Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Kindle Stumbles

Having been a Kindle user for a few months, it is time to take stock of it.

People's dwellings, no matter what form they take, say many things about them.

Take my house, for instance.

Even a casual observer would immediately note that the inhabitants' abysmal lack of appreciation for art is exceeded only by a pervasive lack of photographic talent, and whose sole contribution to the interior decorating arts is regular dusting.

Just a few more moments would suffice to note that artless does not, mercifully, mean illiterate. The well stocked bookshelves show some inclination towards non-fiction, particularly history and science; a fair smattering of novels, with Patrick O'Brian and Kingsley Amis featuring prominently; and every Calvin and Hobbes book ever to see the light of day.

From this, without so much as a howyadoin, said casual observer could conclude that the inhabitants have eclectic tastes, which is really a polite way of saying failed intellectual whose breadth has no depth, but whose personal qualities are more or less wonderful, depending upon the observer's non-fiction point of view.

Fair enough.

All of this is by way of bringing up the Kindle's major failing: every book on my shelves could fit into a Kindle or three, and in so doing, would cut off one aspect of personal display to the wider world. In effect, it is no different than shifting everything from the walls into a box and labeling it "pictures".

Stepping beyond signifiers, there are a few other, ummm, issues.

Pricing is bizarre. Nearly all ebooks still under copyright are $10; new releases are more. Oddly, though, it is often possible to get a dead-tree version of a book for far less. For example, a Raymond Chandler novel is $10 when delivered as bits; $2 as used flattened cellulose.

Which leads to the next major irritation. Having coughed up $10 for a dose of noir, I can't loan, or give, which is what loaning often means in practice, it to anyone.

I absolutely do not get that.

Oddly, a great many books are simply not available at all, and with no indication they ever will be, which could, depending on the title, have a great deal to do with the fact that the Kindle hits the limit of its competence at displaying text; images are completely beyond it.

So, except for frequent travelers, TDD is, regretfully, having to award the Kindle a Do Not Buy. Perhaps that won't send Amazon execs through the nearest window.

I'll bet the iPad will, though.

Followed closely by college textbook publishers.

21 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I have, to date, seen 3 people using a Kindle in public, most recently on a plane when the passenger next to me had to close his up, while I kept reading my book.

One reason I wouldn't want a Kindle is that, while you cannot tell a book by its cover, you often can tell whether you want to spend time on one by flipping to an inside page and examining a paragraph or two.

I had a conversation Sunday with an editor for Oxford U. Press, whose job is editing and marketing books. He is about to abandon ship, he tells me, to get into publishing research journal.

It appears this is a booming field, and, surprisingly, somewhat entrepreneurial: there are opportunities for an editor/publisher, not qualified in a field himself, to devise a theme, recruit an editorial board and launch a journal.

Research libraries spend 90% of their money on journals, all electronic. He tells me the librarians want to do away with all paper.

Anecdote: A friend of his had a full, 120 year run of a well-known journal, which he thought to sell. No takers.

Another reason to dislike, or at least be wary of digital publishing, is that it eliminates the serendipity of the stacks.

It was a revelation to me, as an undergraduate taking a course in international relations, to wander the stacks and discover a long run of a magazine that looked like Life and was very expensive but whose sole concern was its title: Communism in Indonesia. No masthead, no publisher.

Hmmm, I thought and sat down to read.

Quite enlightening. Less than 12 months later 250,000 Chinese in Indonesia were butchered as Communists.

Hmmm.

Now, who was behind that?

April 14, 2010 5:24 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Skipper, you might appreciate the Kindle more if instead of purchasing the gadget, you had merely downloaded it to you computer at zero cost. I love reading on my new little notebook. My biggest problem is deciding what I want to read. I get bored scrolling through all the available titles (same thing happens with Netflix). The limitations of lending and/or swapping books and the missing graphics will be solved if enough people complain (or there’s enough competition).

I haven’t completely switched over, but it’s mostly library books or used books which are donated to the library after I’ve read them. We have no room for book shelves in this small house.

Future generations probably won’t have the same kind of love affair with books that we have. Reading on a screen will be the norm and words printed on paper bound between two covers will come to be looked upon as mere decorative artifacts. I wonder if those who created scrolls by making marks with quills on parchment looked upon books printed by moveable type as progress or an abomination.

April 14, 2010 6:15 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

... most recently on a plane when the passenger next to me had to close his up, while I kept reading my book.

Sheesh. The whole point of the no-electronic-devices shtick is to ensure flight attendants can get passengers' attention just in case.

There is no more reason to shut off the Kindle than close your book.

Another reason to dislike, or at least be wary of digital publishing, is that it eliminates the serendipity of the stacks.

And replaces it with the serendipity of google.

One reason I wouldn't want a Kindle is that, while you cannot tell a book by its cover, you often can tell whether you want to spend time on one by flipping to an inside page ...

In its favor, Amazon allows a free download of the first chapter.

Having heard about Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, I decided to read the first chapter, rather than pony up a whole dollar.

It turns out that Amazon must think Volume I is Chapter 1.

It is extremely well written, BTW.

erp:

Skipper, you might appreciate the Kindle more if instead of purchasing the gadget, you had merely downloaded it to you computer at zero cost. I love reading on my new little notebook.

One of the reasons I think the Kindle is good for frequent travelers is that it is a better book than a book is when eating dinner alone.

The thing stays open without having to precariously balance various condiment dispensers on it.

Which a laptop will do, but the form factor is wrong.

The reason books and magazines have been so enduring is precisely because of that form factor.

Which the Kindle and iPad have replicated. No one will miss books because there is no longer anything about them to be missed.

Why the heck do my kids have to lug 40 pounds of textbooks between school and the house?

Textbooks that aren't searchable, do not support notetaking, and whose illustrations are completely static.

April 14, 2010 8:39 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Skipper, I joined the choir in 1977 when I helped a chemistry professor write a textbook using EDT/RNO, a primitive writing program. Getting the formulas to print correctly on the aptly named, Diablo, was quite a trick. In the process, I learned more than any human being needs to know about organic chemistry.

I had the idea the Kindle (and iPad) had to be held upright. Perhaps, next time I need/want a new toy, I'll give them a look.

Funny thing, now when I’m reading a real book, I frequently glance down to the right to check the time or email.

April 15, 2010 8:03 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I just spent 2 weeks with grandkids, curled up and reading books, with the one-year-old riffling the pages and the three-year-old pointing to the pictures.

I have a hard time seeing Kindle reproduce that.

If you don't want to deal with Amazon, you can download old books from the Gutenberg project. I have done that a couple of times for books that were very hard to get.

Unfortunately, the really hard ones are not at Gutenburg either, or weren't last time I checked.

Gallup used to poll Americans on whether they had read a book in the past year. I don't know what the recent answers were, but a generation ago, half said no. Considering that the other half read only Harlequin Romances (but read them by the ton), the saturation point for Kindle-type readers may not be as large as some people think.

April 16, 2010 7:36 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry, by the time those tots of yours are ten years old, reading from a screen will be the norm.

I happened to check on Gutenberg yesterday. Apparently they have some 30,000 titles ready to be downloaded (I don't know if that's the right word) into various formats including Kindle and Gutenberg books can be downloaded to your desktop directly and read with MSWord very comfortably.

In the future, I predict any and every book ever published will be available in some electronic format, mostly free of charge, thereby keeping alive books that may have otherwise turned to dust on the shelves of obscure scholars.

This doesn't mean that babies and small children won't still need tactile objects with which to be introduced to the world around them and I envy you your cuddling with your grandchildren.

April 16, 2010 8:49 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I have a hard time seeing Kindle reproduce that.

The Kindle can't come close. However, the iPad is everything a book is, and more. Not only do the pages "flip", but pictures can move, if they should.

I must note, though, that my daughter's room is jammed nearly to overflowing with books, and she sneers at the Kindle.

I predict the standard Kindle isn't long for the world, and the DX has had a few hundred bucks taken off its list price.

erp:

I'll have to check out Gutenberg. Someone, who may wall have been you, also pointed me towards ManyBooks.net.

About which I had completely forgotten, until just now.

April 19, 2010 9:50 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Skipper, when you discover the best in ebook readers and sources, pls. post it.

Books will be around for a bit longer, but your daughter is a teenager already, I'm talking the kids just coming into school.

Not saying ebooks will be better, only different.

April 19, 2010 10:22 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Here is a, to my eyes, very good article about ebooks.

Here are a few of the highlights -- the whole article is well worth reading.

The traditional pricing model: On a twenty-six-dollar book, the publisher receives thirteen dollars, out of which it pays all the costs of making the book. The author gets $3.90 in royalties. Bookstores return about forty per cent of the hardcovers they buy; this accounts for $5.20 per book. Another $3 goes to overhead costs and the price of producing and shipping the book—leaving, in the best case, about a dollar of profit per book.

There are about 3 million Kindles in use.

I'm not the only one who thinks the iPad will revolutionize books:

In Grandinetti’s view, book publishers—like executives in other media—are making the same mistake the railroad companies made more than a century ago: thinking they were in the train business rather than the transportation business. To thrive, he believes, publishers have to reimagine the book as multimedia entertainment. David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster, says that his company is racing “to embed audio and video and other value-added features in e-books. It could be an author discussing his book, or a clip from a movie that touches on the book’s topic.” The other major publishers are working on similar projects, experimenting with music, video from news clips, and animation. Publishers hope that consumers will be willing to pay more for the added features. The iPad, Rosenthal says, “has opened up the possibility that we are no longer dealing with a static book. You have tremendous possibilities.”

The downward pressure of ebooks on prices:

No matter where consumers buy books, their belief that electronic media should cost less—that something you can’t hold simply isn’t worth as much money—will exert a powerful force.

Why yes, they should cost less. About $8.20, or 30% of the cover price.

April 20, 2010 10:09 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

They will ultimately cost a lot less, is my guess. In fact, I think the vast majority of books will be free.

The question is: should I pay for the privilege of reading a book or should the author pay for the privilege of having his or her book read. I think ultimately that so many people who love to create will desperately want their stuff read that they'll give it away for free and be happy to do so. This will put a huge downward pressure on those authors who write for money.

Music is already starting to go this way. Jango is a free Internet radio station. It has a feature called Jango airplay. Aspiring artist can buy 1000 plays of their songs for $30. Many do, almost none every recoup their cost. In other words, they pay for the privilege of having their songs played.

Books will be the same.

April 20, 2010 11:05 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti thinks that windowing is a mistake. I couldn't agree more. I'm thinking of Lotus123 which I used a lot in the days before MSExcel. It's gone the way of the dodo bird.

The article was interesting but didn't address the important issue of who owns the ebook. If I pay up to fifteen bucks for it, I want it on my harddrive to lend, sell or swap.

Ebooks are the way of the future, but just exactly which path it will take is still up in the air.

April 20, 2010 11:29 AM  
Blogger erp said...

I forgot the issue of libraries and where they come in. Another matter to be settled.

April 20, 2010 11:31 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Bret, people have always paid money to (try to) have people read their books. That's what Vanguard Press was about.

I have read several dozen Vanguard books. Only one was above 1 on a scale of 100, and it was about a 3.

Don't know about the quality of music on Jango.

The difficulty, for book authors, will be theft, as it was in the 19th c.

erp can buy a paper book, read it and give it away. Once.

With an ebook, she can give it away a million times, and if she doesn't, somebody will. Look at movies.

Books -- good ones, anyway -- require a large upfront investment. They don't just shoot out of the brains of creative geniuses.

No income, not so many good books.

April 21, 2010 9:18 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry, exactly. Paper books, like everything else I buy, are mine to do with as I choose -- not so with ebooks.

I do like reading on a screen and the convenience of having a book I want to read appear instantly, but I find I'm going back to the classics on Gutenberg many of which I've already downloaded rather than scrolling through the Kindle lists. Losing brain cells at a rapid rate allows one to re-read the old books again as if for the first time.

People in the ebook business need to find a way to make their products attractive to buyers many of whom aren’t interested in inter-active videos or super graphics.

April 21, 2010 9:51 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

Harry wrote: "Only one was above 1 on a scale of 100, and it was about a 3."

Yes, but since the vast majority of the population is perfectly happy with a 3 (or even a 1), the quality of the writing is pretty much immaterial.

For that segment of the population, it makes no sense for them to ever pay for music or books again. Movies are about 20 years behind.

April 22, 2010 7:41 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Bret:

The question is: should I pay for the privilege of reading a book or should the author pay for the privilege of having his or her book read.

Odd. You talk about how socialist policies will gut entrepreneurial drive, yet discount the same drive among authors. Sure, some people are so desperate to have their stuff read they will write blog posts read by people in their quarter dozens.

However, the talent to write coherently and captivatingly at book length is a very rare talent, free isn’t going to cut it for them, or for consumers. I would much rather read a good book for $15 than dreck for free. Granted, the notion of dreck is subjective. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why anyone slogs through more than one page of Clive Cussler. Never mind, plenty of people do so happily. But a great deal of what would be free is free for a reason: it is unreadable. Period.

Browse Harry Potter fan fiction for no end of examples.

And I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion that music is moving that way, either. I like what I like, and I like to hear what I like when I like to hear it. Free internet radio is going to stream me a lot of stuff that I will perceive as so many aural white-hot knitting needles.

So when I chance upon something I like, then I pay iTunes a buck so I can hear it on my terms.

I do suspect there optimum price point is lower than the standard $10-$15. I suspect there are a great many people who are much more willing to take a $5 bet that a book is good than $15.

I forgot the issue of libraries and where they come in. Another matter to be settled.

One advantage of libraries, is being able to, in effect, have a much larger book collection than they could ever hope to have room for on their own.

Now that books don’t take up any space, that advantage goes away.

The other advantage, of course, is the ability to exercise episodic ownership. There is no reason that libraries cannot do that with ebooks. It is possible to produce ebooks that have one instance, and loan those instances, with the cost either supported by taxes, or by user fees.

Think Netflix.

Harry:

erp can buy a paper book, read it and give it away. Once.

With an ebook, she can give it away a million times, and if she doesn't, somebody will. Look at movies.


As ebooks stand, that is not true, anymore than it is of a paperback. I should be able to loan erp my copy of “Five Big Questions”. It would move from my Kindle to hers, until such time as she returned it to mine, or sent on to someone else.

That I cannot do this is infuriating.

April 22, 2010 10:20 AM  
Blogger erp said...

There are any number of ways libraries could change to ebooks, but librarians aren't the most forward thinking of the professions.

How about us forming a reading cabal by kicking in a hundred bucks or so and setting up special accounts we can all access at Kindle and the other ebook sellers? Harry gets to write all the book reviews and the rest of us get to argue every single point in excruciating detail.

In no time, we'll be so wildly successful, every political junkie on the planet will want in and Bret will be forced to set us up as a venture capitalists. Yahoo and Google will clamor to purchase us for mega-millions forcing David to step in to handle legalities. Peter may even be called upon to move south if the legal work load becomes to heavy. Aog will have step in to design a killer website and put into place software to handle the complex logistics and Skipper will need to buy his own fleet of planes to facilitate his travel round the world representing our interests.

Laugh if you will, but stranger things have happened.

April 22, 2010 11:33 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Nobody disses Kindle like Professor Charles Clark:

$6,431.20 joke, January 25, 2010
This review is from: Selected Nuclear Materials and Engineering Systems (Kindle Edition)
$6,431.20 ? The publisher should give the Kindle edition away for free. It is literally useless on the Kindle 2, since the phase diagrams - which are the essence of this book - are completely illegible there.

I'm sure that this is a valuable reference work, but it is completely unsuitable for deployment on the Kindle platform.

May 11, 2010 11:17 AM  
Blogger erp said...

As Skipper has already pointed out, Kindle doesn't do graphics, diagrams, pictures, etc.

May 11, 2010 11:58 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Yeah, but apparently whoever signs up the books wasn't told, eh?

May 12, 2010 9:47 AM  
Blogger erp said...

No they aren't and when I complained to the mgt, I got a snippy email reply from a real person saying, "they're working on it."

May 12, 2010 9:51 AM  

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