An American Editor

February 25, 2015

Changing Formats: From Scroll to Codex to eBooks

Changing Formats: From Scroll to Codex to eBooks

by Jack Lyon

Electronic reading devices abound. There’s the Kindle, the Nook, the Kobo, and many, many more. Electronic formats abound. There’s EPUB, Plucker, Mobi, and many, many more. But for thousands of years, there was only one way to read a book: by unrolling a scroll.

Scrolls offered some big advantages over their predecessors, stone columns and clay tablets. They were easy to make, easy to write on, and didn’t weigh much. They were also compact, holding a lot of text in a relatively small space. But they had one big disadvantage: they could only be accessed sequentially. In other words, if you wanted to read the 77th column of text on a scroll, the only way to get there was to “scroll” through the first 76 columns. Remember the good old days of cassette tape players? If you wanted to hear “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” you had to fast-forward through “Come Together” and “Something.” Are we there yet? Oops, went too far. Press “Rewind” and try again. Scrolls were like that.

But around the end of the 1st century C.E., someone developed a new technology—the codex.

The codex was a collection of pages bound together in a book—like the printed books we read today. It offered one big advantage over the scroll: random access. In other words, if you wanted to read page 77, you could just turn to page 77. And you could do that while keeping your finger between pages 34 and 35. And you could put a scrap of papyrus between pages 34 and 35 to mark your place without having to leave your finger behind. Remember the good old days of vinyl records? If you wanted to hear “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” you could just pick up the tone arm and move it to the third track on the record, bypassing “Come Together” and “Something” altogether. The codex was like that, and it was a wonderful invention.

Not only that, but the codex eventually became a work of art. Over the years, the scribes of the Middle Ages worked out all the techniques needed to compose beautiful pages, and they went on to illuminate those pages with gorgeous decoration.

When Gutenberg printed his famous two-volume Bible in 1455, he modeled his pages after those of the scribes, and his text is a masterpiece of fine typography, including such features as hanging punctuation, optical alignment, and font expansion (type variation)—features that have become available on the computer only in the past few years.

Yet we typically see none of those features on an electronic reading device. There’s no (or very little) random access. There’s no beautiful typography or page design. There aren’t even any pages. Instead, the text “reflows” to accommodate various screen sizes and readers.

But a page is the basic unit of book design. It’s functional. It can be beautiful. And, not least in importance, it’s fixed in place, allowing us to remember that the passage we loved so much was about halfway through the book at the bottom of the page. This “positional memory” is important not just in reading but in editing as well.

All of that is lost on an electronic reader. One solution would be some kind of software that can replicate a printed page with all the beauties of traditional typography. Is there such a thing? Well, yes. It was invented by Adobe in the early 1990s and is known as Portable Document Format—that’s right: PDF.

Nearly all electronic readers support PDF, so the problem doesn’t lie with technology but with publishers looking for an easy way out—a single file that can be read on a screen of any size. That’s what EPUB is all about.

But is it really that difficult to turn a book into PDFs of various sizes? Most electronic readers have screens of 5, 6, 7.1, or 9.7 inches, which isn’t really that many sizes to deal with. Adjust the pages in InDesign, and off you go.

Doing that, of course, would mean extra work for publishers, who are always watching that bottom line, and for online retailers, who would have to offer the PDFs in those various sizes. And that means most publishers have turned to EPUB as their format of choice.

I read a lot of books in EPUB format, on my Android phone and tablet, and on my computer. And I’m sorry to say that many publishers seem to have abandoned any attempt at controlling the quality of electronic books. Block quotations are indistinguishable from body text; poetry is a mess; text is usually justified but with no attempt at hyphenation, resulting in widely spaced lines. And any attempt at beautiful typography? Forget it. In short, the experience of reading ebooks is far less satisfying than it could be. In most cases, I attribute this to sheer laziness on the part of publishers, who continue to crank out junk when the means to excellence lie readily at hand. For example, EPUB relies on CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), which can accomplish absolute miracles.

Fortunately, some people still care about readability and fine typography, and they are working to ensure that ebooks are as functional and beautiful as possible:

What about you? Do you publish books in electronic form? If so, what do you to make sure that your books are readable and beautiful?

Someday, in the distant future, someone who has read nothing but ebooks is going to stumble into an ancient library and open an honest-to-goodness book. Will that experience be an illumination, a revelation of what we have lost? Or will the reader say, “Wow, this is just as beautiful as my ebooks!”?

What do you think?

Jack Lyon (editor@editorium.com) owns and operates the Editorium, which provides macros and information to help editors and publishers do mundane tasks quickly and efficiently. He is the author of Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals and of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word. Both books will help you learn more about macros and how to use them.

June 24, 2013

Ebooks, Nook, & Barnes & Noble

Long-time readers of An American Editor are probably wondering whatever happened to the articles about ebooks. The answer really is that nothing much has been happening in ebookworld. The novelty of ebooks has worn off and there really hasn’t been such great movement in hardware as to warrant regular posts. In addition, all the problems previously noted about self-published ebooks remain.

I also haven’t done any book reviews — pbook or ebook — in a long time because I haven’t read any exceptionally great or exceptionally poor books in months. Most of the books I have read are worthy of at least 4 stars and approaching 5 stars; none have been worse than 3 stars. Do not misunderstand: The ratio of good-to-bad ebooks hasn’t changed (I’d guess there is 1 good ebook for every 25 poor ebooks in the self-publishing market), I’ve simply gotten better at weeding through the garbage and not wasting any effort on unworthy books.

Alas, the one trend I have noticed, it having become more pronounced, is that the quality of traditionally published ebooks in particular, although this is also true of an increasing number of pbooks, is getting worse. There is clearly a lack of competent, professional proofreading and editing.

The one significant change in the ebook industry has been the question of whether Nook is a dying brand. Not being an industry insider, I have no crystal ball knowledge about what is happening with Nook, except that Barnes & Noble seems to be selling the Nooks at rock-bottom prices.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, a few weeks ago I bought the Nook HD+ tablet on a great sale at my local B&N. It is still on sale at the stores and online. If you are looking for an excellent Android tablet, you should take advantage of this sale. In the few weeks that I have had this 9-inch tablet (the 7-inch HD is also on sale), I have come to prefer this device to any of my other ebook reading devices. It also has the advantage of being a real Android tablet (with the exception that you can only install apps from either Google Play or the Nook App store), so I can readily use it just as I would use any other tablet. I’m even enjoying watching the BBC’s “Sherlock” via Netflix streaming on the HD+.

I wouldn’t worry about whether Nook is a dying brand. The HD tablets are sophisticated enough that they will be usable for several years at least and at the sale price are less expensive than other similar specification Android devices.

But this brings me to B&N itself. In past posts I have suggested that B&N could resurrect itself. I still believe it can; it needs to surgically remove the cancer of exceedingly poor leadership at the very top. I cannot imagine any company making a comeback under the type of leadership B&N currently has.

A long time ago, I suggested that B&N has a significant advantage over Amazon, an advantage it needs to exploit — to-wit, its physical stores. I’m still waiting. I suggested that B&N should turn the stores into Nook centers; that is, a place where Nook users can bring their Nooks for person-to-person help. B&N has taken the first step in that when I bought my HD+ I happened to notice a small sign saying that there are Nook classes available, just ask a bookseller. But no one mentioned it to me when I bought the Nook — nor to any of the other people who were buying Nooks.

This should have been part of a massive ad campaign something like this: “Need Kindle help? Go online or call. Need Nook help? Go online, call, or go to your local B&N store where you can get hands-on Nook help, browse books, have a complimentary coffee, and get a 15% discount on all books, including ebooks, purchased while in the store.” The point is that B&N should be taking advantage of the synergy of the Nook and the physical store. But that appears to be asking for too much creativity from current B&N management.

The question is this: What is the future for B&N if it abandons the Nook? I know that top B&N management thinks the future will be rosier if Nook is spun off or sold or, in a worse case scenario, allowed to die, but that is really just another example of why B&N will likely follow Borders in the absence of management change. Short-sighted thinking seems to be the rule, which is exactly the opposite of Amazon’s management. I have to give Amazon and Jeff Bezos the credit they are due — they think long-term not short-term, which is why Amazon controls the retail book market in the United States.

There are three changes I have called for over the years that need to be made at B&N: (1) change top management, (2) fix customer service, and (3) make Nook and the B&N stores synergistic. It is pretty clear that current management thinks the solution is anything but those three. The idea that if B&N goes private all its troubles will disappear is to be an ostrich. The exact same problems will persist, only the ownership will have changed from public to private.

Does it matter whether and how B&N survives? Yes, on many levels it does matter. The problem is that survival is unlikely as long as management continues to think 19th century instead of 21st century.

Which brings us back to the question of whether you should buy a Nook. The answer is still yes for a lot of reasons, not least of which is the quality of the Nook HD/HD+ tablet. Even if B&N does go under, it won’t be immediate and the tablet can still access nearly any ePub ebook. In addition, as noted earlier, it is an excellent Android tablet that should easily last several years.

July 11, 2012

The Disappearing Book — A Boon for New Authors?

Thanks to Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader, I came upon a video, called “The Book That Can’t Wait”:

The essence of the video is that the publisher put together a pbook anthology of new author writings and gave it away (it was in a sealed bag to prevent air from getting at it). The catch was that the ink would disappear in 2 months leaving a blank book.

The idea is touted as a way to force people to read a book rather than simply add it to their To Be Read pile. I’m not sure how effective it is, as the ink doesn’t disappear until the seal wrapping is removed, which means I could add the book to my TBR pile and get to it 12 months later — as long as I didn’t break the wrapping.

But I find the idea of having the ink disappear in 2 months intriguing as a marketing tool. As with most tools, it is double-edged. Because the ink disappears, it is unlikely that readers will pay for the book, which means the publisher has to give it away for free. The other edge is that it is expensive to create such a book, only to give it away for free without assurances that it will actually be read in the immediate future or that if it is read, that the reader will like the contents enough (or some of the contents since this is being used as an anthological introduction to new authors) to buy books written by one or more of the profiled authors.

It also suffers from the marketing problem of being a pbook in what is fast becoming an ebook world.

The advantage to the disappearing ink is that a publisher knows that the book is unlikely to be “harvested” by readers simply because the book is free. This harvesting problem is becoming cause for concern as readers, myself included, grab free books and add them to an ever-growing TBR pile. My TBR pile currently has more books than I could read in 3 years of doing nothing but reading books 12 hours a day, yet I still add to the TBR pile because I don’t want to let bypass me a book that could lead me to a wonderful new reading experience. If it is in my TBR pile, there is a significantly greater likelihood that I will read the book than if I need to try to remember that I am interested in a particular book.

In a way, this is the problem with the publishing industry overall — both traditional and self-publishing — especially ebooks. Every day dozens of new titles are added to the catalogues and a good number of those new additions are books that I might want to read and so want to add to my TBR pile. Perhaps it is the problem of being overwhelmed with choice.

The gimmick of the disappearing ink certainly is an eyecatcher. I suspect that this would be a good way to entice me to set aside what is currently in my TBR pile to tackle the disappearing ink book. I know from past experience that if I find a new author who I like, I will buy the author’s books immediately on finishing the sampler book. In other words, the disappearing ink book could act as an effective method of moving books from the bottom of my TBR pile to the top.

This tactic was done with a pbook but a similar tactic could be done with ebooks. Put together a collection of books by different authors and give it a 60-day life from moment of download. Links could be included to each participating author’s other books, and if you buy a book from a participating author using an included link, you get both a code that extends the lifespan of the disappearing ebook by 30 days and a discount on the purchased ebook.

The biggest problem with this marketing idea is that ebooks that are offered for free are continuously offered for free and thus even if the ebook expires, it is easy enough to redownload. The primary incentive for reading the ebook now would be the link to an expiring discount on other books by the author. Yet, again, the fact that the ebook could be redownloaded tends to negate that advantage as well.

Do you have any ideas on how to adapt the idea of the disappearing ebook to a marketing strategy that could be successful? Or is this really just an idea that is best used for pbooks?

June 25, 2012

Why Aren’t Kindles Free-Marketed?

In all the hullaballoo over agency ebook pricing and how terrible it is to not allow ebooksellers like Amazon to discount ebooks and sell them at whatever price they want, even if it is at a loss, ebookers haven’t questioned the lack of dynamic pricing of ereaders themselves, especially that of Amazon’s Kindles.

Consider this: Every store that sells an Amazon Kindle sells it for exactly the same price as Amazon and every other retailer. And when one retailer has it on sale for $20 off, so does every other retailer. (This is also true of the Sony, Kobo, and Nook devices.)

Why aren’t ebookers complaining about this price-fixing? No, I’m not suggesting there is collusion between the companies to prohibit discounting of the devices. Rather, I find it disingenuous that agency pricing, which is a form of price-fixing, is so disliked among some ebookers that they complain about it and want it banned, yet no one has complained about the lack of price competition when it comes to the device to read the ebooks. Why is it OK for Amazon to price fix but not Macmillan?

I’m sure the immediate response will be that there is no complaint because the prices on these devices have dropped to where they are now half or less of the original cost. If that is the key to salvation, then all Macmillan needs to do is drop the price of an ebook from $12.99 to $10.99 and ebookers should be satisfied — after all a drop in price is a drop in price — but I know that would not satisfy. Why? Because the argument would be made that the ebook price would be even lower if true free-market competition were allowed.

So why isn’t that the ebooker argument when it comes to the devices? I could see, for example, Staples offering a free Kindle with the purchase of a $150 paper shredder, or Target offering a 50% discount on a Kindle with the purchase of Stephen King’s newest novel. But we don’t see those sales because Amazon is not ready to sell at those prices itself and no one is allowed to undersell Amazon.

If the argument against agency pricing is legitimately one against price-fixing, why doesn’t the argument carry over to the devices? What makes it OK in one category of product but not in a related category of product? When agency pricing is attacked, it is usually on the basis that it has caused ebook prices to rise.

There has been no comprehensive pricing study done, that I am aware of, to determine whether the cost of ebooks has risen, fallen, or stayed the same since the introduction of agency pricing across the entire spectrum of ebooks published by agency-pricing publishers. I know, for example, that many of the ebooks I buy cost less under agency pricing and I also know that the prices of bestsellers that Amazon sold at $9.99 have risen under agency pricing. What I don’t know is whether across the spectrum of agency-pricing publishers’ ebooks, as opposed to niches, prices have risen, fallen, or stayed the same. I think this is important information to have so that we can intelligently determine whether agency pricing is consequential or inconsequential.

It seems fairly clear to me that opponents to agency pricing fall into a few groups. There is a small group of ebookers who are free-marketers and believe everything should be priced elastically, based on demand — the libertarians of the marketplace who oppose agency pricing because it is controlled pricing. A second group of opponents are those whose reading now costs more because they only read/buy books that fall into the niches where agency pricing has caused prices to rise, such as the Amazon bestseller niche. It isn’t so much that they are opposed to agency pricing as they are opposed to the increase in pricing and assume that Amazon would, if it could, charge a lot less for the books they want to read and buy in the absence of agency pricing. The third group assumes that because prices in one niche increased under agency pricing that all prices increased and thus are opposed to agency pricing because it caused a rising tide of prices.

These same arguments can be made when it comes to the devices: In the absence of Amazon price-fixing its Kindles, WalMart would sell the Kindles for less; there would be a Kindle price war between WalMart and Target; Staples would offer package deals; and so on. On this, I would think all of the anti-agency-pricing ebookers would unite to lambast the device price-fixing. But here silence reigns.

I’m sure someone will point out to me how different these products are; how one doesn’t have to buy a Kindle to read an ebook bought from Amazon; how, instead, one could download a free app and read the ebook on one’s computer or tablet. I’m sure the point will be made that you don’t need the Kindle but you need the ebook in order to read it. It’s all true, but doesn’t change the fundamental points:

  1. There are no objective data to demonstrate whether agency pricing overall has raised, lowered, or done nothing to ebook prices except in niches.
  2. There are no objective data to demonstrate that in the absence of Amazon’s device price-fixing that the Kindle would not be available for less, even free.
  3. Whether price-fixing is OK or not OK should not be dependant on who is doing the fixing; that is, OK if Amazon is doing it, not OK if the big publishers are doing it.

Never discussed are what obligations the price fixers have, if any, to the consumer. Do publishers have an obligation to sell ebooks at price points that consumers want? Does Amazon have an obligation to free-market its Kindles?

Isn’t it interesting that without meeting ebooker demands as regards agency pricing the sales of agency-priced ebooks steadily grow? Isn’t it interesting that the freedom Amazon wants to price ebooks as it wishes Amazon isn’t willing to give to retailers of its Kindles? Isn’t it interesting that ebookers see no conflict in their demand for the end of agency pricing and their willingness to accept Amazon’s control of Kindle pricing?

We live in fascinating times!

May 2, 2012

The Tablet and Me: The Nook Tablet After a Couple of Weeks

A couple of weeks ago, my wife bought me a Nook Tablet. I related that experience, and my initial impressions, in The Tablet and Me: The Nook Tablet. Now that I have used the Tablet for a couple of weeks, I thought I would update my experience. (Note that I have not used or seen a Kindle Fire or Kobo Vox. Consequently, I cannot compare the Nook Tablet to either of those devices. My comments are not intended to imply that either the Fire or Vox cannot provide the same or similar experience. This is simply about my experience with the Nook Tablet.)

My primary ereading device has been my Sony 950, a 1.5-year-old eInk device that is no longer available except on the used market. My wife uses my Sony 505, which is now 4.5 years old, my original eInk device. Unlike the Sonys, the Tablet is an LCD screen, which means that it will be troublesome to read in sunlight and one does get some glare on the screen. There is no question in my mind that for straight reading of fiction, the eInk screen is more versatile at the moment.

But I have discovered something else — actually, several somethings else. First, contrary to my original thought that I would not like to read on a LCD screen after spending all day reading on LCD monitors, I actually do like reading on the Tablet. In many ways, I find it more enjoyable than reading on my Sony. This is possible because of the ease with which I can modify the screen brightness. Although I cannot literally mimic the eInk screen, I can make the contrast such that it is very comfortable to read for long periods.

Second, the Tablet weighs significantly more than the 950, although both are of the same 7-inch screen size. Add a cover, which I did, to the Tablet and the weight really climbs, or at least seems to when compared to the Sony 950. At first I thought I would find the weight annoying, but with use, I have found that I no longer notice it — unless I pick up my 950 between sessions with the Tablet.

Third, although both the 950 and the Tablet use touchscreen technology, the Tablet’s screen, when the device is off, really shows fingerprints (you don’t notice them when using the device). I find that I regularly am cleaning the Tablet’s screen. In contrast, the 950 doesn’t show the fingerprints and I clean the screen occasionally just because I know it needs it, not because I can see that it is needed. But the Tablet’s touchscreen technology is great. A very light, almost nonexistent tap on the screen changes the page; with the Sony, a swipe is needed.

Fourth is the excellent reading experience. I am slowly coming to prefer to read ebooks on the Tablet. Everything works to make my reading experience better. I can easily enlarge the font size, something I need to do as my eyes get older, and although I can also do the same on the 950, the Tablet gives me more choices.

The Tablet also gives me two other reading enhancements: the ability to select how the book should appear (e.g., narrow, wide, or very wide margins; and single, 1.5, and double line spacing; and whether the publisher’s default settings should be used or not) and the choice of typeface to display the material (e.g., Century School Book, Dutch, Georgia, Gill Sans). (There is also a “theme” option that lets me choose the background color.)

Overall, the control of the reading experience is much greater on the Tablet than on the 950 and the more I use the features of the Tablet, the more I am inclined for it to be my primary reading device.

Being an Android tablet, the Tablet also offers the kinds of features that would be found on more advanced tablets. I decided to try the apps feature. It comes with the Netflix app, so I entered my account information. I watched about 30 seconds of a movie just to try it. It works well and I can see possibly using it when I go on vacation. I bought a weather app (HD Weather, 99¢) so that I can get the local 5-day weather forecast.

That was pretty much it with the apps until about a week ago I decided to explore what apps are available. I found four that I grabbed immediately. The first is called The American Civil War Gazette (free). It provides daily newspaper articles from Northern and Southern newspapers regarding what was happening on the same date during the Civil War. It is a chance to relive the Civil War through the eyes of the newspapers of the time, day by day. A great app for anyone interested in the Civil War or just interested in trying to live history as if experiencing it personally.

The second app was Buddy Books (free). The app looks for ebooks available from B&N by category and/or price. I have played with it and it could be a better app, but it will certainly help me find ebooks when I’m ready to shop for them (which won’t be for a while; I have 200 ebooks in my Nook library already and hundreds more that I bought from Smashwords and Sony.)

The third app was the Smithsonian Channel (free). I am a long-time subscriber to Smithsonian magazine; I’ve been a subscriber since the 1980s and my current subscription runs through 2022. So I thought this would appeal to me. The app brings the Smithsonian Channel TV programs to the Tablet for free viewing at a time of my choosing. The problem is that I never watch TV and although I have the app, I still find I am disinclined to watch the TV programs. But you never know, and for free, I didn’t think I could go wrong.

The fourth app, is Audubon Birds (purchased for 99¢ on special sale; regularly $14.99). I bought this app for my wife who is a birder. It is the electronic version of the Audubon field guide and is absolutely wonderful. This app will get a lot of use. You can zoom in on the bird photos for more details; you can play their songs. It is packed with information that is easy to find and use.

As I wrote in the initial article on the Tablet, the Tablet was bought as a way for me to electronically read my daily New York Times. At first I thought that would likely be the limit of my use of the Tablet except when traveling. Even though I have had the Tablet for only a couple of weeks, I am finding that it is rapidly becoming my preferred ereading device, which is what I do 99% of the time I use the device. The Tablet has flaws, such as the need to clean the screen regularly, the glare/washout when used in the sun, and the inability to obtain Android apps from places other than B&N and install them, but I find these to ultimately be minor inconveniences the more I use the Tablet — especially when you consider the price I paid: $149 (for the 16GB Tablet) plus a 1-year subscription to the electronic edition of the New York Times.

If you are going to buy only one utilitarian device, I do not think you can go wrong buying the Nook Tablet.

April 9, 2012

The Tablet and Me: The Nook Tablet

For the past few months, Barnes & Noble has been offering deals on their Nooks if you purchased a 1-year digital subscription to the New York Times. I have been a long-time subscriber to the print version of the Times, but have been unhappy at the regular price increases for the print subscription. Alas, as unhappy as I proclaim myself to be over the price increases, my unhappiness was not enough to get me to cancel the subscription.

The Nook deal looked good to me. The digital version of the Times costs $20 per month; the regular print subscription was costing me close to $50 per month. I went and looked at the Nook Touch, which was free with the subscription, but didn’t buy it. I just couldn’t figure out what I would do with another ereader, as I am very happy with my Sony devices, both of which still work perfectly after years of use. Besides, I could get the same digital subscription at the same price on my Sony.

The reason I bought my Sony 950 was to digitally subscribe to the Times. I gave it a trial run, and although I was happy and would have continued, my wife didn’t like it; consequently, we went back to the print version. That was 18 months ago.

The Nook offer expired on April 5. My wife decided to give me an early birthday present and ordered the Nook Tablet (16GB version) with the Times subscription before the offer expired. I was pleasantly surprised. I had not considered the Nook Tablet, but her choice of device works perfectly for us. I’ll get to the reasons a bit later, but I want to first describe the problems we had when the Nook arrived.

The device worked fine on arrival. I had a problem getting my network to recognize it so it would have WiFi access, and I couldn’t get through to Nook support; they kept transferring me and hanging up. Ultimately, because we have Verizon FiOS Internet service, I called Verizon and within minutes I was connected to the WiFi. Apparently, Verizon gets a lot of calls from Nook owners with the problem, so they knew what to do immediately.

But this raises a question: Why is the Nook the only device to have to jump through hoops to get that initial connection? My Sony 950 connected without hesitation. Part of the problem is that the Nook asks for a network password when what it really wants is the network WEP key. Had I known what it wanted, I could have been up and running in seconds without a call to Verizon. My Sony asked for the WEP key, not a password.

Anyway, once connected to WiFi, I was able to complete registration of the device and link it to my Nook library. (Yes, I had a Nook library of books “bought” from B&N even though I didn’t own a Nook device. I downloaded the books to my computer and then used Calibre to load them onto my Sonys.) But what I couldn’t get was the New York Times, which was part of the purchase.

A call to B&N customer support, to which I was connected quickly, solved this mystery. Because my wife bought the device and used her credit card, the subscription was linked to her B&N account. Easy enough, I thought — just move it to my account. Turns out, B&N has no method for dealing with gift purchases and couldn’t transfer the subscription to my existing account.

I asked what was to me the obvious question: Doesn’t B&N hope that people will buy Nooks and subscriptions as gifts for others? Why make it impossible to do so? It reminds me of the early fiasco when B&N wouldn’t accept gift cards to pay for Nook books. Seems to be something missing in the thinking, which does not bode well for B&N’s ultimate success.

Because of the impossibility of transferring the subscription, we had to cancel the purchase, return the Tablet to the local B&N store, and buy another Tablet under the deal but on my credit card. How illogical is this? Here I had to return a perfectly good Tablet that B&N will now have to sell as a refurbished unit simply because they couldn’t transfer a subscription.

Even that, however, didn’t go as smoothly as it should have. To set up the Times subscription, I needed the e-mail address and password for my B&N account. The e-mail address was not a problem, but I had no idea what the password was (I use RoboForm, a password manager, to manage my passwords and to log me in). So I had to return home, get the password, and return to the local store to conclude the transaction. Once again, B&N isn’t thinking “customer first” service.

Truthfully, if this hadn’t been a birthday gift, I probably would have simply canceled the original transaction and gone no further.

In the end, the Tablet is up and running and I have my Times subscription. I canceled the print version and am saving myself $30 a month. Plus I can carry the Times with me and read it on the go.

As it turns out, the Nook tablet has solved another problem for us. We rarely use our cell phones. In fact, our cell phones are about 6 years old and don’t have any of the smartphone features so common today — no Internet access, no e-mail, etc.

Because our cell phones really do only one thing — albeit they do it very well — which is to make and receive phone calls, and because we are planning a vacation for this summer out to Utah and the national parks of the Utah-Arizona-Wyoming-Montana areas, we were thinking of upgrading our phones to smartphones. We think we need to have at least e-mail contact for business reasons. Alas, that would have meant a new 2-year commitment (currently, we have no commitment), something I was reluctant to do.

The Nook Tablet solves that problem for us. It gives us e-mail access and Internet access, assuming, of course, we can get a WiFi connection, which we should be able to do most of the time.

So far I am very pleased with the Nook Tablet. The screen is very good (although it is only 7 inches) and its functionality suits my needs. Although it doesn’t have the functionality of an iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab, it provides the functionality we need at one-third to one-fourth the price of a more functional tablet. Even with my limited experience with the Nook Tablet, I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for basic tablet functionality.

October 31, 2011

Silk Isn’t Enough: Amazon and the Library Book Borrower

Disregarding one’s privacy seems to be the in thing for companies to do today. It seems as if every time I turn around there is another story about another company or government agency ignoring privacy rights. And who can keep up with the constant shifting sands as regards privacy at websites like Facebook? A user needs to hire a full-time privacy protector to track the sand shifts.

And now there is Amazon, yet again. If you recall, I wrote about the privacy problems with Amazon’s new Silk browser (see Privacy in the World of Silk) and now I learn that Amazon, in cahoots with Overdrive, disregards user privacy when Kindle owners borrow books from their local library.

Sarah Houghton, a California librarian and blogger at the Librarian in Black blog, posted this video of her rant regarding Amazon, Overdrive, and privacy. I think everyone should take the time to view and listen to her rant; it is an eye opener, at least for any of us who fought for privacy rights when Congress was working on the “Patriot” Act (and who remember the McCarthy era and its aftermath , including J. Edgar Hoover’s wholesale disregard of citizen rights in the 1960s):

It has been said that the data collection that these companies undertake is really harmless. After all, what can be so bad about Amazon knowing every book you have borrowed from your local library? I find it interesting that these same people who aren’t bothered by corporations gathering our personal data will swarm the battlefront when it is the government that wants to collect the same data. Here is the question:

Why do we think corporations are more benign (or will use collected data about us more benignly) than our own government?

Another question to consider is this:

If our government came knocking on Amazon’s door and demanded that it turn over your library records, how long would it be before Amazon caved to the request?

Amazon and Facebook and other data-gathering companies are not our friend. They collect this data for multiple reasons, but all those reasons are for their benefit not yours. In Amazon’s case, the obvious, apparent, surface reason is so it can encourage you to buy similar books from it. But what prevents Amazon from turning such information over to a group that wants to identify, say, all those whose reading indicates they are opposed to gun ownership or all those whose reading indicates they favor abortion rights or all those whose reading indicates that they are fans of Glenn Beck? After all, Amazon and Facebook’s ultimate guiding principle is money — How would you know whether the antiabortion or progun or Anti-Glenn Beck for President group that is harassing you day and night got your name and information from Amazon?

I know it has been a long time since the HUAC hearings (that’s House Un-American Activities Committee for those of you who do not recall the McCarthy era of the early 1950s), but those days are not so far gone that they should be forgotten. The McCarthy era combined with J. Edgar Hoover’s misuse of the FBI in the 1950s and 1960s are largely responsible for today’s distrust of government. They were the foundations for the destruction of what had previously been a trust of government.

Today, many Americans are not only mistrustful of government but they seek to limit what other people know about them — except, it seems, for the younger generations who seem to find the public sharing of private information to be no problem. I admit I do not understand this lackadaisical approach to personal information on public display, yet it is this approach that companies like Amazon and Facebook are exploiting.

The problem with this lackadaisical approach is that we do not sit down and think through the possible/potential ramifications to our careers or about the effect such personal revelations might have in the future. Just because we think we are invincible doesn’t make it so!

Here’s one thought: Looking to get a job promotion, or perhaps a government job? If you don’t get it, could it be because you are reading the wrong books? Or might it have been that Facebook posting of your recent night on the town?

When government attorneys, citing the Patriot Act, demanded that a library turn over user borrowing information, the library and its librarians fought back. Do you think Amazon or Facebook would defend you and your right to privacy? This is worth pondering as we give up our privacy in exchange for being able to borrow library books using our Kindle.

Interestingly, none of the other ebook devices/companies that provide for library borrowing are reported to collect and use the data — only Amazon. Why? Also worth pondering is under what circumstances could today’s benign use of the gathered data turn nonbenign and when that occurs, what will we be able to do about it?

When we sign up for these services, we agree to a set of rules — terms of service. Yet, as Facebook esecially demonstrates on a near-weekly basis, those rules change with the wind. Today’s forbidden use by Amazon may well be tomorrow’s approved, standard use. And every time we use our Kindle or buy a book from Amazon, we say to Amazon, “I approve of what you are doing to me.”

June 24, 2011

Worth Noting: How Do the Nook and Kobo Touches Stack Up?

The Nook Touch, the newest reading device from Barnes & Noble, is a touchscreen device and sells for $139. The newest device from Kobo is the $129 Kobo eReader Touch, which also sports touchscreen technology. The big question is: How do the Nook Touch and Kobo Touch stack up against the Sonys and the Kindle 3?

As is always the case with technology, each has its pluses and minuses, and which plus or minus weighs more heavily depends on the individual user. The video reviews have already begun.

First up is a comparison of the Nook Touch to the Sony 350 (and essentially the Sony 650 and 950, too):

Second, is the Nook Touch vs. Kindle 3:

The Kobo Touch is the chief competitor to the Nook Touch. Here is a video review of the Kobo Touch.

As impressive as I find the Nook Touch and the Kobo Touch, I am still pleased that I bought a Sony 950, although to get the Sony features and larger size (the 950 is a 7-inch screen whereas the two Touches are 6-inch screens) I paid twice the price. For how I use my ereader device, however, neither the Nook Touch nor the Kobo Touch is up to par, and the Kindle 3 is simply far behind design-wise if you prefer, as I do, touchscreen technology to a physical keyboard that is omnipresent. (The screens of all the devices — Sony, Kobo, Nook, and Kindle — are similar as they all use the same eInk Pearl screen.)

However, if the factors bearing the greatest weight were price and “good enough,” there is no doubt I would buy either the Nook Touch or the new Kobo Touch. As between the two (and because I live in the United States), I am not sure. I certainly prefer the B&N eco system to the Kobo system, but Kobo has perhaps a better implementation. Because I am not interested in the “social” environment, I don’t consider that a plus or minus for the devices — just something for me to ignore.

For those of you who read this blog and who are deciding to buy one of the touchscreen devices — or are deciding not to buy one and go the Kindle route — what influenced your decision?

A couple of other things to note and consider: First, the touchscreen technology that the Sony, Kobo, and Nook are using is the same on all devices. Second, Amazon is usually a quick responder. I wonder what its response will be. And, finally, Sony has in the past announced new products in late August and made them available in October. Will Sony come up with something to shake things up again as it did last year with the combination of the Pearl screen and the infrared touchscreen?

June 22, 2011

The eBook Revolution’s Effects on My Book Buying & Reading

For many years my reading habits ran in cycles. For x period of time, I read only fantasy and science fiction. When that cycle came to an end, it was replaced with mysteries. As that cycle ended, I moved to nonfiction biography. And the pattern kept going — I would come to the book-buying and -reading trough and gorge on books that fell within a particular genre, satiate my appetite for that genre, and then move on to feast on another genre. For 50+ years, that has been my habit. Until 3.5 years ago…

…when I received my first ereader device, a Sony PRS 505, as a holiday gift. Suddenly my reading world was threatened with upheaval. At the time, I had been in my third year or so of reading largely nonfiction and the occasional novel. All of my book purchases were hardcover and I was spending upwards of $5,000 a year on hardcovers (I am not going to discuss my magazine reading as those habits haven’t yet been affected by the ebook revolution).

When I got my Sony I learned pretty quickly that I had limited options as to where I could buy ebooks. At the time, Sony used its own proprietary format; it hadn’t yet transitioned to the significantly more open ePub format, although that came about 8 months later. I also discovered, after purchasing my first nonfiction ebook for the Sony that nonfiction on the Reader was not going to be a practical option for me. Much of the nonfiction I read is heavily noted and accessing notes was awkward at best, impossible at worst.

I also purchased a couple of novels that I had wanted to read but which were no longer available in print, yet they were available as “reasonably” priced ebooks. And thus began a change in my reading habits, compliments of the ebook revolution. I found that reading fiction on the Sony was extraordinarily pleasurable. The screen was excellent; the ease of bookmarking was great; the ability to switch among books wonderful; and the ease with which I could carry multiple books everywhere with me was breathtaking. The Sony was meant for me and for any avid reader — as long as it was fiction.

That was the kicker — it had to be fiction. The Reader could handle nonfiction, but not all that well (and from what I could see of friends’ Kindles, the Kindle was in the same boat). So what to do?

In a way, solving my problem was easy. I have always viewed fiction and nonfiction differently. I consider 98% of all fiction as read-once-throwaway material; little of it was worth saving for any reason. I also consider fiction to be a “cheap” read. What I mean is that with only a few exceptions, the most I am willing to pay for fiction is the price of the mass market paperback discounted. In contrast, I consider 100% of the nonfiction I buy to be books I want to keep in my permanent library for future reference by me or someone else (note that I said that I buy; there is a lot of nonfiction that belongs in the fiction category of read-once-then-throwaway). I consider these books to be readable multiple times (although I do not do that with a great deal of frequency) and some of them to be collectible. Consequently, I will buy the hardcover and pay the price.

The ebook revolution affected my reading habits by “making” me buy and read fiction in addition to the nonfiction I buy and read. My habits have changed; my reading broadened. The ebook revolution also introduced me to a category of books that I would not have considered at all before the advent of ebooks — the self-published book. I still have not ventured into self-published nonfiction because I still give credence to traditional publishing and its vetting process, although that credence has been under attack in recent months as a result of traditional publisher carelessness that has been publicized.

Previous to the ebook revolution that began for me with the gift of the Sony, I would never have knowingly bought a self-published/vanity press book. No exception. But within weeks of receiving the Sony, I discovered Smashwords and free and 99¢ ebooks. I grant that there is a lot of poorly written, poorly edited, and poorly produced drivel at Smashwords, but I was willing to do my own vetting for that price. I also discovered Fictionwise, which had some very inexpensive fantasy books, especially with the sales.

I purchased a lot of ebooks from Smashwords and Fictionwise and soon found that I was devoting much of my reading time to fiction. I’d pickup a hardcover nonfiction book only to put it back down after a few minutes because I really wanted to read on my Sony. I was hooked. (I’m waiting for the American Psychological Association to create a new mental disease category for my ereader addiction.) I will admit that given my druthers, I’d druther read on my Sony (which is now the newer Sony 950) than read a print book.

It is a constant, daily struggle for me, and I am losing the battle with myself. As each day passes, I become ever so slightly more addicted to reading on my Sony 950 and less willing to pick up the pbook. This is causing me angst on another front: the financial front.

Because of how poorly many ebooks are produced, their high pricing, and the restrictions imposed by DRM, not least of which is the idea that I am “renting” the ebook rather than owning it, I am reluctant to abandon hardcover for my nonfiction. I think making that transition is at least 5 years, maybe 10 years, away for me. As well as my Sony 950 handles footnotes and endnotes, there are still things that dedicated ereaders do not handle well that are important to nonfiction, such as images. This conflicts me because the reading experience of the Sony 950 is so great.

As this internal battle rages, I find that in some cases I buy both the hardcover and the ebook versions of a particular nonfiction book. Granted this doesn’t happen often, but even I can see it happening with increasing frequency. Whereas when I was using the Sony 505, which I did for 3 years, I only purchased 3 titles in both formats, an average of 1 per year, since buying my Sony 950 at its release 8 months ago, I have purchased 2 books in both formats and have contemplated purchasing several more (but have not yet given in).

The one battle that the ereader has won, and it wasn’t much of a battle, is in regards to fiction: I will only buy fiction in ebook form, with the exception of a couple of authors whose books I am collecting, in which event I will buy both formats.

The other battles that the ereader has won are that of broadening my reading habits and skewing the number of fiction versus nonfiction books I buy. As for the former, I now read concurrently fiction and nonfiction rather than cycling and I read multiple genres of fiction rather than cycling. As for the latter, whereas I used to buy 20 nonfiction for every 1 fiction pbook, I now buy many more than 20 fiction for every 1 nonfiction I buy, although I read only 3 fiction for every 1 nonfiction (I have large to-be-read piles of both to get through). However, I rarely spend more than 99¢ on the fiction books.

My reading and buying habits have been significantly influenced by the ebook revolution. Has it affected your habits, too?

February 28, 2011

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break!

In 1936, in the movie Poppy, W.C. Fields tells his daughter, “If we should ever separate, my little plum, I want to give you just one bit of fatherly advice: Never give a sucker an even break!” It appears that Apple has adopted it as its motto for the 21st century, at least in regards to ebooks and publishers.

I’ve got to give credit where credit is due, and Apple deserves credit for great design. Apple’s approach is like wrapping a Volkswagen Beetle in a Lamborghini shell and proclaiming the new car to be a $100,000 car. Apple gives you a great shell but the components are often mediocre at best. And when a design flaw is caught out, the usual response seems to be it’s the customer’s fault — never give a sucker an even break!

Let’s face it — the iPad is really a so-so device. Pretty to look at, but not a great computing experience, especially when compared to notebooks that permit multitasking. Perhaps this will be cured in the forthcoming version 2, but even if it is, Apple still will be a company that treats its customers and partners as suckers — suckers who will part with hard-earned dollars in exchange for good design, mediocre performance, and anticonsumer restrictions. Just consider Apple’s recent insistence on getting a cut on all ebook sales.

The initial culprit in the current ebook fiasco was Amazon who spread its tentacles to far too quickly, giving Apple the opening it needed to give false hope to publishers and consumers that there would be another, better way. Regular readers of my blog may recall my post from 9 months ago, The Decline & Fall of the Agency 5, in which I wrote:

April 2011 is the month to prepare for armageddon in ebookdom. It is when the 2010 agency model pricing scheme will be buried by publishing’s 2010 savior, Steve Jobs and Apple. You read it here first.

All the stars and moons and planets will align and the caterwaul of panic will be heard throughout ebookdom, because that is when the Agency 5 — Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Penguin, and Hachette – will realize they have been snookered by the snooker master.

In April 2011, publishers will discover that the iBookstore is a losing proposition. Oh, Apple will have sold many millions of iPads, fulfilling expectations for a successful tablet, but the buyers, it will soon be discovered, either aren’t buying ebooks at all (maybe 1 or 2) or what they are buying they are buying from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Smashwords.…

Well, I wasn’t spot-on, but pretty darn close. iPads did sell millions and the iBookstore is a loser. iPad owners who are buying ebooks, emagazines, and enewspapers are buying them through the Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and publisher apps, not from the iBookstore. But Apple has moved to close down any pipeline that bypasses the iBookstore by making it impossible for those apps to remain in the Apple iOS system.

So, tell me again how much of a friend Steve Jobs and Apple are to publishing and to readers. How did Apple become the publishers’ white knight? How did Apple save publishers from the clutches of Amazon?

Publishers certainly have had their comeuppance. What was supposed to save the industry has turned out to be less a saving grace and more of another poke in the eye. The Agency 5 can sit back and be satisfied that what ebooks they are selling they are selling at their dictated price. But if they look at Random House’s ebook sales (remember that Random House was the only one of the big 6 not to embrace agency), they must look with jealous eyes.

So how did Apple’s “generous” offer in April 2010 help the Agency 5? It appears to have put them against the proverbial wall and offered them a rotten carrot — never give a sucker an even break! The Agency 5 will have to pay yet again (i.e., in addition to lower sales for going the agency route) for siding with Steve Jobs when the various ebook apps, including the Amazon, B&N, and Kobo apps, disappear from the iOS. Because of their greed and reluctance to embrace ebooks, the Agency 5 have shot themselves in the foot yet again. They bet on Apple and the iBookstore and the only winner was Apple.

The harder it is for people to buy ebooks, the fewer ebooks they will buy. Yes, I know the Agency 5 would prefer to sell fewer ebooks, but they are already doing that. This latest Apple move simply makes it more difficult for a large segment of the reading market to buy ebooks, a segment that no publisher can afford to ignore in the long run. It seems that no matter what the Agency 5 do in their attempt to thwart the rise of ebooks or to control pricing and sales, someone is waiting to prove to them that they really are fools for not embracing ebooks and trying to exploit the new market to its fullest — never give a sucker an even break!

On many levels I am glad to see the Agency 5 suffer from this blow; it seems to be fair payback for Macmillan’s and Simon & Schuster’s refusal to sell ebooks to libraries and for HarperCollins’ new change to library licensing terms that restrict the number of times an ebook can be lent even though libraries are paying 60+% more for an ebook version than for the hardcover version of the same book. (One example: A library can buy John Grisham’s The Confession in hardcover for $17.37 and lend it out hundreds of times. In ebook, a single license costs $28.95 and if the new HarperCollins license terms were applied, it could be lent only 26 times. In addition, while libraries have to pay $28.95 for an ebook version, the consumer, whose taxes support libraries, can buy the ebook version for $9.99.) It also seems fair payback for the outrageous pricing the Agency 5 have imposed on their ebooks.

It is clear to me that with each misstep that the Agency 5 takes, the more likely it is that increasing numbers of ebookers will remove DRM and share ebooks. When you make an enemy of someone whose good wishes you need, you invite them to retaliate as best they can. In the case of the Agency 5, the best way to retaliate is to not buy their books, or if you buy them, to remove the DRM and share them.

When will publishers ever learn?

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