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Sandra Tayler on Some Persistent Advantages of Plain Old Paper Books

eBooks and Publishing

Sandra Tayler, a friend from Codex, recently posted her reasons for sticking to a large extent with paper books over eBooks. While she has a much different take than I do on the issue, she makes some very meaningful points, and I especially like her ideas about children’s books, which she makes better use of than many of us parents. You can read her thoughts on the matter at http://www.onecobble.com/2011/11/05/kindle-update-why-i-still-buy-paper-books/.

Photo by altopower

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Amazon Starts Free Kindle Lending Library

eBooks and Publishing

This came as a surprise: today Amazon announced they are starting a free lending library for Kindle owners who have an Amazon Prime membership. Amazon Prime has to be one of the most unlikely bargains out there. Who thought of putting streaming movies, free shipping, and temporary eBook access together in one package (for $79 a year)? Counterintuitive or not, it’s an attractive option if you order a lot of things on the Web.

Even if you do already own a Kindle and have Amazon Prime, don’t plan on suddenly being able to read whatever you want for free. Amazon is only offering a limited number of books under the program, with a maximum of one loan per month per Prime member. With that said, though, there’s an impressive array of books available–more than 5,000 of them, including some current bestsellers.

I continue to worry about the fate of libraries as eReading spreads and the eBook world becomes more flexible and friendly to readers. Post your comments, links to articles elsewhere on the Web, or links to your own blogging on the subject below.

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What Will Amazon’s New Kindle Format Mean for Writers (and Readers)?

eBooks and Publishing

A few days ago, Amazon announced their new Kindle 8 format, the format the Kindle Fire will use to show newer Amazon books. I’ve heard some questions arise about this–whether Kindle authors will have to re-convert books, whether the older Kindle devices will support the new format and what will happen if they don’t, etc. Fortunately, digging into Amazon’s information the new format answers these questions clearly. Here are the implications for Kindle authors and some answers for readers who use the Kindle.

You won’t have to convert your existing Kindle books
The Kindle Fire and other devices and apps that support the Kindle 8 format will continue to support older Kindle formats. If you have existing books available for Kindle, the only disadvantage they’ll have if you don’t do a Kindle 8 version is not taking advantage of the new Kindle 8 features, which most non-graphic-intensive books won’t have a use for. If you have complex layouts, lots of graphics, etc., you probably will want to come out with a new, improved version.

Apps and new Kindle devices will support Kindle 8; old Kindle devices won’t
The newest generation of Kindles–the Kindle Fire, the touchscreen Kindles, and the latest keyboard Kindle–will soon support the new format. So will Kindle reader apps for iPhone, Windows, the Web, etc. Older Kindles won’t.

Older Kindles downloading newer books will just get a Kindle 7 version
Amazon is rolling out new software for formatting and previewing Kindle books, KindleGen 2 and Kindle Previewer 2. This software will automatically generate both an older Kindle 7 version of the book and a newer Kindle 8 version. If you’re reading on a device or app that supports the Kindle 8 format, you’ll get that, including any enhanced content that may be included. If you’re reading on an older Kindle–that is, any Kindle device bought previous to the launch of the Kindle Fire generation–you’ll get the older format. Kindle Previewer 2 allows viewing how the book will look on various devices, so you’ll have ample opportunity to test and tweak the appearance of your book. The only real drawback to using an older Kindle device is that there will be some content in graphics-intensive eBooks that won’t translate well to the older, more limited format.

Newer Kindle devices and apps will support the old format
Just to be clear, nothing has to change about existing Kindle books for the newer devices to read them: Kindle 7 is just another format they support.

The new format will no longer be straight Mobi
Prior to Kindle 8, the only difference between Amazon’s Kindle format and the industry standard Mobi format was Amazon’s DRM, “digital rights management” encoding that helped prevent unauthorized copying of Amazon books. For books that don’t have DRM, the current Kindle 7 format is identical to Mobi, and in fact you can take a non-DRM-protected Kindle book off a Kindle, change the extension (the last part of the file name) from .azw to .mobi, and read it on any Mobi-compatible device. With Kindle 8, it appears this will end. Amazon appears to have decided that with the direction eBooks are going, Mobi alone is too restrictive. They do seem to be using other industry standard specifications, though, including HTML 5 (the newest, most dynamic, and most design-friendly format for Web pages, which is now supported by current browsers) and CSS (a way to specify text formatting and page layout that is also supported by current browsers).

Kindle 8 format books can have a lot more design to them
In Kindle 8 format, Kindle books can have colors, fonts, and complex layouts. Frankly, I’m not very enthusiastic about this for most books. For books where text and images need to be intermingled in a particular way or that require tables or vector graphics, it will be great. For the vast majority of books, it will be completely unnecessary, and unfortunately some of these books will be designed in a way that will make them harder to read. Oh well. Just please don’t be one of the people who takes a book that is just text and tries to pretty it up with special fonts and color. From my point of view, when I read, I want to be barely aware of the text so that I can focus on what’s being said. I’m willing to bet most readers have the same basic response to overfancified text.

Kindle 8 won’t support audio and video
Amazon’s information isn’t clear about this, but at least according to this gentleman, audio and video will not be included in this version of the Kindle format.  This surprises me, actually. It seems almost a no-brainer that the Kindle Fire should be able to read books with embedded audio and video–for instance, language courses that will pronounce words when you tap on them, or a book about the history of film with pertinent clips–not that any of that would work on my 3rd generation Kindle anyway. Oh well. Maybe in Kindle 9.

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Amazon Announces $200 Tablet, $80 Kindle, and Touchscreen Kindles

eBooks and Publishing

In just the past hour or so, Amazon announced the new Kindle Fire, a $200 Android-based tablet that prioritizes reading, music, and media; they also introduced new touchscreen Kindles and a new standard Kindle (with ads and with no keyboard; the version without ads goes for $109) for $79. Prices of existing Kindle models have also dropped substantially.

The tablet and touchscreen eReaders will be available November 21st, in time for the holidays, while the new standard Kindle is available immediately.

I would be very surprised if this didn’t mean a host of new eReader users and a rise in sales of Kindle eBooks that starts immediately and builds through Christmas and (if last year is any guide) beyond.

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Jud Roberts: Nook vs. Kindle

eBooks and Publishing

Here’s a guest post from Judson Roberts, author of the Strongbow Saga trilogy of Viking novels. Jud had given his assessments of these two eReaders in an e-mail discussion, and on my request kindly agreed to put his observations into a blog post.

You can see a larger version of any image by clicking on it.


Two years ago, digital books, or e-books, were something that relatively few people had any personal experience with. Although e-books had actually been around for a number of years, they’d never really caught on. But in mid-2010, that changed. In the months leading up to Christmas, Amazon significantly reduced the price of its Kindle e-book reader. Sales of the device took off, and in January, when millions of new Kindles became activated, the rate of e-book sales exploded. It has been growing ever since.

E-books can be read on a wide variety of devices, including personal computers, tablet computers, smartphones, and dedicated e-book readers. But the tremendous growth in e-book sales that has occurred in the United States (the rate of e-book sales in overseas markets has not yet seen the same level of dramatic growth) has been, to a large extent, driven by repeated price reductions over the past year of the two most popular and widely used dedicated e-book readers: the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook, particularly the top of the line Color Nook. In this column, I will offer my personal opinion and experiences with both devices (Why, you might wonder, would I own both devices? I’m an author and have published some of my books as e-books, so I use both devices in part to review my e-book editions prior to releasing them.).

First, their similarities. Neither device is intended by its parent company to be an open source e-reader. By that, I mean that each device is tied to its parent company’s store, and designed to most easily access e-books sold through that store. Unless the user is willing to undertake some work-around steps (which admittedly are not that difficult to do, and which I’ll address in more detail below), a Kindle can easily load and read only Kindle e-books purchased from Amazon; a Nook only Nook books purchased from Barnes & Noble. The actual process of purchasing an e-book is fairly similar for both devices: either on a computer, or directly from the device, you access the parent company’s website, select a book, purchase it (for the devices to be activated when purchased, both require an active account with the parent company), and the book will be sent to your device.

In addition to the parent company’s e-books, it is possible to load documents in various formats, including Microsoft Word and Adobe PDF, onto both devices. The Nook also accepts EPUB files, the mostly widely used e-book format (which Nook e-books are in), and the newer Kindles accept Mobi format files, another e-book format. Thus, if a user acquires or already possesses e-books in the PDF format, they can be manually loaded on either the Kindle or the Nook. Additionally, non-B&N EPUB e-books can be manually loaded onto the Nook, and non-Amazon Mobi format e-books can be manually loaded onto the Kindle. For the present, at least, Kindle readers do not accept EPUB files or books, and Nook Color readers do not accept Mobi files or e-books, or Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format (which is derived from the Mobi format).

Documents and non-Nook e-books are loaded onto the Nook by connecting it via a USB cable (supplied with the device) to a personal computer, and transferring or copying them from the computer to the Nook. Documents and non-Kindle e-books may be loaded onto a Kindle using the same procedure, but Amazon also offers a far easier procedure: each Kindle is assigned an email address, and some formats of documents can simply be attached to an email sent to that address, after which they will appear on the device within minutes. [Luc adds: there’s a free way to do this if you’re willing to receive your documents or eBooks through WiFi only and not through Amazon’s cellular Whispernet by sending it to a @free.kindle.com address: see your Kindle documentation for details. Also note that purchases from Amazon for the Kindle are automatically downloaded to the device.]

The Nook is WiFi only, which means that it cannot connect to the B&N website and acquire and load new books unless it is connected to a WiFi network. The Kindle is available in two different connectivity options: WiFi only, or an always-available connection via 3G cell phone networks. The latter does not require any additional charge or plan for network access and use, but the 3G versions of the Kindle device are more expensive than the WiFi only versions. Both devices, when connected, offer some degree of web browsing capability.

The two devices differ most markedly in how they operate. The Color Nook is a touchscreen device that looks much like a tablet-style computer, and runs on a version of Google’s popular Android operating system, which is widely used in non-Apple smartphones and tablet computers. Indeed, Barnes & Noble has even advertised the Color Nook as the least expensive Android tablet available. That is a dangerous claim to make, although not because of the price. Compared to other Android devices, the Color Nook is either extremely underpowered or its capabilities have been grossly limited by Barnes & Noble’s restrictive control over the device.

Barnes & Noble’s Color Nook

As a touchscreen-controlled device, the Color Nook has almost no manual controls: just an on/off power button on one side, manual plus/minus volume control buttons on the opposite side—all of which are very discreetly built into the side edges of the Nook–and a “home” button at the bottom of the front screen. Other than these functions, all other navigation and use of the device is controlled via the touchscreen.

Touchscreen devices can be extremely easy and intuitive to use. Unfortunately, the Color Nook is not. In fact, I’ll be blunt: it is the worst touchscreen device I have ever seen. When reading e-books on the device, for example, you can, in theory, advance to the next page by either tapping the right side of the screen or by making a swiping motion across the screen from left to right. Similarly, to go back to a previous page you either tap the left side of the screen or swipe from right to left. In my experience, however, only the swiping motions are consistently reliable. A significant percentage of the time the Nook’s screen is so unresponsive that the tapping technique produces no result.

Many functions on the Nook must be performed through one of two onscreen menus. Neither of the menus are always visible. One menu appears at the bottom of the screen when a U-shaped on-screen symbol at the screen’s base is tapped. The other, which controls functions within a book or document, such as word look-up or highlighting, appears only if you touch and hold the exact center of the screen. Why, one wonders, could the menus not be consolidated, and who thought it was a good idea to require completely different methods and locations for accessing them? And even the few mechanical controls leave much to be desired. For example, to completely power off the Nook, one must press and hold the on/off switch for several seconds, then tap an onscreen confirmation button that appears, asking if you really, truly mean to turn the device off. More than once, I’ve thought I had powered the device off, when it actually was still running (to save power, the screen goes black after a very brief span of inactivity). That’s a problem, because the Nook has a relatively short period of battery life between chargings to begin with. Having it go dead when you erroneously think it is turned off is exasperating.

My personal dissatisfaction with the Nook stems in no small part from the fact that I have seen how delightfully easy to use an Android e-book reader, when well designed and executed, can be. I own an Android smartphone (a Galaxy S phone made by Samsung). In addition to the actual Kindle ebook reading device, Amazon offers free Kindle reader apps for a wide variety of devices, including smartphones, tablet computers, and personal computers. The Kindle app came preloaded on my phone, and I love it. Now, when I’m out and find myself in a situation where I have time to fill on my hands (waiting at the doctor or vet’s office, etc.), I can just pull out my phone, fire up the Kindle app, and read a bit on a book—it even automatically synchronizes to the last page I read on my actual Kindle. But most importantly, it is—unlike the Nook—SO effortless to use. The screen may be smaller than the Nook’s, but the font size, background color, and brightness are all easily adjustable, so I find the reading experience to be at least as comfortable as on the Nook’s larger screen. Both the smartphone and the Nook are backlit screens, though, so reading on them for an extended time can be more tiring to the eyes than reading a printed page.

The B&N Color Nook versus the free Amazon Kindle app on a smartphone

The Nook versus smartphone comparison raises another flaw with the Nook. One of the great things about smartphones is the numerous apps you can load and use on them. Their variety and functions are almost endless, and there are countless Android based apps available. As an Android device, the Nook should be able to use them, too. But no—Barnes & Noble does allow a few apps, sold through their store, to be installed and used on the Nook, but the selection is limited and is strictly controlled by B&N, in their own inimitable style. For example, Epicurious is an excellent cooking website with numerous recipes that are well organized, easy to search, and are even rated by users. There is a free Epicurious app available for Android smartphones—my wife loves it, and uses it all the time. Barnes & Noble now offers the Epicurious app through their store for the Color Nook, too—but they charge $5.99 for an app that is available free for other Android devices.

The actual Kindle e-book reader is a completely different kind of device than a touchscreen Nook or smartphone. It is controlled entirely by a manual keyboard below the screen and by various manual buttons, all of which are clearly labeled as to what function they perform. While the result may not present as sleek and elegant an appearance as the Color Nook, it works well and is easy to use. If I want to access the menu, I simply press the button labeled “Menu,” then navigate the options than appear onscreen using the multi-directional navigation and select button. If I want to go to the home page, where all books currently loaded on the device are listed and accessible (and from where I can access other Kindle books I’ve purchased, but which are not currently loaded on the device), I press the “Home” button.  If I wish to advance to the next page, or go back to the previous one, I press the forward or back buttons located on both sides of the device. The Kindle is like a good tool whose design is based on considerations of function first, and appearance second. I liken it to a hammer that so perfectly fits your hand and is so well balanced that you strike true with it every time. It’s a personal preference, but give me function over flash.

The Amazon Kindle, shown here mounted in the optional leather cover which includes a pull-out reading light for nighttime reading.

The Kindle uses e-ink technology, which offers several advantages and one disadvantage. The advantages are that the technology uses very little power, so the Kindle can be used for very long periods without needing to recharge the battery. And because the screen is not backlit, it is as easy on the eyes as a printed page—or in some ways, even easier, because you can increase the font size if you wish. Plus it can be read outside, in bright sunlight, something most backlit touchscreen devices manage poorly or not at all. And the Kindle is mch lighter in weight to the Color Nook, too.

The Color Nook does have one area of clear advantage: color. At the current time, e-ink readers such as the Kindle (Barnes & Noble also offer less expensive e-ink Nooks) are only black and white—or more accurately, multiple shades of grayscale. This means that a book’s cover, and color illustrations inside if the book has any, appear in black and white tones. If I intended to purchase an e-book with color illustrations, I would probably choose to buy it in Nook format from Barnes & Noble, since I do have a Color Nook. But for any other kind of e-book, the Kindle is my hands-down favorite and go-to e-book reader choice.

And it’s not just the devices themselves, although I do prefer the Kindle device over the Nook. I also think Amazon is a better store, and I much prefer dealing with it than with Barnes & Noble. Their search engines do a much better job of recommending new books to you, based on your past purchases and search efforts in their store, and Amazon has a well-established policy of trying to encourage, attract, and satisfy its customers. Barnes & Noble, in my opinion, does not. For example, they flood my e-mail inbox every week with new book recommendations and coupons (remember that you have to set up an account with the parent store to activate the device? This is what B&N does with your e-mail address that you must provide them). But the recommendations aren’t personalized to my reading history, they’re just whatever book(s) B&N is pushing that week (and pushing probably due to “placement” payments from the publishers, just as they do for prominent shelf placement of print books within their actual bricks and mortar stores). And what’s worse, the small print on all of the special “sale” coupons included with these emails specifies that Nook e-books are specifically excluded –they’re always full price. Talk about a turn-off!

In conclusion, if you want a good, easy to use e-book reader, backed by the best e-book supplier in the business, m advice is to get an Amazon Kindle. If you really have to have a flashier, state of the art color touchscreen device, I‘d suggest paying extra and getting a fully functional tablet device such as an iPad, and installing the free Kindle app on it. Or better yet, just wait a bit. Rumor has it that Amazon may be coming out with its own color e-reader by the end of this year. Based on their past record, they’re likely to get it right.

Judson Roberts is the author of the historical fiction series The Strongbow Saga (which is available in both Kindle and Nook e-book versions, as well as in print editions).

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eBooks: What Will Happen Over the Next Decade?

eBooks and Publishing

In a discussion of eBooks on Codex, an online writer’s group I started seven years ago, the subject came up of market saturation: with more and more eBooks hitting the market as the readership expands, will there come a time when there are too many books out there for many of them to make more than a little money? In response to that question, here are some predictions about the eBook market over the next decade, based on thinking about social and technological trends.

One reason I’m as interested as I am in this topic that I have friends on Codex who are beginning to see real success (measured in hundreds or thousands of dollars) through eBook publishing, primarily for the Kindle, especially Judson Roberts with his compelling and exceptionally well-researched series of Viking novels and James Maxey with his inventive and emotionally complex novels about dragons, dragon hunters, and superheroes. (See also Jud’s Web site at judsonroberts.com and James’ at jamesmaxey.blogspot.com.) Also fascinating is the POD success of Maya Lassiter with her free audiobook, Conjuring Raine, which to date has been downloaded more than 2,000 times.

Many more eBooks coming
I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet in terms of number of eBooks available: people who are putting out eBooks now are still early adopters, but before long publishers will be putting out every last book they have rights to, many more writers will take books out of the submission cycle of traditional publishing and try to get some juice out of the eBook market instead, and the majority of authors (and authors’ estates) who have rights to their backlists will make those books available as eBooks too. Why leave money on the table, after all? Most things that have gone out of print ever will reappear, along with many things that were written over the past few decades but never made it into print, making the field much more crowded.

By the way, I’m suspecting there will be at least a few amazing finds among books that have been lost in slush–along with lots and lots and lots of garbage.

Many more readers coming, and not just the ones we already write for
At the same time, over the coming decade the market for English language eBooks will continue to expand, not only as eReaders are adopted by an ever-increasing percentage of the public in English-speaking countries, but as eReaders and smartphones reach more and more of the world’s population. In the past almost all English-language writers have been writing mainly for native English speakers. As China and India and the Middle East and the rest of the world adopt eReaders, barriers to books from here reaching English speakers in other countries will fall. How many of your books are available in India, for instance, a country that has very nearly as many English-speakers as the United States? Or Nigeria, where English-speakers number almost 80 million? Or even in Australia, for that matter?

Further, as English language materials become more widely available, and as communication across national boundaries continues to expand, especially over the Web, many more people will learn English than have in the past. If you live in Mongolia, for instance, ten years ago English would have been of little use to you. Today if you know English and have any kind of Internet access, you have access to the largest  single-language collection of information and entertainment ever in the history of humankind.

So even though there’s going to be more competition, I think it’s still going to be boom time for English language writers for the next decade or so, and with the continued spread of English, some growth for another decade or two after that, and possibly even longer.

This growth in number of readers will not be matched by writers from those same areas. If you speak English well, you can be a reader of English-language books–but to write a good book in English, you have to speak the language like a native, which most readers from non-English-speaking countries don’t. Writers who write in English are likely to benefit from all of this at the expense of writers who work in other languages.

More readers means yet more eBooks
This in turn will lure more people to writing as more and more writers begin making a living through self-published eBook sales. Writing has always been alluring to a lot of people, but most would-be writers are scared off or beaten down by the process of repeated rejections, or else stuck in a decades-long pattern of submit-and-be-rejected. Lifting the barriers means not only removes practical obstacles to getting published, but also emotional obstacles. No longer will you have to be the kind of person who persists in the face of depressingly horrible odds to get your work out. (It could be argued that self-publishing has been an option for a long time, but I’d argue back that getting someone to print your books isn’t the same as having the opportunity to actually get them in front of readers.)

With an influx of less experienced writers who don’t have to get past editorial obstacles, there will be a lot more bad writing available. This, together with the increased use of eReaders and the overall rise in number of eBooks, will create a powerful push for better eBook finding and selection tools for the Web, eReaders, and smart phones. Exactly how these systems will work is a crucial question for writers, because it will determine whether or not our works can be found, the context in which they’ll be considered or compared, and ultimately how well they’ll sell.

In a near-future post I’ll make some predictions about how people will be finding and choosing eBooks, and about what that will mean for writers.

Photo taken in London by DG Jones

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