An American Editor

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.

February 6, 2013

Can Barnes & Noble Be Saved?

With the release of both Amazon’s and Barnes & Nobles quarterly figures, which include the 2012 holiday season, the blogosphere has been rife with posts foretelling the demise of Barnes & Noble. I find it interesting that Amazon’s results weren’t much better than B&N’s (according to Businessweek, Amazon earned one-half cent for each dollar of revenue), yet investors continue to support Amazon and blast B&N.

I suppose the reason for the different treatment by investors is that Amazon has a broader range of goods for sale and that investors think eventually Amazon will be able to increase margins by raising prices as soon as Amazon can force competitors out of business.

So, what it boils down to is what can B&N do to revive its fortunes? Can its fortunes be revived?

As it stands today, pessimism is probably appropriate for B&N. Mitchell Klipper, B&N CEO, Leonard Riggio, chairman, and management crew have shown that they are incapable of forward or strategic, or maybe even tactical, thinking. Yet they remain in control of B&N.

It was not so long ago that my wife and I visited our local B&N nearly every week. We rarely left the store without purchasing at least a couple of books, and my purchases were always hardcovers (my wife would buy both hardcovers and paperbacks) — and that was in addition to what I would buy online at B&N and to my ebook purchases. But Klipper and his predecessor have done everything they can to turn me away from B&N stores.

First, they did away with the discount that membership gave me. The first time was by the refusal to sell me Nooks with a member’s discount. The tale then told was that the Nooks were already being sold at cost (remember when the first Nook was sold for $249?). So for the same price, I bought Sonys, which were better devices and bought ebooks at the Sony store and Smashwords instead of B&N, because B&N ‘s DRM was incompatible with my Sonys (although B&N could have made them compatible). It wasn’t long after that Amazon began cutting the price on its Kindles and B&N began cutting the price on the Nook. Riggio and Klipper should have given that discount to members!

Second, they changed the discount members received. I bought hardcovers at the B&N store and received a 20% discount on adult hardcovers that were not already discounted. This was not as much a discount as was being offered at B&N online, but it was satisfactory and I bought more than 100 books a year at the local store. Then the terms changed — the discount became 10%. That wasn’t competitive at all, and so I stopped buying locally, shifting to online purchases.

Third, when B&N finally offered a reasonable deal on a Nook, I bought a Nook tablet. The tablet has been wonderful. In fact, it has become my preferred reading device. But the device has a terrible built-in flaw: the worst customer service imaginable. Even though I have spoken to several higher-ups at B&N about the customer service problems, nothing has been done. It hasn’t gotten worse, but it hasn’t gotten better.

Let me clarify this: The customer service I am referring to is the online customer service, not the customer service at my local store. My local store gives great customer service — as good as Amazon’s and perhaps even better — but it can’t give me the customer service I need for the Nook and Nook ebooks. Also, it is worth noting that I rarely have ever needed customer service for a pbook.

When I need to call B&N customer service, I know I am in for a runaround and an aggravating time. The Nook “technical” support people are so ill-trained and so lack product knowledge and so lack customer service common sense that they do not even warrant being called a joke — it would be an insult to jokes. And this is Klipper’s fault. Based on what I see as a customer, B&N places no emphasis on customer service and apparently little on training. As the CEO of B&N, Klipper should be making customer service the #1, #2, and #3 priorities. You cannot keep frustrating customers and expect them to keep coming back. At some point they will abandon you for the competitor who is viewed as caring. Some of us will hold on longer, but not because we love B&N; rather, because we do not want to see one company become so dominant that there is little market competition. That’s why I continue to buy at B&N.

Klipper and crew also need to become innovative. It is clear that they cannot compete with Amazon based on either price or customer service, so they need to be innovative. They need to increase reasons for Nook owners to visit stores; they need to increase the number of members they have and entice them into stores; they need to entice the general public into the stores.

There are things that they can do. For example, arrange with publishers and authors to exclusively offer limited numbers of first edition, first printing, signed copies of new books. Some of us are collectors and would be willing to pay for such books. Make it so that these limited edition books can be bought online for a minimal to no discount but if bought at the local store — even if having to be shipped from a warehouse — the buyer would get a 20% to 25% discount on the book but also the same discount on any other book purchased at the same time at the store.

Make membership truly worthwhile. Increase the price to $50 a year (from the current $25) but give the member a guaranteed minimum discount of 20% to 25% on everything purchased, whether in the store or online, and if purchased online, with free 2-day shipping.

Another thing that can be done is to offer a free copy of the ebook with the purchase of the hardcover. Nonmembers would pay full price for the hardcover but members would get a 15% to 20% discount (or receive a higher discount if they chose not to get the free ebook). Get a jump on Amazon by getting publishers to offer this arrangement exclusive to B&N (i.e., the free ebook with hardcover purchase) for at least 90 days.

B&N could also make it so that a Nook owner could visit the local store and check out books but buy, on the spot, only the ebook version using a special code that gives the Nook owner a discount off the normal ebook price because it is bought while in the store.

Because the Nook and ebooks are central to B&N’s future, really make the stores a place for Nook buyers. Have a problem with your Nook or a Nook ebook purchase? Come to your local store for real customer service. Train local staff to do real technical troubleshooting, not what is currently done when you call tech support, and authorize local staff to really resolve customer service problems, including giving refunds.

One thing that B&N should immediately implement is a new library system and a new option button. What I mean is this: Now when I buy an ebook, the ebook appears in my Nook Library. In the Library there are option buttons that let me, for example, download the ebook so I can save a copy locally and recommend or lend the ebook. B&N needs to add an option button that tells B&N to notify me when the author has published another book that is for sale by B&N. Additionally, my Nook Library should be changed to my B&N Library and should include all books — p and e — that I buy from B&N, whether online or in-store, each with the notify option button. The one thing that should not happen is that I receive notification for books by authors for whom I did not ask for notification. In that case, a good idea becomes a bad idea and spam.

Most important of all, spend some money on providing real online customer service. Fire your current providers/staff and start from scratch with people who speak English and do not read from a script.

Can B&N be saved? Yes. Will it be saved? Not unless it changes its attitudes and direction.

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!

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.

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