for loan, or an expresso machine for printing on demand.

At the moment, my local library is quite modest – it houses a fairly small collection of books, magazines, CDs and videos. But it is a community centre of sorts – they have a reading program for kids, and the place always seems full of people. If books went electronic, there’s no reason why such community places couldn’t still exist – they could be a ‘great good place’, a focal gathering point for the neighbourhood and provide access to media resources (like the hypothetical heavenly library) for those who wouldn’t otherwise be ‘on the grid.’

I don’t want to close down libraries – but I do want to re-imagine them!