An American Editor

February 9, 2011

On Today’s Bookshelf (VI)

My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of my to-be-read acquisitions. Fortunately, ebooks don’t weigh much.

My newest hardcover acquisitions include:

  • Behind the Dream by Clarence B. Jones (story behind Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech)
  • How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish
  • Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier

My ebook acquisitions include (an asterisk [*] following a book title indicates that I have completed reading the listed book):

Fiction

  • Olivia’s Kiss* by Catherine Durkin Robinson (see my review of this book: On Books: Olivia’s Kiss)
  • The Hunger Games Trilogy: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay* by Suzanne Collins (good series but not outstanding, although its appeal to young adult readers is evident)
  • Lady from the Jade Mountain by Jonathan Saville
  • The Man with the Iron-On Badge* by Lee Goldberg (excellent police-procedural-type story; well worth reading)
  • An Agent of the King by Nigel Slater
  • Faithful Warrior* by Basil Sands (not particularly well-written or interesting)
  • The First Betrayal by Patricia Bray
  • The complete Lord Vorkosigan* Series by Lois McMaster Bujold (an excellent and highly recommended series)
  • The complete Vatta’s War* Series by Elizabeth Moon Bujold (it, too, is excellent and highly recommended)
  • The complete Heris Serrano Series by Elizabeth Moon
  • The Healer’s Apprentice by Melanie Dickerson
  • New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd
  • Carved in Bone* by Jefferson Bass (an excellent murder mystery)
  • Daughters* by Consuelo Saah Baehr (well-written and interesting story of multiple generations of Arab daughters; similar to the outstanding Shayne Parkinson Promises to Keep quartet reviewed in On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept)
  • Starlighter by Bryan Davis
  • A Plunder by Pilgrims by Jack Nolte
  • The Sword Lord by Robert Leader
  • Justice is Served by D.P. Clark
  • Champion of the Rose by Andrea Höst
  • The Borgias by Alexandre Dumas
  • Ameriqaeda* by Markus Kane (a well-written thriller that imagines home grown terrorism in America)

Nonfiction

  • Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch (I bought this in hardcover but it still sits in my TBR pile, so I decided to buy the ebook version as well in hopes of getting to it sooner; the result is that I have finally started this long tome)
  • Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard
  • A Magnificient Catastrophe* by Edward J. Larson (see my review of this book: On Books: A Magnificient Catastrophe)

As you can see just by the length of the lists, in the past couple of months I have been more involved in reading fiction than nonfiction, and definitely more involved in ebook reading than print book reading. (Many of the fiction ebooks are available for free or for nominal cost at Smashwords. If you are willing to give indie authors a chance, you can obtain myriad ebooks, ranging in quality from poor to outstanding, with most falling in the good to above average range, for $2.99 or less — all the way down to free — at places like Smashwords, Feedbooks, and Manybooks.)

Although I have been trending toward reading more ebooks than pbooks, the trend really accelerated with the purchase of my new Sony 950 in late October. Reading on the device is so pleasurable, that I almost hate to pickup a hardcover book.

My browsing habits have also changed. In previous months and years, you could almost set your watch by my at-least-once-weekly habit of going to my local bookstore and browsing the new nonfiction releases and buying several books. Except to buy a new opera, I haven’t been to the local bookstore in a couple of months.

A recent New York Times article discussed the impact ereading devices are having on children. Apparently, the devices were high on the holiday wishlists of many children and for those who received one, has changed their leisure habits. One 11-year-old girl featured in the article has spent significantly more time reading and less time on the computer or watching TV since receiving an ereader for the holiday.

Although I rarely watched TV before getting my first ereader (a Sony 505), my habits, as I have noted in various articles on this blog, also changed. I began reading more fiction and more books overall. This change has been reinforced with the acquisition of my Sony 950.

Perhaps as these ereaders gain traction among the very young, reading will have a renaissance, something that would definitely be worthwhile.

November 29, 2010

Factors to Consider When Deciding What eReader Device to Buy

I’ve been pretty lax recently about writing articles for this blog. I’ve been busy trying to wrap up end-of-the-year work and deal with the holidays. The next week or two will be devoted to getting my holiday thank-you gifts mailed to clients.

However, I have been reading messages and blog posts telling people interested in buying their first ereader device which device to buy. I find most of the advice both wrong and unhelpful, so I thought I would give it a try.

First, let’s separate dedicated from multipurpose devices. If you won’t be satisfied with a dedicated device, then don’t consider a Kindle, Sony, Kobo, or nook or any eInk device. Look at an LCD-screened device such as the iPad and Samsung Galaxy or a laptop computer with an application. Essentially these are regular computers with ebook applications.

Among the dedicated devices — and there are a lot of them — for United States and Canada buyers, four stand out for consideration: nook, Sony, Kindle, and Kobo. Choosing among these four is a safe way to go; the companies are likely to be around for years to come. The real question is how to choose among the four. Each has its pluses and minuses, and contrary to what some bloggers, commentators, geeks, tech reviewers, and posters (hereinafter collectively referred to as bloggers) think, Kindle is not the outstanding or obvious choice. Rather, it all depends on how you will use the device and what is most important to you.

Consequently, the place to begin is by deciding what features are most important to you. Is it price? If price of the device is most important, then none of the Sonys are apt to meet your need because each of the Sonys is more expensive than the nook, Kobo, and Kindle.

Is it wireless connectivity? If yes, then my question is why? Yes, it is nice to be able to download to the device directly from the ebookstore rather than having to download first to your computer and then copy the book from your computer to the device via USB. But how often do you think you will really use this function? I generally buy books once or twice a month, so the wireless on my Sony 950 gets used at most twice a month, which isn’t very often. And even with the wireless, I prefer to first download to my PC because that way I have a copy of the book on my PC as a backup copy; if I download it directly, then the only copy is what exists in the cloud, which means I have to hope that it will always be available for downloading to my device. I haven’t forgotten when Amazon deleted all copies of one edition of 1984 because the copy violated copyright even though customers had paid for it.

Would you prefer touchscreen navigation or arrow navigation? Each of the devices has a dictionary. But how they access the dictionary is different. The Sonys use touchscreen technology, consequently I double-tap on a word and the dictionary definition pops up. On the Kindle, I have to use direction arrows to move to the word I want to lookup, select the word, and then select the dictionary function. For me, the tradeoff between wireless and touchscreen is worthwhile because I access the dictionary regularly, but buy books occasionally.

Some bloggers emphasize that Amazon, on average, has the lowest ebook prices. This is certainly true, but meaningless — just as it is meaningless that B&N’s ebookstore has more than 1 million books (many of which are the free public domain books available from Google) — unless the books you want to read are available at a price you are willing to pay. What does it matter to me if Amazon sells vampire romance novels for $50 less than any other store if I would never buy such a book? If ebook price is the key, then the best thing to do is to check out the pricing at Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Sony of the last 10 books you read and the next 10 you would like to read. (An easy way to do this is to use Inkmesh, an ebook comparison tool.) In my case, buying the books at Sony would have cost me $3.50 more in total than had I bought them at Amazon, not a significant difference to me. Also, price is not the only factor to consider: regardless of the number of books available at each store, not all books are available at all stores, so you need to make sure that the books that are of interest to you are available.

Screen clarity is another issue. As of this writing, the Kindle and the Sonys have the best screen clarity. Both use the newest version of eInk screen, commonly referred to as the Pearl screen. Eventually nook and Kobo will also adopt this screen. Some bloggers wonder about fingerprints on the Sonys because they are touchscreen and they complain about the visibile fingerprints on the LCD touchscreen of the iPad. My personal experience is that this is not a problem. After a month of constant use (averaging 4 hours every day), I still didn’t observe smudges on my screen except in one corner where I was constantly double-tapping to add a bookmark.

Another issue is device build quality. If this is paramount, then I think there is no choice but to select a Sony. The Sonys are well-built solid devices that do not feel like cheap plastic. This is one of the things I dislike about the nook and the Kindle — both feel cheaply constructed. Note that I said “feel” — I opted to buy a Sony and so have no long-term experience with any of the other devices as regards build quality. The only thing I can say with absolute certainty is that my 3-year-old Sony PRS-505 is still going strong and appears to be brand new; my new Sony PRS-950 is built of the same metal components as the 505 was.

The last issue I’ll mention is local library access. The Sonys allow you to borrow ebooks from your local library (assuming your local library has them to lend). The other devices do not.

There are several other important considerations but not room enough to delve into all of them. Perhaps the most important one left is that of formats. Format is important because the more universal the format, the more bookstores that are available for you to shop at. The nook, Kobo, and Sonys all read ePub format. The nook adds an extra layer of DRM (digital rights management) “protection” to its books so that buying a book at B&N to read on the Kobo or Sony requires an extra step to strip the DRM. However, any book you buy at Sony or Kobo can be read on the Sony, Kobo, or nook device as is; any book bought at B&N can be read on the Sony or Kobo device if the DRM is removed, which is very easy to do, as well as on the nook. Amazon, on the other hand, does not use the ePub format and it is not easy to strip the DRM from an Amazon book. Consequently, for the most part, if you buy a Kindle, you are restricted to the Amazon bookstore and to ebookstores like Smashwords, Feedbooks, and ManyBooks, which provide DRM-free books in formats compatible with all of these devices. Those who are very tech savvy can find ways to strip some of the DRM from Amazon books and convert the books, but not from all of the books that Amazon sells. The widest ebookstore selection is available to devices that read ePub. However, if you only ever plan to buy ebooks from Amazon, then the Kindle is your best bet.

Ultimately, I suggest you look at the information available on MobileRead’s Wiki to learn about each of the devices available. Information about Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s nook, Kobo’s Kobo, and the three Sony devices (PRS-350, PRS-650, and PRS-950) is available by clicking the links. You would also do well to join MobileRead and read what owners of the various devices have to say for and against the devices. But under no circumstance should you simply buy a device without first analyzing your reading habits and getting a device that matches your habits most closely. It is likely that once you buy a dedicated device you will find you are reading more than ever before — this seems to be the one common thread that joins all of the various device owners: ereading devices are so pleasurable to use that the amount of time spent reading for pleasure increases.

Happy Holidays!

July 5, 2010

Finding an eBook to Buy

How many hours do you spend sitting at your computer for work and pleasure? How many hours are you willing to spend reading an ebook on your work computer? How many additional hours are you willing to spend to search through ebook websites to find an ebook to read?

I find these latter two questions to be the ones that haunt me as I try to find an ebook to buy and read. I broached this topic in an earlier article, Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers, but didn’t really delve into the problem of reading on my computer.

Beginning with the first question, I spend 6 to 8 hours every day (often including weekends) working at my computer. I’m an editor and these days, most editing is done on the computer, not using paper and pen. Included in that time is some time spent on “pleasure” activities, such as bill paying online or finding information on why my cat is retching on the carpet. Important stuff that is not work related and thus must be pleasure related.

So now I’ve spent a considerable amount of time surrounded by the 4 walls of my office, staring at my 3 monitors, and reading, for the most part, manuscript that is in need of my editorial skills. Now I want to relax, leave my office behind — especially my computer — and read an ebook for pleasure rather than work. I do not want to continue sitting in my office and reading on a computer screen. Yes, I do own a laptop, so I could move to a more comfortable spot and read on it, but using my laptop is just an invitation to do more work; my laptop is essentially a duplicate of my desktop system except that it is a single-monitor system and portable. I stared at an LCD screen all day; do I really want to do it some more?

Besides, the laptop isn’t exactly lightweight. It is difficult to hold like a book so that I could lie in the hammock and read. Well, truth be told, I can’t really take the laptop outside because I can’t read the screen in the sun. So now my Sony Reader comes into play. Using it is like reading from a paperback. I can hold it easily in 1 or 2 hands and at the easy-to-read angle depending on how I am relaxing. For me, at least, using my Sony rather than my laptop for pleasure reading is a no-brainer. And the e-ink screen is easy on the eyes, just like a printed book.

OK, the first 2 questions are answered: I spend too much time working on my computer screens and, no, I do not want to spend any more time reading for pleasure on those same screens. The idea of pleasure reading is that it be enjoyable, pleasurable, and somewhere other than in my office. That takes us to the third question: How many additional hours are you willing to spend to search through ebook websites to find an ebook to read?

If I want something from the latest bestseller list, finding the ebook is easy. For me, I can just go to the Sony eBookstore. The problem is that I rarely read books from the bestseller lists; I want to find new authors whose books are worth reading and reasonably priced. I do not want to pay $12 to $14 for an ebook that I am essentially borrowing.

Consequently, I tend to migrate to places like Fictionwise (which appears to be on its death bed as a result of recent moves by its owner, Barnes & Noble), Smashwords, Books for a Buck, Feedbooks, and other similar places. But there are so many and there are way too many choices to sort through. I recently timed how much time I spent at Smashwords trying to find a few ebooks for July 4th weekend reading. Truth is that after an 30 minutes, I simply abandoned the quest. Why? Turns out Smashwords is having a great sale this month on some books. But “some” is a big misnomer — there are approximately 800 books being offered just in the category Newest & Longs — that’s 80 “pages” of books to sort through in just this filtered category; if I don’t filter by using Longs, there are 1446 pages, each with 10 ebooks on it!

And I have to read the descriptions of many of the books to make the determination of whether I might be interested. Sometimes I can tell simply by the title or the price (e.g., I’m not interested in 450 Home Business Ideas nor in paying $9.99), but most times I at least have to read the description. So, after a relatively short time I say enough — I no longer am willing to stare at my computer screen.

When I suggested that better filtering was needed (Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers) by ebooksellers, several commenters wrote to praise Amazon’s filtering methods. Alas, however, I do not have a Kindle (and so cannot use an ebook bought from Amazon), so the response was I could get the free Kindle applications that work on my cell phone or PC. Yup, just what I want to do — read an ebook on my cell phone; and I’ve already — I think — dismissed the idea of reading on my computer.

The real answer is for places like Smashwords to become more in tune with customer needs, and, concomitantly, author needs, by offering better filtering. Think about those authors whose books appeared on pages 20 to 80 of the 80 pages I was looking at before the holiday — I never got to their books, so they never had a chance to sell me a copy, because I lost interest long before I ran out of options.

eBookstores have the technology available to offer customers and authors better filtering options. If they want to succeed down the road, they need to implement those options. If anything is going to hurt the indie author, it is the frustration in trying to find his or her book — to find that needle in the haystack of needles.

January 29, 2010

The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (II) — Starbucks 1, Publishers 0

On January 23, 2010 The New York Times had a front-page article titled, “On Kindle’s List, the Best Sellers Don’t Necessarily Need to Sell.” The article went on to discuss the phenomenon with which most savvy ebookers are familiar: many of the “bestsellers” on any ebook bestseller list are free titles. More important to publishers is that many of those bestsellers are always-free public domain books, not paid-for ebooks being given away temporarily as promotions.

The article went on to discuss publisher approaches to freebies, how freebies are promotional, and other good reasons why giving away an ebook is good and/or bad. (Sadly, the article neglects to mention some of the best sources for free ebooks such as MobileRead and Feedbooks. Free ebooks at these two sources are well-formatted and generally well-edited by a caring community.)

Let me say upfront that I like free ebooks–afterall, who doesn’t like free. Free ebooks have introduced me to authors whose work I never would have read otherwise. But let me also say that with rare exception, I have not proceeded to buy other books of the new authors I have liked. (I do, however, buy a lot of ebooks and hardcovers — more than 100 of each type in 2009.)

Free ebooks are a two-edged sword for publishers and authors. On the positive side, it introduces readers to authors they might not otherwise have read. In my case, it introduced me to David Weber, author of the Honor Harrington Series, and now I buy all of his books in hardcover. On the other hand, it also introduced me to Fiona McIntosh, author of the Quickening Series. I liked her writing but have not bought either of her newest two books (books 1 and 2 of her Valisar Trilogy) because the publisher set the ebook prices higher than the paperback prices.

So, problem #1 is that many publishers still have no clue about what differentiates an ebooker from a print copy buyer. In the case of David Weber, Tor/Baen gave away older Weber ebooks and reasonably priced new ebooks, thereby gaining a new reader, whereas for Fiona McIntosh HarperCollins/Eos gave away the ebook then threw away the reader with excessive pricing.

Problem #2 is that publishers are creating reader pricing expectations. Readers expect that sometime down the road an author’s newer books will become freebies too, so why buy now, especially at exorbitant pricing. Once the impulse buy is lost, readers tend to forget the author and move on. Yes, the Times article quoted some success stories, but remember this: It is still very early in the ebook revolution (ebooks account for only 5% of the current book market) and what happens today doesn’t indicate what will happen tomorrow. Let me repeat: The ebook bestseller lists are stacked with freebies, not paid-for ebooks.

Let’s consider consumer thinking for a moment. Many people rush to their Starbucks and plop down $4 for a coffee. Within minutes the coffee and the $4 have disappeared, neither to ever be seen nor savored again. This is the Starbucks law: Make the product a one-time consumable and require new payment for the next one-time consumable.

Contrast consumers’ willingness to buy the coffee with their willingness to pay for ebooks. An ebook, unlike the coffee, can be savored over many hours and can be resavored 2 years later. Read that $5 ebook 5 times, and each reading has cost $1; try drinking that same cup of coffee twice let alone 5 times — it simply can’t be done. The coffee is $4 for a one-time thrill whereas an ebook is multiple thrills that cost less each time. This is the anti-Starbucks law: Make the product consumable multiple times  with each consumption costing less. Yet, consumers balk at paying for an ebook and publishers feed the freebie frenzy.

Clearly, publishers aren’t making their case about value very well. Isn’t there something amiss when Starbucks can convince someone to part with $4 for a one-time, short-lived thrill but publishers can’t convince anyone that their product has greater value because it is a long-lived thrill. Perhaps the time has come for publishers to demote the bean counters and promote those who give value to their product. There is no financial future in free books for any publisher or author.

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