Tag Archives: E-book

Lost in the Flow of The Digital Word

my weekly column as part of the Loose Wire Service, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A few weeks ago I wrote about the emergence of the digital book, and how, basically, we should get over our love affair with its physical ancestor and realize that, as with newspapers, rotary dial phones and reel-to-reel tape decks, the world has moved on. Digital rules, and ebooks now make more sense than papyrus.

Not everyone was happy. My bookseller friends won’t talk to me anymore, and don’t even mention my author ex-buddies. One person told me I was “brave” (I think he meant foolhardy) in saying something everyone else thought, but didn’t yet dare mention.

But the truth is that a lot of people have already moved on. Amazon is now selling more ebooks than hardbacks. It’s just about to bring out a Kindle that will sell for about $130. When it hits $100—by Christmas, probably—it’s hard not to imagine everyone getting one in their stocking.

By the end of next year, you’ll be more likely to see people reading on a digital device than a print version. Airlines will hand them out at the beginning of the flight instead of newspapers, along with a warning during the security demonstration not to steal them. (I was on a flight the other day that reminded people it was a serious offence to steal the lifejackets. What kind of people take planes and then steal the one thing standing between them and a watery grave?)

But what interests me is the change in the pattern of reading that this is already engendering. (The ereading, not the theft of flotation devices.) I go to Afghanistan quite a bit and it’s common to see Kindles and Sony eBook Digital Book Readers in the airport lounge. Of course, for these guys—most of them contractors, aid workers or soldiers—the ereader makes a lot of sense.

There are indeed booksellers in Kabul but it’s not exactly a city for relaxed browsing, and lugging in three or four months’ worth of reading isn’t ideal—especially when you can slot all that into one device that weighs less than a hardback, and to which you can download books when you feel like it.

Those who use Kindles and similar devices say that they read a lot more, and really enjoy it. I believe them. But there’s more. Amazon now offers applications for the iPhone (and the iPad) as well as the Android phone and the BlackBerry. Download that and you’re good to go. 

The first response of friends to the idea of reading on a smart phone is: “too small. Won’t work.”

Until, of course, they try it. Then opposition seems to melt away. One of my Kabul colleagues, no spring chicken, reads all his books on his iPhone 4. When the Android app came out a few weeks ago I tried it on my Google Nexus One.

And that’s when I realized how different digital books are.

Not just from normal books. But from other digital content.

I look at it like this: Written content is platform agnostic. It doesn’t care what it’s written/displayed on. We’ll read something on a toilet wall if it’s compelling enough (and who doesn’t want to learn about first-hand experience of Shazza’s relaxed favor-granting policies?)

We knew this already. (The fact that content doesn’t care about what it’s on, not how Shazza spends her discretionary time.) We knew that paper is a great technology for printing on, but we knew it wasn’t the only one. We also knew the size of the area upon which the text is printed doesn’t matter too much either. From big notice boards to cereal packets to postage-stamps, we’ll read anything.

So it should come as no surprise that reading on a smartphone is no biggie. The important thing is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined as flow: Do we lose ourselves in the reading? Do we tune out what is around us?

Surprisingly, we do. Usually, if I’m in a queue for anything I get antsy. I start comparing line lengths. I curse the people in front for being so slow, the guy behind me for sneezing all over my neck, the check-in staff for being so inept.

But then I whip out my phone and start reading a book and I’m lost. The shuffling, the sneezing, the incompetence are all forgotten, the noise reduced to a hum as I read away.

Now it’s not that I don’t read other stuff on my cellphone. I check my email, I read my Twitter, Facebook and RSS feeds. But it’s not the same. A book is something to get absorbed in. And, if you’re enjoying the book, you will. That’s why we read them.

So it doesn’t really matter what the device is, so long as the content is good (and this is why talk of turning ebooks into interactive devices is hogwash. All-singing, all-dancing multimedia swipe and swoosh is not what flow is all about—and what books are all about.)

This is what differentiates book content from other kinds of digital content. We’re actually well primed to pick up the thread of reading from where we left off—how many times do you notice that you’re able to jump to the next unread paragraph of a book you put down the night before without any effort? Our brains are well-trained to jump back into the narrative threat a book offers.

There’s another thing at work here.

Previously we would only rarely have considered picking up a book to read for short bursts. But the cellphone naturally lends itself to that. You’ll see a few people in queues reading physical books, but the effort required is often a bit too much. It looks more defiantly bohemian than cozy. Not so with the phone, which is rarely far from our grasp.

This is one reason why friends report reading more with these devices. They may carve the process into smaller slices, but the flow remains intact.

And one more thing: The devices enable us to keep several books on the go at once. Just as we would listen to different music depending on our mood, time of day, etc, so with books we switch between fiction and non-fiction, humor, pathos, whatever. Only having a pile of books in your bag wasn’t quite as practical as having one by your bedside.

Now with ebooks that’s no longer an issue.

This is all very intriguing, and flies in the face of what we thought was happening to us in our digital new world: We thought attention spans were shrinking, that we weren’t reading as much as before, that we were slaves to our devices rather than the other way around.

I don’t believe it to be so. Sure, there are still phone zombies who don’t seem to be able to lift their gaze from their device, and respond to its call like a handmaiden to her mistress. But ebooks offer a different future: That we are able to conquer distraction with flow, absorb knowledge and wisdom in the most crowded, uncivilized of places, and, most importantly, enjoy the written word as much as our forebears did.

Praise be to Kindle. And the smart phone.

Google and Penguin: Bookending a Revolution

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(my syndicated Loose Wire column.)

As I write this two significant events are taking place: Google has said it will tie up with the American Booksellers Association—the U.S. trade group for independent bookstores—to sell ebooks.

And there’s a conference in Bristol celebrating 75 years of the Penguin paperback.

Both are milestones. And both carry with them great innovation in the book industry, though one sees the future and one doesn’t.

Penguin was set up by a guy called Allen Lane in 1935 because he couldn’t find something decent and cheap to read on the train. So he came up with idea of a paperback book—which had been around, but only for trashy fiction, not serious stuff.

He gave them good covers and made them dirt cheap. And sold them by the truckload. Some of them he sold in a dispensing machine in the Charing Cross Road they called the Penguincubator.

Lane died in 1970, not quite sure what he’d created. On the one hand he’d brought reading to the masses—converting, as he put it, book-borrowers into to book-buyers—but he wasn’t overly excited by the kinds of thing these people wanted to read.

So I’m probably wrong, but if he was around today, I’d like to think he would have seen the future and turned all his stock into ebooks.

Now don’t get me wrong. Part of me doesn’t like this. I worked in bookshops for three years of my life and, frankly, unless I was working for the Peak District Promotion Board I couldn’t think of a better job.

But let’s face it, books are dead. They’re a great technology, and will always be a great technology, and we’re not getting rid of them because they don’t work. We need to get rid of them because they don’t fit this new digital world.

I realized this when I went to visit a guy running a second-hand book business in rural England a few years ago. He was working out of an old electricity sub-station and I’d never come across someone so surrounded by books and yet so miserable.

The substation had two rooms. One had shelves to the roof, laden with books. The other was just a mountain of discarded paperbacks—a tip for all the books he knew he’d never sell. “My job,” he said mournfully, “is to move the books from the shelf room to the tip room.”

Some books were sometimes worth something, but if their price went up on Amazon or some secondhand book website, quickly people would find copies in their attic and the price would plummet again. His business, in a word, was dead.

The truth is that we don’t really know what to do with our books. We love to have them around us, and we probably love to wander around second-hand bookshops, but they’re out of place in this digital age, where all the wisdom of the world is a 22 millisecond search away.

What is the point of wandering around Haye-on-Wye looking for a particular tome when we could find the same thing online and download it to our Kindle in a matter of seconds?

Yes, I know, there’s the thrill of the chase. The joy of being among books, their aroma, of feeling their pages crinkle and crisp in our hands. Of its solid comfort as we hold it under our arm or slip it in coat pocket.

But we can’t afford to indulge ourselves anymore. Books are eating up trees, eating up space, and, most importantly, holding back what Allen Lane might have identified as the logical next step in his revolution: making books available to all.

Books, basically, have to be decoupled from this romantic world and plonked into the digital world of knowledge, of accessible information, of blogs, twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Now we expect our information to be cheap, if not free, and at a finger-tip’s touch. In short, books need to be released from their paper past and converted into something cheap and movable. Into things we can read on trains, on planes, in bed, waiting for friends. Into ebooks.

And this is where Google comes in. If it does it right, it will make Kindles—where you can only read books you bought on Amazon—or iPads—where you can only read books you bought on Apple as absurd as they already sound to my ears.

Google will, I hope, allow you to buy any book you want from any online bookseller you want and read it on any kind of device you want. They’ll give us the same freedom Allen Lane gave our forebears back in 1935.

I hope it ushers in a world where we still peruse physical books in stores, but then we buy a coffee in the bookshop cafe and download the book, all paid on the same bill. The books on the shelves are there just to help us choose.

And, if Allen Lane were on that Exeter station without something decent to read, he could get his books over the air. At a decent price.

It’s not as romantic as the past. But then we’re not in Pride and Prejudice anymore. We’re in a world of digits.

Maybe Mr. Lane wouldn’t have approved of what we were reading, but I’m sure he’d approve of how.

The Publisher Audience

By Robin Lubbock

For years I’ve been meaning to write this post, but it seemed so obvious that I kept neglecting to write this thought down.

I am the publisher. You are the publisher. Anyone with a screen is the publisher. That changes everything. It moves institutions that are publishers on paper or on the air one step further away from the audience. It means newspapers and broadcasters have to find ways to market their wares to the new publishers.

Let me say that again with a little more detail.

In the old days newspapers and broadcasters made selections from a wide range of competing news producers (AP, Reuters, staff, freelancers, etc.) and decided which of those sources would be published on any given day. The newspaper editor decided what would go into the paper, where each story would appear on each page, and therefore what the audience would read.

The person who buys paper as a vehicle for news has the decisions about what appears on that paper made for him by the editor.

But when people started buying screens instead of newspapers that changed. The decisions about what appears on the screen were, and are, no longer made by the newspaper publisher or the broadcaster.

The person who buys a screen, not matter what size, as a vehicle for news, also decides what news will appear on the screen. The screen owner has become the publisher. The people who used to be called the audience have become the publishers.

Each day each member of the new publisher/audience produces a single, individual, unique publication for one person: themselves. That publication includes some e-mail, some news, some productivity applications, some video, some blogs, some comments, perhaps an e-book, some more e-mail and so on.

The power that newspapers and broadcasters used to have to decide what the audience would read, hear and see, is gone. That means the old idea that newspapers and broadcasters are the gatekeepers is also gone.

The institution that used to be the publisher or broadcaster has become just another news producer which has to try to get the new publisher/audience’s attention, in competition with the same organizations that used to compete for its attention.

The old publishers have moved back a level. The new publisher is the audience.

The implications of the audience being the publisher are huge and a little obvious, but deserve a separate post. Coming soon…

And of course the newspapers, broadcasters and booksellers are trying to get their hegemony back by producing tethered devices and apps. But that too is another story.

In the browser-based world we mostly inhabit the publisher audience is still enjoying the fruits of the screen revolution.

How to Hold a Book

I did a piece a few weeks back for WSJ.com (subscription only, I’m afraid) and The Wall Street Journal Asia about bookholders. These are devices made to help folk read more easily. As one of my old bosses said: “neanderthal”. But I still love to hold a book and would definitely opt for paper over digital for most reading:

You’re more likely to find them advertised on the back pages of quirky British publications such as Private Eye and The Countryman than in glossy international fashion or gadget mags, but they grapple with one of the thorniest design issues since the invention of the printing press: how to read a book in the bath. Or on the beach. Or in bed. Or at dinner. Call it The Search for the Perfect Book Holder.

The problem is a simple one: Books have long mocked the naysayers who predicted their demise in the face of radio, television, audio books, the Internet, eBooks (books you read on a hand-held device), eReaders (devices you use to read eBooks) or whatever. But books do have one design flaw: You have to hold them open. While this may not sound like too much of a trial, it can be if you’re trying to eat/type/take notes/get an even tan/wash your back/sip cocoa at the same time, or if, for some reason — through repetitive strain injury or arthritis, say — you have a problem gripping things. Perhaps if we didn’t actually have to hold a book up while we read it, at least some of us might have read Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” to the end, and J.K. Rowling would have sold even more copies of her 672-page doorstop “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” if we hadn’t been afraid of dropping it in the bath.

Here are some links to the ones I reviewed. They’re all great, the products of minds both mad and brilliant at the same time. Who would spend so much time and money trying to make a book stand up?

  • PageStay: great for cooks
  • thumbthing: great for small paperbacks
  • The Gimble and Reader Cushion: great name, great in the bath
  • BookGem: Great for standing books up on flat surfaces
  • easy-read Great for standing things up on non-flat surfaces

There are some more I reviewed, or at least heard about, which I may post later.

Book Launch Parties. Not Just For Authors

The NYT/IHT has a piece by Rachel Donadio on how the New York literary set is now eschewing book launch parties, apparently because they have belatedly realized they don’t actually create much of a buzz for books. No mention of the rise of print on demand, the e-book or successes like 37 Signals’ recent instant bestseller Getting Real.

But what I liked was the ‘Luvvie’ moment at the end, when Fran Lebowitz, veteran partygoer and writer, suggests that parties shouldn’t just be held for writers:

The line you hear most often today is that the book party is “just for the author.” And why not? “When you finish a book – not that I have a lot of experience finishing them – it’s such a Herculean effort that you feel that you deserve everything,” Lebowitz said. “It’s like coal mining. The only people I feel sorrier for are coal miners. And they never have parties; they sometimes don’t live through the day. But I’m sure if you ask them each day when they come out of the mine if they think they’d want people passing around canapés, they’d say yes.”

This raises all sorts of interesting issues. Beyond the wonderful image of a soot-blackened miner emerging from the gloom and looking forward to a beer and a soak being accosted by a waitress proffering a champagne flute and a platter of hors d’oeuvres. First couple of days it might be fun but it might wear off. I do like the idea though. What other professions might it work for? Car mechanics? (“I’m home, dear. Sorry abot the axle grease on the doorknob. Ooo! A surprise party? For moi? And foie gras!” Accountants, emerging from behind their computer screens to a tickertape parade celebrating their dizzying work on the Flubelstein Account? (“Drink up Johnson. We’ve got some dancing girls jumping out of an oversized ledger in the next cubicle.”) The possibilities are endless.

The Future of Paper

The Observer has an interesting piece on the future of the book. For some the future of the book is electronic:

[Bloomsbury chairman Nigel] Newton is certain that ‘within seven to 10 years, 50 per cent of all book sales will be downloads. When the e-reader emerges as a mass-market item, the shift will be very rapid indeed. It will soon be a dual-format market.’ That prediction makes a lot of sense. E-books will not replace the old format any more than the motorcar replaced the bicycle, or typewriters the pen.

This 50–50 division may occur largely between genre, where electronic books are largely used by reference and technical publishers. Meanwhile to survive the ordinary book trade will turn to

‘on-demand printing’, in which on-demand printers, installed in bookshops and service stations, will enable the reader to access a publisher’s backlist and make a high-speed print-out of a single copy of a book.

Print on demand already exists, of course: Many of the books you order from Amazon are printed in response to orders. But not by the bookseller: that technology has still to come. But I remember how as a bookseller in the early 1980s we dreamed of that world. If smaller bookshops were able to do that they may yet stand a chance against the big guys. Imagine knowing that any bookshop you walk into, however small, could zip off a copy of some obscure, out-of-print tome while you wait? Bookshops would suddenly become more like a Kinkos or a Post Office: A place where anything can be done. (But then again, the technology to do this in music already exists, so why hasn’t HMV and Tower Records made it possible to burn a CD on demand?)

This all said, the book is not dead yet:

There is every reason to want to see the printed word enhanced by something more in tune with current information technology, but until the geeky entrepreneurs of MIT, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and the rest can come up with something that looks like a book, feels like a book and behaves like a book, those who handle such items every day, and marvel over the magical integration of print, paper and binding, will probably continue to read and enjoy books much as Caxton and Gutenberg did.

The point really is that the book is not just a sentimental throwback to a happier time, but a superb piece of technology that maximises all those things we digital generation hold dear: great screen and easy to read in poor light conditions, indefinite battery life; light and highly portable; cheap; won’t break in water (just put on heater to dry); easy to navigate through content (just flip pages); nice to hold.

The other point worth making is that e-paper is much more likely to catch on in other areas before it catches on with books. Newspapers, magazines, journals, reports and exhibition flyers are much better suited to this kind of technology, because they need to be read while mobile (the newspaper on the train); they have no emotional hold on the user (a book is usually kept; a magazine is thrown away. The user therefore handles a book better and preserves its condition). Newspapers, getting smaller as our lives get more crowded, are an obvious target for a digital makeover, since we rarely keep them and yet every day fill the same space in our briefcase with an identical replacement.

In the case of flyers and reports, the ability to share and broadcast the content is an important part of the process. E-paper would be great at this, since it would be no harder (or easier, for that matter) than beaming what’s on your e-paper to someone else’s. Indeed, wherever reading is not a solitary activity, e-paper makes sense: bring an agenda into a meeting and fire it around the room by Bluetooth to other attendees (rather than printing out copies and stapling them, or demanding bring their laptops). Instead of walking around exhibitions weighed down with brochures and flyers, attendees could carry around one e-paper and receive blasts from each booth they are interested in.

I don’t think publishers need to worry that much. But elsewhere e-paper is long overdue.

A Way To Marry Offline And Online Shopping?

Further to my post about the perils of offline browsing and online buying, here’s a possible solution, from Wi-Fi Networking News: Software that lets PDA users check out details and reviews of a book while in the bookstore. SmartWorlds’ free software lets PDA users (customers can borrow a PDA and scanner from staff) shop and learn more about books while they’re in a bookstore: Users are connected to Amazon.com’s site where they can read reviews of the book, check pricing, and see other books recommended by readers.

Here’s the neat bit: In Boston, where the service is in place, the Trident bookstore is considered an affiliate of Amazon so if users of this service later buy one of the books they browsed for on Amazon, Trident earns a commission. Whether other bookstores are brave enough to do this I’m not sure, but it’s a possible answer to the problem outlined in the earlier post. The beauty of it is that the bookstores play to their strengths: a great, comfortable place to browse and hang out, and the unmistakable allure of allowing customers to have that book in their hands, right now.

News: The End of Ebooks?

 Could this be the beginning of the end of eBooks (books in software form)? Barnes & Noble no longer sell them, according to a notice on their website: “B&N.com no longer sells eBooks. If you are a Microsoft Reader customer, you will be able to download your eBooks until December 9, 2003, through your Microsoft Library. If you are an Adobe Reader customer, you have 90 days from your date of purchase to complete the download via the email link you received.”
 
 
B&N’s rather shoddy press corner doesn’t refer to the decision. My tuppennies’ worth: I’ve never been a big user of eBooks, but you would think they would be a natural fit for someone like B&N. The only assumption I can make is that until the biggies feel the issue of copying and piracy is resolved, it just doesn’t look profitable. Others disagree: an interesting look at the state of eBooks post B&N can be found at the teleread blog.

News: Legal Eagles in MP3 format

  Interesting story on Wired about how a university is taking the original recordings of Supreme Court cases, converting them to MP3 and putting them online — for free.
 
 
The Oyez project, run by Northwestern University, is aiming to convert nearly all the oral arguments recorded since 1955. So far it has done about 2,000 hours. May not beat listening to U2, but it’ll make a change from an e-book.
 

Update: Cracking the code

Microsoft Reader: a clarification
 
 
 Further to my note about successful efforts to crack the new code protecting the copyright of Microsoft Reader ebooks, here’s a clarification from Dan Jackson, who keeps a copy of the software which can circumvent the code on his website:
 
I noticed you have an article concerning the new version of Convert LIT 1.4. Just thought I’d straighten a few things out. Due to a miscommunication between myself and the author, a few copies were indeed sent out anonymously, but the program and its source code are now freely available from the Dan Jackson Software website at http://members.lycos.co.uk/hostintheshell/ – this is the official site for Convert LIT and all binaries residing on there have been fully tested and virus scanned.
Like yourself, I do not condone the use of this tool for copyright violation, and the technical limits of the program help to curb that to some extent (owner-exclusive DRM5 eBooks can still only be converted on the machine on which the activated copy of Reader which was used to purchase them is installed). The primary intention of the program is to allow other platforms or devices to be able to access Microsoft Reader format files. Hope this information is of use, Dan Jackson.
 
Thanks, Dan. Of course none of this detracts from the fact that the code has been broken, and quickly too. Microsoft, your move.