Sunday, January 31, 2010

Technology Wars

Okay, would everyone who has an e-reader please sign the guest book?

Now, everyone planning on considering buying an iPad, please join the lemmings lining up over there.

And for those of you considering being Luddites in the digital book revolution, we'll be announcing our meetings by email.

I really have nothing to say about Macmillan, Apple & Amazon, apart from some small degree of surprise that I even own a Macmillan book: Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (which of course I mean to read).  I'm not even sure I have anything sensible to write about the entire e-book v. e-reader v. e-vendor v. e-author situation.  But let's find out the hard way, shall we?

Let's start with my non-Luddite credentials.  Here's some technology I adore:  the DVR (TiVo, etc.; ours is attached to the machine that translates our satellite feed: it records two programs at once, both in HD, and has up to 200 hours of programming -- I love it); the MP3 player (iPods and the like; just the option to take all my music with me is amazing, even if I still only listen to five things over and over); and the GPS (we use it a lot, but had to program it to have an Englishwoman's accent; the American woman was too grating).  We have satellite radio in the car and a weather band radio in the house.  We have at least five computers (one's going back to the UK as a gift, but yeah, that's more than two people have any rational need for), three printers, two scanners, a fax and a dog.  Wait.  How'd the dog get in there?

But no e-reader.  I'm not a complete e-reader virgin: I got to first base with a Kindle once.  I have a good friend who adores hers so much I joke she would grab her Kindle from the burning house, provided she'd already rescued the husband, dog and cat.  When we visited them in October, she proudly presented her Kindle to me so that I too could fall madly in love with it.  Erm.  Didn't quite happen that way.  I wasn't used to the way the controls work, so I kept moving a page ahead or a page back when I didn't want to, or out of the book entirely.

Truthfully, I'm not sure I'd have fallen in love in any event.  There's no convenience in an e-reader for me.  I read one book at a time.  I know that's insane, but it's also a true statement.  So the old "no longer have to pack a zillion books for each trip" argument is unpersuasive for me.  If I even take three books on a trip, I come home with maybe one book finished.  Paperbacks just don't weigh that much that I worry about them cluttering up my luggage.

Next,  while I love having all my music in a little box smaller than a deck of cards, I'm not sure I'd enjoy having my TBR pile completely disappear.  Admittedly, it's untidily spread out on a bench in plain view of any visitors, but we don't have many visitors.  And isn't that what tote bags are for?  Shove everything into a bag when company comes and then take it all out again when they leave -- works for me!

While the TBR piles (yes, plural) may look untidy and disorganized to others, they represent choice and variety and anticipation to me.  Reduce them to pixels and stick them all into a gray box?  It's not aesthetically or psychologically attractive enough to lure me across the digital divide.

But none of these is a good reason not to have an e-reader.  Here are two good reasons:  I asked Keira Soleore -- who tweeted recently that she took 50 pounds of books when they traveled for a month over the holidays -- why she doesn't have an e-reader.  She has two good reasons:  it would give her migraines, and she's not eager to introduce technology to her school-aged child, who's such a good reader that two-thirds of the books for their trip were kid-lit chapter books.

And there are no bad reasons for having an e-reader if the desire and funds are there.  Well, none but the fact that the industry is in an uproar and can't collectively find its digital ass with both hands.

Okay, so if e-readers are great, and digital publishing is a wave of the future, and everyone wins, why are we having technology wars?

Because no one yet has figured out how all this can work as a win - win - win - win for the four broad categories of interested parties:
  1. Manufacturers/vendors of e-readers and purveyors of digital content; e.g., Amazon, Apple, etc.
  2. Publishers
  3. Authors
  4. Readers
You can understand what might seem best for any one, even two of the groups -- Publishers are happy if they're getting top dollar for digital publications, so they sign up with a specific manufacturer/vendor that will accede to price demands . . . and piss off another manufacturer/vendor who yanks all of that publisher's titles from its site.  Which really doesn't help the authors much (a greater chunk of nothing is nothing -- and that's what Macmillan's authors are getting currently out of the Macmillan-Apple deal) and, apart from the no-publicity-is-bad-publicity angle, having your titles pulled from Amazon is never in anyone's interests.

But readers have been getting the short end of the stick all along.  Sure, the technology is great -- but it's not yet perfect.  It's not perfect if by selecting one reader you discover you can't buy digital books that are only published in a format incompatible with your device.  Or you download a book and the next time you sync with the mothership, that book is gone.  Or the anti-piracy software screws up, or the book you want isn't available in your corner of the planet.  Or the book's out in the marketplace -- you can even see it in a big box store -- but you can't buy it yet because they're delaying the digital publication.  (Which is the stupidest thing of all.  As several people have pointed out: just charge more for the digital publication on the same day as the hardcover release, then lower the e-price on the day you were planning to release the digital publication.  You won't lose money, you'll gain good will.)

I know these things will get worked out, but here's the part that bothers me.  Why do I get the distinct impression that no one is advocating for the consumer?  And are readers, a fairly responsible & respectable bunch overall, failing to put the sort of economic pressure on a hidebound industry that Napster & illegal file-sharing put on the music industry a decade ago?

What it looks like to me -- and I don't have a dog in the fight, obviously, as the old paper paradigm continues to meet my needs -- is that it's too bad that the people who make and sell the e-readers are also the people who sell the e-books.  I'm no antitrust expert, but that's starting to sound like bundling, which is when the sale of one thing is conditioned upon the sale of a second thing.  (For a more precise discussion of tying and bundling as antitrust concepts, you can read about it here.)  You can buy a digital book at Amazon, but only if it's being loaded onto their Kindle, which you also buy there.  Even if that is not an antitrust violation, it's too narrow to be completely helpful to consumers -- and it allows Amazon to do things like remove Macmillan from its direct sales.

With apologies to my younger readers for sounding like the old fogey I am, it used to be you bought a "record player" and then bought whatever records you wanted to play on that player.  All records were the same groovy vinyl, so any stylus and turntable would do.  People picked their stereo components based on price and quality -- not on which records could be played on it.  Ah, the good old days.

I own an iPod, but I don't believe I've ever bought anything from Apple's iTunes store.  I generally buy the CD (I'm probably stupidly old skool that way, but habits die hard) and load that onto my library.  I would love to do the same thing with books (if I were going to have an e-reader): have the whole library stored back home and take just a few books with me on an e-reader that then fit better into a handbag: something the dimensions of a slim category romance, say.

If all e-readers could be made to conform to certain basic standards, then digital books could be read on all e-readers.  No more bundling or quasi-bundling.  No more poaching by Apple, side deals by Macmillan, or economic blackmail by Amazon: if someone wanted a Macmillan book in digital format to read on their Kindle, they could buy it elsewhere.  And if someone wanted a Macmillan book to read on their iPad but didn't want to pay $15, they could maybe get it cheaper elsewhere.

But it's not working out that way, and I don't see any economic pressure building on the horizon to make it work out that way.  So for now readers continue to squawk about the technology glitches and vendor arrogance and how no device does it all, ad nauseum.  And I just sit here reading a paperback book.


  1. I have yet to embrace ebooks, but it's not because I don't want to. At the present time, it simply makes no financial sense for me to make the move from print to digital.

    Digital readers are not inexpensive and would make a serious dint in my annual book-buying budget. Plus the ebooks themselves are ridiculously overpriced considering that customers don't own the books, merely the right to read them for however long the publisher/seller allows. Given that I, as a non-US resident, am subject to pesky geographical restrictions, I would be unable to buy all the books I want to read in digital format. In other words, I'd be forced to buy some of them in print, or give up a few of my favourite authors.

    It seems to me that the traditional publishers are using piracy as an excuse to hinder the success of ebooks. They certainly don't seem interested in customers who don't live in the US or the UK.

    Until all of these issues have been sorted out, I won't be buying a digital reading device.

  2. Sarah --

    In the course of writing this post, I actually visualized exactly the e-reader I want. Imagine an iPod. Make it 4 inches by 7 inches by 1 inch (or less) thick. Make it have most of one side be a screen, and make the controls easy to use and hard to misuse (thus solving the "Wait, I didn't mean to go forward/go back/leave book" problem). Its memory should hold the digital equivalent of a million words or so -- roughly ten books -- with the whole rest of the library back home on a laptop or separate hard drive.

    That way, I can take it with me in a normal sized handbag (my current bag -- literally the last Coach bag my mother used before she died -- can accommodate one paperback book but nothing any bigger than that). That would strike me as the perfect device in this context.

    The next step would be to make digital books standardized so that anyone, with any reader, can read any e-book.

    But, of course, these are things I want as a consumer, and not necessarily things manufacturers, vendors, or publishers want me to have!

  3. Headaches aside, my attachment to physical books is tactile, sensual pleasure (touch, sight, smell). Perhaps I'm too set in my ways, but to me the physical manifestation makes it just as much of a book to me as the content. Most eBook advocates these days tout it's only the content that matters. But whenever I go to a museum or even the rare books section of a bookstore like Powells, I'm drawn to the paper, the binding, the colors, the font, etc. An e-reader makes all these uniquely bookish things into one uniformly same experience.

  4. The first husband does exhibition-quality bookbinding as a hobby; the current husband collects first editions. So, yeah, I have an affinity to paper & bindings.

    But there's more: I like being able to flip ahead, or flip back -- books make more sense to me in paper than in digital. I like the linearity. It's a representation of time, in a way: the pages you've just finished are your past, the pages you haven't gotten to are the future, and the page you are on is the present. I understand I could have that with an e-book, but it wouldn't look or feel the same.

  5. Ironically given my profession, I adore ebooks, and if it wasn't for the pesky geo restrictions all my reading would be digi.
    Though I still read more ebooks than print, due to the fact that I read mostly epub books.
    As to the readers, the companies are a bit late to the party, though hopefully something is not too far off.
    I still read on the computer, I want a multi-purpose device, and I refuse to be locked into a single format. Realistically I can't justify the moola for a single use device.

  6. Sorry I am not too alert this morning. I meant to say that ebooks are fairly 'new' to the mainstream market, and the problem with the first couple of ereaders is that the companies are all trying to get the reader locked into their DRM so they have built in customers etc. IMO this is going to cause several probs down the road...


    PS. I must be an old fogey as well, I still buy the physical CDs and load them onto my iriver. LOL

  7. Edie -- LOL! Well, I'm glad I'm not the only one who buys the CDs. I guess word of their demise is premature, just as word of print's death is premature.

  8. No the shift is happening in both, but do not think complete death imminent in either case

  9. Makes me think of my mother who wouldn't learn how to turn on a CD player (the component plugged into the stereo -- this is mid-80s) even though it was three steps: POWER * OPEN * PLAY. Just wouldn't do it. But she could and did use a fancy-schmancy sewing machine with computer technology, different functions, a touch-screen display.

    It all came down to motivation. She was motivated to use the sewing machine, but was still happy with vinyl LPs.

    (Still, I think of her and VOW I will never be that resistant to technology. Until my computer won't do something basic like a sensible back-up and I'm yelling for the DH!)


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