Tag Archives: publishing industry

How to read Ebooks

A guest post by Dr Julian Smart

Finding ebooks a bit of a minefield? It’s an exciting time for digital book technology but there’s plenty of scope for confusion and decision-making paralysis. In this article I’ll try to lay out the major alternatives for reading ebooks.

Why go digital?

First, a little bit of a puff for ebooks – skip this bit if I’m preaching to the converted!

Basic book technology hasn’t changed significantly for hundreds of years so it’s natural that there will be some resistance to a reinvention of them. Admittedly, less resistance given that most of us have been habituated to reading words on screens for the last few decades. We’re also getting used to the fact that the way our content is delivered is changing – the advent of CDs, DVDs, digital movie downloads and streaming catch-up services have all made us less concerned with the physical media, and more aware that it’s the content that is important. People also have limited space for books, and for some kinds of content, if you’re only going to consume the book once and move on to the next, why accumulate the physical carcasses of your past reads? Of course, the pleasure of books as physical objects is never going to disappear, but not all books are destined to be kept.

Reading a book on a regular computer screen is a somewhat unsatisfactory experience. The fixed nature of the screen, the distractions of other applications and the eye-strain-inducing LCD monitor technology all degrade one’s enjoyment and concentration. So the arrival of dedicated reading devices can be seen as a massive boon for book-lovers, who now have the flexibility and immediacy of digital book delivery combined with a portable and eye-friendly way to consume content. You can travel with a choice of hundreds of books now, and you can adjust text size to suit your eyesight. You can even have your book read out to you if your eyes are not up to it. Far from reducing the status of the book, the dedicated ebook reader is the ultimate compliment to the form: it turbo-charges your reading.

For authors, of course, the advantages are enormous since it allows circumvention of the conventional gatekeeping roles of publishers, agents and (to a lesser extent) retailers. The consequences of opening the floodgates presents a quality and marketing challenge that will not easily be solved, but the freeing of the book from the conventional arbiters of taste has to be an extremely positive force on balance.

Dedicated reader devices

The company making most of the running at the moment is Amazon with their Kindle reader, now at version 3 which means the new purchaser gets the advantage of many improvements over the previous generations. For an affordable price, the Kindle 3 provides a 6” grey-scale screen that’s readable in sunlight, speech synthesis, a mini keyboard, and both USB and wireless links (WiFi and optionally 3G) giving almost instant access to 400,000 books to purchase from Amazon and many more free books from a variety of sources.

Unlike most ebook readers, the Kindle uses a proprietary book format, Mobipocket, and does not support the open standard Epub. This is probably the most glaring downside of the Kindle; there’s a lock-in that you have to accept if you go the Kindle route. However, you can read Mobipocket books on the Kindle that have no DRM (Digital Rights Management) and you can easily convert files from other formats to Mobipocket, to read on your Kindle without going via the Amazon Kindle store. Also, most mobile and not-so-mobile devices have a Kindle app that allows you to read all your Amazon-purchased books. So you can read them on your PC, Mac, iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad, Android device and other gadgets, all synchronized so you don’t have to worry about copying purchased files between devices. Buy “The Butchered Man” on your PC and you’ll immediately be able to read it on your iPhone or Kindle. Stop reading a title on your Android phone, and pick it up at the same place on your iPod Touch later. This all works very smoothly, and Amazon have pretty much perfected the whole process of purchase and instant delivery to the consumer. The addition of a web browser and audio file support are icing on an already very tasty cake. (Don’t expect to use the web browser a lot, though; it’s a bit fiddly to navigate, but it’s fine for accessing free books on web sites, checking your email or getting a quick news fix.)

You’ll need a cover for the Kindle, although you’ll initially wince a bit over the price. Amazon’s covers do make it easier to hold the gadget without pressing buttons accidentally, and they provide good and stylish protection.

If you’re not sold on the Kindle and Amazon way of life, you will probably be interested in the Sony readers. They’re metallic and therefore shinier than the Kindle, so that’s a plus right there if you’re a magpie. One of the Sony’s more serious advantages is the provision of a touch screen. As many people have commented, in this age of the touch screen, it’s so tempting to try to prod the Kindle screen to turn pages or access options. Alas this will be in vain on the Kindle, but not on the Sony reader, which arguably has the edge in making digital book reading feel natural. However Sony have rather wiped out this advantage by not providing wireless internet, so all books must be transferred by a cable attached to your PC or Mac, or via a memory card. Maybe I’m lazy, but this feels very last-century compared with getting your books immediately over the ether wherever you are in the house (or in the case of the 3G Kindle version, anywhere you can get a mobile phone signal). The Sony readers are also considerably more expensive than the basic Kindle 3 model, which might be more forgiveable if they had WiFi on board. Sony readers do have expandable memory, but that’s not really an issue when the Kindle has several gigabytes of memory and a much easier way of getting books onto the device.

Stateside, the book giant Barnes & Noble have taken an interesting path with their Nook reader, which now has a colour LCD screen instead of an E-ink display. So it’s more like a general-purpose tablet device – they’re sacrificing battery life and long-term readability for the ability to display magazines, comics, children’s picture books and so on. It depends on what you’ll use it for but if you’re mostly a novel reader, it’s probably not the best choice.

Other ebook readers to consider include the Elonex eBook, Bookeen Cybook Opus and Libresco Iliad (see links below). They may well be good, but they will find to hard to compete with Amazon and Sony, so one has to wonder about their long-term future and support.

Reading on existing devices

Of course, you don’t have to use a dedicated ebook reader; as mentioned, you can use the Kindle app on most gadgets including the iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad and Android phones and tablets. Or you can buy your books from Apple’s bookstore and read them in the Apple iBooks reader app. The iPad doesn’t make the best ebook reader since it’s relatively heavy and (except in the dark) the screen isn’t so nice to read for long periods. Forget reading in direct sunlight, too. But then you probably weren’t thinking of taking an expensive gadget like the iPad to the beach…

On the desktop you can use Kindle for Mac or PC, or Adobe Digital Editions if you want to read Epub books from the Sony store, for example. On Linux, Windows and some mobile devices, you can use the open source FBreader application for non-DRM’ed books.

Summary

To keep your purchasing decision simple, consider the Kindle 3 and the Sony PRS series, and give the other machines a look if you’re feeling adventurous. Tablets, iPod Touch and phones make reasonable casual reading devices. However, if you mostly read monochrome books, don’t assume that that an LCD-based tablet device will substitute for a dedicated reader – it’s partly a matter of taste, but there’s a reason that E-ink screens are used in dedicated readers; the consequent readability and long, long battery life are important, as you will find if you are a keen reader. Besides, do you really want the distractions of the web and apps when you’re reading a book? The odds are high that you’ll find your dedicated, E-ink-based ebook reader a relaxing and treasured companion.

Links

Hardware

Amazon Kindle 3 (US): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B002Y27P3M/ref=kindlesu-1

Amazon Kindle 3 (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B002Y27P46/ref=kindlesu-1

Amazon Kindle 3 review: http://www.reghardware.com/2010/10/06/review_e_book_reader_amazon_kindle_3/

Sony PRS-350 (US): http://www.sonystyle.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay?storeId=10151&catalogId=10551&langId=-1&productId=8198552921666257813

Sony PRS-350 (UK): http://www.sony.co.uk/product/rd-reader-ebook/prs-350

Sony PRS-350 Pocket Edition review: http://www.reghardware.com/2010/10/13/review_e_book_reader_sony_reader_pocket_edition_prs_350/

Elonex eBook: http://www.elonex.com/products/ebook/621eb-ebook.shtm

Barnes & Noble Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/nook/index.asp

Samsung E60: http://www.samsung.com/uk/consumer/pc-peripherals/ereader/ereader/LD06ESWPWW/EN/index.idx?pagetype=prd_detail

Samsung E60 review: http://www.reghardware.com/2010/09/30/review_e_book_reader_samsung_e60/

Bookeen Cybook Opus: http://www.bookeen.com/en/

Bookeen Cybook Opus e-book reader 2010 edition review: http://www.reghardware.com/2010/06/04/review_e_book_reader_cybook_opus_2010_edition/

Libresco Iliad: http://www.iliadreader.co.uk/

Software

Adobe Digital Editions: http://www.adobe.com/products/digitaleditions/

FBReader: http://www.fbreader.org/

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The book as Product

This is a horrible subject. Anyone who loves books will have shuddered at the title. The book is a sacred object, it is not a product. It is not processed cheese or a package holiday.

However we live in a world where books have become products. They are as subject to the laws of the market as any other commodity.

Printed books that is: the ones that require to be printed, warehoused, distributed before they can finally be stacked on the shelves of bookshops or increasingly supermarkets, to enjoy a brief window of opportunity, where they may or may not catch the fancy of consumers, before the unsold copies are packed up, replaced with something new, sent back and often, extremely depressingly for their authors, they are pulped.

So if you want to sell your novel to a publisher now, you have to bear this cycle in mind. You have to be aware from the start, that as well as a compelling story, beautifully written, with a convincing setting and unique, unforgettable characters, that what they want from you is not just a novel, but a product.  Something that can be packaged up and promoted. They will want the product to be summed up in a few lines, just like the Dragon’s Den want the bizarre invention summed up in a few lines.  They want to know in a flash what it is all about.

The curse of the pitch

This is of course the pitch, the calling card that any  product now hitting the market now needs. “It’s an organic face cream that uses wild thistles in a proven wrinkle reduction programme” or “It’s a dark police procedural set in contemporary Leeds where a menopausal DCI leads the hunt for a serial killer who targets menopausal women.” or in the case of the sort of book which is going for a literary prize: “It’s written from the point of view of a 12 year old asylum seeker who escapes the brutality of his present life by constructing a series of dioramas from Dante’s inferno, out of sweetie wrappers.” You only have to look at this year’s Booker list to see that the ‘issue’ is what makes these books easier to pitch. Or for women’s commercial fiction: “While attending a family reunion in Cornwall, following the collapse of her successful PR/hat making business, Violet is forced to come to terms with the dark secrets that have cast a long shadow over her relationship with her siblings.” Continue reading

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Literary Gatekeepers

I’ve been meaning to do a piece on this for a few days and this article http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/mar/01/publishing-houses-editors in today’s Guardian has prompted me to get on with it.

“The great publishing giants and their old ways are increasingly redundant. And yet there is still the inescapable fact that writers sit alone in rooms, putting words on paper, or on screens.” writes Robert McCrum, and goes on to discuss the ideas of Jason Epstein. “In respect of “the difficult, solitary work of literary creation”, Epstein says “the cost of entry for future publishers will be minimal” without the overheads of traditional, multilayered management. The devolution of gatekeeping from centralised corporate publishers, he argues, has already begun, with the emergence of “semi-autonomous editorial units” (what some people call “imprints”). These, Epstein believes, indicate the way of the future. In other words, whatever the innovation on the instrumental side of the delivery system, there will still have to be a measure of mediation, or gatekeeping.”

To me this suggests that McCrum thinks that writers need to sit alone being literary, and they will still need publishers and editors to midwife their work. Despite the technological revolution only those chosen by publishers and editors will be allowed to express themselves with any success in the marketplace. This view, although pretending to be daring, still allows the old paradigm to stay firmly in place. Writers write. Publishers chose which writers they will publish and the public gets to chose from that selection.

There is certainly a revolution in publishing going on. Self publishing or indie publishing is now a story. The mainstream media are covering its rise with degrees of enthusiasm. There is a fear that the market will be swamped with rubbish. How will anyone ever find anything good in that mass of self indulgent twaddle? It will be lamentable, surely?

I don’t think so. I think it is going to be great, for both readers and writers.

I suggest those who are afraid of the potential evils of this situation should take a trip to a farmer’s market. Where is the mediation, the gatekeeping there? The farmers dset up their stalls which they rent for a nominal fee. There is no gatekeeping except that they have to sell their own produce. They may not sell anyone else’s produce. They interact directly with their public. They hand sell to them. It is their responsibility that their goods are of a standard to attract discerning and sophisticated consumers. If the stuff is not good enough it will not sell and they will make a lost. They have taken the risk and they will get the return if they deliver the right material. There is no publisher type intermediary telling they may not sell their vegetables or home made chutneys. No gatekeeper.

This is how it happens at the simplest level. But a savvy stall-holder will add recommendations to her stall. She will paste up that review in the local paper that said “Cressida’s spicy banana chutney is the best chutney I have ever tasted.” And if she is selling online as well, she will have a section where people can review and evaluate her products. She will also be on Twitter and Facebook or any specialist foodie social network so that she can spread the word about her products and let the public judge them for themselves. This is how writers are going to do things without publishers.

McCrum mentions the innate conservatism of writing and reading books. Farming is equally conservative, but small farms have found it very hard to compete with big farms, and have had to think on their feet. In short to survive they have had to become entrepreneurial. Farmers markets are a fantastic example of this.

Now consider this: how do you find a good restaurant? You look for an independent restaurant guide either online or in book form. Anyone can open a restaurant, but only the good ones get the glowing reviews in the “Good Food Guide” or Michelin stars. Any one can self publish a book but I reckon in the future only the good ones will get the reviews which will pull people to the books. And I think trustworthy review sites will be crucial to how readers find the books they want to read. Amazon is already helping readers sort the good from the bad, as are book reviewing blogs started by enthusiastic readers.

So there will be gatekeepers in the future but the gatekeepers will different: they will be the consumers themselves.

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