An American Editor

August 8, 2012

The Shirking of Responsibility

Filed under: Miscellaneous Opinion — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , ,

Making the blog rounds in the not-too-distant past was commentary about how the new Nook with GlowLight has an easily damaged screen. The posts and comments came about as a result of an article that appeared at Gizmodo, “You Really Don’t Want to Drop the New Nook Simple Touch.” The article author relates what happened when he accidentally dropped his remote control onto the unprotected screen of the Nook.

A lot of bloggers immediately jumped all over the Nook. I understand that screen fragility can be a problem. Most of us know that we cannot drop our ereaders into a bathtub filled with water and expect the device to continue working; the devices aren’t waterproof. Similarly, most of us know that we cannot give our ereaders to a 6-month-old baby to play with; the devices aren’t childproof.

Yet many of these same people think the Nook should have been made car-key and remote-control proof. Why? We all know that the chance of being shot in America is high. Should the devices therefore be made bulletproof? The likelihood of carrying the device outside during a rainstorm is probably higher than the likelihood of dropping a remote control on the device, so shouldn’t the device be made waterproof?

It seems to me that we know that these devices are delicate before we buy them. Consequently, many of us buy protective covers and make an effort to keep the screen protected. It is also one of the sale pitches made when the sellers try to get you to buy extended warranty protection that protects against even dropping car keys on an unprotected screen.

But all of this is really beside the point, which is self-responsibility. In recent years, I’ve noted an increase in finger-pointing: whatever is wrong is wrong because it is someone else’s fault. The finger-pointer rarely points to him- or herself while claiming to be part of the problem. Need we look any further than the American Congress? Everything is President Obama’s fault, nothing is the fault of congressional partisanship.

Even in the world of ebooks the lack of personal responsibility is evident. Consider how many ebookers think there is nothing wrong with pirating an ebook simply because it can be done or because the price is too high or because the edition the ebooker wants isn’t yet available. The justifications are myriad but what is really important is that the moral code of responsibility for one’s actions has deteriorated in the Internet age.

The Internet has made it easy for people to find like-minded netizens who encourage antisocial behavior and the finger-pointing that occurs. Even if a person takes steps to assuage some critics, there are always new critics who are not satisfied. Because the Internet has made it easy to shout one’s complaints to a worldwide audience, we have become a society of complainers rather than of solvers.

I’ve noted an additional phenomenon of the Internet age that acts as support for the lack of self-responsibility; that is, the Internet supports and encourages anonymity, which tends to drown out solutions and trumpet problems or claimed problems. In my youth, which I admit was a very long time ago, if I had a complaint, I had to make it in person or in writing with my identity clearly revealed. Everyone ignored anonymous letters and telephone calls. Contrast that with today. Anonymous is found everywhere.

Reputations are readily sullied today by anonymous rantings. As I noted in The Uneducated Reader, people give credence to anonymous book reviews, even to ones where the reviewer clearly has not read the book. As a result of the anonymous phenomenon that the Internet encourages, people believe they can say and do anything without the need to take responsibility for what they say and do.

Consequently, products that work well are subject to atypical tests and downgraded because they fail the atypical test. How many Kindles, I wonder, could withstand concrete blocks being dropped on them from a height of 5 feet or could survive being washed by itself in a washing machine (normal cycle) and then run through the dryer for an hour at high heat? Isn’t that how you would clean a dirty ereader?

Look at what people display on social media like Facebook about themselves. Do I really care that Jane Doe got rip-roaring drunk last night? In olden days, the world didn’t know about it; today, there is not a place in the world that doesn’t.

This is not only a problem of a lack of self-responsibility, it is also a problem of lack of self-esteem. The two seem to go hand-in-hand — the more a person lacks self-esteem, the more irresponsible they seem to be and the more they are inclined to finger point. The more they finger point, the more they are willing to see themselves as outside the problem and not part of the problem.

Am I the only one who has noticed this?

January 16, 2012

Why Won’t Amazon Compete in the ePub Market?

Since the beginning of the “modern” ebook era, when Amazon entered the marketplace with its Kindle, I’ve wondered why Amazon chose to follow its own path as regards format and DRM rather than adopting the ePub standard and a more benign or universal form of DRM. I’ve wondered because by choosing its own path, Amazon has decided that readers who are not Kindlers (by which I mean consumers who read on dedicated e-ink devices that are incompatible with Amazon and thus cannot buy ebooks at Amazon unless they are willing to strip the DRM and convert the file, which the majority are either unwilling or unable to do) is not a demographic to woo.

What is it about ebooks that makes them different from virtually every other market that Amazon is in? Amazon sells, either directly or indirectly, all kinds of universally usable electronic equipment and entertainment. It does not sell, for example, digital music or movie DVDs that are incompatible with the devices consumers already own or buy at Amazon or elsewhere. Only in ebooks has Amazon struck a different path.

In every other category of goods for sale at Amazon, Amazon tries to woo every consumer it can. Only in ebooks does it deliberately exclude millions of potential customers. Why? What is it about ebooks that warrants this divergence by Amazon from its very successful business plan? Granted that Amazon would prefer to sell you a Kindle and lock you into its eco system, but that, at least on the surface, makes no sense as a reason to exclude millions of other ebook consumers from being able to buy ebooks at Amazon. One would think that Amazon’s priority is to sell ebooks on which it makes a profit, not reading devices on which it is said to lose money.

Try as I might, I see no obvious reason for this discrepancy. Amazon could sell its Kindles and also sell ebooks in a Kindle-specific format alongside an ePub format. Or it could sell its Kindles and simply make Kindles ePub compatible. Yet it does neither. It prefers to exclude millions of ebookers who are using devices that require the ePub format.

So I ask again: What makes the ebook market different from the other entertainment markets in which Amazon competes?

It surely can’t be because Amazon doesn’t think it can have a winning hand. Amazon has competed and continues to compete in the hardcover and paperback market on equal terms with all competitors, yet it is the dominant bookseller in those markets. I would expect Amazon to dominate in the ePub ebook market as well, simply because of its marketing prowess, its reputation for value and low prices, and its willingness to operate at a loss fiscal quarter after fiscal quarter.

Although no one has accurate numbers, I think it is reasonable to speculate that Sony, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble have sold millions of ereading devices, not one of which is compatible with the Amazon ebook store. Yet every B&N-branded device is compatible with the Sony and Kobo ebookstores (and every ePub ebookstore except Apple’s) — buy a book at Sony, download it to your computer, and sideload it onto your Nook. No questions asked. Similarly, Kobo and Sony devices work the same with any ePub ebookstore except B&N and Apple.

Why is Amazon willing to ignore the millions of readers in the ePub market? Strategically, Amazon has always tried to make people want to shop at Amazon because of price, selection, and ease of buying. Isn’t that the rationale behind the patenting of the 1-click system? And this is the strategy Amazon follows in everything it sells — except ebooks. Why?

I wonder about this but have no answer. I’m certainly open to suggestions, but I struggle to see how ebooks are different from movie DVDs, digital music, televisions, baby diapers, or any other commodity within Amazon’s sales world. The rationale for establishing an exclusionary system for ebooks when all else is inclusionary eludes me.

What else also eludes me is why Amazon thinks this is good policy for Amazon. Amazon has always worked on the principle that if a person buys their hardcover or paperback books from Amazon, they will also buy their TV from Amazon. So if a person won’t or can’t buy their ebooks from Amazon, are they likely to buy their TV from Amazon? Does this exclusionary policy on ebooks have a snowball effect on other items Amazon sells and on the other markets in which it competes?

Consider this difference as well: Amazon has gone to great effort to create the Kindle, its own dedicated reading device using a proprietary format and DRM scheme. But it hasn’t gone to that effort for other devices such as a DVD player. Why? What makes ebooks and the ebook market different from every other commodity that Amazon sells and every other market in which Amazon competes?

The only answer I have come up with, and I don’t find it a satisfactory answer, is that of all the industries represented by the goods that Amazon sells, the weakest in every sense of the word is the publishing industry, making it the one industry that is highly vulnerable to a direct attack by Amazon. Amazon can become a major publisher because of the industry’s weakness and thus be a vertically integrated enterprise — something that would be much more difficult and costly if attempted in the movie or TV production industries.

Of course, the same question can be asked about B&N’s choice of a DRM scheme, but at least B&N has made it freely available to all other device makers. That it hasn’t been adopted by Kobo or Sony, for example, does make me wonder if B&N hasn’t made a major error in not changing its DRM scheme to be compatible with Sony and Kobo. I think given a choice between the Sony, Kobo, and B&N ebookstores, most ebookers would shop at B&N, even if they prefer the Sony or Kobo device over the Nook.

What do you think?

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!

November 2, 2010

WOW! That’s My Take on the New Sony 950

I finally received my new Sony Reader, the PRS-950, and have been using it for the past few days. All I can say is WOW!

The first thing I did was enter a subscription to the New York Times. If I didn’t enjoy reading the Times on it, then the plan was to return it. The second thing I did was load on Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire, which I was in the middle of reading on my Sony PRS-505.

I began “testing” the 950 by continuing to read Larsson’s book. Turns out, the new 950 weighs less than my 505, so it is easier to hold. The reading experience is better as well. Even though it has a touch screen, a short finger swipe changes pages, the text is sharper than on the 505, whose screen was considered the gold standard for e-ink readers. In the predecessor 900 model, the touch screen, which was a different type than what is on the 950, did not receive accolades.

Then came the Sunday morning New York Times. Alas, if what you like to read are the advertisements, you are out of luck — the electronic version currently is ad free. But if your focus is on the stories, then the electronic version has them all. I found it easy to use and navigate and the same text as was in the print version appeared in the electronic version (I compared several of the articles). As bonuses, the electronic version is half the price of the print version and I can receive the electronic version when I want it, not having to wait for the delivery person to get out of bed — well almost. As I discovered today, the current day’s edition isn’t available until 5 a.m., which was a bit annoying this morning as I tried to retrieve it beginning at 4 a.m. But 5 a.m. is better than 8 a.m. or not at all, which is what my home delivery has become the past couple of months.

The biggest objections to the Sony 950 are its price ($299 without a cover), it is only available in silver (I would have liked black), and it uses a micro rather than a mini USB cable to charge. (If it had used the mini, I could have used the same charging device for both my 950 and my cell phone.) Except for price, the others are very minor obstacles. I must admit that I would also have liked to have received a printed user’s manual rather than the PDF version, especially as it is a long manual, but I can at least view the manual on either my desktop or via a printout.

The price has to be put in perspective. The immediate comparison that most people make is to the Kindle 3, which with all its bells and whistles runs $189. However there are some differences between the 2 units that increase the cost of the Sony, the two most notable differences being the touchscreen (Kindle uses a physical keyboard, buttons, and a joystick to navigate; the Sony uses a virtual keyboard, a couple of basic buttons if you want, and your finger or a stylus that comes with the device) and the screen size (the Kindle is a 6-inch e-ink and the Sony is a 7-inch e-ink; both use the new e-ink Pearl so are comparable in terms of clarity).

The Sony also provides basic web surfing capability and e-mail capability, which is nice for those of us who either rarely use a cell phone or who use cell phones without data capability (I happen to fall into both categories). It will be nice to be able to travel with just my Sony 950 and still receive e-mails.

For me, the biggest advantage the Sony has over the Kindle is that it accepts ePub format, which Kindle does not; I can buy ebooks at lots of different places, which is something I like.

I’m enjoying this 950 so much, I’m thinking about buying a second one for my wife. She is inheriting my Sony 505, which still works perfectly after 3 years of use, but the 950 has charmed me with its ease-of-use and greater functionality. The advantage to getting her a 950 of her own is that she will no longer have to wait for me to finish the New York Times before she can read it. That is one advantage that the print version has over the electronic version.

If you are looking for a great holiday gift and have been thinking about an ereading device, be sure to check out the new Sony 950 (the 650 is a 6-inch touchscreen version but without wireless; the touchscreen and the screen clarity are identical to that of the 950).

September 7, 2010

Is This the Time to Take the Plunge? New Reading Devices Appear

Within the last 60 days there has been a bevy of announcements of new ereading devices. Amazon announced what is popularly called the Kindle 3 and Sony has announced 3 new models — the 350, 650, and 950. How far behind other makers will be is hard to tell, but the upcoming holiday season should be a good one for device buyers.

So the question is this: Is this the time to take the plunge and buy a dedicated ereading device if you don’t already own one? The companion question, of course, is if you own one that is more than a year or two old, is now the time to “upgrade”?

I’ve made it clear any number of times that I am not a fan of Amazon. But that doesn’t mean the Kindle isn’t a good device — it is. For me, the Kindle continues to suffer from the same design flaws as always — (1) it reminds me of my laptop with its physical keyboard and (2) it doesn’t accept DRMed (digital rights managed) ePub files that let me shop at, for example, Barnes & Noble unless I strip the DRM from the B&N file and convert the DRM-stripped file to a format the Kindle likes. But if you shop for books exclusively at Amazon (a practice that I think has bad ramifications for all consumers), the Kindle is a good device, especially the new K3 with the enhanced eInk screen called Pearl.

Amazon’s new Kindle has several things going for it. First, the greatly improved Pearl screen. Second, the device has been made thinner and lighter and smaller, although the screen size (6 inches) remains the same. Third, is Amazon’s great customer service, the envy of the industry and something B&N and Sony should be emulating. Fourth, ease of use. And, finally, great new pricing — top-of-the-line (covers both WiFi and 3G forms of wireless) comes in at $189 and the WiFi-only version comes it at $139.

Sony’s three new devices — the 350, 650, and 950 — are greatly improved versions of current models (the 300, 600, and 900) and are also known as the Pocket, Touch, and Daily Editions, respectively. Each also represents a different screen size: the 350’s screen is 5 inches, the 650’s is 6 inches, and the 950’s is 7.1 inches. Like the new Kindle, these are the new Pearl screens.

Unlike the Kindle, which is menu and button driven, the Sony’s use a new touch screen technology on which you can use either your finger or an included stylus. If you love your touch screen cellphone or iPod-type device, you are likely to love Sony’s touchscreen technology as well. For those of us who aren’t acquainted with the technology, there may be a short learning curve.

Sony also has its flaws. Perhaps the most significant flaw is the failure to include a firmware upgrade that would expand the DRMed ePub capability to include the B&N flavor of DRM. This is significant because there are now 3 major places where one cannot buy ebooks for their Sony without stripping the DRM from the files: B&N, Amazon, and the iBookstore.

The inability to buy DRMed books from Amazon is an industrywide problem; Amazon has chosen to limit access to Kindlers and those willing to strip and knowledgable about stripping DRM and converting file formats. But B&N and the iBookstore sell flavors of ePub and Sony should have made at least the B&N flavor available. I think what Sony is missing is the point that there is a format war (think Betamax vs. VHS or Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD) and that winning the format war ultimately is more important than keeping customers from visiting other bookstores. (In this regard, the iBookstore doesn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen. Steve Jobs and Apple would rather go down in flames than give up any control.)

The second flaw is in pricing. The Sony devices are more expensive than its competitors, although I think better built. The 350 is $179, the 650 is $229, and the 950 is $299. However, unlike the Kindle and the Nook (B&N’s entry), the 350 and 650 are not wireless. In this regard, I think Sony is right that most people really don’t care about wireless, not when they think it through. But it is the one point on which every reviewer downgrades Sony and upgrades Amazon. I think for a small (relatively speaking) group of readers, wireless is the decider, but if my experience is any guide, the lack of wireless isn’t even noticed. The Sonys are smaller and lighter than the Kindle but seem to be better quality in terms of build and components — and this is what Sony is banking on. The ultimate question will be whether consumers will think it is worth $40 more for a touchscreen and no wireless or $40 less for wireless but no touchscreen.

As I have said before, I own and love using a Sony 505 that soon will be 3 years old. My 505 works today as if it were fresh out of the box. It is solidly built and has several more years of life in it. But I think the time has come for me to upgrade. I thought about breaking down and going for a Kindle, but it isn’t going to happen. Instead, I’m likely to buy the new Sony 950 with its larger screen. It costs what my 505 cost 3 years ago and if it serves me as long and as well as my 505, it will have been worth every penny. My 505 won’t be going into retirement; my wife has claimed it.

How will I justify the price of the 950? One way is that I will be canceling my print subscription to the New York Times. Instead, I will subscribe to an electronic version of the print edition that I will receive on the 950 every morning when I’m ready to read the paper, not when my carrier gets around to delivering it. That will save me at least $25 a month, which means that in 1 year I will have earned back the cost of the 950.

But I began the article with the question whether now was the time to take the plunge. With the new improvements to the Kindle and Sony devices, I think the answer is yes — if you want a dedicated reading device. There are a lot of good, free and inexpensive ebooks available for all of these devices. If your reading interests extend beyond the bestseller lists, you can get a rapid return on your investment as well as be exposed to new authors.

I do suggest, however, that before deciding on any device that you compare features side by side. Kindles will soon be available in Staples and Target stores and Sonys are available at Best Buy, Office Depot, and Target. Don’t let reviewer hype of one feature sway you — check for yourself and think about how important a particular feature is or is likely to be to you. I don’t buy ebooks every day and when I do buy them, I tend to buy them in bunches of 3 to 5 books. To plug my 505 into my PC via USB simply is not much of a hassle, so wireless doesn’t count much in my decision-making process; other things are more important. You need to view these devices with your own priorities in mind.

Now is the time to think about the holidays and if an ebook reader is on your wishlist, to place your holiday order. For the Sony devices, see the Sony Style Store (350, 650, and 950), and for the Kindle, see Amazon (Kindle 3 and Kindle 3G). If past holiday seasons are any indicator, as soon as you decide which you want, preorder it. These readers have tended to sell out fast.

August 12, 2010

Sony, Sony — Wherefore Art Thou?

The “big” news ebook reading devices recently has been Amazon’s new Kindles with their Pearl screen. OK, ebookers got the point: Amazon is moving right along in its attempt to capture the wallets of all ebookers. Which raises the question, here in the United States, “Sony, Sony (and Barnes & Noble, as well) — Wherefore art thou?”

Not a hint, not a misspoken word, not anything leaked to eBookland about a response by Sony and/or B&N to Amazon’s new Kindles. I, for one, am desperately seeking solace, especially from Sony, that there will be new competitive devices forthcoming. As I have made clear in prior articles, I am not a willing Amazon (or Apple) buyer.

But I need to know that my expectations will be met. I love my Sony PRS505 reader. It’s now 2.5 years old and works as well as the day I received it as a holiday gift. It has never been repaired and never failed to delight. My wife waits in the wings to take it over as soon as I buy a new reading device, and my credit cards are itching to be used to do so.

(For what it’s worth, I am also pleased with the service I have received from the Sony Reader eBook Store. A few weeks ago I bought the second and third volumes of Brian Ruckley’s Godless World Trilogy only to discover that the type size couldn’t be enlarged and the fixed size was much too small for my eyes. I assumed it was a publisher problem so I e-mailed the Hachette Book Group this past Sunday, with a copy of my receipt for the books, asking them to fix the problem. On Monday I received a response saying they had checked the original files and could find nothing to cause the problem so they had contacted Sony and asked Sony to check it and contact me. On Wednesday I received a telephone call from Sony saying the problem had been fixed and I needed to redownload the books, which I did. Kudos to both Hachette and Sony. Now, back on track…)

What I have been waiting for is a device with an 8- or 9-inch screen from a company that I think will be around for more than a week or two. Everyone and everyone’s aunt is producing 6-inch screen e-ink devices, and if that is all that Sony or B&N are going to produce, I will not buy a new device until my 505 dies; I’m not looking to buy a new device just for the sake of buying a new device.

I want that larger screen so I can switch my New York Times subscription from print to electronic and read it comfortably. For me, this is the driver behind my desire for a new device. And no, I do not want a multifunction LCD screen device. I already own several.

The situation is this: Amazon is king of the hill right now. It has the leading device and bookstore and gains ground every day. B&N desperately needs to at least maintain its market share and preferably grow it in the one growth area in publishing — ebooks. Every day it remains silent about device plans and every day that passes without a new device becoming available (at least for preorder) is another day that Amazon increases its market lead.

Sony, which isn’t noted for its ebookstore but is noted for its quality electronics, will soon take on the mantle of Wile E. Coyote in the ebook reading device tug-of-wars unless it does two things: First, is put out a firmware update for all of its already sold and available devices that updates the ePub DRM schema. Sony owners need to know that Sony is not asleep and that it is committed to the ePub standard and the way to do this is to release an update that will allow Sony owners to access the B&N ebookstore without stripping DRM. This is the easy fix to owner anxieties for Sony.

Second, it needs to “leak” to the press and the blogosphere information about any forthcoming e-reading devices. Get the buzz going; give ebookers a reason to hold off purchasing a new Kindle. It doesn’t need to be a full-blown, detailed initial announcement but it needs to be sufficient to maintain interest. Perhaps a leak-a-week until the big news event.

The strength of Amazon is in its ebookstore, not in its Kindle. The Kindle simply provides a means to access Amazon’s strong point. Sony’s strength is in its electronic devices, its readers, not in its ebookstore. The ebookstore simply gives Sony Reader owners a place to make use of the device. But unlike Amazon, which craftily takes advantage of its strength, Sony turns its strength into a weakness by being so rigid in its information release schedule. Sony needs to loosen up — especially now that the new Kindles are available and have been getting good press.

B&N needs to find its footing. Contrary to its corporate “wisdom,” releasing its ebooks in ePub form but adding its own flavor of DRM was not a smart move in B&N’s fight against the Amazon behemoth. By adding that flavoring, B&N gave Amazon at least a year’s free ride to build sales share. We will never know with certainty, but I’d bet that had B&N emulated Sony in terms of ePub and DRM flavor, B&N’s ebook market share would be at least 25% higher than it currently is. The battle would have been truly joined between B&N and Amazon and Sony’s ebookstore would be drifting into a netherworld.

Sony needs to regain momentum and spark interest in its products. It needs to immediately begin leaking information about forthcoming products to prevent ebooker defection to the new Kindles. B&N needs to get its act together in nearly every sense, and it, too, needs to begin leaking information about its plans. If they do not maintain ebooker interest in their respective products, it will soon be too late and it will be an Amazon world.

January 21, 2010

A Modest Proposal III: Dying Days of Giant Publishers (Part 2)

In yesterday’s post, I gave four reasons (five if you want to count returns separately) why the giant publishers are on their funeral march: they are too big to react quickly to market conditions; they haven’t learned the Dell lesson; they let others sit in the catbird’s seat of deciding industry policy; and they haven’t come to grips with who are their future customers. Essentially, the giant publishers are early 20th century behemoths who have yet to adapt to 21st century technology and consumers.

These are interrelated problems, all stemming from the same root, which is the giant publisher having ceded industry leadership to outsiders.

In a way, the Dell lesson — Tell the customer he can have it his way and then limit the options — was tackled in my end-the-paperback proposal. Publishers have to learn to create their markets, not be led by markets imposed on them. This is the difference between Amazon, Apple, Google, and the giant publishers.

Amazon led the market by creating the Kindle and Kindle editions, and Apple and Google are inventing their own book markets. The giant publishers are trying to catch up. But Amazon (soon to be joined by Apple and Google), by leading the market defined it and is setting the terms. Amazon is also applying the Dell lesson: You can have an ebook in any format you want as long as it is a Kindle format. The giant publishers, who should have led, instead fumbled so badly that they are in disarray over how to catch up. More importantly, perhaps, for the publishers is that Amazon is turning them into the bad guys in the public relations war for the consumer soul. It’s the problem of the giant publishers being a sumo wrestler when a ballerina is needed — and not recognizing the problem.

To survive the days ahead, the giant publishers need to lead the marketplace, not follow it. If it is true that ebooks are the wave of the future, then publishers need to grab hold of this market and lead it or prepare their funeral pyres.

Publishers need to gain the upper hand in the pricing, geographical, DRM (digital rights management), and format wars. They have started by slowly adopting ePub as the uniform format, but otherwise are in disarray.

My solution: Create an international book repository owned and operated by a consortium of publishers!

Publishers should unite and create a single international repository for every ebook published by member publishers and by self-publishers. Membership should be open to all ebooks with an ISBN. All books would be kept on the repository’s servers. Consumers would buy a book once from a bookseller such as Smashwords or Barnes & Noble, but then be able to read the book on any device they own, without the need to transfer the book from device to device.

Publishers would create a single software system so that if a buyer started reading a book on his dedicated device at home, he could continue reading from the place he bookmarked on his smartphone while commuting to work, on his computer during lunch, on the smartphone for the commute home, and on his dedicated device at home. The repository would also give consumers the option to download a copy of the purchased book to a single device, just as is done now.

This would benefit both consumers and publishers in multiple ways. Here are a few: Because the books would be held remotely, they would be device agnostic. Publishers could use a single uniform format with a single uniform DRM scheme that every device manufacturer could use royalty free. Publishers could enable consumer sharing on a book-by-book basis by allowing, for example, the book buyer to give some number of named individuals access to the book, giving buyers some reasonable ability to share ebooks; different books could have different sharing limits. Consumers could buy a book and access it anywhere at anytime on any device capable of displaying the text — today, tomorrow, and for 99 years into the future. 

The idea is not to replace booksellers. Rather, the bookselling world could continue as is but when an ebook is bought, access to the book would shift from the bookseller to the repository. It could be done as “smoothly and flawlessly” as done now, even with automatic wireless downloading.  With the repository, publishers will lead the ebook marketplace and enhance their survival prospects.

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