Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 9, Number 9: August 2009


Perspective

Writing about Reading 3

The theme for this issue may be rethinking books and rethinking reading—which means it’s time to discuss ebooks and ebook readers. Not just ebooks and ebook readers, but it’s fair to say that the first ebook readers with sales in the hundreds of thousands have kindled (sorry) lots of discussion about the connections among device, format, text and reader.

Beliefs and Biases

In case you’re not familiar with my beliefs in this area, a few key points:

·         I do not believe print books and the long narrative form are endangered—not by aliteracy, not by attention deficit preference, certainly not by ebooks.

·         I believe, and have long said, that ebooks and ebook readers can and should have substantial markets where they can do the job better than print books, without necessarily displacing the majority of print books.

·         I regard “inevitable” as a nonsensical and damaging argument. It isn’t “inevitable” that print books will disappear because digital transmission is cheaper. It’s never been inevitable that a new medium entirely displaces an older medium. I also have a simple reaction when someone dismisses any questioning of new technology or changes on the basis that such questioning has, sometimes, been wrong in the past. That argument isn’t an argument; it’s sloganeering.

·         I don’t have a horse in this race. I buy few print books, and most of those I do buy are mass-market paperbacks. If people decide they prefer ebooks, more power to them. (I read quite a few library books, in print form. I don’t travel enough to be a target customer for ebook readers.)

·         I also don’t believe long-form narrative is inherently superior for all purposes; in fact, I’m certain it isn’t. I do believe book-length fiction and nonfiction continue to be important as one element of reading and media, and that long-form narrative is an unusually good way to communicate difficult and subtle topics.

Now, on to some of what’s being said and how I think it might fit together. But first…

Facetiæ

Robert Lanham contributed a charmer at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency in the form of an “Internet-age writing syllabus and course overview”: ENG 371WR: Writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era (www.mcsweeneys.net/2009/4/20lanham.html). Excerpts from this visionary piece:

As print takes its place alongside smoke signals, cuneiform, and hollering, there has emerged a new literary age, one in which writers no longer need to feel encumbered by the paper cuts, reading, and excessive use of words traditionally associated with the writing trade. Writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era focuses on the creation of short-form prose that is not intended to be reproduced on pulp fibers…

Students will acquire the tools needed to make their tweets glimmer with a complete lack of forethought, their Facebook updates ring with self-importance, and their blog entries shimmer with literary pithiness. All without the restraints of writing in complete sentences. w00t! w00t!

Throughout the course, a further paring down of the Hemingway/Stein school of minimalism will be emphasized, limiting the superfluous use of nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions, gerunds, and other literary pitfalls.

Prerequisites include “Early 21st-Century Literature: 140 Characters or Less,” “Advanced Blog and Book Skimming” and “Internet-Age Surrealistic Narcissism and Self-Absorption.” A few of the weekly topics:

Week 2: Printing words isn’t good for the environment. Students will evaluate why, as BuzzMachine founder Jeff Jarvis articulates, “Paper is where words go to die.”…

Week 4: The Kindle Question. Is Amazon’s wireless reading device the Segway of handheld gadgets? Should it be smaller, come with headphones, and play MP3s instead of display book text?

Week 6: 140 Characters or Less. Students will acquire the tools needed to make their tweets come alive with shallow wit…

Week 8: New Rules. Students will analyze the publishing industry and learn how to be more innovative than the bards of yesteryear. They’ll be asked to consider, for instance, Thomas Pynchon. How much more successful would Gravity’s Rainbow have been if it were two paragraphs long and posted on a blog beneath a picture of scantily clad coeds?..

There’s more great stuff, including the RBBEAW (raised by Boomers, everyone’s a winner) grading system, with six grades from A+ down to A----. On the other hand, the syllabus is 1,310 words long—which, for someone acing Week 6, means “TL;DR” (too long, didn’t read).

Tim writes a book

That’s actually the title of the rejoinder—a same-day comment based on Tim O’Reilly’s grandiosely-titled April 29, 2009 post, “Reinventing the Book in the Age of the Web” (radar.oreilly.com/2009/04/reinventing-the-book-age-of-web.html). The post isn’t facetious (apparently); the rejoinder almost certainly is.

O’Reilly waxes enthusiastic about the “turning point” marked by the Kindle and Stanza, but he regards putting books onto electronic devices as “a lot like pointing a camera at a stage play, and calling it a movie.” He notes the innovations in movie making since filmed plays and credits YouTube with “pushing the envelope even further.” Now it’s time to reinvent the book. Not “add another option to the many forms of books,” but reinvent the book.

In our work at O’Reilly as authors and publishers, we’ve long been interested in exploring how the online medium changes the presentation, narrative and structure of the book, not just its price or format.

What’s his big experiment? The Twitter Book—”authored in powerpoint.”

The web has changed the nature of how we read and learn. Most books still use the old model of a sustained narrative as their organizational principle. Here, we’ve used a web-like model of standalone pages, each of which can be read alone (or at most in a group of two or three), to impart key points, highlight interesting techniques or the best applications for a given task. Because the basics are so easy, there’s no need to repeat them, as so many technical books do. Instead, we can rely on the reader to provide (much of) the implicit narrative framework, and jump right to points that they might not have thought about.

He also wanted speed, and plans to update the book with each printing. Since he loves PPT and “pictures as visual bullets,” why not just publish a PowerPoint presentation? There’s a lot more here about how wonderfully O’Reilly has done modularity in the past, throwing in things like “crowdsourcing” and criticizing others (and, a little bit, himself) for not making online books more weblike.

The result: a 240-page slightly undersized trade paperback, full color, with lots of Twitter screen shots and, based on the 40-page preview at the URL above, not too much text. $20 from O’Reilly (or $16 for the ebook), less from Amazon.

Reinventing the book? O’Reilly’s never been known for modest ambitions. He wasn’t the first to create a book using PowerPoint, according to one comment. Lots of comments, as you’d expect. One notes that not being weblike—”the absence of links and collaborative noise”—is a strength of printed books (for some kinds of content). Another notes that “the old model of a sustained narrative” is exactly why people like his books. There’s plenty of cheerleading.

I’m not saying this form doesn’t make sense for this book—it might indeed. Not that there haven’t been loads of books in the past with little choppy chapters that could be read independently, even if they weren’t created using PowerPoint. It’s hard to take “reinventing the book” seriously, though.

Nicholas Carr had a little fun with The Twitter Book in the April 29, 2009 Rough type post whose title appears as a subheading above (www.roughtype.com/) The piece begins:

Tim wrote a book. The title of Tim’s book is The Twitter Book. Tim didn’t use a pen to write his book. Tim didn’t even use a word processor to write his book. Tim used PowerPoint to write his book. Tim wrote his book very fast, as fast, he says, as he writes “a new talk.” There are pictures in Tim’s book. Pictures, Tim says, “are a memorable, entertaining way to tell a story.”

Another couple of excerpts (it’s not a long post):

Tim’s book is a lot easier to read, too. “Most books still use the old model of a sustained narrative as their organizational principle,” Tim says. Tim’s book uses “a modular structure.” Following “a sustained narrative” is hard… I like the web. I’m glad that books are going to be more like the web. I’m glad that Tim wrote a book.

The third comment is from Tim O’Reilly, and seems to be a mix of amusement and irritation.

I am Tim, and I found this very funny too.

Of course, it’s always easier to criticize than to do.

I’ve written lots of books in my time, lots of different ways, for different purposes. You pick the hat to fit the head…

At least one other commenter clearly was irritated, failing to see the humor. A second, longer comment from O’Reilly puts down some traditional books as “just inflated blog posts” but also raises interesting questions. Read the set of comments, including those who are amused and those who are outraged.

Ebook Topics

Some of these notes venture into the connections between ebooks and reading or the ways ebooks might change books, also dealt with in the next section. Others deal with other aspects of ebook readers and ebooks in general. For straightforward discussions of dedicated ebook readers, how people like them and how they work in libraries, I’ll point you to the Library Leadership Network (pln.lyrasis.org/), where I’ve assembled and continue to update a growing cluster of ebook-related articles.

Costs of the books

David Crotty posted “The cost of e-books” on February 11, 2009 at Bench Marks (normally a blog about “methods used in the biology laboratory,” www. cshblogs.org/cshprotocols/). He links to a February 9, 2009 post from Bob Miller of HarperStudio, “Why e-books cost money to publish” (theharperstudio.com/):

There seems to be a common refrain in many discussions of e-books, the idea that publishers should charge next to nothing for e-books because it doesn’t cost publishers much to produce them. This reflects a lack of understanding of a publisher’s costs. The cost of manufacturing a book is only the final cost in an extensive process. Whether a book is printed on paper and bound or formatted for download as an e-book, publishers still have all the costs leading up to that stage. We still pay for the author advance, the editing, the copyediting, the proofreading, the cover and interior design, the illustrations, the sales kit, the marketing efforts, the publicity, and the staff that needs to coordinate all of the details that make books possible in these stages. The costs are primarily in these previous stages; the difference between physical and electronic production is minimal. In fact, the paper/printing/binding of most books costs about $2.00…so if we were to follow the actual costs in establishing pricing, a $26.00 “physical” book would translate to a $24.00 e-book. [Emphasis added.]

At least one commenter called this “a load of BS” based on Amazon’s $9.99 price for ebooks. Miller responded that Amazon’s losing money on some of those books, presumably to establish a market. Since the commenter mentions shipping as an issue, Miller notes: “the cost of shipping a physical book is usually about 20-25 cents per copy.” He also comes up with a publisher’s profit on a typical $25 hardbound of $4.50—but that doesn’t include the publisher’s overhead. Another commenter thinks ebooks should be much cheaper—mostly by eliminating jobs (bookstores and distributors). Yet another brings up “scarcity economics” and seems to believe ebooks would sell enormously greater number of copies—stating the potential market for any single eBook as “conservatively measured in the millions.”

Several people get it right, I think: The assertion that ebooks should cost almost nothing is frequently based on the “gravy theory”—they’re just extras on top of print copies, with the print book amortizing all the actual costs. One lengthy argument for cheaper ebooks makes precisely that assumption—the costs have already been incurred (and, apparently, ebook sales never reduce cloth sales), so why not sell the ebooks cheaply? Several commenters railed against old thinking or talked about the bloated expenses of publishers—or used the “if you don’t make it cheap, someone else will eat your lunch” argument. It’s quite possible Miller overstates his case—but the truth is likely to be somewhere between his $22 ebook and the $3 ebooks that would supposedly sell by the millions. (As at least one comment noted, attention is not and never will be an infinite resource—I’m not going to read or buy 100 or even 10 books a week, no matter how cheap they are.)

An author adds another interesting note on the concept of turning out $3 ebooks to tap the supposedly infinite demands:

If we cheapen the novel so that it is commonplace and worth a mere three dollars a book what incentive do I have as a writer to perfect my craft? None. That’s how much. I would have called it done a year ago when it was in a decent form–good enough to allow my writing friends to read, anyway. But the novel now after another year of careful revision is worth much more than three dollars a copy… The choice of novels to download will only be as good as the writers and publishers make them to be. If you want a three dollar book, we’re going to put in the effort that equals that three dollars. You’ll get what you pay for.

Crotty’s comment, in part:

The common mistake appears to be, at least in my experience, that people start with the assumption that an e-book costs nothing to make—you’ve already paid for everything with the print version, and converting those files to an e-book costs nothing or very little. But every e-book copy you sell means one less print copy you’re going to sell, so the total cost of production has to be amortized out over both the e-book and the print version.

Yes and maybe. The first sentence is right on the money—but there’s considerable controversy over the second, at least as long as print copies continue to exist. For some authors and some books, ebooks, even at the price of $0, clearly have not ruined print book sales. For others? It’s too early to tell. Chances are there’s partial displacement but not one-for-one displacement. Still, if there’s any displacement then the cost of production (other than production costs directly associated with print copies) need to be spread over ebook and print versions.

“switchu” posted “Book cost analysis—cost of physical book publishing” on May 3, 2009 at Kindle2 review (ireaderreview.com/). It’s a long post related to the controversy over Kindle book prices, saying we need “a listing of the costs involved in producing and selling a physical book” and the costs of distributing and selling Kindle Edition ebooks. The writer asserts that the post “covers” the first need. It’s a long post—a print preview comes to seven pages (plus another five pages of comments)—and, while interesting, certainly not conclusive. You may find it worth reading. Or you may not, since the conclusions are predictable from the name of the blog—”Kindle Edition books and Kindle DTP are going to destroy the current model of publishing.” Oddly, although the extent to which a few big publishers and distributors dominate traditional booksellers is cited as a problem, the writer is perfectly happy with the idea that one retailer and distributor—Amazon—should wholly dominate not only ebook sales but also ebook reader sales. Any time someone starts talking about “optimizing” and immediately praises a business model with one, count them, one survivor, I get nervous.

The first comment is from a “publishing finance” person who notes that the numbers in the post are generally only true for mass-market fiction, with royalty rates, profit breakpoints and return rates much lower in other segments. As for the many ways in which any idiot could make publishing more efficient:

Improvable processes: Good luck with that. We’ve had some pretty bright folks trying for centuries. You see, most of the kaizen techniques work on things that are more uniform than book production. If you think the steps you’ve found are complicated — just wait until you start talking details with a text designer or compositor!

Another comment makes another classic mistake: Assuming print-on-demand will actually save money. Sure, it eliminates returns—but it’s inherently more expensive to print and ship single copies of books than it is to print large quantities.

I’m seeing a lot of comments—here and on related posts I don’t discuss—that boil down to: “I’m only willing to pay $x for books, therefore books should only cost $x, and any facts about costs are simply irrelevant.” There’s no way to respond to such a line of argument. You know, I really only want to pay $4,000 for a high-mileage, safe, small car to use mostly around town but that’s fun and legal to drive on California highways. So it’s the auto industry’s responsibility to make such a car available. Now. Any argument that cars just cost more than that to build is irrelevant.

“Irony3” posts one way out of the ebook pricing quandary—maybe—on June 12, 2009 at Nonstopbooks (nonstopbooks.blogspot.com/): “Advertising in ebooks.” This writer, who’s a Kindle owner, “would like to see a certain kind of advertising for ebooks. I would like to see ebooks sponsored and the process of sponsorship would allow people to buy a cheaper copy of the book.”

The writer offers an example: an ebook that sells for $14.99 on Amazon. Honda sponsors a “Honda edition” for $9.99—adding a few pages of information or ads about Honda products after the title page (screen) of the ebook, but no ads in the text proper.

I think people would remember the companies that sponsored the books they bought and made them more affordable. Honda, of course, was just being used as an example. Any company could sponsor a book. If there was some type of connection between the subject of the book and the sponsor of the book that might make the sponsorship even more appealing.

I read quite a few magazines. All but five of them rely heavily on advertising—and three of the rest are in trouble because there isn’t enough advertising. (The three major science fiction magazines, if you’re wondering.) In some cases—most magazines from Condé Nast or Time Warner, for example—it’s clear that the nominal subscription price doesn’t covering much more than mailing, certainly not writing and production. Most of the content is paid for by ads—and it’s one of the miracles of magazine design that ads don’t inherently interfere with reading. Of course, I’m also old enough to remember when really cheap mass-market paperbacks included one or two ad inserts, helping to keep them really cheap. Would I take a $4 paperback with two or three ads over a $7 paperback with none? Probably.

Summing this up:

·         Ebooks should be cheaper than print books—but it’s not clear that they can legitimately be more than $2-$2.50 cheaper than the equivalent current print version, if authors are to survive and publishers are to do editing, design, marketing and the like. But do note equivalent: Once a mass-market paperback is available for $7 or $8, I can’t understand why the ebook equivalent would cost more than $5 or $6.

·         There’s more than one way to get revenue, and other ways should be explored. But neither “infinite demand” nor Andersonomics (make the ebook free and you’ll sell loads of print books or get rich through live appearances) seems certain or even likely on a general basis.

·         “I only want to pay this much” works better for things where you can make easy substitutions, which may include some genres of literature—and never works beyond a certain level. As an argument for setting prices, it’s on a par with holding your breath until you turn blue.

Ebooks and Higher Education

The single most obvious big-buck market for ebooks, either on dedicated readers or on notebook computers, would appear to be textbooks—for younger students because they could reduce the heavy load of schoolbooks, for higher education because they could be updated more rapidly and possibly not carry the extreme prices of textbooks. It’s a multi-billion-dollar market ($9.8 billion according to one report), seemingly ripe for the taking.

That’s easy to say. I should know, since I’ve been saying it for rather a long time. Doing it—and actually making the e-textbooks reasonably priced—is another matter. In fact, the big textbook publishers have been producing ebook editions, frequently at about half the price of the print version—but with very little success. Is that changing? Three items (two recent, one not so recent), all somewhat more formal than blog posts, discuss the matter.

E-books in higher education: nearing the end of the era of hype?

Mark R. Nelson originally published this in the ECAR Research Bulletin (January 8, 2008); it was republished in EDUCAUSE Review 43:2 (March/April 2008) (www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume43/EBooksinHigherEducationNearing/ 162677). Nelson cites Arthur Sulzberger’s notorious comment that he neither knew nor cared whether the New York Times would appear in print in 2012—and his subsequent “sort of” backing off, “It is my heartfelt view that newspapers will be around—in print—for a long time. But I also believe that we must be prepared for that judgment to be wrong.”

Nelson uses the quotes to illustrate “a few key points relevant to those of us in higher education involved with, or concerned over, the future of printed course materials.”

Ø  If a newspaper like the Times could envision a point just five years away at which print distribution could end, what does that say for how college campuses distribute content and course materials?

Ø  The organizational reaction of staff at the Times to such a change was visceral—as it might also be among faculty, librarians, and other content providers on campus. Can a change of this magnitude happen that quickly?

Ø  Many believe that print will continue to be the preferred medium for much content long into the future, but it is also widely believed that change is coming and that change will be technology-driven.

Ø  Now is the time to begin preparing for, or at least envisioning, the possibility of a future with at least substantively fewer print materials. If there is a possibility that print could go significantly digital over the next five years, what should campus communities be thinking about now in preparation?

To Nelson, the key issues are whether print really has “an anticipated life span of five more years” and whether ebooks are finally ready to take off. Odd as I find it to generalize from newspapers to print as a whole, these are still points worth pondering—although the notion that print as a whole could disappear within five years (well, four years now) is so ludicrous as to deserve very little thought.

A discussion of ebook sales in the U.S. and elsewhere includes one remarkable statement: “In China, the government recently acquired 165 million e-book readers for students.” Wow! Looking for independent evidence of that claim (made in a conference speech), I see a 2008 report that there were 79 million ebook readers total in China by the end of 2008—probably 80 times as many as in the U.S. but at odds with the first claim. (Oddly, only 49.5 million ebook copies were sold for those 79 million readers.) The more you look at that report, the more it appears that “ebook readers” refers to people who read ebooks, not devices—and only about 4.3 million of those were even remotely school-age. Another report citing the 79 million figure says only 0.3% of those users used ebook readers—turning that astonishing 79 million into a more plausible 240,000 or so.

Higher education is expected to be at the forefront of the wave of e-book adoption over the next two years. Some experts predict that 2007–2009 will be transition years for the higher education e-book market, with large growth expected in both digital textbooks and digital library collections.

Maybe I’ve missed something, but as of mid-2009 that wave seems to be little more than a trickle, especially for digital textbooks.

Nelson looks at “distinct reasons why e-books have failed to take off as expected” and what’s happened with some of these barriers. Briefly:

·         Standards, portability “and IP protection”: Oddly, while Nelson cites “a common XML-based format that could be universally applied to textbook content,” he doesn’t directly mention EPUB or its predecessor OEB, the closest things to true open ebook standards to provide portability. While Nelson’s discussion of IP uses scare quotes around fair use and prominently mentions “piracy,” he does briefly note that DRM detracts from consumer usability—but fails to mention that DRM would preclude used e-textbook sales, thus negating much of any price advantage for students.

·         Ebook devices and software: Nelson expects appropriate solutions within two years—but, for him, that means full-color e-paper. He says “commercially available some time in 2008”; that hasn’t happened, but such a display could emerge by March 2010.

·         Cultural acceptance: Nelson indulges in a bit of gen-gen here: “For those who grew up with paper books (p-books) and always read from p-books, switching to e-books is a bit uncomfortable for anything more than reference purposes.” Later, Nelson basically assumes that e-textbooks will dominate, and soon: “As each successive grade of students enters college, they will have had more experience with technology in the classroom. Within five years we should see the first students entering college who may never have used a print textbook—for them, course materials will have always been provided in e-book form. While still taught by digital immigrants, those students may be the first true digital natives to enter higher education.” (Emphasis added.) For that astonishing prediction to be true in more than a trivial number of cases, there would have needed to be large numbers of second-grade classes entirely using digital textbooks in the year 2000, with complete changeover ever since then. Has that really happened? (He cites a source claiming that 22% of students in grades 6-12 are using e-textbooks; that’s quite different from never using print textbooks.)

Nelson calls for higher education to prepare for e-textbooks by 2013, a reasonable call—but also to approach the future with “a healthy dose of skepticism.” The article seems a little light on that skepticism in some areas, and maybe that’s OK.

How a student-friendly Kindle could change the textbook market

This commentary by Jeffrey R. Young appeared in the May 6, 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education shortly before Amazon announced the Kindle DX. Young notes the planned pilot project by a handful of universities to use Kindles preloaded with textbooks.

Most experts interviewed by The Chronicle expressed skepticism that students would buy and carry around a Kindle for textbooks, even if the device was bigger and had better annotating and Web-browsing capabilities than Amazon’s current e-book reader. But the new gadget might do something that all of the current providers of e-textbooks have failed to do—make digital textbooks seem cool.

Young notes that more than 80% of college students already own devices that can display e-textbooks: laptops. I was surprised that “more than half of all major textbooks are already offered in electronic form for download to those laptops.” But they’re not selling: “So far sales of electronic textbooks are tiny.” Some observers say you need the equivalent of an iTunes store—but such an online store, CourseSmart, with more than 6,300 e-textbooks, has been around for two years. Young also cites a failed experiment with Sony Readers—”Students were excited at first to get an unusual new gadget, but they quickly found the readers too hard to flip pages in and take notes on.” The Sony Reader has the same page size as the current Kindle.

Young cites problems with current e-textbooks, including images and supposed lack of understanding of special ebook features. Then there’s the gotcha:

Publishers are eager to go digital in hopes of eliminating the used-book market, as buyers are prohibited from reselling electronic books, argues Albert N. Greco…. That market represents “a staggering amount of business that the publishers lose,” he said, “so by going to digital they’ll be able to regain what they lose in used books.”

Students skeptical Kindle DX can replace paper chase

Which leads us to the third item, appearing a day later in Wired Magazine’s Gadget Lab (www.wired.com/ gadgetlab/2009/05/etextbooks/). Brian X. Chen leads with doubts: “Amazon will have to do much more than enlarge its Kindle to increase the e-reader’s appeal to college students.”

One grad student says he’d need “five Kindles” while writing essays. Another would only consider a DX if ebooks cost less than used physical textbooks—but that, since he already has a laptop, the Kindle would be superfluous.

Students pointed out plenty of other issues about the DX to Wired.com. For instance, students often loan textbooks to one another, and currently that’s not practical with a Kindle, as you’d have to loan your entire reader and library. Also, the beauty of paper textbooks is the ability to highlight sentences, underline keywords and keep all of them open at once. While the Kindle does have highlight and notes tools, the reader is sluggish with performance, and the keyboard is unnatural and clunky to type on.

This item is mostly thinkpiece, based on a total of 19 replies from students. More than three dozen comments raise interesting issues. One says, “Most important might be the ability to resell your textbook when you’re done”—the thing publishers specifically want to prevent. A professor, suggests the DX might do better among faculty, if only to cope with all those “should read” PDFs of journal articles. A long comment from “automag,” who owns both a Kindle and Kindle 2, says the things Kindles don’t do well are precisely the things students need—e.g., fixed page numbers, indexes and tables of content, easy highlighting and note taking.

Paradigm shifting devices are great when the paradigm being shifted to makes things easier and/or better. The Kindle is a positive paradigm shift for those of us who read a lot and want a more seamless (and cheaper) way to make purchases from Amazon.com. On the other hand, I don’t see a positive shift for students who want to use the Kindle with their textbooks. It’s just too cumbersome and slow.”

(The page number issue isn’t there for PDFs on the Kindle DX, to be sure.) Several people see the promise of one DX replacing several heavy textbooks—and one claims that the DX will be a hit because there will be free pirate versions of all textbooks once it’s out.

Will the DX succeed as a textbook platform? Does it make sense to have a dedicated textbook reader? Do you need color e-ink to succeed?

The Bright Future of Ebooks

Four upbeat commentaries, two from the library field.

Why ebooks and ebook readers will eventually succeed

This article by J. Getty Purdy appeared October 13, 2008 on eWeek.com in the “Inside Mobile” section. Purdy’s a true believer—”someday”:

Someday, we are all going to be reading books with some form of eBook reader. While some may doubt this prediction, let me explain why. And I hope, after you read what I have to say, that you just may agree with me.

He admits that reading books on current ebook readers (presumably including the Kindle and Sony) is “not an enjoyable or “better” experience than reading a paper-bound book.” He also believes ebook readers don’t just need to be as good as print books: “eBook readers are not going to be successful until they offer book lovers a better, more worthwhile and enjoyable reading experience than traditional paper-bound books do today.”

He says someone should eventually be able to make an ebook reader that would be “so cool that, emotionally, seeing this new eBook reader would be like seeing the iPhone for the first time. You’d feel as if it was really right and that you’d ‘have to’ have one.” But consider: while iPhones are selling very well, most new cell phones purchased are not iPhones—according to the NPD Group, iPhones aren’t even the best-selling smart phones in the U.S. (first quarter 2009), while smart phones as a whole are less than a quarter of cell phone sales. Worldwide, iPhone sales were about 3% of smart phone sales in mid-2008; in a list of top vendors, Apple is lumped in with “Others.” So most people don’t feel they “have to” have an iPhone. That may be a significant digression, given that Purdy uses the iPhone as a model for how the ideal ebook reader should be designed.

Purdy’s list of must-have features, with brief versions of what he believes those features must entail:

·         Correct size: 6x8” display (10” diagonal), “very thin like the iPod touch,” light.

·         Instant on/off. (No disagreement here.) “It’s an appliance, not a PC.”

·         Great (natural) user interface. Here again, the iPhone is the example.

·         High-contrast, high-resolution, bright color display. Ah, there’s the iPhone again—and the assertion that e-ink displays are “just too slow.”

·         Random access: You should be able to place multiple bookmarks in multiple books.

·         Durability.

·         Storage: “50GB would be adequate” and 5GB minimum—not for text but for multimedia.

·         Easy annotation: He’s looking for something better than annotating a print book with pen—selectable width and color of line, along with a highlighting function.

·         Easy access to dictionary and synonyms/antonyms: An advantage over print books.

·         Acceptable cost of device: He suggests the cell phone/cable TV model—cheap up front but with a multiyear contract, presumably binding you to a single distributor. He suggests $10 to $20 per month for a consumer device, $40 for a high-end system.

·         Built-in wireless: Not just WhisperNet but multiple wireless technologies.

·         Acceptable business models: “We have to get away from pricing books like their paper-bound relatives.”

·         Broader distribution: Even though he’s calling for a subscription model, he also says ebook readers should work on all networks so you can use any distributor.

·         Integrated animation and video.

·         Acceptable DRM: Yes, he’s assuming DRM, albeit with “an open standard.”

His prediction? “Someday” will be “hopefully by 2025 but certainly by 2050” at which point more than half the population (worldwide) will be using ebook readers, with reading an ebook “a far better experience than reading a paper-bound book.” And then we’ll look back and laugh at how we killed all those trees…

Commenters noted that Purdy omits ease of page turning, the significance of board books, battery life, the “multiple gadget” issue, good text-to-speech and search capabilities. Several people found the subscription model undesirable for books (and noted that heavy readers tend to use libraries).

Would everyone jump exclusively to ebooks if the “perfect reader” existed? Frankly, I doubt it—and I doubt that you could get general agreement that Purdy’s concept of perfect is everyone else’s.

How the Kindle will change the world

That’s the title of Jacob Weisberg’s March 21, 2009 Slate commentary—and although Weisberg says “I’m doing my best not to become a Kindle bore,” he comes off as an evangelist for the Kindle 2. “I can take a whole library on vacation! Adjust the type size! Peruse the morning paper without getting out of bed!”

[H]owever the technology and marketplace evolve, Jeff Bezos has built a machine that marks a cultural revolution. The Kindle 2 signals that after a happy, 550-year union, reading and printing are getting separated. It tells us that printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence.

Heady stuff. While Weisberg admits that you wouldn’t want to read an art book (or a picture book to your children) on a Kindle, he says the Kindle provides a fundamentally better experience than reading from print.

Weisberg’s cranky about hardback books, “printed on ever crappier paper with bindings that skew and crack.” He thinks Amazon will eventually push publishers out of the equation and become “the only publisher a best-selling author needs.” Does the idea of a one-publisher monopoly bother you? It doesn’t bother Weisberg, apparently—any more than the fact that “best-selling author” leaves out the most interesting parts of print publishing.

What we should worry about is that the system supports the creation of literature, if grudgingly. There’s a risk that what replaces it won’t allow as many writers to make as good a living. But there’s also a chance it could allow more writers to make a better living… When it comes to literature, I’m optimistic that electronic reading will bring more good than harm. New modes of communication will spur new forms while breathing life into old ones. Reading without paper might make literature more urgent and accessible than it was before the technological revolution, just like Gutenberg did.

I must be missing something in this article, as it appears to give no reasons why the Kindle 2 is a better reading device than print on paper, other than Weisberg’s own preferences. The article boils down to little more than “I love the Kindle 2, therefore print books are toast”—coupled with a remarkable incuriosity about the effects of a true publishing monopoly. It appears to be universalism and little more.

Turning a new page in ebooks

That’s Marji McClure’s feature in the April 2009 Information Today. She notes that, until the Kindle, ebook programs succeeded more as searchable collections for scientific audiences. Analysts are perhaps more encouraged by Amazon’s extension of Kindle ebooks to “13 million iPhones” rather than just half a million Kindles. McClure hedges her bets: these things may signify that ebooks are moving into the mainstream and could make ebooks a viable and profitable proposition.

There’s an odd quote from John Blossom, who says the $10 to $15 publishers get for Kindle titles (assuming Amazon takes no cut!) “falls to the bottom line” because there’s no inventory risk. That ignores author royalties and amortizing non-print-related initial costs. He’s assuming enormous market penetration, apparently: “you don’t necessarily have to go to gigantic print runs to get gigantic market penetration as ebooks take off.” Gigantic market penetration?

The article cites ways ebooks are beginning to be real parts of the publishing industry rather than peculiar sideshows. The Kindle isn’t enough, to be sure: “But if and until we get to the point where a large segment of the population owns these devices—and at a price of $359 for the Kindle 2, that could take awhile—industry watchers agree that making ebooks accessible via a wide range of formats may be a more effective strategy.” A big chunk of the article discusses models such as SpringerLink and Safari Books Online.

This is a realistic article, worth reading as an early 2009 snapshot of industry perceptions. Rich Rosy of Ingram Digital cautions against extreme expectations—in this case, for wider library adoption:

“Is it going to be skyrocketing? I don’t think so,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a gradual increase because we’re talking about a conservative group and they need to make sure every dollar they spend is maximized.”

Blossom, without citing probable changes as such, looks forward to increased functionality—either as true multimedia or social media:

“One of the gaps in ebooks is the ability to share, the ability to build community around it,” says Blossom, adding that there is potential to build communities and events around ebooks much like traditional book clubs have done for years. “The future of ebooks will be better integration of web technologies and more capabilities to share and collaborate and build insight and enthusiasm through other people who are reading the book,” he says. “I think the ebook industry will be very exciting a few years from now as we begin to get into the sharing, the collaboration and integration capabilities of these books.”

These suggestions don’t necessarily change the form of the long narrative. LibraryThing and Shelfari are already here and book clubs have been around for decades. Will ebooks be transformative? The Magic 8-Ball (not yet a feature on any ebook reader I know of) says “Ask again later.”

E-readers and libraries

Technically, the full title of this April 21, 2009 post on the ALA Techsource blog is “A TechSource blogger forum: E-readers and libraries.” Daniel Freeman says the Kindle 2’s release “has set off a firestorm of speculation about how e-readers are going to transform (destroy?) the publishing industry. Anything with the potential to transform reading has the potential to transform librarianship.”

Jason Griffey recognizes DRM as a hurdle—but he’s already decided on the future:

The eventual truth is, though, that none of this matters. E-books are the future of reading in a very real way, simply because at some point they will be too cheap to not use... How can paper continue to compete with Moore’s Law?

How can you argue with “inevitable” and technological determinism? Not that you’d find too much disagreement from the next TechSource blogger, Tom Peters, who’s been flogging ebooks since long before the Kindle:

Well, I have to admit that the idea of near-instantaneous delivery of hundreds of thousands or millions of e-books to just about anywhere I happen to be at the time is pretty appealing to me. Traditional ILL will still be useful and used for relatively obscure documents, but I think the Kindlesque way of delivering reading content is the wave of the future.

He does see “the Kindle breakaway” as leaving “libraries in the lurch” and wonders whether the “info elite” will all “migrate to Kindles and iPhones and such stuff, leaving print and libraries for the underclass?” Peters seems to have no doubt that anyone who can switch to ebook reading will—even with the loss of first sale rights (which he does mention).

Cindi Trainor is less deterministic about the future of books. She notes a pilot project at her library to circulate digital content on Kindles and iPod Touches—but also notes the problem of distribution models. “If institutional purchase is not being considered at all, have libraries already lost this battle?”

What I find interesting in the first two responses is the—that is, ebooks will be the future of books and reading, not (as one commenter says) “part of our future.” But Leo Klein’s as deterministic as Griffey: “Print is and will be replaced…” although he sees smartphones and netbooks as the replacements for print books. My only comment on all this may be wonderment that so many smart people are convinced that replacement is right around the corner. Really? (OK, many smart people were convinced of this a decade ago as well. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.)

Not All Sweetness and Light

Guaranteed: “everybody” will love any ebook reader (or any other device, for that matter) only if you universalize from your own feelings. “Everybody” will never agree that one particular future for books makes sense as the future—not even the future I regard as nearly certain: An uncertain mix of print and digital offering an ever-changing set of book-length texts, some—but by no means all—featuring multimedia or hyperlinks.

These items offer less sanguine views of the ebook future.

The automatically updatable book

Nick Carr, February 11, 2009, Rough type:

One of the things that happens when books and other writings start to be distributed digitally through web-connected devices like the Kindle is that their text becomes provisional. Automatic updates can be sent through the network to edit the words stored in your machine—similar to the way that, say, software on your PC can be updated automatically today.

Not necessarily true. You can turn off WhisperNet. But it’s a good point in any case. As Carr notes, updatability is probably a good thing for tourist guidesm but what about other books? He quotes Stephanie at UrbZen in February 9, 2009 post (urbzen.com/):

The printed word—physically printed, on paper, in a book—might be heavy, clumsy or out of date, but it also provides a level of permanence and privacy that no digital device will ever be able to match…

Consider what might happen if a scholar releases a book on radical Islam exclusively in a digital format. The US government, after reviewing the work, determines that certain passages amount to national security threat, and sends Amazon and the publisher national security letters demanding the offending passages be removed. Now not only will anyone who purchases the book get the new, censored copy, but anyone who had bought the book previously and then syncs their Kindle with Amazon—to buy another book, pay a bill, whatever—will, probably unknowingly, have the old version replaced by the new, “cleaned up” version on their device. The original version was never printed, and now it’s like it didn’t even exist. What’s more, the government now has a list of everyone who downloaded both the old and new versions of the book.

The copy of Lolita sitting on your bookshelf contains exactly the same text now as it did when you purchased it years ago: You know that to be true. If you paid cash for it, nobody knows you own it. Stephanie admits her scenario might sound like “a crazy conspiracy theory,” and that’s what some comments (on her post) label it as—but Carr’s not so quick to dismiss it:

The unanticipated side effects of new technologies often turn out to be their most important effects. Printed words are permanent. Electronic words are provisional. The difference is vast and the implications worth pondering.

To my surprise, I don’t see any comments on this post. Is Stephanie’s scenario simply nonsensical? I’m not as certain as I’d like to be—and there’s no doubt at all in my mind that online businesses are less likely to assure 100% reader confidentiality than libraries…particularly when the FBI comes a-knockin’.

Large-screen Kindle won’t mean squat if Apple tablet arrives

Some hotshot tech journalists can’t get past Single Winners and Lots of Losers, and Dylan Tweney reveals that tendency in this May 4, 2009 “Gadget Lab” post at Wired.com. The article title may tell you all you need to know.

He dismisses the Kindle as being too small, “only slightly larger than a 3”x5” index card.” Then he notes the likely “Kindle XL” (the DX). Since Tweney is an absolute authority on everything, he throws in a sideslap at textbook publishing, “a prime example of the slowness, stupidity and waste of paper publishing.”

None of this matters, according to this guru, if Apple releases an iPhone/iPod with a 9” or 10” touchscreen.

The usefulness of a device like that would instantly trump that of any e-book reader, even if the battery life is poor and the screen less readable than an e-ink screen. That’s because a simple, easy-to-use tablet would be able to do anything the e-book reader could (display the text of books using an app like Stanza, which Amazon recently acquired) plus it would have access to 40,000 apps and billions of web pages. Its screen would be able to display color, and it would undoubtedly let you access e-mail, IM and other apps that people want…

Let’s overlook the idea that lousy battery life and inferior readability don’t matter. Tweney says, probably correctly, that many more people would want a general-purpose tablet than a large-screen ebook reader—maybe not as ebook readers but as general-purpose tablets. It’s the final paragraph that goes overboard:

We don’t know whether Apple will release a tablet or not. But if it does, its sales will make the Kindle’s million units look like a rounding error.

First of all, “rounding error” would require the Apple tablet to sell more than 200 million units in its first year—incredibly unlikely. More important, it’s an absurd argument—the idea that huge sales of Pomegranate A mean that profitable, large-scale sales of Watermelon B are irrelevant.

Tweney’s been around long enough to know better. Most commenters weren’t buying it, and two (properly, I think) labeled Tweney an “Apple fanboy.”

With Kindle, can you tell it’s Proust?

That’s Joanne Kaufman’s question in the April 24, 2009 New York Times. It begins with an anecdote and suggestion that publicly displaying a Kindle or Sony Reader “telegraphs a commitment to books” because they’re so expensive. Ann Fadiman, on the other hand, was relieved that her essay collection was not available for the Kindle.

Please, they’re overlooking the really important concern: How will the Kindle affect literary snobbism? If you have 1,500 books on your Kindle — that’s how many it holds — does that make you any more or less of a bibliophile than if you have the same 1,500 books displayed on a shelf?

This also belongs in facetiae, at least in part: It’s about the “plain brown wrapper” effect of a Kindle as compared to well-stocked bookshelves in a home.

It’s an interesting piece (URL not provided because access to past NYT pieces is iffy). Yes, ebook readers could reduce the “ineffable kinship” among readers that happens when people spot someone else reading a book—but, as noted in an earlier piece, they could also expand that through social networking. I find it interesting that Nicholson Baker doesn’t care how people read his books—as long as they read them.

The failure of e-book devices

This one’s pseudonymous, posted by “AndyW” on May 19, 2009 in his blog at LISNews (lisnews.org/failure_e_book_devices). It’s not about ebook readers as such; it’s about the general failure of makers to deal with libraries appropriately.

The failure is not the technology. The capacity to download, store, and recall hundreds if not thousands of books is impressive. The ability to replicate the look of font on paper is incredible. Each generation of e-book devices is rapidly outpacing the previous incarnations with additional features such as internet browser, PDF support, wireless updates, subscription support, and multiple e-book file types. The technology in and of itself is grand and a true marvel of the modern times.

The failure is how the e-book reader companies do not consider libraries as a viable customer…

AndyW digs into terms for the various device makers and ebook distributors and finds little that accommodates library circulation (or any form of lending).

This simply cannot stand. If this is a product of the electronic industry getting into the publishing business, they need to wake up and smell the pulp. Libraries are not your average customer and we should not be treated as such; for lack of a better analogy, we are the street level dealers to our vast clientele. We deserve to get special treatment.

So, all you e-book reader industry people out there, here’s a couple of ideas for you from this librarian.

(1) Write terms of service exclusively for libraries. Don’t leave us in this gray legal area where no one is a winner. We won’t want to lend out your product if we feel like we are going to get bit on the ass when you don’t support it or repair it (due to terms of service violations) or suddenly decide to sue the crap out of us for lending them in the first place…

(2) With your army of lawyers (Amazon, Sony, etc.), write a service contract in which you provide us with devices and materials which we can then lend to patrons. (Leave it to us as to how we make them financially responsible to borrowing the readers; we are better in the lost or damage item debt collection field than you are.)… Make it work so that we can put your devices on our shelves with materials that people will want and we will take care of the rest.

(3) Profit. You profit both literally and through increased exposure for your product to the public who might not otherwise be interested in your e-book reader. We profit with increased patronage, circulation numbers, and overall system usage statistics. It is a win-win-win for us, you and our patrons. You can’t beat that result, not even with a stick.

It’s hard to say much about the comments, either directly or on Teleread’s copy of the post. Will ebook reader producers take libraries seriously? (Amazon’s current policy is, in essence, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and we know how well that’s worked out elsewhere.)

Why e-books look so ugly

An odd one from Priya Ganapati on May 18, 2009 at Wired.com..

After spending a weekend with the Sony e-book reader, I found that the convenience of having so many books in a single, lightweight, slim device had me hooked, and its screen offers nearly print-like readability. But after about four hours of flipping through blocks of grey text I found myself feeling strangely melancholic. It couldn’t have been the lack of sunshine. Moving from one book to another, while easy, didn’t help: I was still staring at the same font, the same gray background and the same basic layout.

That leads into a discussion of book design—typeface choices, cover design, all the rest. Covers? They might improve soon.

When it comes to the guts of the e-book, fundamental aspects such as fonts and page layouts become a battle. There’s a dearth of typographic expression in e-books... That’s because e-readers’ firmware offers few font choices. Licensing custom fonts from a well-known foundry or font designer, a ubiquitous practice in print book design, is an impossibility for e-books.

Will it get better? Probably. The Kindle DX, able to display PDF without too much shrinkage, automatically allows for every typeface a book could use. Otherwise—well, as the article says, “As e-book readers get more popular they will get more sophisticated, bringing in a new crop of designers that understand a changing world of digital publishers.”

How Ebooks Could Change Reading

This odd cluster goes back to January 2008. You can guess my overall take:

·         When someone suggests that a new platform may create new genres and ways of reading that add to and complement existing ones, I’m likely to say, “Sounds likely; let’s explore the possibilities.”

·         When someone suggests that these new genres and ways of reading will displace existing ones that work, particularly when they say they will do so entirely or almost entirely, I’m likely to say, “Unlikely based on history—and I don’t see evidence for it.”

Note the hidden caveat in the second bullet, a caveat that digital extremists could use to undermine the entire statement: “ones that work.” If you believe people really don’t want to read long linear texts anyway, and that most people are just looking for ways to escape from a novel’s plot to hyperlinked material, then you could argue that print novels don’t work. That’s a very different argument than saying “100,000-word print novels are dead because Japanese readers love cell-phone novels.” Equally implausible, to my mind, but very different.

The mirth of comeuppance

Tom Peters posted this on January 21, 2008 at ALA TechSource blog. He’s chuckling about the popularity of cell phone novels in Japan—”novels” written on cell phones in short, pithy sentences.

And people—lots of people, as in millions—are reading these cell phone novels on, well, their cell phones. The authors often write while they are commuting, and cell phone novels often can be accessed in serialized form. Both authors and readers have discovered the cell phone as a place where a narrative art form can survive and flourish. A new genre seems to have been born.

So far, so good. I might want to poke at “novel” a little—in the U.S., at least within science fiction, there’s a generally accepted definition of “novel” as longer than 50,000 words. Not that there haven’t been shorter “novels,” but to my mind (and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), those are typically novellas (20,000 to 50,000 words) published as books. A relevant item in the New York Times article Peters cites is the comment that cell phone novels were being created and consumed “by a generation whose reading habits had consisted mostly of manga, or comic books.” (Note: I’m not equating manga with comic books; the Times is.) Reading further, we discover that most cell phone novels are “diary-like” and “written and read mostly by young women in the teens and 20’s.”

All this generates a sense of the mirth of comeuppance in me, as I and others have spent the last ten years contemplating and arguing about the future of electronic books. Most of us became mired in issues that may have been so much red herring: the quality of the overall reading experience, the form factor of the reading appliance, DRM, and even eyestrain. While we fretted over all that, young folks on the western edge of the Pacific Rim were beginning to comprehend and exploit the affordances of digital text as an art form.

Maybe. If you’ve been pushing the inevitability of ebook triumph as much as Peters has been, it is about those “red herring” issues, because you’re saying we’ll read all our books in e-form. For people to move from manga to teen fiction in a new form is something entirely different: It’s an addition, not a replacement. If teens living with unlimited texting find an urge to create longer narratives (and even if these cell-phone novels aren’t 50,000 words, chances are they are at least novelette length, 7,500 to 20,000 words), that sounds like a good thing—one that has very little to do with the overall future of print books. (Peters goes on to suggest that librarians “should be proactive in fostering cell phone novelists and readers here in the U.S.” I’m not sure I’d draw that conclusion—but I’m not sure I’d shy away from it either.)

The future of reading

This article by Ezra Klein appeared in the May/June 2008 Columbia Journalism Review. Maybe it’s fortunate that it appeared back then, when I was still printing potential C&I source material in full. Now, I tag items in delicious, then come back and print lead sheets (first pages) to organize them for use—avoiding excess printing and paper when I can. In this case, that would mean I’d only be able to discuss the first 280-odd words, less than one-tenth of the article—because the rest has since disappeared behind a pay wall. You can see that at www.cjr.org; for the full piece, consult the print magazine or appropriate database.

Klein bought a Kindle. He loves the screen and finds its bookishness “almost indescribably strange upon first glance.” Then things get strange:

Though Amazon has transformed the way we purchase content, its business model has always contained a crucial inefficiency: Amazon gives you unlimited, free instant access to text about books, so long as you read it on your computer screen. Then, when you’re ready, they’ll also sell you some text, only it won’t be unlimited or instant. Instead, it will be printed on mashed-up tree, put in a box, and sent across the country to you. What’s in that box is simply more text, no different from what you read on your computer, save for the wasteful, inefficient, and costly method of production. For all that we rebel against the idea, examined rationally, the death of the book would be no surprise.

Pretty clearly “we” does not include Ezra Klein. (Let’s ignore the 90% of consumer books that are not purchased through Amazon: Transformation is a sometimes thing.) Somehow, Klein seems to have thought a librarian might “berate me” for using a Kindle—which says he hasn’t been reading the effusions of librarians! “In fact, nobody noticed at all” during the month he was flaunting the device.

Though reading the Kindle felt like a courageous betrayal of every word written since the moment papyrus gave way to paper…

After a start like that, with Klein “courageously betraying” the whole history of paper, I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to type. Klein suddenly noticed that everybody else was busy reading text off screens: “The Kindle is far less the start of a revolution than the codification of one.”

Klein knows the reality, based on looking back at earlier death-of-print predictions. Print and radio coexist. Print and TV coexist. But somehow now it’s different. Why? “Using the Kindle is a sharp reminder of the limitations of printed text.” It’s not manipulable. It’s static and fixed (which, to Klein, is a disadvantage). “Traditional text is poorly suited” to informing. I read Klein’s discussion of how awful print books are for nonfiction purposes—and I either don’t get it or disagree. For some uses, absolutely—but for most of those uses book-length text isn’t the ideal medium anyway.

I’m impressed Klein can cite all the virtues of changeable text and sees none of the problems. I’m also impressed that he blames publishing delays on the inefficiencies of print. He suggests ongoing conversations between readers and authors (which happen now on author blogs)—”conversations” that readers would supposedly pay for at a rate that would provide healthy income. Really?

Klein believes reading will change because he wants writing to change. Here’s the close:

But if the Kindle’s successor or competitors are to succeed, it will be because Amazon used its status as the world’s largest online bookseller to force authors to think seriously about creating content that works better than the book, that goes where the book cannot, that’s interactive and cooperative and open in ways that printed text will never be. [Emphasis added.]

Other than the slightly bizarre idea that Amazon should force authors to change their evil ways, this strikes me as a call for new genres—not a call to lose what’s there now unless, as Klein apparently does, you believe books just don’t work for nonfiction. (The idea that one company should properly be forcing changes in writing is also a little unnerving, particularly given that company’s fondness for DRM. Does everybody love monopolies these days?)

The first comment (Klein’s article is fixed content produced in print magazine form, but with the availability of online commenting—a community function, if you will) is an articulate statement on books as communal or shared objects and their efficiency in that form. There was only one other comment—which also seems a bit strange.

Or, rather, there were only two comments on the CJR site. Norman Oder at Library Journal (writing in one of LJ’s blogs) on May 20, 2008) welcomes “the concept of a living, hyperlinked electronic text that can be updated—despite the challenge that poses to the publishing system and its role in vetting manuscripts—and the possibility that communities of readers could react to books in the same way that they currently comment on article or blogs”—but notes the “chaff with the wheat” of internet commenting: “we all know…that no one wants to read all the comments on an article, much less a book.”

Of a number of other comments, I’ll note only Marcus Banks’ “Of Kindles and changes in writing,” posted June 25, 2008 at Marcus’ world (mbanks.typepad. com/my_weblog/). Banks sees the complementarity of new and old media: “The Kindle won’t end the paper book, just like the Web didn’t end TV, and just like TV didn’t end the radio or movies. Many old technologies still make sense even after cool new ones come along. Heck—there’s still value in the print newspaper (which gives a boundary to the news that can disappear in a world of wonderfully endless hyperlinks).” He agrees that writing for digital reading can change how you write (adding links, etc.)—but Banks sees such writing as also complementary. I agree.

To print or not to print

After 11,000 words, it’s time for a digression—one that belongs in another section, to be sure. Doug Johnson’s June 1, 2008 post at The blue skunk blog also came long before I started using delicious—but, just for fun, I keyed the title in to the search function. It yields seven articles with that as the full or partial title—and I’m intrigued by the kind of kaleidoscopic or “chance” essay you could get by assuming that all such stories are related.

How much of a stretch is that? The first is definitely about print—it’s about DPI, dots per inch, and the difference between on-screen and print resolution. The second has to do with freedom of the press and college newspapers. The third, prefaced by “Color printing,” concerns choices for color printers. The fourth is on CSS—specifically, stylesheets that differentiate between screen and print views. The fifth, on freedom and responsibility of the press in Kenya. Doug Johnson’s post comes sixth. Last? From a digital scrapbooker about printing habits for “full digital pages.”

Getting back to the topic at hand, Johnson—who’s excited about ebook possibilities both as an educator and reader—finds himself a print addict. “Anything more than a couple pages long that I need to read with care goes to the printer.” (I can no longer say the same, although “with care” is one of those tricky phrases. I wonder whether I’m being less thorough with items I read online?) He read William Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry and recommends it. Here’s a pertinent passage:

We have seen that new technologies do not necessarily eliminate old ones, at least not as quickly or predictably as is often assumed. However, when new modes of communication arrive, they do often change the role played by existing media.” (p.26) [Powers] argues that “paper’s work has been shifting away from storage and toward communication.”

Powers cites four important affordances of paper: Tangibility, spatial flexibility, tailorability (ease of markup) and manipulability. But Johnson’s more interested in two other characteristics of paper:

The first is that it is immutable. “Unlike a Web page that can be changed in the blink of an eye, a paper document implies a certain commitment to the content it carries.” (p. 49)… This may also explain why I take a good deal more time and care writing an 800 word magazine column than a longer blog entry—no going back to “re-write” the column.

The second characteristic is that paper is a selective medium. “A hard-copy document can only hold only as much information as will fit on its pages, and it cannot link to other sources except by verbal reference... The immensity of the digital trove also makes it inscrutable, unwieldy, and, at times, overwhelming.”…

Klein sees immutability as a limitation, Johnson as a virtue. They may both be right.

The once and future e-book: on reading in the digital age

John Siracusa contributed this fairly long essay February 1, 2009 at Ars Technica (arstechnica.com/gadgets/ news/2009/02/the-once-and-future-e-book.ars). He was involved with ebooks early on—and still says “people don’t get e-books.” A few items from the article:

·         Siracusa—correctly, in my opinion—finds it problematic that both content (ebooks) and devices (readers) are called ebooks (or e-books, if you prefer) by many people. He thinks there’s a clear distinction in music, where people understand that the medium is “just a vessel” (I’d suggest Siracusa hasn’t had contact with vinyl fans!) and finds a “stubborn” clinging to book form for novels, biography and history. To him, this is “baggage.”

·         He cites objections to ebooks but speaks of those raising them as “offenders,” which gives you an inkling of Siracusa’s stance. He says unfavorable comparisons of screen to print are accurate but “they don’t matter”—because we read lots of stuff off the screen. I respond: So what? If I hear more music on a car radio than on first-rate headphones, that doesn’t nullify the better sound of the headphones when I care about what I’m hearing. The proposition that quantity negates quality is silly. Yes, “people will read text off screens”—but millions of us who do read lots of text off screen still prefer to read long text in print form. For Siracusa to say he’s getting “the screen technology argument off the table once and for all” is ludicrous.

·         So, too, with devices—because some people read lots of text off some digital devices, “fretting” over “real or imagined” failings of a dedicated ebook reader is irrelevant.

·         Here’s the magic word: “The inevitable e-book” (emphasis added). Since he’s used “logic” and “reasoning” to demolish objections, he moves on to the simple truth that people love books. And comes up with the standard answer: “But the truth is, these things always turn out the same way. And I have some bad news for the bibliophiles. The beloved, less technically sophisticated information conveyance with the pedigreed history doesn’t win.”

May I just say Aaarggh. For Siracusa to proceed by citing “people die” as the basis for “progress”—because, you know, the next generation prefers the screen—is both predictable and pathetic. Then he cites the “plain as day” merits of ebooks: convenience, power (searchability), potential.

Let’s look at that third one—it’s the shortest and raises a whole bunch of interesting questions in the real world: “Potential: Consume, share, and remix all of the above with anyone, an unlimited number of times.” Really? So DRM and copyright will just fade away? Authors really won’t mind that one copy sells and the rest are shared, and their works are “remixed” ad hoc? Maybe.

The next section offers Siracusa’s take on the triumph of CDs over LPs—and it becomes clear that Siracusa believes Medium X always replaces Medium Y, all real-world evidence to the contrary. He parenthesizes one big reason that CDs succeeded so rapidly: Record companies forced the issue. Remarkably, he views the “transition” from CDs to downloads as a done deal, referring to the loss of lyrics and liner notes (and fidelity) in the past tense.

Not satisfied, Siracusa uses the moldy device of comparing print books to horses and ebooks to cars. Which proves…oh, wait. Well, it’s on par with the rest of his proofs.

Here follows a “refresher course” on DRM with the usual technophile’s assurance that it doesn’t actually work—but it does for most consumers. Then he turns to actual costs. Not wanting to get bogged down with facts, he does a handwave on the cost of producing a digital version of a best-seller—costs that are only covered by print versions as long as there are print versions. He’s probably right to say that ebook sales are highly profitable add-ons for successful print publishers, which may be why so many books are available as ebooks. But he manages to blame publishers for sabotaging the ebook market. And since Siracusa was an early participant, it leaves room for a lengthy rant about Apple and various others.

Siracusa prefers ebooks. Therefore, he believes everyone else should. Can we get an Amen? He doesn’t say that outright. He feels that we should “give it an honest try”—that we should invest in and try ebooks whether we want to or not. If you don’t like them, keep trying. Why? Because it’s the inevitable future. Right.

How the e-book will change the way we read and write

That’s Steven Johnson in the April 20, 2009 Wall Street Journal. How much does Johnson love his Kindle?

Every genuinely revolutionary technology implants some kind of “aha” moment in your memory—the moment where you flip a switch and something magical happens, something that tells you in an instant that the rules have changed forever.

His latest such moment came with the Kindle when, sitting alone in a restaurant reading a nonfiction ebook, he had the urge to read a novel, purchased one, and had finished the first chapter by the time the check arrived.

The first paragraph makes me wonder—I’d guess lots of significant technologies have snuck up on us without “aha” moments. Maybe I’m just not much for magical occurrences that tell me “in an instant that the rules have changed forever.” Maybe that’s the difference between significant and revolutionary; maybe it’s the difference between appreciation and fervor.

Johnson was suddenly certain that the “migration” of books to ebooks “would likely change the way we read, write and sell books in profound ways.” Easier to buy—but also easier to stop reading. More books—and, somehow, sitting there reading an ebook alone in a restaurant will “transform the solitary act of reading into something far more social.” As a library user, I don’t get the “easier to stop reading” in any case—and I don’t buy books unless I’m sure I want to read them all the way through. At $10 a pop, I’m not sure “easier to stop” is such a good thing.

I was prejudging above, before I read the rest of the piece carefully. Let’s see the nuances and evidence for Johnson’s claims. We’ve “drifted further and further away” from books—I’m not sure why, but it has something to do with digital text being available. Books “can’t compete with…hyperlinked rivals.” You can’t prove that by book sales, but those are just messy facts.

Johnson makes much of Google Book Search, its “almost 10 million books” and the ability to search across millions of books instantly, or—as he assumes—to search a “shadow version of your entire library, including every book you’ve ever read.” He sees this as making huge changes in scholarship and discovery. He also thinks easier book buying will vastly increase book sales, and that might be true. (Apparently, Johnson is one of those with such unlimited funds that when someone mentions an interesting book, he buys it—none of that inferior library experience for him!) He also thinks this “infinite bookstore at your fingertips” is bad for attention, because it’s so easy to drop another $10 and abandon the book you’re reading for some other book.

Because they have been largely walled off from the world of hypertext, print books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of linear, deep-focus reading. Online, you can click happily from blog post to email thread to online New Yorker article—sampling, commenting and forwarding as you go. But when you sit down with an old-fashioned book in your hand, the medium works naturally against such distractions; it compels you to follow the thread, to stay engaged with a single narrative or argument.

As I read this, Johnson’s saying that we only give books our attention because we have no choice; that, once given tools to do so, we’ll flit from book to book as well. A sad statement on his fellow man, unless he’s universalizing from his own habits. He “fears” that we all (there’s that universalism) may read books “the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.”

Then there’s the strangest aspect, although it’s one mentioned by other deep thinkers: That, somehow, ebooks make books social:

With books becoming part of this universe, “booklogs” will prosper, with readers taking inspiring or infuriating passages out of books and commenting on them in public. Google will begin indexing and ranking individual pages and paragraphs from books based on the online chatter about them… You’ll read a puzzling passage from a novel and then instantly browse through dozens of comments from readers around the world, annotating, explaining or debating the passage’s true meaning.

Think of it as a permanent, global book club…

Johnson sees “every page of every book individually competing with every page of every other book that has ever been written… The unity of the book will disperse into a multitude of pages and paragraphs.” I don’t believe Johnson actually fears this dystopian future; I sense that he welcomes it, destructive though it is to either well-plotted fiction or linear narrative in general. Better make your point in a paragraph, ‘cause otherwise the reader will be off to some other paragraph!

And he assumes writing will change to match:

Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google’s results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.

Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank. Just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list.

It is all, to my jaundiced eye, more than a little sad—but also a little improbable.

When one commenter notes the absence of the Sony Reader with its million free ebooks, another says it can’t cause the “aha moment” because the content doesn’t arrive instantaneously. One long-time reader of ebooks (who doesn’t use a dedicated device) doesn’t think they encourage you to abandon books; the best systems make it easy to remember where you were in each book, and he finds himself reading multiple books less often now.

The social dilemma of e-reading

Thessaly La Force commented on Johnson’s article in this April 24, 2009 online-only piece at The New Yorker blogs (www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/ 04/the-social-dilemma-of-ereading.html). La Force calls his opinions “wildly optimistic” and is skeptical of the “social books” idea:

Really? Project Gutenberg, which has been digitizing works since 1971, contains thousands of books—all free…to copy, paste, e-mail, and reference at any hour, and, yet it hasn’t produced a worldwide conversation that explains the greatness of Middlemarch any better than a good English professor or an enthusiastic friend can. Online discussion can clarify, but it can also obfuscate; comment threads devolve into petty debates and dissenting opinion. And no technology—codex, moveable type, or digital ink—can ever establish the “true meaning” of a written passage.

La Force finds ebook readers unattractive, but that’s another issue. Overall, though, La Force sees the opposite of what Johnson seems to desire:

[E]-reading’s success, in my opinion, depends more on a Kindle behaving like a book and less like a machine. We use books to escape the hundreds of e-mails, text messages, and phone calls that interrupt our day. Reading is both solitary and social—a tricky balance, yes—but one that simple paper and ink still manage to pull off.

Jason Kottke offers another brief take on Johnson’s article in “Our grim e-book future,” an April 20, 2009 post at kottke.org. He’s noting the kind of openness required for this worldwide network of interlinked book pages and commentary to actually work:

Aside from some notable exceptions like Project Gutenberg, e-books are currently only as open and free as the publishing companies (and Amazon and Google) want them to be. I think those two initial conditions change the playing field. Copy/paste/publish to your booklog without significant restrictions or payment? Sharing a passage of a book with someone who doesn’t own that book, as verified through a third-party DRM system? Good luck! Readers will have to fight for those kinds of features. And perhaps we’ll eventually win. But for right now, the bookloggers that Johnson speaks of are only two letters away from how the publishing industry might label them: bootleggers.

Clive Thompson on the future of reading in a digital world

A long title for a short article—653 words at Wired.com on May 22, 2009. Thompson is another one who believes in the social nature of books and, apparently, turning books into series of semi-independent passages. He doesn’t think there’s a choice—because, as may be true for devoted Wired readers, none of us have attention spans any more:

Literary pundits are fretting: Can books survive in this Facebooked, ADD, multichannel universe? To which I reply: Sure they can. But only if publishers adopt Wark’s perspective [“blowing books open” into series of paragraphs with independent comment streams] and provide new ways for people to encounter the written word. We need to stop thinking about the future of publishing and think instead about the future of reading.

Thompson states as a fact that “every other form of media that’s gone digital has been transformed by its audience”—that comments on TV shows and newspaper stories actually transform TV shows and newspaper stories. Maybe—maybe not. It’s hard to tell here, although it’s interesting that Thompson also cites the highly anecdotal experience of authors giving away free digital copies and finding more print sales. At least Thompson’s not hard-core for all social reading:

I’m not suggesting that books need always be social. One of the chief pleasures of a book is mental solitude, that deep, quiet focus on an author’s thoughts—and your own. That’s not going away. But books have been held hostage offline for far too long. Taking them digital will unlock their real hidden value: the readers.

Among other mostly-complimentary comments, there’s one who believes “the primary value provided by a book is the original intellectual property the author gives us, not the claptrap provided by its readers.” That’s too strong, but I’m inclined to second the commenter’s suggestion that Wired writers “forgo payment for all future columns you write…” to align practice with philosophy.

Helene Blowers comments on Thompson’s article in “The future of reading,” a May 28, 2009 post at LibraryBytes. She believes that a future full-color ebook reader means “the evolution of the ebook will explode into a full blown culture revolution.” She’s been playing with BookGlutton.com, which invites interaction with book annotations of others—and, well… “I think once the Kindle or Sony (or rumored iBook) incorporates this type of functionality into their ereader app, then the competition will be over, period. The future of reading will have been born.” Wow. (Emphasis added.) Not a new way for reading and discussing some items; not a set of conversations that might involve some portion of book readers—the future of reading.

Reading Dickens four ways

To end this installment, here’s an oddity from the June 12, 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education by Ann Kirschner, recounting her attempt to read Little Dorrit in paperback, as an audiobook, on the Kindle, and on an iPhone. She’s a Manhattanite, with lots of use of public transportation. That might suggest to another writer that her experience and conclusions are anecdotal and personal—but there’s nothing new about New Yorkers (or Californians, I’ll admit) assuming that We All are As They Are—or at least we should be.

To abbreviate an odd article, her prediction is that the iPhone is “a Kindle killer.” She doesn’t care about e-ink readability, apparently, and of course (as with “everybody” or about 13 million people, whichever you prefer) her iPhone is always with her. She calls the Kindle screen “a permanent dishwater gray” and doesn’t worry about the iPhone’s limited battery life. And, of course, she’s not old so the small screen of the iPhone isn’t an issue. (She slaps several generations underhandedly: of the newer generation she says “Right now, they aren’t buying Kindles—and they aren’t reading books.” Nice.)

Admission: I haven’t read Little Dorrit—and after failing to make it through the first two hours of an eight-hour adaptation on PBS, I suspect I never will. For Ann Kirschner, the ubiquity of the device is the only relevant issue—and since “we all” do (or should) carry iPhones all the time, that’s the clear winner.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 9, Number 9, Whole Issue 119, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Editorial Director of the Library Leadership Network.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services, http://www.ybp.com.

Opinions herein may not represent those of Lyrasis or YBP Library Services.

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