Thursday, 29 December 2011

Kindle Christmas

So I unwrapped a Kindle on Christmas morning and here are some initial observations.

Reading on a Kindle is fine, no problems. It's great to be able to instantly download books although super-frustrating when you arrive at your mother-in-law's to find she has no idea what her wifi password might be. The screen is fine, turning pages is fine - blah di blah - if you have a problem reading on a Kindle then you should seek psychological assistance - it's no BIG deal.

What I have found to be frustrating has more to do with the UK government and publishers than devices I think. Let me outline some of the main issues as I see them.

1: If there has ever been a Dickensian Christmas then this was it. 200 year anniversary on the horizon, Ray Winston and Agent Scully in Great Expectations and a Claire Tomalin biography to drool over. All good until you come to thinking about reading the Tomalin biography. As a book it is priced on the cover at £30. That is the kind of thing that makes Indy booksellers weep. That cover price is one hardly anyone will pay. It is the price only the most devoted and deep pocketed could contemplate paying when it costs so much just to stay warm at present. On Amazon the book is priced at £14.85 - less than half. But the e-book is £17.99.

I have seen the book. It is beautiful. Lovely end-papers, clever design. Lovely. So why pay more for a grey bland Kindle version? PUBLISHERS IT MAKES NO SENSE TO ORDINARY PEOPLE! That £17.99 is of course inflated by the %20 VAT slapped on top. E-books are electronic services? Only to robots! GOVERNMENT IT MAKES NO SENSE! If books are zero rated then e-books should be too. End of. Ignore the EU diktat - you do it when it suits the bankers.

2: The previews of books are often so stupid I can't help thinking publishers are deliberately being obstructive. Using the Tomalin as an example again you scroll through page after page of contents, lists of illustrations and maps before arriving at a massive cast list. The Prologue kicks in half way through the preview. Two thirds of the way through the preview we arrive at what we wanted - a bit of the book that allows the reader to get a flavour of the work. Why not produce a more intelligent preview? Is it just to spite Amazon? If so it really fails as all it does is frustrate a potential reader and give them the idea that the e-book has been produced by numskulls. I had a similar experience with Grossman's Life and Fate last night. Half of the preview taken up with title pages and other bits of books that I am not remotely interested in.

3: If you buy a print book you should get a licence to read the e-book as well. Once again this is a fact that will upset publishers as it makes little economic sense to them but nonetheless it is an issue that will encourage piracy if ignored. I want to read the Tomalin. I want the physical book. I will pay £14.85 for it but wouldn't it be great if I could read it on my Kindle/phone etc? Then I wouldn't have to lug the physical book around. I could keep that on the shelf and caress it with my eyes and hands in moments of bookish abandon (of which, dear reader, there are many). But when I am travelling around I would have the book electronically in my pocket. Beautiful. But no. I am therefore left tempted to download a pirate copy of the e-book as well as buying the physical copy. Is this really what publishers want? Cos it will happen! There must be a way to grant a license to the purchaser of the physical book that allows them to download the e-book for free. A way must be found and fast. Otherwise publishers will have real problems with piracy.

So there are some initial thoughts.

PS I just read and article about short stories in the Guardian here. Then I went to Amazon and downloaded a preview of the Don Delillo book The Angel Esmerelda and other stories. The e-book is priced at £8.35 compared to the eye-watering £16.99 of the print edition, though to buy the hardback from Amazon costs £9.17 making the e-book look expensive all of a sudden. I read the preview and it stopped at a point where I was unclear if that was just the end of the story or if the preview had just ended. The effect was to leave me confused and frustrated. Either it was a story that just ended - I hate stories that just end and leave you running like Wiley Coyote. Or the publisher was being mean and would only let a strict percentage of the book be previewed. Either way I was pissed off enough not to buy the book! (Though I did appreciate Delillo's description of someone deep into reading a book as "unreachable, as though massively stunned".

There are a lot of things to sort out. So far this new era of publishing feels like a total mess! But kind of fun too...

Saturday, 10 December 2011

What's Revolutionary About e-books?

There are great changes afoot in the publishing industry. Sales of e-books are hitting those of traditional hardbacks hard and now Amazon has launched a Kindle store in that bastion of the printed book - Germany.

But what is it about e-books that has given them this power? In many ways e-books are reactionary and conservative. Michael S Hart created the first e-book in 1971 when he typed the United States Declaration of Independence into a computer. Soon after he started Project Gutenberg to create more electronic books.

It has taken developers 40 years to come up with a way of reading electronically that people enjoy. In the end they had to make the experience as close to that of reading a printed book as possible. People have an emotional relationship to the way they read. Those summers by the pool, the years at school/university all helped to cement an idea of what reading is that has proved hard to dislodge. People love reading. Mess with the things people love and they get upset.

Amazon's Kindle is by far the most popular e-reading device but if you look at the Nook, the Kobe or any of the other competitors you see pretty much the same thing. The device is the rough size and shape of a printed paperback. It is not back-lit and therefore less straining on the eyes. The batteries last for ages. One by one the differences between print and electronic have been eased away. When they make a waterproof e-reader you can drop in the bath the last of the "I'll never read on one of those thingy" people will be won over. It's rather like the PDF for printed documents. Whether you look at a PDF on screen or print it out it looks and operates just the same. It is sheets of A4 paper represented electronically. Office workers and students loved the PDF. In fact Microsoft and the entire "desktop" format proved how well people accept changes that are made to feel familiar.

Modern e-readers do the job of making e-books mimic printed books to a degree that most people now accept as sufficient for them to use and enjoy.

So e-books themselves, books in electronic form, are far from revolutionary. Similarly there is nothing about e-readers and the way most e-books are now encountered that is new.

What is revolutionary and drives change in publishing is the distribution of e-books.

First came Amazon. They changed the game by shifting the locus of power away from the retailer and towards the consumer. (This seismic shift is beginning to involve publishers too, whose traditional role as arbiters of taste is under threat from an empowered public.) At a stroke it didn't matter if a book was in stock. Amazon could order it for you and get it to you next day. They did this through putting the emphasis on distribution. Now their web spreads so widely that through opening their shop front to others they are able to offer a vast array of goods to the Internet shopper. The consumer just sees the interface - the familiar Amazon site. Behind it lies a vast distribution network that because of its collaborative nature is more effective than anything seen previously. The High St quakes.

Why is the Kindle the #1 Best-selling, Most Wished-For, Most-Gifted Product Amazon sell? It's the next logical step. Electronic distribution is the fastest, cheapest and crucially most convenient method of distribution ever. No lorries. No waiting. No "come back to collect tomorrow" or "pick up from your nearest store" or even worries about missing the postman. Having cracked the reading device and found something that even the most conservative of readers accept as a good electronic reading experience the party can get started.

But although Amazon and the wirelessly delivered e-book has arrived and seems revolutionary it is still based heavily on old ideas about reading. In my next post I will discuss the possibilities for reading in the future that involve changing the way we read altogether. It might not appeal to the millions who have grown up reading from paper. It involves interaction and distraction. It will appeal to a new generation of readers who are already consuming content in different ways. It promises to be a true revolution in reading...