Monthly Archives: September 2007

If You Can’t Read Books On Your Cell Phone – Write Them!

One of the great Darwinian events in human history was the development of the opposable thumb among primates. I’ve been speculating lately whether the next stage of our evolution will be the dramatic enlargement of our thumbs from generation to generation until they are twice their present size, powerfully muscled, and narrowed at the fingertip to the diameter of a pencil eraser. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Homo Pollex Maximus – BigThumb!

The purpose of the Intelligent Designer in steering our anatomy towards Superthumbitude is of course to enable our species to enhance its mastery of composing text on cell phones, Blackberries, and other handheld electronic devices. And, if an article (“Ring! Ring! Ring! In Japan, Novelists Find a New Medium: Budding Scribes Peck Their Tales on Cellphones; Ms. Nakamura’s Hurt Pinkie,” The Wall Street Journal, 09/26/2007) is any indication, the first people on whose hands the condition will manifest itself is the Japanese. For, as it turns out, young cell phone users are not merely writing messages on their cells, they’re composing whole novels. The cell phone fiction industry is booming there, with downloads of some books running into the hundreds of thousands of copies.

Whatever you might think about the phenomenon, as a literary agent I have a take on it that I suspect not too many others do, and this is it: on any given day, countless numbers of novel manuscripts by countless numbers of authors circulate among the tiny number of viable trade book publishers capable of publishing them. And for all but a happy fraction, it is all in vain, for the odds against a manuscript being accepted are astronomical.

But – if cell phone fiction were to catch on in the United States, two huge problems would be solved in a single keystroke. In this new publishing model, the Great Frustrated Unpublished would at last find a mass audience interested in reading what they have to say. And the paradigm shift that has eluded the ebook industry — reading books on handheld reading devices – would receive a rocket boost.

Let’s hope that the phenomenon takes hold in the United States and we see a tidal wave of downloadable carpal tunnel fiction. So authors, get those thumbs ready. But if your pudgy digits can’t quite handle the process, don’t worry – your children’s, or your children’s children’s, will.

Richard Curtis

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Amazon.com Launches Series of Widgets


Last week, Amazon.com announced that they were making available a series of widgets designed to add visual zing to websites (see ours, above). The widgets can display slideshows, wish lists, video clips and so on. Amazon’s purpose, of course, is to display their product offerings as widely as possible to send more traffic to their own site and, ultimately, to create added sales revenue. Their method is to let website owners, bloggers and online social networkers express themselves vividly and visually by using these Amazon tools and a personalized selection of the many millions of products (books, music, movies, clothes, food, etc.) carried by Amazon.

The widgets are a series of small, visually dynamic and easily configurable website tools that feature products from Amazon on blogs, websites and social networking pages. In as little as one minute, users can populate a widget with their favorite Amazon products and their comments about those products, and select from a set of color and layout themes to match both their mood and website.

Amazon’s Press Release explains what the widgets are and what they do and includes an informative linked example of each. Amazon’s widget site is where you can plunge in and add a widget to your website. Amazon Widgets are free to use. Users have the option to make money with their Amazon Widgets by joining the Amazon Associates program and they can earn referral fees from Amazon when a visitor to their site clicks through their Amazon Widget to the applicable Amazon website and makes a purchase. The Amazon Associates blog entry shows how you can use the widgets to generate income.

“Bloggers and active online social networkers have asked us for a fun and interesting way to display Amazon products on their pages as a way to showcase their favorite things. With Amazon Widgets, they can now do this and make money at the same time,” said Sean McMullan, Manager, Amazon Associates.

Not everyone will choose to feature books most prominently in their Amazon widgets linking, but that’s what I expect we’ll all be doing here at E-Reads.

– John

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Major Publisher’s Major Commitment to Ebooks

We’re always on the look-out for interesting, preferably positive, news stories related to ebook publishing and there was a small item done by Publishers Weekly late last week that definitely fits the bill.

The meat of the story is that Harlequin, one of the major publishers of romance and women’s fiction (120 titles per month), has just announced that, starting immediately, all the new books they publish in their extensive programs will be simultaneously released in print and as ebooks in all of the usual formats (Adobe, Microsoft Reader, MobiPocket, Palm and Sony), with the ebooks priced slightly lower than their print books. Harlequin has long had a major web presence with a strong focus on customer appeal and direct selling, including ebooks, see here, but the real key to the story, I think, is that this is pretty compelling evidence that the old assumption about ebooks: that they are just for techies, early adopters and SF readers, is pretty comprehensively dispensed with. If this big an operation thinks it’s worth investing in ebook publishing in this major a way, they expect that they’ll be in it for the long haul and that they’ll be reaching customers they might not otherwise have access to via the traditional formats and approaches and the demographic they’re targeting is very largely female.

From the Press Release:

“Harlequin entered the eBook marketplace in October 2005 and has experienced unqualified success since that time. Romance novels have proven to be one of the most popular categories of digital publishing, and Harlequin titles regularly top eBook bestseller lists.

“Harlequin has further embraced the digital revolution by expanding its catalog to include original editorial by New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling authors offered exclusively in the eBook format—Harlequin Mini and Spice Briefs eBooks—as well as releasing digital eBook bundles not available in print.

“”Women have embraced eBooks,” says Malle Vallik, Director Digital Content & Interactivity. “They demand portability, immediacy, availability, depth, breadth and convenience and, by making our entire front list and exclusive digital editorial available to them, we are meeting that challenge. We are meeting the needs of our current audience and reaching a new and diverse base of readers. Seeking innovative new ways to serve our audience continues to be a Harlequin tradition.””

If you’re wondering about ebooks in general, I think this is a pretty powerful message that there’s a very bright future ahead.

– John

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The Vanity Book Surge

In a guest editorial in Publishers Weekly in August 2005, I speculated on the meaning of amazon.com’s acquisition of a small and struggling print on demand company called BookSurge. The most obvious benefit to Amazon, it seemed to me, was to short-circuit the inefficient system by which Amazon distributes books. Instead of shipping hard copies to Amazon, publishers could simply email their production files to the distribution giant, which would then manufacture them at BookSurge and mail them directly to customers. “The Web retailer still owns well over four million square feet of warehouse space, no small portion of which is devoted to books; it employs 9,000 people to process orders,” I wrote. “Imagine how Amazon would benefit if it could forward orders to a printer to drop-ship books directly to customers.”

So far, Amazon has not used its POD printer that way, and I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. The concept is simply too radical for an industry whose feet are cemented to the bedrock of a traditional distribution system driven by trucks rather than electrons. But I must admit to having been taken off guard by an article in the September 10, 2007 issue of Publishers Weekly entitled, “Amazon Tries Self-Publishing.” The article reports the launch of Amazon’s online self-publishing service, Books on Demand, and of course the operation is built around BookSurge.

Self-publication was among the very first applications entrepreneurs thought of after the Digital Revolution took off in the late 1990’s. And it was among the most profitable. It still is, and little wonder. The ratio of unpublished-to-published books in this country has always been about 20,000 to 1, and, if submissions to publisher and literary agency slush piles are any indication, that figure hasn’t changed. Authors desperate to have their voices heard simply cannot penetrate the gates of taste, literary judgment, and commerciality guarded by editors, agents, reviewers, and bookstore managers in the traditional trade book industry. So, they seek alternate pathways. Subsidy publication has always been an option for authors but remained an expensive luxury until technological advances brought the costs down to a proletarian level at the end of the 20th century. A lot of smart business people made fortunes capitalizing on that unsatisfied demand. And now Amazon is going to make one, too.

As both a literary agent and publisher I candidly confess to being one of those gatekeepers. I also candidly confess to being tormented by envy that I’m not among those who got stinking rich on the backs of vain authors. It’s just that, every time the inclination whispered seductively to me, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It’s not merely pride in being a gatekeeper that motivates me, though. It’s also the fact that a flood of self-published books, whether good or lousy, compromises the public’s ability to make intelligent selections. In the long run, the distinction between quality and crap will disappear and Gresham’s Law must take over. In the 1558 Thomas Gresham wrote, “When there is a legal tender currency, bad money drives good money out of circulation.

Amazon will make lots of money, bad and good, on Books on Demand, just as it does on a used book program that deprives authors of royalties on secondary sales of their books. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” said Ecclesiastes, and one version of the Bible translates the original Hebrew as, “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

We look to books for meaning, but the torrent of them surging our way from Amazon’s Books on Demand will surely make it harder to find it.

PS: Underscoring my comments about vanity publishing comes news that self-publisher AuthorHouse has acquired its competitor, iUniverse (reported at Publishers Weekly). The price wasn’t disclosed but with iUniverse publishing about 400 books a month and AuthorHouse 500-600, you have to figure that Bertram Capital, AuthorHouse’s backer, expects a windfall on humanity’s desperate need to tell a story.

– Richard Curtis

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News from Sony, Palm, and iRex

Alongside this week’s announcement that the IDPF voted in favor of the Open Publication Standard 2.0, there’s been good news coming from a number of ebook technology players.

The new Sony Reader?

On Monday, the blog The Reader caught a brief glimpse of Sony’s upcoming website changes which briefly revealed they’re preparing to release an updated Sony Reader, the PRS-505. The new iteration is expected to have double the internal memory, better control buttons, a more rectangular styling like the original Sony LIBRIé device that was launched in Japan, and should be available as both a dark slate blue or silver finish for the same price as the current model. It’s unknown if it will use the new VizPlex e-ink system. The Reader presently sells for $300 and can be found at Best Buy stores across the U.S. (via Wowio)

Palm is also getting ready to inject some new life into their company by integrating two major players from Apple. Apple’s ex-CFO Fred Anderson will soon be joining the board of directors and Jonathan Rubenstein, a key player in the iPod’s success, will become executive chairman. Earlier this year, a company started by U2’s Bono and headed by Fred Anderson, Elevation Partners, bought a 25% stake in Palm, effectively bailing out the company from financial trouble. The new corporate leadership were demonstrably some of the finest people from Apple’s resurgence under Steve Jobs and its expected that they will focus more on innovation at Palm. Palm is also expected to update their popular Treo line in the very near future, and it will be interesting to see how the new competition with Apple might help improve their product line. (via Gizmodo)

Finally, iRex scored a major coup for the e-ink based Iliad Reader available in Europe. Les Echos is the first European paper to be made entirely available in a daily ebook edition designed for the Iliad and Star eBook device. A one-year subscription is 365 EUR. Also interesting is that among the first articles in the first Les Echos digital edition is news that Amazon may be set to launch the Kindle on October 15th with an announcement at the Frankfurt bookfair. (via MobileRead)

– Michael Gaudet

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The Open Publication Standard for E-Books 2.0

This summer we’ve seen a quite a few interesting moves made by ebook technology leaders and there have been hints about the best of what’s yet to come this fall, such as new devices from Amazon and Palm. The most important development, I dare say, is one that’s been totally overlooked by the media, averse as they are to technical acronyms. This week, the voting members of the International Digital Publishing Forum (aka. the IDPF, which includes E-Reads) made the OPS 2.0 (Open Publication Standard) official. The OPS specifications are the next generation standards for ebook production. The good news for publishers is that this should reduce production costs in the long run, which will in turn be good for consumers because publishers will be able to afford to convert more titles. And, if the developers of ebook software, like MobiPocket, Sony, Adobe, Microsoft, etc., all implement the new specifications fully, then the new standardized files (better known as the “.epub” format) should be the document format of choice for our collective ebook future. I say “should,” because it’s still not a sure bet.

Adobe Digital Editions supports the .pub formatThe biggest hurdles the “.epub” format has faced since the spec was first drafted are getting three specific groups to have interest in using it. The first group is the software companies responsible for digital-rights-managed ebook readers. There’s no point producing “.epub” files if hardly anyone can use them yet. Publishers, such as E-Reads, want to be able to produce our books in the standard “.epub” format and then send them off to retailers, who will either sell the unencrypted “.epub” files, or encrypt them by using automated processes to convert them into any DRM format the consumer needs, such as Sony’s Reader format, but, as things are right now, it’s a rare piece of software that can already read or export “.epub” files, so retailers aren’t very interested yet and they’re still asking for MS Lit, PDF, Mobi, etc. In fact, only the recently released Adobe’s Digital Editions software is really set up to use “.epub” files properly and many other reader applications have yet to completely implement support for the new format. This is because the first group, the software, is still waiting for the second group, the consumer base, to care. Sony has committed to adding “.epub” support for books that the consumers bring to the Sony Reader on their own, but are consumers using the “.epub” format? Well, there can’t be grass roots demand for the format when the average consumer is so unfamiliar with it, can’t buy it, and has barely any software that supports it. So it falls to the third group, publishers, to start the ball rolling by ordering books to be made as “.epub” files for their archives.

The Benefits of the “.epub” Format

If the average person has never heard of the “.epub” format, let alone tried it out, you can see why more developers aren’t yet rushing to make it a “value-added” feature for their software. But the format has some terrific virtues. Unlike a PDF, an “.epub” ebook is designed so that any reader can have better control over how they choose to read a text, with no matter what device they’re using. They can easily change fonts, styles, or page sizes and the document will reflow appropriately. And, unlike new reflowable document formats like PDFX or MS Word’s DocX, “.epub” is really uncomplicated and it makes for a good legacy format for digital text, because an “.epub” file could easily be converted into any file format you’d like because of its standardized XML structure.

There are two steps to making an “.epub” file. The first is to use OPS (Open Publication Structure), which is just a method of formatting text files with XML tags. This was developed so that there’s a uniform way to prepare texts for any device and so that it’s easy to reverse-engineer and edit. Next, additional materials, like a cover graphic, are then bundled with the text into a compressed folder with the extension “.epub,” which is, really, just a .zip archive. This is the container file, known as OCF (Open Container Format).

For now, the “.epub” format will have to compete for reading audience against established favorites such as HTML formatted books, and RTF files, as well as PDFs, DOCs, and dozens of other conventional formats, so it’s up to publishers and developers to make this happen.

The Future Starts Now

To break the old cycle, software and ebook technology companies are trying to spur the use of “.epub” files with some big guns. Adobe is one company that’s trying to pave the way forward with its latest version of InDesign CS3, which can export ebooks to Digital Editions in the “.epub” format (more about that can be read here). Since it’s official release in June, Digital Editions has been a free download; it’s an effort by Adobe to create an iTunes Library equivalent for ebooks. So, with Adobe software you already have an end-to-end package for creating and reading standardized ebooks, and a showcase for the advantages of the next generation of ebooks. Now we have to impress upon everyone else sitting on their hands that this is what we want from them, too.

I corresponded with Nick Bogaty of the IDPF yesterday and he said, “All major and small publishers I have spoken to are very excited about (the 2.0 standard) and are contracting their conversion houses to start work on .epub conversions. Obviously, it helped to have a company like Adobe participate, but this was (equally helped by) the participation and leadership (of) the folks at eBook Technologies, Garth Conboy, John Rivlin and Brady Duga. It really was a joint effort which couldn’t have been done without widespread industry support.”

It’s this collective effort that will, we all hope, provide the momentum publishers, including E-Reads, need to keep adding new titles. The bottom line is that we’re all trying to create a useful and ever-growing body of legacy work that the public will want to access for a long time, and the “.epub” format is the best opportunity to get virtually everyone in the ebook world on the same virtual page.

– Michael Gaudet

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It’s Not About The Device

Ebooks are not about the device. They’re about the culture. The technology is 21st Century. The reading culture is 19th.

That’s what I concluded after the New York Times revisited developments in ebook technology (“Envisioning the Next Chapter for Electronic Books”, September 5 2007Link to article may require registration). Inspired by the imminent unveiling of amazon.com’s reading device, the Kindle, journalist Brad Stone speculated on whether the Kindle, the Sony Reader, and some other developments will push consumers over the tipping point and bring about the eBook Revolution predicted and yearned for by visionaries, yours truly included, since the launch of the Rocket Book in 1998. Unforeseen technological, business model, copyright protection, and other issues forced pioneers to defer their dream, and pundits wrote the revolution off as a flash in the pan. The Founding Mothers and Fathers may have deferred it but they never abandoned it. Quietly, ebook sales and dollar volume have been growing at double-digit rates for a decade and can now be categorized as respectable. Most of the problems have been resolved or are moving towards resolution. Could it be that our Messianic hopes will at last be realized?

I don’t think so. But it’s not because of warring formats (there may never be the ebook equivalent of the iPod to blow competitors away), high prices (currently $300 for the Sony Reader, $400-$500 for the Kindle), ill-conceived business models, shortage of titles, and other problems that still need to be ironed out. No, I just don’t think our culture likes ebooks, at least not in sufficient volume to cause manufacturers to promote reading books as a sales point when they list all the things you can do on your Treo or smartphone. The iPhone and iPod Touch may have a million fabulous features, but Apple only passively embedded document reader software in the shell. Given the genius of the folks at Apple, you can’t criticize them for an oversight. In all likelihood they didn’t feel a lot of users care.

Some other cultures like the Japanese read books on their smartphones but that inclination doesn’t come naturally to Americans, certainly not as naturally as playing videos, games and music. Given a choice between an ebook with all its advantages or a printed book, consumers prefer the latter by a staggeringly large margin. Hopefully this will change as a younger generation that has grown up clicking text enters the marketplace. Until then, the American reading device of choice is called the book.

“This is not your grandfather’s ebook,” one publishing executive was quoted in the Times article, referring to the Kindle. It certainly isn’t. But whether it’s your grandchild’s e-book is much more to the point. The culture has to change, but because book reading in general is on the decline, one has to wonder what it’s going to take.

– Richard Curtis

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Real ebooks on the iPhone and iPod

As we mentioned previously, HarperCollins is trying a web enabled ebook preview experience for the iPhone based on their book widgets, but reading a whole book on your iPod had always been relatively awkward experience, that is until the iPods started coming loaded with OS X. Before the release of the iPhone this past June and the iPod Touch this September, the iPod’s unique operating system had no support for any of the popular ebook formats. Users had to convert their book files to .txt notes, which had an imposed character limit and no real typography support, or convert their book into JPGs and load them into their iPhoto library (iPod Photo and later models). But thanks to the OS X underpinnings of the new iPod Touch and the iPhone, there is not only native PDF and Doc support (hurrah!) just like with your Mac, but the courageous can try out new (unsupported) applications and read other ebook formats as well. The only downside is that you have to use ebooks with no DRM, but the upside is that all of E-Reads’ titles for sale at Fictionwise are sold in “MultiFormat” PDFs without any DRM (just don’t go sharing, okay?), and they are good to view on the new iPods right away (with a little ingenuity described below). Hopefully, with the advent of the Wi-Fi iTunes Store, an ebook solution for these Wi-Fi iPods won’t be too far off, either.

So, without further ado, here are some tips for getting ebooks onto your iPod, rated by the ease of solution and the relative quality of the reading experience…

For 1st Generation to 4th Generation iPods and the iPod Mini: You can use the app iPod Notes Manager or follow this tutorial at Makezine.com. Ease: 4/5 and Quality: 2/5

For iPod Photo, Video, Nano, and Classic: The previously mentioned will also work, but you can also convert RTFs, Docs, or PDFs to JPGs and then load those pages into your iPhoto library. You have to make sure the page images are named sequentially and that they are sized to look good on the 320 x 240 pixel display. The final ebook can look pretty nice, but you have to work at tweaking the results. Try an application like PDF Convert or Doc to JPG for Windows. For the Mac, print to PDF from your document, and then open it in Preview and try an export to JPG page by page (free on the Mac, but time intensive – ugh). Ease: 1/5 and Quality: 3/5

For iPod Touch and iPhone: You can use the mobile version of Safari to browse to an online PDF, Doc, or ebook text (such as those at Project Gutenburg or Textoniphone.com), or view a PDF or Doc as a mail attachment. Or you can easily hack your iPod’s file system with the help of unsupported software like iBrickr or AppTapp to install the “Books” application. Your mileage may vary, but it indeed works. Ease: 3/5 and Quality: 4/5

Finally, did you know you can organize certain PDFs in Apple’s iTunes? Even if you can’t sync them with your iPod the way we’d like, it’s still a good library application if you’re willing to compromise. Gina Trapani at Lifehacker has the scoop.

– Michael Gaudet

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