Archive for November, 2007|Monthly archive page

Kindle v Reader (round 1)

One of the (few) problems with living in Australia is that it’s a market that the consumer electronics companies scarcely bother with – it’s just not big enough. So it took Apple years to open a local itunes store, and who knows when the iphone will be officially released here. As far as ebooks are concerned, there should be no carrier issues, but there *are* rights issues for the content, and it appears that most of the players couldn’t be bothered with 20 million folk down under.

So, we miss out on the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle. Sure, you can get a mate in the states to fedex one across, but you won’t be able to access amazon kindle content or the Sony connect bookstore. Instead, you’ll have to be content with scouring the net for reading material and converting it into a format that your choice of reader might accept. Fine for a geek, but it doesn’t pass the ‘mum’ test.

Which is a very long-winded way to link to gizmodo’s comparison of the two current top dogs is the e-reading race. Got to admit that the comparison photo makes the kindle look like a people mover compared to the Sony’s svelte sports car. Despite this, the kindle’s device independence seems to have (sort of) won the day:

The extra $100 for the Kindle means freedom from PC—if at the same time it means a shackle to Amazon and its potentially limited file friendliness.

The problem for us Aussies, of course, is that the Kindle’s freedom requires a connection to Sprint USA’s EVDO network – and until Amazon does a similar deal down here, it just won’t work.

To Read or not to Read

A new (to me, anyway) report from the National Endowment of the Arts in the US called To Read or not to Read (pdf link). Drawing on data from the much-cited 2004 ‘Reading at Risk’ report, it adds “vastly more data from a number of sources.” I haven’t read the whole thing yet (give me a chance) but the preface sets the tone:

The story the data tell is simple, consistent, and alarming. Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years.

The Dwindling of Hardbacks?

In case you missed it over the weekend, here’s a link to a Guardian story about Picador’s decision to no longer publish hardbacks in the traditional sense. Instead, new fiction will be published in paperback:

It seems hasty to announce the imminent death of the hardback literary novel on the evidence of one experimental policy by one London publisher. But Picador’s decision to bring out most of its new fiction in paperback editions, accompanied by only a small number of “collectors'” hardbacks, is a symptom of the dire health of what has been a surprisingly persistent format.

Of course, in Australia, hardbacks are already uncommon. And now it appears that, even in the UK, most beautiful of objects is no longer sustainable…

The killer quote:

Until now, a small market has just about upheld the other arguments for literary fiction in hardback. But that market has almost reached vanishing point. The paucity of sales of novels even by acclaimed authors was an awkward book industry secret until this summer, when it was broadcast that eight of the novels on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize had sold fewer than 1,000 copies.

And from the horse’s mouth:

From spring 2008, Picador will publish the majority of its fiction titles in two formats simultaneously: a limited edition, high-specification hardback and a B format paperback.

Picador Publisher Andrew Kidd comments:

‘Recently, a number of pieces have appeared in both the trade and general press about ‘the death of the hardback’, especially in relation to literary fiction. While it has never been the easiest end of the market, over the last few years publishers have witnessed sales reaching new lows. All of us find it depressing, and there are, frankly, no reasons to think the situation might soon reverse itself.

Kindle Surprise (not!)

So, Amazon has released the Kindle. And surprise, it’s the same (ugly in photos) device that has been doing the rounds in the gadget blogs for months. There’s a bunch of coverage around the traps – Newsweek has a fawning piece from Steven Levy that’s long on rhetoric and a little short on detail. And the question that everyone is asking is whether or not the Kindle is the ipod of books.

Gadget freaks forget that analogies don’t fit neatly though. Remember that there was a big market for portable music before the ipod; and there were ways to fill it with content (from CD or the darknets) before the itunes store came around. In fact, most studies show suggest that most people actually *don’t* buy an awful lot of content from the iTunes store. (Do the math 3 billion songs/100 million ipods = 30 per ipod – when the smallest one holds 250 songs).

So the Kindle (as the Sony Reader before it) has to overcome the cultural inertia of book readers. Something that will not happen overnight – and something, I’d humbly suggest will be price driven. More thoughts later, but for now I’ll leave you with gizmodo’s first hands on impressions

Dymocks Dives In

Australian bookseller Dymocks has apparently embraced the idea of ebooks. On Wednesday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on the launch of its Digital Books initiative. According to the smh,

Digital touch screen kiosks have been installed in the Dymocks flagship store at 428 George Street in Sydney to market the ebook range and teach customers how to download them. Within months people will be able to walk into the store with a memory card and buy ebooks directly from the kiosk

So, I checked it out on Thursday. And was a little disappointed by the kiosk solution. It seems that the teething problems still require some attention. What did I see? A few sleek white kiosks with touch screens, many with letters that were misaligned (push ‘b’ and get ‘h’). One kiosk with windows notepad on the screen, complete with a list of what appeared to be required bug fixes. (Some tech keeping notes handy, I guess). And actually searching the database was disappointing. It was ‘live’ search, and just didn’t work. Subcategories weren’t functioning and the entire catalog seemed way too short. All of which is entirely forgiveable and fixable, even if it should have been working properly two days after a splashy launch.

What’s less clear is how Dymocks intends to actually use the kiosks. There were no real information for lay-folk – those who, for example, didn’t happen to own a device which read mobipocket, microsoft reader or adobe reader files. Maybe it’s assumed that ebook users are sufficiently geeky to get through all the software/format/device problems for themselves.

Strangely, the only devices on sale were ipods. Go figure. Sure the ipod touch will one day make a fantastic ebook reading device, but not right now, and not – especially for the file formats that Dymocks sells – without some hacking. And all the other ipods require you to reformat text to suit their notes readers. All of which is way too geeky for bookshop customers.

I suspect they’re going to be as successful as the Sanity digital music kiosks that were released a couple of years ago. From a c|Net article at the time:

The Fast Track Kiosks will store more than 400,000 songs each. Customers will be able to create their own playlists using the kiosks, with tracks sold at AU$1.69 each or AU$16.99 for an album

Bottom line. Why go to a book/music store to download digital content when part of the appeal of that digital content is not having to go to a book/music store in the first place?

Of course, the kiosks may be just to generate publicity for the website, which I haven’t really explored yet. I’ll have a look at what they’ve done there and get back to you soon…

The Dymocks website now stocks about 120,000 electronic books – ebooks – that can be downloaded and read on a computer, mobile phone or other handheld device.

Of course, with Amazon a breath away from entering the fray, all bets are off…

Amazon’s Kindle Soon?

I often use the phrase ‘amazon without waiting for the shipping’ when asked to desribe what an ebook future should look like. Amazon probably thinks the same, and rumours of the bookselling giant entering the ebook market have been swirling around for a while. Gizmodo thinks it’s really close. Llike Monday or Tuesday next week. As they say:

this thing could destroy the Sony reader

Although, there’s probably not much there to destroy. And just so Amazon understands its place, Espom have their own take on the ebook reader, which gizmodo covers here:

The device’s form factor is at least as thin as Sony’s Reader, but it has a 1200×1600 display.

Only a prototype, but 230 dpi!!

DIY book scanning

Via engadget, for those of us who can’t wait for google to get the job done, here’s an apparently consumer level book scanning device. At $1,600, it just seems like an appropriately designed stand for book and lights. It ships sans cameras, and requiring manual page turns, so I guess the day of having a book scanner in the den is still some time away.

Comix online

So here’s an example for other print publishers (albeit with the usual caveats about genre, amount of long-form text etc). Marvel comics has just made a catalogue 2,500 comics available for reading online. According to Macworld:

The service provides users with access to classics like the first issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, The X-Men, Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four and others, along with newer likes like New Avengers and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. Marvel counts 2,500 comic books at launch, and plans to add at least 20 additional titles weekly

Apparently, it’s a subscription-based service that doesn’t offer downloads, but online reading. So, no taking away the files for use on your ipod touch. There are some free samples, otherwise the service starts at $5 a month. But when I checked it out, the server was down 😦

Again, I think the lack of portability means that this exact model won’t work in some other book spaces – and it’ll be interesting to see if the pricing model will attract the crowd that currently gets its comic kicks via bittorrent.

What Bookshops Really Sell

Those of us who don’t actually work in the book industry have probably known for a while that publishers generally pay for their books to be featured in the catalogues that bookshops distribute around Christmas time. What we may not have been quite so aware of was the contrived nature of many of the so-called “Top X” lists that also proliferate. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Susan Wyndham confirms some people suspicions with some hard data. Her example is Angus and Rovertson (surprise, surprise) and their Top 5 Lists which cost $2,000 for six months of in-store promotion:

This guarantees prominent display in A&R’s 183 stores (including franchises) and on the A&R website; staff receive a “monetary incentive” each time they sell a Top 5 title. A&R promises a sales increase of up to 300 per cent as a result.

Whilst you could argue that it’s a legitimate business practice, there’s a whiff about the lack of transparency that isn’t entirely aromatic. It seems that payola is alive and well in Australia bookselling.

Time’s Invention of the Year

Time Magazine announced its invention of the year last week. (Why is it that November and December never seem to count as part of a year when it comes to such events? The iphone, not unexpectedly, won the major gong. And for all the right reasons. The reason why it comes up in a range of conversations (like a blog about books) is that it’s more than a phone; it has the potential to be a game-changer in a variety of realms. As Time says:

It’s a genuine handheld, walk-around computer, the first device that really deserves the name

As such, it has the potential to do anything… like, one day, be a great ebook reader.

And lost in the iphone headlines, Time nominated another book-related item in the ‘Living’ section of the Best Inventions Article. Just down from an injury-monitoring football helmet, came the Espresso machine, a $50,000 instant print-on-demand book maker that some cite as the missing link in the electronic reading universe.

In some ways, these two devices represent alternate pathways to an e-reading future. In the book, I argue for the purity of the electronic future. But in the short-term, I suspect those pathways will co-exist – until the iphone gets good enough and does exactly what readers want. As Time suggests:

Look at the iPod of six years ago. That monochrome interface! That clunky touchwheel! It looks like something a caveman whittled from a piece of flint using another piece of flint. Now imagine something that’s going to make the iPhone look that primitive. You’ll have one in a few years. It’ll be very cool. And it’ll be even cheaper.