Monthly Archives: November 2007

Piling on

This post may seem to be a bit of a mish-mash but, trust me, there’s a central point that should emerge by the time I’m done.

Having joined the fray and unloaded my first thoughts on the subject of Amazon’s Kindle earlier this week, I thought I’d move on to newer ideas but “Just when I’m ready to get out, they pull me back in.” Clearly, the blog world isn’t ready to let go of this ready-made target for their rage, their opinionated attitudes, their endless need to keep on blathering until people are driven into a coma of indifference or simply stunned into immobility.

Publishers Marketplace, that indispensable, online source for publishing-related news, had links to two ebook-related items in today’s issue.

One was from a U.K. Bookseller Association blogger and contained a news item that every sensible person has been possibly expecting but, at very least, hoping for since the first stories about EInk went public a couple of years ago. The company is working on developing a system that will allow them to operate in color rather than their initially established, high-contrast greyscale/black & white first generation technology. Despite some technical issues that make eink screens not the best choice for a number of dream applications, the idea of the technology being able to accommodate full color is inspiring and encouraging.

The other was a link to a new review of the Kindle by Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal. Mossberg has been talking about tech for a long time, is widely respected, seen as objective and unbiased and, when he wants to be, which is most of the time, quite blunt and to the point. He had some good things to say about the Kindle but I’d have to say that on balance his review was not very positive. Since some of his opinions mirrored some of mine, I’m not much inclined to disagree with his overall conclusions which sum up for me as “Nice try. Give it another go and I’ll look at it again to see if you get it right on the second try…but I’m not betting on it.” By now, of course, Amazon has to be getting used to the chorus of critics and presumably they can console themselves by remembering that they very quickly sold out their initial inventory of $400 apiece items and will shortly start filling back orders and banking not inconsiderable additional cash. Just in case that link above ends up falling behind a registration curtain, the end of Mossberg’s column has this helpful hint: “Find all my columns and videos online free at the new All Things Digital website.”

Then, a colleague here at E-Reads mentioned a site I’d heard of but hadn’t previously visited–Buzzfeed. The object of this operation is to collect and organize what’s going on out there in Blogland and neatly summarize it for our consumption/entertainment. You’ll never guess what the title of one of their recent collations was: Kindle Backlash. Clearly, none of E-Reads’ comments made the top of the list, but they neatly provided the top five hate-ons for the Kindle. I can’t resist pointing you to some of them here.

Chip Kidd, famous book cover designer, contributes a comment that’s well under the 200 word limit for the A Brief Message site. Almost 200 words under the limit, in fact, depending how you count.

Robert Scoble, famous blogger at Scobleizer, offers up a highly critical review after using the Kindle for a week.

Mobileread.com thinks that Amazon Kindle might be the worst thing that can happen to e-books. Among the hardest hits is: “Amazon has gone out of their way to make sure that you can only buy books from them, and can’t use them anywhere else. When you buy a book, you use it on the Kindle or you’re out of luck. We’re talking about control of content, with format and DRM lock-in as the tool of power. We’re on the verge of a future for content that makes you buy the same thing over and over every time you have a new technology.” Now, just in case you haven’t noticed, that’s what the record business and the movie business have been moderately successful at doing for at least a couple of decades now so don’t be too shocked if book publishers are showing the same sort of greedy thinking.

Cracked.com gets off a pretty funny spoof of a new piece of technology designed to supersede the Kindle.

And, finally, Amazon itself manages to collect a large number of negative comments about their own product. Here’s a link to all the 1-Star reviews of the Kindle on the Amazon site. Isn’t the internet wonderful? Isn’t social networking a blast? Just FYI, by the way, when I clicked the link, there were a total of 790 reviews: 191 5-Star; 103 4-Star; 124 3-Star; 121 2-Star and 251 1-Star. Not a scorecard I’d like to see for something of mine, I have to say.

Now, I’m just enough of a contrarian to think that when this many people have something bad to say about anything that I should be looking for a way to put something on the other side of the ledger but, for the moment, I can’t think what that might be since most of my reactions to the Kindle were well onto the negative side of the scale. Still, Amazon has taken a big position in a game where I’ve committed to play and whatever else they’ve done, they’ve galvanized the attentions of the world at large, both within the tech field and within the publishing field, and it seems to me like they may also be causing a fair number of people who never think about books at all to give at least a passing thought to the subject of e-books and that can’t be all bad, can it? Maybe, as seems too often to be the case, we’re a small circle of zealots sitting here raving at each other but I don’t really think that’s true this time. Let’s all ask someone we know who doesn’t seem to read much if they know what a Kindle is.

In the meantime, of course, we can dream about how Amazon is going to get it exactly right (for everybody) with Kindle 2.0.

– John

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Hands-Free eBooks?

When it comes to technology that disappoints, visor optic systems have pretty much failed to live up to their promised potential for many years now. The vision for the technology has traditionally been that just by putting on a pair of stereo goggles you can immerse yourself in virtual environment. There have been virtual reality helmets, 3D displays, and more recently (and far more affordable) tiny LCD screens mounted in glasses that come alive like a 50″ television screen in front of your eyes.

When the first iPod Video came out a few years ago, a number of small companies began capitalizing on the Personal Media Player (or PMP, for short) trend by marketing these “Wearable Video Display” LCD glasses that allowed you to watch the video output from your device. Of course, the limitations of resolution and what content your media device can deliver through video output make everything tricky and somewhat annoying (see an example of what it’s like to wear them here).

Picture of the MyVu, reviewed at iLounge.

Another drawback, besides that every one wearing these things looks like Geordi LaForge from Star Trek: The Next Generation, is that it’s definitely not the same experience as a home theater like they advertise. The screen appears recessed and is only “large” if you consider yourself to be many feet away in perspective. Yet one of the weirder offshoots from these visors is that it suddenly became possible to not just see your video files inside your glasses, but text, too. And that’s one feature that I think Geordi would have enjoyed.

The latest gadget that’s shipping this Christmas is the $400 Qingbar GP300 (pictured at the top of this post). It’s a completely self-contained set of glasses with a built-in PMP that can read SD cards for your files. And it can display basic .TXT files, just like the ones you can download from Project Gutenberg. (For more examples of wearable video displays, look at the $200 Myvu, and other models from Vuzix, EZVision, and YellowMosquito.) And all this begs the question, do we even need a “book” device to read text? Audio books have long been a part of that answer. And it seems like stereo-displays may be another part, too.

With a view of a virtual page in front of your eyes, with nothing for your hands to hold, the idea of a book as a container is fully exploded. Imagine that to change a page you do a “hard blink” or twitch your index finger. Imagine that the page endlessly unfurls its scroll as your eyes scan: there are no more pages. Whether it’s retinal implants or super-contact lenses, science fiction has been way ahead of this game of getting visual information in front of our eyes seamlessly. But we’re slowly catching up.

– Michael

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Amazon Kindle: Right Questions, Wrong Answer?

What is an ebook? Who sells them? Who buys them? Why do they buy them? How many ebooks does a typical buyer purchase? How do we motivate a reader to buy ebooks? How do we motivate a reader to buy more ebooks? What price makes sense? What do ebook readers use to read ebooks? Is snazzy technology the driver for ebook sales?

Sure, we all want to make money at what we do, don’t we? Still, you’d think that a company full of smart people, a company with a reputation for valuing customer service as a highest priority, would have asked the right questions about ebooks and come up with a better answer than the Kindle appears to be.

Last Monday was the day a lot of people had been waiting for, ever since rumors that Amazon was planning to take on the whole challenge of ebook hardware began to buzz. Monday was announcement day, which means the day before that was leak day as early reports started popping up with details, comments, opinions but no new pictures. No great loss, of course, since the Kindle turns out to look like something designed by desperate engineers who needed a box in a hurry and weren’t much worried about aesthetics or style. It works, it holds everything inside it where the pieces need to stay but the phrase ugly duckling keeps running through my mind.

See, from some perspectives, the Kindle is a very good thing but from a lot of others it’s not at all good. From Amazon’s viewpoint, they’re getting a nice price for a single-task piece of handheld hardware. $399 a pop. I don’t know many rich people but even if I knew thousands of millionaires and billionaires, I very much doubt I’d know many people at all who would want to spend $400 (Allow me my round-off, please. And don’t forget taxes, shipping and whatever else might come along to shove the price over the threshold) to be able to carry a lot of books to read. And magazines. And newspapers. Particularly if they figure out, sooner or later, that Amazon is getting them to pay for some things that they could easily get elsewhere at no cost if they were to invest just a little bit of effort and time. Charging for public domain ebooks? The Gutenberg Project has lots of books available and there’s no charge (and no rights issues, either). Making you pay for newspaper downloads? It’s simple enough to bookmark some newspaper websites and click around a bit. Making you pay to download blogs? Making you pay to email/convert your own files to be readable on the Kindle? Who are they kidding?

Yes, Amazon has done some things right, designing a machine that will pull together books, magazines, newspapers and even blogs onto a single device conceived solely for the purpose of providing a platform for reading. The big problem from my perspective is that comparable (and often superior) platforms already exist but they also do an almost uncountable number of other things. They’re called desktop computers, laptop computers, ultra portable computers, handheld computers, smartphones and probably a few other things that I should have added to the list. In a world where you can now buy a laptop for only a couple of hundred dollars more than you would spend on a Kindle, the question I can’t get away from is, “Why buy a Kindle?”

Maybe we don’t buy those other devices “just” to read books but I read a lot of books and I read a lot of them on screen on one device or another and I’m certainly conscious of that particular use for any device I consider buying. A Palm Treo 700p may not be the ideal model for a portable reading device but there’s software you can buy or download for free that makes it a pretty handy tool for what remains, essentially, a pretty basic function, not to mention all the many other functions that the Treo (or any other smartphone or portable computer) fulfills quite handily for no additional cost.

Sony, another company with a long-term rep for finding large customer bases by hitting the sweet spot in terms of market needs has, despite two iterations over a period of time and despite pricing their hardware $100 lower than the Kindle, apparently not found many people who feel compelled to read books on their device with its proprietary, locked-format files. This despite the fact that Borders, which did a trial of selling the reader in 270 stores, expanded the offering to about 500 stores a few months back and has also arranged to launch a dedicated site for selling Sony Reader formatted titles. When the reader launched, books were available only through Sony’s Connect online store.

And, if you look farther back, less than a decade but a long way in Internet time, to the early days of ebook optimism, there is a small string of dedicated-hardware failures: the SoftBook, the RocketBook, and some others I’m not remembering.

Does a pattern begin to emerge?

I can only think of one company that has proven over time that they are capable of being all things to all people in terms of delivering both brilliant software and impressive hardware. Palm actually managed it for a few years but then they lost their way. Apple seems able to do it consistently.

Amazon, even though most of what they’ve sold up until now is hard goods, is, to my perception at least, a software company at heart. The programming behind their website is excellent, near flawless in fact, and does many different things relating to handling products in a way that satisfies millions of customers very consistently. They’re taking a big leap here in trying to wrap their own software in a marketable piece of hardware. Despite a very attention-grabbing launch, and reports that their initial inventory is sold out already (how big was that inventory and how quickly will they be able to re-stock?), there’s no guarantee that their marketing might is going to overcome the many hurdles in the way of creating a breakthrough product that will truly make ebooks a ubiquitous commodity that captures the mindshare of the public at large, or even the (much smaller) reading public at large. I wish them great success, since such success would, among other things, presumably sell lots of E-Reads titles and make lots of money for us all, but I don’t expect to support their efforts with my money and I have grave doubts that a whole lot of other people will either. There is a substantial but nonetheless relatively small number of gadget freaks out there who have to have the new, new thing right away but once they’ve skimmed the cream off that market, I don’t know how much more deeply the Kindle is going to dig into the masses of what we might call the great unsold. Or should that be “unbuying?”
— John

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Kindle: Not Ready To Burn My Books Just Yet

The launch of the Kindle is the stuff of technology pundits’ nightmares. It’s not that Amazon has done anything too aggravating with their initial marketing, because they pretty much went by the defacto protocol for glitzy new devices (summoning up every media outlet, declaring a watershed milestone has been achieved for humanity, celebrities delivering tearful thanks for such a perfect device, etc.) and it was more or less a success. Mind you, Steve Jobs is legendary for creating these kinds of reality distortion fields that permeate every aspect of his Apple launches with an overwhelming perfume of delicious mystery and lust. But at the Kindle event Jeff Bezos was less Mesmero! and more like a self-praising high school valedictorian. There wasn’t enough magic, or rejoicing fanboys, to mask the concern a lot of us are feeling.

Before Bezos had an opportunity to work his charm and share his vision, I was already wary. My first gut response was that it won’t be too long until someone has hacked the Kindle to use the EVDO service for other purposes, stealing the “free” data service from Sprint. It was also another E-Ink based device without a backlight. And the fact that the Kindle has a keyboard seems less interesting once you factor in that E-Ink conserves its battery life by screen refresh limitations that don’t coopertae well with keyboard usage: slow page refreshes for every keystroke (typing a 200 word email on the Kindle would probably take more patience and battery power than you’d like).

Jeff Bezos at the launch of Kindle

Then the air went out of the balloon as soon as all the hidden-cost caveats were revealed.

The Kindle is actually an ebook and RSS pay-for-content service that’s only available for the Kindle. And if it were a service offered for other devices, like the iPhone, I still don’t think it’s what consumers want. But like it or not, this is how the road forward is being paved.

The logic, like most digital media sales, continues to be dumbfounding. Other than recently-published books, most of the content you can get for the Kindle is arguably text you can either read for free or get cheaper through other channels. And any content you buy for Kindle can’t be read on anything but the Kindle. So, let me ask you to forget about the device for a moment and to consider just the service: Are you the type of person who likes to pay for every document you want to read, regardless of whether it was offered to you free or even that you wrote it yourself?

Because it’s unable to support the common document formats of .doc, .rtf, and pdf, you’ll need to email any of those files to Amazon’s Kindle service to have them converted to a proprietary format at 10¢ a pop. Let me say that again in more simple terms. You have to pay to read your own stuff on the Kindle. The Sony Reader doesn’t have that mentality, neither does the Blackberry or the iPhone. Second, if you want to subscribe to certain websites’ RSS feeds, or one of Kindle’s many pre-formatted newspapers and magazines, you’ll have to pay a monthly fee.

The Kindle is a DRM experiment created as the test-tube baby from the DNA of intellectual property laws and the success of the iTunes Music Store. Most of us have been getting used to paying for content that we can’t share anymore, but eventually the ramifications of those restrictions are going to be more severe. The DRM world of the future is a place where parents won’t have music collections or home libraries they can easily share with their own kids without paying for them again and again. What happens to lending books to friends and the flow of cultural learning when every document and every format requires a service fee?

The Kindle formula seems predicated on the logic that if you’re the type of person who wants to read on the Kindle, you’re probably the kind of person who can afford the pay for content service. In contrast, the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) XO computer is being designed for people who can afford neither. It’s been designed for children so that it can foster learning and sharing information in a humanitarian world that most science fiction readers are familiar with. It’s that world where we build new devices to help each other, not to siphon off nickels and dimes. What we’ve talked about in this office is how cool the XO computer would be as the real “iPod of reading,” and it could be. It’s the sort of device that could actually get kids back into pleasure reading if there was a socially conscious book service for it.

Unlike Richard, who invoked King Gillette earlier, I don’t feel Amazon is going about things the wrong way by pricing the device too high and the books too low. Books should always be made as affordable as possible. In my mind, pricing books too high is one of the reasons there’s a pandemic of youth and young adults preferring console gaming and the internet to reading. It’s actually less expensive to buy a Harry Potter XBox game than it is to buy the hardcover book. Based on the successful model of selling an expensive console that you buy new games for, it’s not out to lunch to assume there are millions of people out there who will invest in a platform if attractive content is there for it. On the surface, the Kindle costs $2,000 less than an iPhone after you factor in the iPhone’s nearly mandatory contract for 2 year’s worth of monthly AT&T data and phone service, so, relatively speaking, it’s a moderately affordable platform. And for the Kindle’s $399, you’re buying a platform for which Amazon seems very committed to consistently delivering a wide selection of new and backlist content.

So, the Kindle does have a good chance of success, as long as Amazon is willing to keep tweaking their formula the way that Apple did for the iPod. Remember, the iPod’s success wasn’t overnight. When it was first released, it was not a huge seller. There was no Windows compatibility. The touch surface was still a physical wheel. There was no iTunes Music Store. But under the cloak of Steve’s reality distortion field, Apple kept refreshing the product with new ideas for 2 full years until they got it right and it took off as a phenomenon for the history books.

The Kindle has a lot going for it because of Amazon’s weight in the retail marketplace, but it has to be ready to evolve quickly based on user response. They need to open the platform up for free content. It needs to be ready for user generated .Pub files. They need to make the EVDO service more useful. They need a more polished, premium design that looks less like a snowspeeder. They need to get E-Ink’s latest color screens. And I think Amazon is probably already planning for that. Even though they took their sweet time getting all their ducks in a row for the launch, I think that they’re not going to shrink back from this vision even if the device sells like a stinker this Christmas (it won’t: it’s already sold out its initial inventory). The Kindle is going to be with us for a while.

– Michael Gaudet

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King Gillette and the Kindle

E-Reads is second to none in rooting for the success of Amazon’s Kindle. Not only does it represent the realization of a dream we have cherished for two decades, but, just to be selfish about it, our books are carried on it and we want to make money. That said, we have a real queasy feeling in the pits of our stomachs that the Kindle is on a path to the same resting place as the Rocket eBook.

Above: Amazon’s Kindle.

My technical colleagues have their own reasons for thinking so, but I’d like to stress a couple of my own. The first is that the man and woman in the street does not want or need a dedicated reading device. We have come to rely on our ubiquitous cell phone to carry every electronic and digital application we need, from video to music to games to text to telephone communications. With some clever engineering it can serve as a reader, and in particular the iPhone is only a few warranty-killing tweaks away from adding book reading to its repertoire. What does it take to convince appliance manufacturers that most of us don’t really want to carry two or three dedicated devices in our pockets or purses, even ones that weigh only ten or eleven ounces. We’re happy with one gadget that satisfies all needs.

There’s an important exception to the above, and that is college students, who have no choice but to carry a computer to classrooms in addition to their cell phone. College students are ripe for a better dedicated reading device than the laptop, and it’s been sitting under our noses for years in the form of the tablet. Tablet computers perform the same functions as laptops but their streamlined design enables users to read the way college students read textbooks, assignments, or books for pleasure — that is, in an armchair or sofa or in bed. The first manufacturer to realize this and successfully pitch laptops at colleges will make a well deserved fortune, perform a priceless service, and bring the digital revolution closer to what we all visualized when we pledged our hearts and souls to the service of the Internet.

The other thing that bedevils me is the price of the Kindle, as well as that of the Sony Reader. Forgotten is one of the wisest maxims ever coined by an American businessman and usually attributed to King Gillette, the inventor of disposable razor blades: “Give away the razor and sell them the blades,” Gillette pronounced. Amazon has it all bassackwards, making the price of the device high and the price of the content low. It’s already been pretty well demonstrated that the public is willing to pay relatively high prices for online books, but it is far from proven that the public will pay a high price for a reading device.

If Amazon wants to give away the Kindle (or at least sell it at a loss for that magical price point of $99.95) it might bring us closer to the tipping point. Amazon has tons of money to lose on a loss leader, but aside from the usual early adopters we may very well see the public respond to the Kindle with less than overwhelming enthusiasm on the grounds of list price alone. Anything less than the stupendous response to the iPod is probably going to fail. At least, Amazon, give us a cheaper device so that we don’t add price resistance to all our other reservations!

– Richard Curtis

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Amazon’s Kindle Announcement

Do you think the Kindle will be the “iPod of reading?” Newsweek leaked Amazon’s information early when their online article (“The Future of Reading”) went live the day before the scheduled announcement (and the day before the magazine hits the stands). What we all discovered is that Jeff Bezos believes he has the winning device and service, and we’ll all be able to buy the fruits of his vision for $399. More interesting is that they’ve arranged for present NY Times bestsellers to retail through their service for $9.99 each, which is an ebook coup.

Launching with over 88,000 titles (including most of E-Reads’ titles), the device is much like a hybrid Blackberry and ebook reader. Thanks to a built-in EVDO cell device, that connects to Sprint’s internet network, and built-in 802.11 Wi-Fi, the Kindle can browse for books, blogs, and news on the internet anywhere you can get a signal. Its keyboard is good for searching and note-taking with your text or on the web. You can even listen to music or audiobooks. Just keep in mind it’s still an ebook device with a typical E-Ink grayscale screen and no backlight, you can’t yet shop at Amazon beyond their ebook store, and you have to pay extra to use your Kindle EVDO service for emailing or blog subscriptions. Barring those limitations, it seems to have everything else the $299 Sony Reader has and more.

  • Small size factor: 10.3 ounces, 4.9 inches x 7.5 inches x 0.7 inches
  • Full Qwerty keyboard
  • 30-hour battery life
  • 2-hour recharge time
  • SD card storage
  • USB 2.0 connectivity
  • E-Ink screen
  • Adjustable font sizes
  • Easily stores over 200 books
  • You can search books for phrases or names
  • 3.5 stereo headphone jack

However, Publishers Lunch’s characterization of Amazon’s marketing strategy as “brutal” deserves underlining, bold and italics. In plain English, you take your Kindle with you to a bookstore, find the book you want at full retail price, then walk out of the store and order it at a discount from amazon.com. Or maybe, as long as we’re being brutal, you don’t even wait until you get out of the store. Either way, in Bezos’s vision your local bookshop becomes a brick and mortar catalog from which you may select merchandise from an online discounter.

On the other hand it’s hard to shed too many tears for the brutes at Barnes & Noble whose ambitions of empire have driven beloved book shops out of business. The chains have had plenty of time to foresee that in the war between tangible merchandise and digital, hard goods simply don’t stand a chance.

It will be interesting, fun, and scary as hell to see how this all plays out. Amazon is at the glamorous W hotel in New York today, with Jeff Bezos delivering the Kindle’s official introduction with celebrity endorsements (Toni Morrison, James Patterson, Neil Gaiman, etc). Unlike the Sony launch, this seems to be more out of Steve Job’s iPod announcement playbook. We’ll have more to say on this hot item in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

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Advertising in Ebooks?

The Publishers Weekly ebooks blog strikes again with another provocative posting that speculates on the possibility, and attractiveness to publishers, of putting advertisements in ebooks.

One of the problems for book publishers, as opposed to magazine publishers, is that they have always had to survive on what amounts to a single revenue stream. While magazines have newsstand single-copy sales and subscription sales as part of their business plan, they make a high percentage of their income selling advertising and, in fact, the sale of the magazine itself is usually at a loss-leader price intended to boost circulation and, thereby, the advertising rates they can charge. Poor old book publishers have, for many years, had to make do with what they can make from selling the books themselves and nothing more.

Some decades back, mass market paperback publishers actually did include advertising pages bound into the middle of their books, similar to the pieces of roughage (printed on what feels like really cheap cardboard) that riddle most magazines these days. As I recall, they were most often cigarette ads (which makes one wonder about what the advertisers saw as the functional market correlations between reading and smoking) and they made it more difficult to actually read the books because they essentially functioned as a stiff, cover-like insert in the middle of your reading experience. Authors, agents and the general public were unhappy about the interference with their leisure-time enjoyment and also deeply upset that books were being used to sell cigarettes. Readers don’t necessarily have much leverage in these situations but sometimes authors and agents do and they started, as a group, insisting on “No advertising” clauses in their book contracts and, after a while, publishers gave up their greedy dreams of captive audiences and secondary revenue.

But now, technology helps the wheel come around again and the old is now the new new. If Google can make billions every year from small, innocuous ads placed at the margins of what sees like every webpage you ever open, why can’t advertisers extend their reach into another developing corner of the electronic universe? Rupert Murdoch seems to like the idea and the speculation is that HarperCollins, an aggressive pursuer of electronic book markets, might be the logical first choice for an experiment with the idea. There’s an interesting link to a press release from early 2006 in which HarperCollins announced the free release of an entire book online with contextual advertising included.

An interesting point made in the blog post, and one that made me stop and think, is that in a generation that has grown up with “free” as their expectation when scanning the internet, reading news online and consuming their entertainment, advertising might simply be the best way to go in pursuit of a survival strategy when competing against other information suppliers who are already deeply committed to supplying free information and making money with ads that ubiquitously come along with the free content. An example of a company that is already publishing with that model is Wowio, which makes books available for free, in Adobe PDF format only, with ads as part of the package. Onscreen reading is possible but portable reading somewhat less so. Try putting a PDF file on your phone.

Another provocative proposal floated in the piece is the idea of offering competing editions of ebooks, some free with ads and others for a price that guarantees no ads included. I’m not sure which way that one would play out but it would be very interesting to see the idea being tried out and even more interesting to see what the results might be.

I’m not advocating or condemning advertising in ebooks–yet. I’m still thinking about it and I’m open to new ideas anyway so why not give this one a mental spin and watch the markets with me to see how things play out?

— John

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Tracking Content on the Internet – Attributor

Well, I know it’s their job, of course, but thanks again to Publishers Weekly for another fascinating bit of techie news that bears some relevance to the ebook world. We may not have conquered the universe in revenue and unit sales terms yet but we seem to be capturing a lot of time, thought and attention one way and another. And, by the way, we’re coming back to a subject, copyright, that we pay close attention to and about which we will continue to have lots to say.

A new company called Attributor launched a short while ago and the nifty bit of programming they have on offer is a tool for tracking content use on the web. Their first customers are places like Reuters and the Associated Press but they say that they expect to be running a test with a book publisher very soon. The company points out that they can help other companies with marketing, sales and editorial functions for the web but they admit that, no surprise, one of the biggest interests expressed by potential customers is tracking copyright compliance. Somehow, once you’ve invested your company’s money in producing something for wide distribution, you feel entitled to make money back for providing it to customers and equally entitled to prevent other parties from making money from your efforts without properly compensating you. Funny how that works!

Attributor apparently ran a test right after the last volume of Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling was released. That was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in case you’d forgotten. Attributor found a site where someone had posted the first ten chapters on a website, plugged the content into their program and discovered that 2,806 sites had posted part of the material. There’s a lovely box score in the PW piece that summarizes some interesting data about the sites that posted the material. Among the rather chilling facts are that 71% of the sites copied full chapter text (which falls well outside of Fair Use limits to my educated eye) and 80% of the sites which copied the content had ads running on the pages with the content–and were, thus, making at least some money off of what amounts to piracy (however innocent, or at least unthinking, the perpetrators may be).

Once you’re signed up with Attributor, you can give them marching orders and legal authority to respond to unauthorized use of copyrighted content by requiring links, requiring a share or ad revenue or demanding that a site take down the content. Perhaps some of those pirates will soon learn to think of Attributor as their own personal Terminator.

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Esnips, File sharing and Ebooks

I was doing a Google search on the subject of ebooks (no surprise!) and I stumbled onto esnips.com. It’s a site that offers free online storage for up to five gigabytes worth of your electronic files—music, photos, art, texts, whatever. All you have to do is provide an email address and sign up and you’re good to go. You can upload files, make them public or private, share them with friends or business associates, look at and/or download other people’s files and, in general, share: your knowledge, your esthetic eye, your taste, your humor, your whimsy.

It seems as if these sorts of things are proliferating madly. Since I keep an eye on the online world for reasons both personal (plain curiosity among them) and professional (I do most of my work online, one way or another), I’m aware of a current business phenomenon called Web 2.0. There are many, many startup companies these days that are convinced that if they can come up with the perfect combination of tools and services they will be able to attract millions or tens of millions of participants (read: customers) who will join their site, visit regularly and spend lots of time, recruit their social groups to use the site as a meeting place, etc., etc. Since no one is asking you to pay for that online storage space, for hosting your personal website (MySpace, FaceBook, and on and on…) or for whatever else it is that the site might do, you have to wonder who is paying for it all and the answer is, often enough, advertisers eager to put their products in front of your eyes and willing to pay for that opportunity. But I digress…

Ebooks are what got me started and they’re the ostensible subject of this blog so that’s where I’m getting back to. The source that turned me on to the site specifically mentioned ebooks as one of the things you were likely to find a lot of on the site, worth a browse to see what you might find that would be of personal interest. I did some scouting around and I found an item or two of interest, including some short stories posted by other members, a couple of titles by H. G. Wells, including The War of the Worlds as a PDF file, including a link to yet another site, planetpdf.com, which I had not previously been aware of. On the main page of that site was a link, which took me to a page offering a sampling of ebooks in PDF file format: Free PDF eBooks.

I was about to get all bent out of shape about copyright issues on esnips.com (lots more on that in another posting sometime soon) when I saw J.R.R. Tolkien’s name several times and assumed that someone had posted unauthorized copies of his still-in-copyright works but I was happily surprised to note that the files were marked as having been flagged by other users as suspect and were under review before being made available. A self-policing system that seems to work—good stuff. Of course, there were some other items where that nasty copyright issue might have been more pertinent and the prose section (small though it is in these early days) seemed to be well-supplied with MP3 files of songs, a bit of a stretch in classification terms, but the wonderful, horrible thing about volunteer labor, which all of these sorts of sites live and die by, is that you get what you pay for and quality of thinking and organizational ability can end up somewhere on the low end of the scale.

Of course, what we want you to do is buy E-Reads ebooks. Even though we don’t have Tolkien titles available, we do have quite a selection of material by a very diverse group of authors and we’re hoping that this blog will pique your interest just enough to get you to come and browse. I practically guarantee you’ll find something you want to read and own. Just glance around on the page you’re reading, click a link or search for an author name or book title to see what we have. At least we’ve got everything pretty well organized and we guarantee to solve your problems if you have them with any of our products—but, then, we’re not giving them away for free.

– John
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Houghton Mifflin To Put Books on Cell Phones

Once again, Publishers Weekly has covered a story that proves, to my satisfaction at least, that we’re living on the cutting edge of the technological future.

Trade publisher Houghton Mifflin recently announced that they have entered a deal with Mobifusion, a company Publishers Weekly had written about in a story in January of this year covering the launch of their initiative to make book content available via cellphones and other handheld devices.

Houghton Mifflin will be making available a selection of their titles, starting with Fast Food My Way by Jacques Pepin and focusing on reference books like American Heritage Student Science Dictionary and similar reference material. We’re not talking straight-up ebooks here, though. Many of the titles will offer what is referred to as “added functionality” without any details specified. I’d be guessing that there will be embedded animations, links to videos and the like.

It’s a fascinating time to be following the fate of the ebook business in all its forms. Stay tuned for regular updates and routinely surprising possibilities entering our reality.

–John

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