Comfortable in the world: ereaders vs. tablets

Paul Raven @ 17-01-2011

Tom Armitage at Berg compares the seductive gloss of the multipurpose iPad with the more homely functionality of the Kindle; an interesting (and user-centric) argument against technological convergence?

The iPad bursts into life, its backlight on, the blinking “slide to unlock” label hinting at the direction of the motion it wants you to make. That rich, vibrant screen craves attention.

The Kindle blinks – as if it’s remembering where it was – and then displays a screen that’s usually composed of text. The content of the screen changes, but the quality of it doesn’t. There’s no sudden change in brightness or contrast, no backlight. If you hadn’t witnessed the change, you might not think there was anything to pay attention to there.


Attention-seeking is something we often do when we’re uncomfortable, though – when we need to remind the world we’re still there. And the strongest feeling I get from my recently-acquired Kindle is that it’s comfortable in the world.

That matte, paper-like e-ink screen feels familiar, calm – as opposed to the glowing screens of so many devices that have no natural equivalents. The iPad seems natural enough when it’s off – it has a pleasant glass and metal aesthetic. But hit that home button and that glow reveals its alien insides.

Perhaps the Kindle’s comfort is down to its single-use nature. After all, it knows it already has your attention – when you come to it, you pick it up with the act of reading already in mind.

Provocative stuff… but in the interests of journalistic balance (yeah, right), here’s Jonah Lehrer anguishing over the observation that ereaders may be too easy to read:

I worry that this same impulse – making content easier and easier to see – could actually backfire with books. We will trade away understanding for perception. The words will shimmer on the screen, but the sentences will be quickly forgotten. Let me explain. Stanislas Dehaene, a neuroscientist at the College de France in Paris, has helped illuminate the neural anatomy of reading. It turns out that the literate brain contains two distinct pathways for making sense of words, which are activated in different contexts. One pathway is known as the ventral route, and it’s direct and efficient, accounting for the vast majority of our reading. The process goes like this: We see a group of letters, convert those letters into a word, and then directly grasp the word’s semantic meaning.


But the ventral route is not the only way to read. The second reading pathway – it’s known as the dorsal stream – is turned on whenever we’re forced to pay conscious attention to a sentence, perhaps because of an obscure word, or an awkward subclause, or bad handwriting.  (In his experiments, Dehaene activates this pathway in a variety of ways, such as rotating the letters or filling the prose with errant punctuation.) Although scientists had previously assumed that the dorsal route ceased to be active once we became literate, Deheane’s research demonstrates that even fluent adults are still forced to occasionally make sense of texts. We’re suddenly conscious of the words on the page; the automatic act has lost its automaticity.

This suggests that the act of reading observes a gradient of awareness. Familiar sentences printed in Helvetica and rendered on lucid e-ink screens are read quickly and effortlessly. Meanwhile, unusual sentences with complex clauses and smudged ink tend to require more conscious effort, which leads to more activation in the dorsal pathway. All the extra work – the slight cognitive frisson of having to decipher the words – wakes us up.

Someone email Nick Carr; I think we’ve found his next padawan. 😉

Piracy cutting into the comics industry, too

Paul Raven @ 18-10-2010

It’s not just regular book publishers who’re suffering from an increased demand for downloadable content; the comics industry is suffering too. I noticed some justifiably embittered tweets from UK comics writer Paul Cornell this Friday just gone:

Just saw download site with 2356 illegal downloads of Knight and Squire. You have no idea how angry that makes me. Bloody thieves. #

Just heard: average number of illegal [comics] downloads = *four times* legal sales. That’s why your favourite title got cancelled. No margin left. #

I’d be interested to know if the piracy of novels is happening on a similar scale to that – if anyone has a source of reliable stats and numbers, please pipe up! But I rather suspect comics is getting it far worse when considered as a percentage of total sales, and a number of possible reasons present themselves: the comics demographic is younger and more tech-savvy (and hence more used to the idea of there being a free version lurking somewhere in the pipework); scanning a comic is an easier and shorter process than OCRing a novel (and less susceptible to transcription issues); and comics (the print versions, at least) are ridiculously expensive, with limited availability of legit digital versions.

The latter issue is probably the big driver here; I don’t know much about comics industry pricing (and, again, would welcome input from anyone who does), but I sure know what stopped me from buying a few issues every month*. Whether the pricing is justified or not is an open question, but regardless of the reasons, it’s a lot of money for such a small (though beautifully-formed) nugget of art; however, I’m not sure that comics prices could be lowered radically enough to enable the big houses to carry on as they are. It’s a more plausible solution for the music industry (and is finally starting to be seen as such by people on the inside of the machine [via]), but comics aren’t so easily reproduced as infinite goods.

Or are they? Via MetaFilter, here’s an interview with Neil Gaiman where he discusses the experience of reading comics on ereaders, and the phase-change occurring in the comics landscape:

Perhaps I don’t have the allegiance to paper that I ought to because anybody who invests in The Absolute Sandman, all four volumes, is now carrying 40 pounds of paper and cardboard around with them. And they hurt and they complain, “Oh, I feel guilty.” And I look at it and go, you’re not getting anything that is quantitatively or qualitatively better than the experience you’d be getting on an iPad, where you can enlarge the pages, you can move it around, it’s following the eye, and you can flip the pages.


Everything about the web has been about leveling the playing field. Yeah, it’s why Scott [McCloud] was right in Reinventing Comics, and why it’s a terrible book. Because it’s a manifesto. It’s not a book. It’s a manifesto to something that doesn’t exist yet, and, furthermore, his solution is wrong, which is you can micro-monetize this stuff. But the basic gist of the manifesto is simply: The moment you’re on the web, you don’t have to publish the book, you don’t have to get the book into Barnes & Noble, you don’t have to pay for ink and paper and the office costs of somebody to promote it. And all of that is true. You are absolutely playing on a flat field with somebody who has millions of dollars of marketing behind them.

In other words, comics (and books, to a similar extent) are just hitting their iPods-and-Napster moment, where available technology is not only good enough to significantly enhance the reading experience over dead-tree, but also sufficiently ubiquitous to make controlling distribution very difficult. That level playing field isn’t here yet, but it’s coming… and the first phase is the erosion of the comparatively easy profits the publishing outfits were able to make beforehand, where a lack of knowledge (or perhaps just a resistance to trying new ideas?) means that those huge marketing budgets just don’t provide the leverage they used to.

Music is a little further ahead on this particular developmental curve, in that we can see new business models emerging at both the individual artist level and the record label level… though it’s interesting to note that organisational size seems to be inversely proportional to innovative agility and the willingness to embrace (or even just grudgingly accept) the fundamental change in the rules of engagement.

All of which isn’t to say that I’m sat here with a wry smirk and a hint of I-told-you-so in you eyes; I have many writer and artist friends (Cornell very much among them), and have no wish to see them unable to make a living from their art due to technological shifts. But all the best wishes in the world won’t change the observable fact that the economics of abundance are ripping their way into almost all of the arts… and economics isn’t noted as a phenomenon that cares about individuals. Perhaps even more so than prose fiction publishers, the comics industry needs to get to grips with digital content channels real fast if it wants to survive; you only need look at the current travails of Guy Hands and EMI to see what happens if you stand stoically on a slanting deck, stuffing wads of money and lawsuit paperwork into the hull breach while the band keeps playing “Nearer My God To Thee”.

[ * That said, I haven’t moved to downloading comics as an alternative to buying them, though I certainly have done with music; I rather suspect that if I’d been a comics freak from as early an age as I was a music freak, however, I’d be telling a different story. The underlying point: the people downloading your work don’t see it as stealing; they just see it as a way of getting more of the media they love for less financial outlay. And while there’s a logical case to be made that they are stealing, time and money spent chasing and enforcing that judgement is time and money that would be more effectively spent on looking for new ways to meet that demand. All King Canute got for his troubles were wet feet. ]

Anthologize: plugin exports WordPress blogs as ebooks

Paul Raven @ 04-08-2010

Here’s a heads-up for fellow webzine editors and publishers, fiction writers publishing their own work online, and other interested (or indeed interesting) parties: the Anthologize plugin for WordPress generates EPUB, PDF and “other mobile formats” from content stored on the blog in which it is installed. Dan Cohen, head of the team that produced it (in just a week, no less, using a funding grant from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University) explains in a bit more detail:

[This plugin] converts the popular open-source WordPress system into a full-fledged book-production platform. Using Anthologize, you can take online content such as blogs, feeds, and images (and soon multimedia), and organize it, edit it, and export it into a variety of modern formats that will work on multiple devices. Have a poetry blog? Anthologize it into a nice-looking ePub ebook and distribute it to iPads the world over. A museum with an RSS feed of the best items from your collection? Anthologize it into a coffee table book. Have a group blog on a historical subject? Anthologize the best pieces quarterly into a print or e-journal, or archive it in TEI.


I suspect there will be many users and uses for Anthologize, and developers can extend the software to work in different environments and for different purposes. I see the tool as part of a wave of “reading 2.0″ software that I’ve come to rely on for packaging online content for long-form consumption and distribution, including the Readability browser plugin and Instapaper. This class of software is particularly important for the humanities, which remains very bookish, but it is broadly applicable. Anthologize is flexible enough to handle different genres of writing and content, opening up new possibilities for scholarly communication.

So, obviously intended for a userbase of humanities academics, but this could be a real kick-start for us fiction webzine types to start reaching out to the ereader audiences on a webzine budget*. All I need now is a few extra hours in every day of the week to investigate it further… *sigh*

Hopefully some smart people will retool it for some of the other open-source CMS platforms as well. I could very easily and quickly find a use for a ModX version….

[ Hat-tip to Alex “Xander” Ingram, Third Row Fandom’s in-house ebooks boffin. Big up yerself, Xander, and thanks for the notification. 🙂 ]

[ * Webzine budget (compound noun, colloquial) – (1): small change and used paperclips. ]

Why do devices still have power cables?

Paul Raven @ 23-06-2010

I mean, it’s not like we don’t have loads of other fancy and elegant options for transferring power and data to our gadgets and machines, right? But as this piece at Wired points out, power cables are cheap, versatile and simple to produce by comparison to all the more advanced solutions – and that’s why we still have ’em.

It’s a good concise example of something that searching out stories for Futurismic has taught me over the years: that innovative new technology may not actually be as revolutionary as it initially appears, and that the “gadget of the future” may remain a marginal gimmick long after its fanfare’d launch at some trade show or another. Pragmatism and profit margins are very important factors in forming the shape of the future.

Of course, this is one of the arguments that favours the medium-term survival of the dead-tree book, even as the ereader manufacturers shape up for a price war. For the (possibly mythical) average consumer who reads a couple of books a year and no more, buying them as paperbacks will make a lot more sense… and there’s a lot more of those average consumers than there are rabid readers, I’m guessing.

Progress – the ebooks debate rumbles on

Paul Raven @ 11-03-2009

Progress - Penny Arcade on ebooksI suppose I shouldn’t be, but I can’t help feeling surprised at how widespread the debate about ebooks is becoming – I honestly didn’t expect so many people would care so soon. Penny Arcade‘s take is unsurprisingly snarky [see right], but also somewhat conservative given their games’n’gadgets leanings (even allowing for comic license).

The best thing about the breadth of the discussion is that we’re getting a whole lot of different perspectives beyond authors and book-nerds. For example, The Big Money gives us the business logistics guy’s view, namely that “[d]igital readers will save writers and publishing, even if they destroy the book business”:

Here’s where the Kindle comes in. The collapse of bookstores almost ensures that the Kindle will thrive. Not because it’s better than a book; that doesn’t matter. The nation-within-a-nation that reads for pleasure and to be informed is a small but vibrant republic. Heavy readers make up a large portion of the book-buying public. These are people who read two to three books a week and buy 50 or so books a year. The Kindle will solve a number of problems for the citizens of Biblandia, not the least of which is having to go find a bookstore to get their next read.

Elsewhere, uber-PR guy and social media pundit Steve Rubel sees the Kindle and its ilk as “the last Great White Hope” for monetizing text media like journalism:

The Kindle, like the iPod, is an emerging critical mass device that actually encourages people to pay for content rather than get it for free. When Apple launched the iTunes Music Store, people were skeptical that people would shell out cash for music they could snag for free from file sharing networks. They did. The same was true when Apple, and later others, rolled out movies. However, today millions rent or buy movies online.

The Kindle offers a similar experience in a much larger market – text. This one is tougher to monetize. In the digital age books have managed to remain premium content. However, beyond books, magazine and newspaper content is available in abundance online for free. Yet, I still believe that people will pay to receive some of their favorites on their Kindles or their Kindle-enabled phones. Meet them there now while you can.

And of course, there’s the segment of the publishing industry that has gotten itself beyond denial and/or arm-flapping to the point of grappling with the potential that’s sat on their doorstep. Rather than dismissing ereaders as imperfect implementations, the Pan Macmillan digital team are looking ahead to what they see as an inevitable “iPod moment” for text:

… the iPod had a phenomenally intuitive control, especially given the bemusing buttons and rollers of it’s competitors (and I should know as I held out for some time, before caving in with a combination of resignation and glee). Characteristic of it’s manufacturer this no doubt has been an enormous boon to the device. Beyond that though the now iconic look from legendary Apple designer Jonathan Ive was what made us want one. The iPod wasn’t just useful, fun etc- it was jaw grindingly desirable.

Usability and covetability. Two principles for world domination.

What strikes me as being the interesting parallel with these two, aside from the the slightly obvious observations just outlined, is that both came from behind. They did not have first mover advantage. Instead they used these design concepts to leapfrog into pole. Indeed, it could be argued that precisely not coming first was an advantage in that it allowed the pair to fine tune their product and get these two crucial areas right.

Going back to the ereader then, I get the sense that we are on the cusp of when useability and covetability collide, uniting in a glorious burst of reading device nirvana. Ok maybe not quite, but once those user interfaces have been tweaked, and once someone like Ive gets there hands on a reading device, they will be back.

So we’re not quite at the “all bets are off” stage, but we’re certainly beyond the point where it’s a few evangelists with sandwich-boards prophesying the end-times. The more I look at it, the more I suspect that with ebooks the question is no longer “if?” but “when?”

What about you lot – how many of you have a reader already, and how has it changed your text media consumption? And for those that don’t have one, what will be the change that makes you cross the line?