How do you get your ebook signed by the author?

Paul Raven @ 04-01-2010

No, it’s not really a trick question. In fact, it’s a business idea from Danie Ware, public relations ubergeekstress of London’s world-famous Forbidden Planet store, a solution to the intangibility of an ebook by comparison to the collectible physicality of its dead-tree equivalent. So I’ll let Danie explain the idea herself:

Removable, collectable vinyl [ebook reader] covers – plain, a selection of colours, maybe they can be stylised by your favourite art toy designer – but ultimately, they’re there to collect signatures. Take one to a Convention, keep it on you, it protects your Kindle, it looks cool – and you get to show off all the autographs/sketches you’ve collected.

It’s a talking point in the bar – a great way to chat up fanboys/girls and a lovely excuse to approach your favourite writer. Plus the authors get to keep up with their public appearances – hell, if this is marketed right and catches on, it could be a new and different lease of eventing life… bigger multi-author signings will surely become more popular, and (we’re back to this again) everybody wins.

Definitely not the craziest idea I’ve heard so far this year… hell, I’d buy one right away (if I had an ebook reader to put in the thing).

What do you lot think – will your ebook reader be owner-decorated, like a sticker-bedecked and/or laser-engraved laptop (or, going back in time a little bit, the school bags, folders and pencil-cases of teenagers), or will it stay largely uncustomised, like your phone?


The B&N Nook – is it the ebook reader we’ve been waiting for?

Paul Raven @ 22-10-2009

Barnes & Noble Nook ebook readerI don’t know for sure, but it’s certainly ticking a lot of my requirement boxes by comparison to the alternatives. Barnes & Noble have dropped a minor bombshell in the form of the Nook ebook reader, which is powered by Google’s Android operating system and open to a whole lot of everyday file formats that the competition don’t touch. Here are some highlights from the Ars Technica rundown:

In contrast to the Kindle’s physical keyboard (and Sony’s on-screen one), the Nook uses a color touchscreen for most of the navigation (it’s listed as a 3.5″ TFT-LCD); it’s laid out as a wide band immediately below the E-Ink screen. Various demos show that this can be used to access a series of settings through hierarchial menus, and it will display book covers, either from the B&N store or in your library, in full color. It’s not clear at this point whether it can also display an on-screen keyboard for note-taking and other text entry.

In other ways, the Nook is a bit of a throwback to the first version of the Kindle. It’s a bit thicker and heavier, but that enables B&N to include a removable battery and an SD card slot for additional storage—2GB is built in. It also comes with free access to a 3G cellular network (this one from AT&T), but one-ups Amazon by including WiFi, which will allow some of its features to operate during foreign travel. It can be connected to a computer or charged via a mini-USB port, and the device also has a speaker and headphone jack.

All of these features may explain why the battery is removable. B&N estimates that the device will run for about 10 days on a single charge if the various wireless options are shut down, but heavy use of the optional features may drain it in as little as two days.

So, the sort of thing you could take abroad and still access new content with. And who knows what sort of capabilities the hacker crowd will discover once they learn to root the OS and add their own applications? Some sort of basic web browser attached to the wi-fi connection doesn’t seem implausible. But the best is yet to come:

Some of these hardware choices may make it a compelling device, but the real differentiator is probably in the software. B&N turned to Google’s Android operating system to power the Nook, which may be why it supports so many file formats, including PDF, EPUB, eReader, MP3, and PNG, JPG, and GIF image formats.

Like the Kindle, the software will synchronize content among a variety of devices, including PCs and Macs, as well as Blackberries, iPhones, and iPod touches. But it also allows users to lend their purchased items to friends with linked accounts. So, for example, you can choose a book and send it to a friend via the touchscreen interface. Once sent, your friend has 14 days to read it (presumably, the work is inaccessible to you during that period).

Finally, someone has remembered that people like to lend books! I rather suspect there’ll be a lot of fiddly legal loopholes and DRM involved, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The snag-point for me (besides the fact that it doesn’t look like there’ll be a UK version particularly soon) is being tied to a specific retailer’s store, but that’s ameliorated a great deal by the ability to read PDFs and other standard formats – it means there are literally thousands of books and stories that you can read for free on the Nook. All you have to do is go fetch them from somewhere and load them on… and a rooted device with the aforementioned basic web capabilities could make that a simple procedure, too.

But the price-point and capabilities are (hopefully) a harbinger of things to come; I think we’re getting nearer to the tipping point that mp3 players went through a while back, when there’ll be a sudden wave of generic hardware that doesn’t tie the user to a particular content provider. Ideally you’d have the option to link to all the major ebook vendors as well as the ability to download free material from the web, and that’s plainly well within the bounds of technological possibility (although the vendors will resist calls to surrender their walled garden exclusivity, no doubt). Will the ebook market grow quickly enough to provide that pressure? I guess we’ll have to wait and see, but the protestations of those who say that ebooks will fail because they’ve always failed before are starting to sound a little shaky to me. [image ganked from The Guardian; contact for immediate takedown if required]

So, what do you think? Would you be interested in a B&N Nook? If not, why not? What features or capabilities is it missing?


Ebooks cost a lot of money to make; will no one explain why that has to be so?

Paul Raven @ 02-10-2009

Andrew Wheeler wants people to stop saying that ebooks don’t cost publishers lots of money to make:

Creating an individual ebook format — one of the current suite of them — costs roughly as much as creating a print-on-paper edition; the costs of the actual paper and ink are vanishingly small in this equation. Some ebook formats, such as the currently fashionable one, have a baroque process of creation that involves multiple transformations and iterations of quality control, which drives up costs further. And the cost per unit is massively higher for ebooks than for printed books — infinitely so in some cases, since there are plenty of ebook editions that have never sold a single copy.

Now, I feel the need to respond to this post, because I’ve chimed in on ebook economics before and it’s a topic I care a lot about. However, I’m going to first point out that I have a great deal of respect for Andrew Wheeler, both as a blogger and an editor, and I’m fully aware that he knows a lot more about the inner workings of the publishing industry than I do; I’m not going to tell him he’s wrong, because he isn’t. I’m not going to refute the claim that ebooks currently cost a lot of money to make. I am, however, going to say that they shouldn’t cost a lot of money to make, that they don’t have to, and that the longer they do, the smaller the chances of them ever becoming a viable industry in their own right.

Part of this isn’t the fault of the publishers; as Wheeler points out, there are a dozen competing ebook formats with arcane creation processes; there are DRM frameworks; there are ebook vendor requirements that predicatably take advantage of the over-the-barrel status of the publisher and milk them for as much as they think they can get away with. This is pretty much how new technologies always work; I can see parallels with the digital music business as it meared the Napster era. The publishers dragged their feet then, as well, and in the process allowed an openly accessible file format (the mp3) to gain ascendancy in a series of distribution networks that they had no investment in or control over. I expect book publishers are well aware of this parallel; what surprises me is that they’re not talking to the consumers about it more actively.

I do need to quibble on one of Wheeler’s points:

… the cost per unit is massively higher for ebooks than for printed books — infinitely so in some cases, since there are plenty of ebook editions that have never sold a single copy.

Now, again, I’m not saying he’s wrong here – he’s seen figures and spreadsheets that I’ll never be shown, of that I’m certain. But if you’re running a set-up where the per-unit cost of an infinite good is higher than that of the physical finite version, either there’s something massively wrong somewhere in the production chain, or my understanding of the publishing process has a huge flaw which I would sorely appreciate being corrected on.

Allow me to explain: some of you may be aware that I work for UK small press PS Publishing. Now, we don’t sell ebooks (yet), but we make PDF versions of our books available to reviewers. Those PDFs are almost identical to the file we send to the printers, except for being saved at a lower resolution to save on disk space and download times. In other words, the work to produce a template for the reproduction of a physical book or an electronic one can be exactly the same; the same editing, proofing and typesetting/layout process, all the way up to the stage where the book is released to duplication.

The obvious answer to that statement is “well, you’re using PDFs and no other formats, so of course it’s easy”. Well, yes; and that’s kinda my point – if the publishing industry continues to allow intermediary vendors to shaft them with ludicrous hoop-jump requirments and costs for multiple proprietary formats, then they’re never going to make a dime out of selling ebooks. There needs to be a concerted push by the industry for a single, simple and secure digital format that everyone uses; then leverage can be applied to the makers of reader hardware to support that format, plus the formats used by public domain material (e.g. the humble and ubiquitous PDF, which is either unsupported or charged for on most current readers of which I am aware).

Part of the establishment of that file format should include software for easy conversion of proofed electronic galley files directly into it, so that once a book is ready for printing, it’s also ready for ebooking in one click. At this point, there’s no way the per-unit cost for ebooks can be higher than print, because that ebook is ready to ship, and any intermediary vendors should be willing to eat the storage and distribution costs out of their final to-consumer price. If they’re not, you go with the one who will; the rest will soon follow. Now, sure, you’ve still got your marketing and promotion budget to consider in to that per-unit cost, but that’s the same outlay for both editions up to this point in the process, and with a digital format that cost is spread over a theoretically infinite number of units at no extra cost.

By comparison, after that final file is deemed ready for production, printed books must be printed, warehoused, shipped, lifted onto shelves in brick-and-mortar stores and run past the till scanners there, too… and all that money has to be coming from the profit margins. By any rational analysis from outside (with the caveat that I’m not an economist or an accountant), that must cost more than making digital books available; I’m prepared to believe that there may be reasons that it doesn’t, but I’d suggest that those mysterious reasons point to a heroic flaw in the economics of book publishing as it stands.

To reiterate: I’m not saying Andrew Wheeler is wrong to say that ebooks cost more to make than dead-tree books; I’m saying that disparity in cost is impossible to understand for anyone not privy to the way the system works – people like me, and people like the ones who want to buy ebooks but find them either unavailable due to antiquated regional licencsing, hobbled or useless thanks to proprietary and restrictive file formats, or just simply too damned expensive by comparison to the dead-tree version.

Wheeler’s final point s that many ebooks never sell a single copy, which surely only underlines my point that making every effort to reduce that inexplicably high per-unit cost is the only way to make them a viable business. As Blue Tyson says in the comments below the post, “[p]ricing them double is a pretty good strategy to sell zero, certainly.” If your current system means you have no choice but to charge an arm and a leg for an infinte good, your system is surely broken. I think part of the problem is considering the physical and electronic versions as two separate products; that proofed and typeset file is the product, and the ebook or bound paper are just the delivery systems for it.

Now, I’m fully prepared to admit that there are things I don’t know about how the system works, as mentioned above. The point I’m trying to make here is that until the consumer has been shown why that price must be so high, they will never stop complaining about it. I’d genuinely like to know the truth of the matter, and as such I’d like to invite Andrew Wheeler (and anyone else with the pertinent experience and knowledge) to set us straight; I’ll happily publish a response here, or link to it if published elsewhere. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, so they say. 🙂


Would you buy a Kindle DX?

Paul Raven @ 08-05-2009

Well, we’ve all had a few days to take a look at the specifications and hear the debates, so it’s time to ask – would you consider buying the new Kindle DX? If not, why not?

Amazon Kindle DX ebook reader

Frankly, if I had the money to hand I’d order one now – in full knowledge that something better will be along in a year and make me regret it. They’ve just passed the utility point past which my early-adopter organ starts releasing the hormones; PDF compatibility is the big issue for me, second to a bigger screen size, though apparently there is a small charge for sending a PDF through the system to your device (which is a bit cheeky). Lucky I’m skint right now, I guess… but this is surely much closer to a game-changer device than the last iteration, not to mention easier on the aesthetic eye. What do you think?

Bob Lefsetz seems to agree with me:

The Kindle breeds excitement.  At your fingertips is a breadth of excitement and knowledge.  My little device is always at the ready, and calls me not only at night, but during the day, to delve into a story that tells me so much about the world but is not laden with the hit and run facts of today’s infotainment society.

Fiction tells you more about life than non-fiction.  All these years later, to rediscover the experience of reading stories is thrilling.

But I don’t expect the mainstream to join me on my adventure quite yet.  The buy-in price of the device is way too high, $349.  And the new Kindle, $489, this is not something for the masses!

iPods got cheaper.

Kindles are getting more expensive.

Buy the third or fourth generation.  Maybe the fifth.  The ergonomics will be better and the price will be lower.

Granted, Lefsetz’s experience is in the music industry, but I (and he) still hold that the similarities between the two industries are strong, albeit with change occuring in the book industry at a somewhat more manageable pace. The writing is on the wall… or rather on the screen. 😉

But the response on everyone’s lips seems to be “ooh, just wait until Apple put out a tablet device!” I’d agree that if Apple can nuke the punch-bowl in the same way they did with the iPod, they’ll be onto a winner… but I’m not sure they care enough about books as an industry. Everyone listens to music, and you can listen to music while doing something else; neither of those factors apply to reading. Reading is a very different (and smaller) lifestyle niche, and I’m not sure the iPod business model would scale in the same way.

Furthermore, an Apple tablet will doubtless do loads of other fancy latte-sippin’ Apple stuff as well, and doubtless have the fashionably high price tag to match… so while I’m not feeling the Kindle DX as the apogee of ebook tech, I’m not expecting Steve Jobs and company to lead the field either. My money’s on someone else coming up with a more open and utilitarian platform at a lower price; that’s when things are going to get really lively. [image courtesy Engadget]


Author decides to copy Radiohead’s business model

Paul Raven @ 03-03-2009

Here’s an experiment to keep a close eye on, if you’re curious about new business models for publishing books in the digital age. Publishers Faber and historian Ben Wilson are taking a page from Radiohead’s playbook and releasing Wilson’s latest book in digital form on a pay-what-you-like basis:

Wilson’s examination of the value and meaning of liberty will be available to download on 27 April, six weeks before it is published on paper at £14.99, with readers given the freedom to set their own price, or even download it for free.

It’s a strategy Wilson, whose two previous books were published conventionally by Faber as hardbacks, admits is “a gamble”. When he first heard about the “frightening idea of giving the book away”, his reaction was surprise. “I’ve published before,” he explains, “and you have that excitement of a book in physical form, so that’s what you expect”. But after a while “it clicked together so well with what I wanted to do with the book – the campaigning edge – that it made a lot of sense.”

It’s good to see that Wilson and Faber haven’t made the usual mistake with the Radiohead experiment, in that they’re plainly seeing it as being a publicity play as opposed to the main income stream. However, I think it fair to say that Wilson isn’t quite a household name like Radiohead (hence there’s nowhere near the same level of expectation around the launch) and that the books business is still very different to the music business (although they’re getting closer), so while the model is similar we’d all be foolish to expect a similar pattern of results.

But it’s very interesting to see Faber taking this step, not just grappling with the new technology of ebooks as a format but with the new economics of electronic media, where free is – for better or for worse – the best way of getting your product into people’s minds (and memory sticks). It also makes Harpercollins’ claims about ebook pricing look even more ropey… [via GalleyCat]


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