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.

December 8, 2010

The Google Wars: Taking the First Step

The first salvo in the Google Wars occurred with Google’s opening of its long-awaited, but greatly disappointing Google Books. In yesterday’s post, Will You be a Googler?, I suggested how things might be, a Christmas of the Future so to speak. But if Google plans to be a real presence in the digital book world with something more than poorly scanned public domain books, it needs to put on its battle gear and get moving toward the front lines now. What follows is one suggestion for first battle orders.

What is it that Google has that no other competitor to Amazon (i.e., no other pbook or ebook competitor) has? Well, there are several things, but most important are the name Google, which is both a noun and a verb and thus ubiquitous in the online world, and the financial resources to do battle on equal terms. The former we need do nothing about; the latter we need to spend.

Let’s move beyond the basics that Google needs to address — the poorly designed Google Books website. That is easily cured; Google can hire any computer-literate high schooler and get a better design. What is not so easily cured is Google’s lack of reputation as the place to go for books. And that is the area of greatest need.

In one online discussion, someone asked whether the Kindle has become the kleenex of ereading devices; kleenex in the sense of a generic name for all devices. I know that when people see me reading on my Sony, the first question asked is, “Is that a Kindle?” How valuable to Amazon is that association of Amazon-Kindle-ebooks?

So step one for Google is to adopt a hardware device as a Google device and for that I nominate the Sony PRS-950. A partnership between Google and Sony is the way to go because the Sony gives more reading real estate and superior ergonomics and build quality when compared to the Kindle. But simply adopting the 950 is not enough.

As part of the adoption process several things need to happen, the most important being these:

  • Sony needs to rewrite the firmware so as to open up the Internet capabilities of the 950 to more than just the Sony ebookstore
  • Google needs to create a modified version of its Chrome browser to work on the 950
  • Google needs to underwrite part of the cost of the Sony 950 so that it can be sold competitively priced to the Kindle
  • Google needs to arrange for the Sony 950 to be usable anywhere in the world

Given a choice between a Sony 950 and a Kindle 3G, with easy-to-use ebookstores with similar content available, I think people would choose the Google-Sony 950 more frequently than the Kindle.

Yet that is only the start. Google needs to attack Amazon where it is most vulnerable, which is in book selection. Right now it is clear that the difference between the Amazon and Google (and Barnes & Noble and Kobo) ebookstores is the difference between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Yes, there may be scattered titles that one has and the others do not, but for the most part, each has an identical inventory available. (Pricing is a different matter and not one that needs to be addressed at this point.)

But Google can give Amazon a run for its money in exclusives — and it should. Remember when Amazon announced that certain forthcoming books from popular authors would be available exclusively at Amazon for 6 months to 1 year? We haven’t heard a lot about that recently but it is time to stoke the exclusivity war with Google plunging in. And Google offers something that Amazon doesn’t and can’t — search engine ranking. Entry in Google Books can be made to appear in the number 1 position on a search results page.

If I were Google, I would approach the top 25 authors in multiple categories — romance, fantasy, science fiction, historical novels, etc. — and offer an exclusive Google Books deal (I can think of lots of terms that would be appealing to authors to induce them to sign on, but we can save that discussion for another day).

I would also offer an inducement to readers to buy the Google-Sony 950. Buy one and pick 10 ebooks from our vast catalog of ebooks. If the agency folk scream about it, reverse the order: Buy 10 ebooks and get the reader with our compliments.

One more thing I would do in the this initial battle, and that is create exclusive ebook packages. The packages could be special omnibus editions of a single author’s work or it could be a themed collection that combines a major author’s work with similar type works from indie authors. I actually prefer the latter because it would expose readers to more authors. But imagine being able to buy a Dean Koontz backlist title along with 6 similar-genre titles written buy indie authors for the price of the Dean Koontz title. Granted this would require a lot of cooperation among authors but such a scenario could be a win-win for the indie authors, Dean Koontz, and Google, as well as for consumers.

Special omnibus editions would fit within the Agency 5’s hopes to sustain a viable competitor to Amazon. There is no reason, for example, why the first 3 novels written by Tom Clancy, for example, couldn’t be packaged into a single, special, Google Omnibus where readers could buy 3 for the price of 1 or 2. It is in the interests of publishers to help create a real competitor to Amazon, especially now that they should be recognizing that Apple isn’t the answer and is unlikely to ever be the solution as opposed to a future problem.

At least this would be a start down the competitive pathway. Will Google do anything more than what it has done (i.e., announce and open Google Books) remains to be seen, but this is the one hope right now of creating competition in the book world.

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).

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