Archive for February, 2009|Monthly archive page

Sign of the times

Kate Kellaway writing in the Observer sums up a growing awareness of e-books is the literary world. Where once the idea of replacing print on paper was the domain of pointy-headed geeks like me, it seems that now the possibility of such a future is being entertained outside of the technology pages:

This may be the last year in which it is possible to be ebook or mbook (of which more later) illiterate. We in the UK are on the verge of extraordinary changes in the way we read, think about narrative and define the book itself.

The piece does suggest that the new devices demand new forms – something I don’t actually agree with, and which I actually think is not what people really want. Readers want to read books. We can (and do) get that “new narrative” and “interactive” experience elsewhere.

The Plant reprised?

Some of us are old enough to remember Stephen King’s chapter-at-a-time effort from the beginning of the century. The Plant was distributed a chapter at a time for a buck a piece, and it’s widely cited as another early, failed attempt at reinventing the book publishing game. Anyhow, Borders sends me a James Paterson promo the other day that has echoes of that earlier age. Haven’t managed to track down details yet, so we’ll see…

A short note on parallel importation

Yesterday, in a SMH op-ed piece, Allan Fells and Fred Brenchley weigh into the debate over parallel importation in the Australian book trade. And here’s Peter Carey’s opposing voice. I have a certain empathy for those who want to maintain the existing restrictions, but can’t help but think that we need to move beyond territorial copyright. Won’t get into the details here (no time today). But in a world of digital downloads, regional restrictions seem so last century. As James Bradley suggests on his blog:

Yet as the experience of the music industry has demonstrated, once the physical object evaporates it becomes almost impossible to continue to control reproduction. So as the print culture of the past, and its dependence on both the modes of reading that go with it and the physical object fades, isn’t it possible the debate of parallel importation may begin to look like one of those skirmishes fought on the edge of a larger conflagration?

The challenge is how to preserve the things of cultural value that the old restrictions enabled. For the moment, if you’re looking for reasons why we don’t have Amazon’s Kindle down under, then this is one of them.

Speaking of Kindle 2

Which I’m sure you’ve all heard, was announced this week for shipping by February 24th. There’s a lot of coverage about the device, but it seems evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Nice summary of features here. Top threes from that post:


Kindle 2.0 High Points

  1. WhisperNet and Amazon’s great range of book titles (over 230,000 titles including 7,000+ free public domain classics etc.) are still the 31 feature and make the Kindle 2.0 the best eReader available.
  2. WhisperSync – synchronize across Kindle 1, Kindle 2.0, and soon across other mobile devices. Not only can you share books, you can also share the exact position in the book you were/are reading at – pretty cool in my opinion.
  3. Read to Me feature. Text to Speech is very cool and should be fun.

Kindle 2.0 Low Points


  1. Still Expensive at $359.
  2. Still not pretty.
  3. The lack of a colour screen  is another problem I have.

Thoughts on Google BookSearch

A link to a long piece in The New York Review of Books from Robert Darnton, covering a lot of the territory that needs to be covered as we move towards ubiquitous digital books. In particular he examines the possible consequences of the recent settlement between Google and publishers:

here is a proposal that could result in the world’s largest library. It would, to be sure, be a digital library, but it could dwarf the Library of Congress and all the national libraries of Europe. Moreover, in pursuing the terms of the settlement with the authors and publishers, Google could also become the world’s largest book business…

Darnton’s concern is that Google will essentially become a monopoly on the e-books business:

Google is not a guild, and it did not set out to create a monopoly. On the contrary, it has pursued a laudable goal: promoting access to information. But the class action character of the settlement makes Google invulnerable to competition. Most book authors and publishers who own US copyrights are automatically covered by the settlement.

It’s an interesting point, but one that shouldn’t remain uncontested. Indeed, Tim O’Reilly writes:

It is true, perhaps, in the narrow sense, that no other party will be able to do a mass digitization project on the scale of Google’s – but that was already true. The barrier has always been the willingness to spend a lot of money for little return; the settlement doesn’t change that.

Meanwhile, the settlement provides absolutely no barrier to publishers providing their own digital copies, and this is in fact happening.

He goes on:

Frankly, I’d be far more worried about Darnton’s wished-for utopia, in which the government had funded the equivalent, mandating that all publishers participate.

Managing cultural outcomes is always a difficult thing, and at first glance this appears to be a ‘market’ v ‘regulation’ debate. I’ve always thought that the middle ground requires a standards-setting process from the regulators within which a market can operate. So some work in ensuring interoperability in the ebook realm, and open access to that standard would be incredibly valuable to users. We already live in a world where there is a plethora of digital content available and savvy users have access to the tools to utilise that content, regardless of the provider. Whilst there are arguments about itunes and its dominance of the downloaded music market, they need to be balanced against the undeniable ease-of-use that Apple’s service has provided for its users.

Governments (as with other large, entrenched institutions like publishing companies) sometimes don’t get it. A decade and a bit ago, the Oz Government’s Creative Nation policy picked CD-ROMs as a useful interim technology for delivering cultural content and spent big on a project that delivered a range of (good and bad) CD-ROM content to schools and the general public. It mirrored the book publishers’ embrace of the medium in the mid to late 1990s – and whilst useful (particularly for those involved), it didn’t properly understand the rate and direction of change. Of course, many people didn’t back then (myself included) so I’m not pointing fingers. Merely pointing out that sometimes Governments should act and sometimes they should react. For the moment, I’m inclined to let the market reign in Google’s excesses. After all, Jeff Bezos has already declared that Amazon’s vision is ” every book, ever printed, in any language, all available within 60 seconds.”

A Geek Speaks

John Siracusa is pretty well known in certain geek circles for his long and comprehensive reviews of software and operating systems. Writing for the proudly tech-oriented Ars Technica site, John has unpacked and repacked all manner of geek matters. Last week he turned his attention to e-books and again, addresses all the gory detail. It’s nothing we haven’t heard, or said, before but John speaks with the experience of someone who once worked on the inside:

I was pitched headfirst into the world of e-books in 2002 when I took a job with Palm Digital Media. The company, originally called Peanut Press, was founded in 1998 with a simple plan: publish books in electronic form

A couple of takeaways stand out, so if you haven’t got time to follow the link, here’s my pick. 

1. A change is a comin’ and the fact that people haven’t understood e-books doesn’t mean they’re a bad idea:

The pace of the e-book market over the past decade has been excruciatingly—and yes, you guessed it, unjustly—slow. My frustration is much like that of the Mac users of old. Here’s an awesome, obvious, inevitable idea, seemingly thwarted at every turn by widespread consumer misunderstanding and an endemic lack of will among the big players.

2. People *can* read text off screens:

‘ll say it again: people will read text off screens. The optical superiority of paper is still very real, but alsoirrelevant. The minimum quality threshold for extended reading was passed a long, long time ago.

3. Change may not happen until enough people die:

But the truth is, these things always turn out the same way. And I have some bad news for the bibliophiles. The beloved, less technically sophisticated information conveyance with the pedigreed history doesn’t win.

Time and again this happens, and it can happen without changing a single person’s mind. To put it bluntly, people die. Indeed, death is arguably the single most important driver for all human progress.

4. Publishers haven’t been interested:

All of this is to say that the publishers effectively sabotaged the e-book market from day one. The DRM, the pricing, the general treatment as second-class citizens, it all added up to an insurmountable drag on a budding industry. Without some minimum level of buy-in from content owners, there was simply no way to break through to the mainstream.

5. Apple, with the ipod, could have been *the* player:

The e-book market was Apple’s for the taking….

All the early e-book companies were at the bottom looking up at the book market, which appeared to them vast and plentiful. Apple, in contrast, was looking down from its perch atop the music market. To Apple, the entire world of print publishing was but a molehill.

6. It’s easy to get frustrated by all of this, but hang in there!!:

Overall, there’s definitely an “all of this has happened before” vibe, perhaps even with a hint of “all of this will happen again,” if I’m feeling pessimistic. It’s almost as if those first attempts to get the e-book market off the ground never happened.

Giant e-paper screen

For those of you fluent in Chinese, a quick link to an Engadget post (with pictures) showing a 24 inch colour e-Paper screen at a Taiwanese book show. Shorter English version here.

Kindle on the iphone speculation 2009 edition

I’ve always wanted amazon to build an iphone app for all the e-book titles it sells for the kindle. If only for the fact that it might be the quickest way for non-Americans to get access to kindle e-books. (Unless of course, the app is only made available on the US store). As they say, be careful what you wish for. There’s a bit of rampant speculation on the intertubes about such a thing actually coming to pass. For example, Macworld has this piece. It all seems to spring from this NYTimes piece and the money quote is this:

“We are excited to make Kindle books available on a range of mobile phones,” said Drew Herdener, a spokesman for Amazon. “We are working on that now.”

Not very much to get excited about really. But we cling desperately to every possible morsel 🙂

It’s all happening though – kindle 2 in a couple of days and google getting in on the act. I posted on New Year’s Eve that it felt like a change was coming. Maybe it is…

Google Book Search for iPhone

Yes, I now you could always use the regular google website, but there’s something attractive about iphone-specific implementations (much as it’s problematic on other fronts.) So news that google book search is now iphone specific is kind of cool. A quick look though suggests there’s still a little work to be done – much of the ‘non-free’ library is devoid of what google is calling ‘mobile preview’. YMMV.

Kindle Sales Speculation: 09 Edition Ep 1

In the continued absence of official Kindle sales figures, the search for data begins again in the Year of the Ox.  A couple of analysts from Merrill Lynch and Citigroup speculate wildly and come up with some six figure numbers; and then extrapolate widely based on a comparison of early ipod sales. I won’t comment. Beyond noting that the guys that work in those kinds of institutions have spent the last decade helping us turn the global economy into what it is today. Enough said. For more, follow the comment thread in the techcrunch summary, or check this rather more acerbic take.