Category Archives: ebooks

How to Turn a Kindle Into a Brick

A poster named "Ian" in a forum on the website MobileRead (a website for people who read books on mobile devices) has made the following claims about Amazon's Kindle in a posting entitled "Amazon has banned my account – my Kindle is now a (partial) brick":

I have been a loyal customer for many years, but today, I received an email stating that I have been banned from the site and my account has been closed, because I apparently have an extraordinary rate of requesting refunds due to a variety of factors. . . .

I have now discovered that I cannot manage my Kindle2 account (I can't log into Amazon) or purchase any new content.

In effect, I now have a $359 brick, not covered under any warranty, not able to be used the way it was meant to be, not able to be returned (not that I even want to, I just want to keep reading!)

I called customer service several times today; the supervisors there explained that I cannot use the Kindle store but "I can get content onto the machine different ways."

While I can't speak to the fairness of Ian's banning from Amazon's site, his story does bring up some important issues about consumers' rights in the age of electronic texts that we are slowly but surely entering. This is something that I touched on briefly in my interview with Ted Striphas and something that Striphas goes into in considerable detail in his book, The Late Age of Print.

Whether or not Ian is making truthful claims, his story highlights the fact that consumer rights and concepts of copyright are changing as we move more and more into electronic media. One poster to the forum suggests that in banning Ian, Amazon is attempting to protect its rights as a bookseller:

Sorry, Ian. I think you appear to Amazon to fit the profile of someone who buys books and holds them long enough to strip the DRM and then return the book.

Amazon does have every right to protect itself, just as Ian has every right to demand fair treatment. These are boundaries that are currently being negotiated, but make no mistake: when you buy an ebook, you are not buying a book. You are getting a different concept of fair use.

Consumers should be aware that just because a Kindle or a Sony Reader attempts to recreate the experience of reading a book, it doesn't mean that Amazon or Sony consider themselves to be selling you the same rights that you purchase when you buy a book.

I haven't yet bought an e-reader, and I don't plan to anytime soon, but people who embrace this medium should do so knowing that they're getting a different set of consumer rights. If you don't like what you're getting, demand more.

Electronic Review Copies

Amazon-kindle Chad echoes a point I've made before: e-readers like the Amazon Kindle don't necessarily make sense for those of us who don't need access to 500 books at any given moment, but they do have specialized applications. For instance, letting bookstore employees read ARCs:

Jessica’s main focus in her post is on replacing traditional print
advanced reading copies with e-version—something that makes a lot of
logistical sense to me. The unit cost for printing galleys is more than
the unit cost for the finished book, and (for small presses at least)
it’s quite an expense to print and mail even just 250 ARCs
of a book. Not to mention that these 250 copies have a pretty weak
reach. A huge proportion go to reviewers who never review the book
anyway, with only a handful ending up with enthusiastic booksellers.

And from a bookseller’s perspective, not having to receive and carry around tons of heavy books makes a lot of sense:

Here’s the next most important issue: E-readers make sense for people
who read in massive quantities. Many of our sales reps are already
reading on Sony readers, and it makes sense for booksellers too.

For more on this, see my interview with NetGalley. As I understand NetGalley right now, the service can't do precisely what Chad's outlining above. But I do think they're headed in the right direction, and I wouldn't be surprised it NetGalley started figuring out how to make this happen.

And on the other side of the argument, the Vroman's Blog makes this point:

I can see resistance from publishers, though.  If the physical ARCs
they distribute now end up at The Strand, how long before the digiARC
of Jonathan Lethem’s new book ends up on the internet somewhere, months
before publication date?

This is just a point that Ted Striphas takes up in his book (and to a lesser estent, in my interview with him yesterday). It's a completely legitimate concern, and, lacking some kind of miracle encryption, probably one that publishers would just have to learn to live with.

Amazon Boycott of Ebooks Over $10

As I've been reading Ted Striphas's The Late Age of Print, I've been seeing books and ebooks in very new ways. That is, I'm beginning to see the interconnectedness of copyright, production, distribution, and fair use/reuse swirling around books and reading. I'm also starting to see how greatly all of these are being impacted by developing technologies.

So this note about an informal "boycott" of ebooks over $10 on Amazon strikes me as very interesting.

Kindle books are kinda like movie tickets. While you can re-read the
book, you cannot: donate it to a library, sell it to a used book store,
sell it on Amazon’s Used Marketplace, [or] trade it to a friend . . .
The publisher does not need to pay for paper, glue, press time, press
employees, insurance, ink, boxes, or shipping. Amazon does not need to
stock its warehouse, pay staff to fulfill orders, or pay shipping. The
price needs to reflect these VERY important facts.

It's the first part of this that is the most provocative. As Striphas documents in his book, publishers have long sought to control how readers use a book after it has been purchased. (For instance, in the 1930s major publishers sponsored a contest to come up with a derogatory name for someone who borrowed books (it never caught on).)

Ebooks will clearly give publishers ways to exert more control over what you do with a book once you've purchased it. This can be anything from adding code to prevent copying to the book, to trying to prevent you from lending it, to even making the book "expire" after a certain amount of time has passed. These are all issues that we're going to have to negotiate as the ebook medium develops, and although I'm not sure I agree with the boycott (I have no idea of $10 is a sustainable price for ebooks), it is clear that readers will have to stick up for their rights of fair use and ownership.

I doubt that this boycott will have any lasting impact on ebook pricing, but it is an intersting initial skirmish in what will undoubtedly be a protracted battle over how people who choose to read books electronically will do so.

Can Electronic Media Ever Really Replace Books?

As digital music has taken on a larger and larger role in my life, I've realized just how much I dislike CDs. In fact, I'm at the point now where I'll pretty much just spin a CD one time: when I rip it to my computer.

This raises a good question: Why do I even need CDs? I never use them to actually listen to music, they're ugly, they clutter my apartment, they usually cost more than downloading the same music from iTunes. In fact, now that all my music is digitzed, I'm tempted to ditch all of my legacy discs.

The reason I bring this up is that I could never make this argument about books. Obviously I'm a book-lover, so I'll always want some books around me, and I still enjoy the experience of reading a book more than reading an ebook. But even if I imagined a future where I liked reading ebooks better, I could still think of certain things books brought to the table that are unique to them.

My point here is that some media, like CDs, seem to just be clunky delivery systems. That is, downloads are a far better delivery system than CDs, and now that we have downloads I don't see any reason to keep using CDs. There's nothing intrinsic to them that seems worth preserving. This is no doubt partly due to the fact that we've only had CDs for about 25 years now, so they haven't had a chance to become an essential cultural object.

But something like books has a much longer history and has had the time to become woven into the cultural fabric of our lives. It's become more than just a means of delivery, and people seem loath to ditch them for that reason.

Why EBooks Will Change How the Industry Functions

Evan Schnittman makes some valid points about how ebooks will change publishing, although I can't agree with his title, Why Ebooks Must Fail. More on that in a second, but first, what I see as the most important aspects of his post:

And therein lies the dilemma… how does the publishing industry fund the creation, editing, design, production, marketing, e-warehousing, and sales of ebooks, if the income isn’t there? How do ebooks cover the huge advances needed to buy books if we cannot generate the cash, especially at their extremely low, discounted prices, cover the advances that an entire industry has come to require? The answer is that ebooks, alone, cannot.

What this means is that unless a very different model evolves, ebooks can never become the dominant version of content sold by book publishers. It means that ebooks will always be priced to sell, but sold as an afterthought, not as the primary version of a work.

Right and wrong. Schnittman definitely has a point when he says that the cash-flow mechanism based on selling a bunch of frontlist titles to nationwide bookstores will have to change when there's no physical product to sell to bookstores.

But I disagree that "an entire industry" has come to "require" huge advances, or that publishers won't develop publishing models that facilitate ebooks as the primary means of publication, in some cases.

I also think that Schnittman's slightly apocalyptic tone is in appropriate here. Ebooks will change the industry, but this isn't going to be a rapid, catashtrophic change that will sweep over with the force of a tidal wave. Ebooks are already years in the making, and it will take years more: the slow pace of adoption of ebook readers like the Amazon Kindle combined with a healthy loyalty to print and the bound book prove that the industry isn't going to change overnight. Change it will, but savvy publishers will have plenty of time to adapt and develop new models that function in the new environment.

Also, as I've come to understand the ebook format better and better, I've come to believe that it represents more than just a different way of reading. I'm beginning to see that it represents new modes of relations between authors, publishers, and readers, new concepts of books as a commodity, and new concepts of copyright. And I'm not at all certain that these concepts that are bound up with ebooks are ones that consumers, readers, or publishers as a whole will want to embrace. In other words: concerns about the experience of e-reading aside, there are some valid reasons to resist ebooks, and I think for the forseeable future these will be persuasive enough to preclude a wholesale change along the lines that Schnittman discusses.

Related Posts

Interview: Fran Toolan of NetGalley

Advance review copies seem to be one aspect of the book business that has a lot to gain from the increasing digitization of publishing. After all, ARCs are meant to be disposable (all those "not for resale" warnings), and every publicist I've ever talked to has had the experience of shipping them out by the hundreds with little actual result.

So, when I discovered a new service that wants to make electronic galleys available to reviewers, journalists, librarians, and other people, I wanted to know more. To find out, I conducted this interview with Fran Toolan of NetGalley.

(for more interviews, see Conversational Reading's Interview Page)

Fran Toolan is Chief Igniter of Firebrand Technologies, owners of NetGalley.

Scott Esposito: What exactly is NetGalley and how does it work? Specifically, how does it connect publishers with people who might want to read advance copies of books?

Fran Toolan: NetGalley is a service for people who read and recommend books. Publishers upload their galleys, plus any marketing and promotional information; then invite contacts to view their title on NetGalley. Readers can also find new titles through NetGalley’s Public Catalog, and request to review those titles from the publisher.

SE: Who is this service geared toward? Book reviewers only, or do you envision other applications?

FT: Book reviewers, definitely, but also other groups of “professional readers” such as journalists, librarians, professors, booksellers, bloggers, etc. Anyone who reads and recommend books can use NetGalley.

One of the most interesting aspects of NetGalley is the ability for publishers to include multimedia files with their galley. We support a wide range of file types—could be book trailers, illustrations, audio files, videos, simple Word docs or PDFs. This allows publishers to send a dynamic galley “package” which can be as creative and wide-reaching as they want it to be, to entice readers to engage with the title.

SE: What is the cost to publishers and reviewers who want to use the service?

FT: As a new service for Firebrand (NetGalley was acquired by Firebrand Technologies in December 2008), we are revisiting the pricing model and structure. When the service was with its previous owners, the price was set at $499 per title. Almost universally publishers felt that was too high. We’ve dropped the price to $199 per title, which allows publishers to upload their galley and associated content, invite unlimited contacts to view the title, and list in our Public Catalog.

As we work with more publishers, we may move to a subscription-based model (where publishers would pay a yearly fee depending on size, for example). This is an area where we are really listening and learning from our customers.

The service is free to all professional readers/reviewers.

SE: What kind of functionality does the service offer book reviewers? How is access to a NetGalley granted?

FT: Book reviewers and other readers can view titles they’ve been invited to view, and request titles from the Public Catalog. The publisher sets which reading options they want to offer for the galley itself. This includes the option to request a printed galley; read the galley online (in a browser window); or download a protected PDF. We expect to offer some options for reading on an e-reader fairly soon.

Publishers control access to their titles; so, for example, requesting a title from the Public Catalog doesn’t mean you will automatically have access to it. We’ve been encouraging users to complete their profiles on NetGalley to let publishers find them and approve requests.

Finally, if they choose, reviewers can share an “accepted or declined status” with publishers, and even share their completed reviews or comments.

SE: A June 1 Business Week report from BEA said that NetGalley had begun a pilot program with "500 forthcoming books from publishers Bloomsbury USA, Hachette Book Group, Sourcebooks, and St. Martin's Press." How has this gone so far? What publishers and how many titles do you work with currently?

FT: In December 2008, Firebrand Technologies took over the management and operations of NetGalley from Rosetta Solutions. We’re a company whose expertise is exclusively in book publishing, and we’re 20-year+ veterans of the space. We knew almost immediately that we’d have to do some retrenching of the application and the business assumptions in order to make NetGalley work, and we’ve been doing that. A lot was learned from the publishers in the initial pilot, but we’ve got a lot to do to deliver repeat value as each new season of books is published.

We’ve got two large hurdles in our sights right now. The first is making it easier to get content into NetGalley. You can’t have a publisher with 500 titles inputting metadata one-by-one! One of Firebrand’s core competencies is title management and distribution; you can expect to see big changes in NetGalley in this area.

The second area is in scaling NetGalley for large publishers. NetGalley hasn’t been particularly adept for large publishers like those in the June pilot. Our experience in managing projects will definitely help us here.

In the next few months, we’re inviting 15 Eloquence (Firebrand’s title information distribution service) publisher customers to use NetGalley to promote their fall titles. We’ll take their title information directly from Eloquence into NetGalley as a test of that first hurdle I mentioned above. Look for good news on how it goes!

We’re also working with some mid-sized publishers like B&H and Barbour Publishing, and some innovators like Unbridled Books and Chelsea Green. You can check out our Public Catalog to see more.

SE: What evidence do you have that NetGalley can reduce costs for a publisher? Has there been increased interest from publishers trying to trim costs during this recession?

FT: Honestly, none yet, because we’re still in an experimental stage. But, what publishers are discovering more and more every day is that the production and distribution of galleys is a very expensive and very inefficient way of seeding the market prior to the publication of a work. We often use the analogy of dandelion seeds. Publishers print galleys, send them out to people they already have a relationship with, and hopefully some good reviews will come back. There is often very little, if any, evidence that a reviewer even looked at the title. And, there is no good way to establish new review relationships.

Part of our reasoning in lowering the price with NetGalley to $199/title is to make it possible for publishers to experiment—broaden the audience and reach of the galley distribution, for example; or use NetGalley for their “big mouth” list or author outreach. Some publishers want to use NetGalley for desk copies to professors. We have some publishers who say, “I wish every librarian could have a copy of this galley.” And now they can.

Books that are very expensive to produce in print galley form (more pages, highly illustrated, etc.) show really well on NetGalley. And of course there’s no additional production or shipping costs to include supporting material like an author interview, Q&A, etc with your NetGalley.

SE: As someone who assigns book reviews, I've noted a definite preference among my reviewers for hardcopies over PDFs. What's your response to people who say they'd prefer a printed ARC?

FT; This question is one we answer almost every day. There’s still a ways to go getting people to read digital galleys exclusively, no doubt about it. And, this is one of the major areas we are focusing on.

Printed galleys can be requested via NetGalley (if the publisher chooses) and we’re working to try and enlist POD printers to help streamline this process. Another development we’re working on is to enable the protected galleys on NetGalley to be viewed securely on reading devices. Publishers seem to like the idea of using their limited print galleys where there’s a request and thus a higher likelihood of coverage.

But most importantly, I think digital galleys have an important role to fill in the search and discovery aspect of reviewing books. Most editors and reviewers don’t read the full text of every book they receive to decide if they will review it; it would be impossible. Why not use digital to read the first few chapters? Just reducing the paper waste alone would be a benefit.

Another benefit to digital galleys is off-the-book-page coverage, particularly for non-fiction books, where searching inside the book is essential. And digital is fast—if you have an opportunity for your author you need to capitalize on immediately, or if the book is delayed and you’re rushing the galleys, for example.

We’ve tried to stop thinking about it as an “either print or digital” proposition, and instead try and accommodate all the ways professional readers consume the title (or parts of the title).

SE: Lastly, although there are signs that publishers and readers are beginning to read books online and on portable devices, there's still a good deal of entrenched resistance to electronic books and book criticism (for instance, the outcry each time a newspaper kills its printed book section). How do you think opinions about this will change in the future? Have you noticed any trends regarding who's more inclined to use your service?

Let’s answer the easier part of that question first! We have noticed some trends on who’s more inclined to use our service—bloggers, for example, and librarians—who are perhaps more digitally-inclined, or perhaps have access to fewer print galleys because they are such a large audience and publishers can’t accommodate all their requests economically.

We should be clear that NetGalley is not trying to hasten the adoption of electronic books. We are trying to enhance a publisher’s ability to find the voices that will encourage the reading of a work in whatever form it takes.

The entire world of book criticism and recommendation is changing right in front of our eyes into a more flat and fragmented system. Reviews are no longer the sole purview of key review organizations. The internet has enabled the individual voice to be recognized as easily as that of a respected organization. It also allows individual voices to naturally coalesce into ‘micro-communities’ that are highly segmented in their interests.

If NetGalley can help those recommenders discover great new titles, that’s excellent news for book publishing.

Authors Guild: Seriously, We Want a Piece of Kindle 2

A couple weeks back I reported that Authors Guild was looking into legal action over Kindle 2's "read aloud" feature. Apparently this was not some off the cuff remark.

In no less a forum than The New York Times, author Roy Blount, Jr acts as spokesman for AG against K2:

True, you can already get software that will read aloud whatever is on your computer. But Kindle 2 is being sold specifically as a new, improved, multimedia version of books — every title is an e-book and an audio book rolled into one. And whereas e-books have yet to win mainstream enthusiasm, audio books are a billion-dollar market, and growing. Audio rights are not generally packaged with e-book rights. They are more valuable than e-book rights. Income from audio books helps not inconsiderably to keep authors, and publishers, afloat.

The crux of the argument is that audiobook sales will decline if people can just have their Kindle read it to them. Which is true, they probably will, but I don't see how that means that Authors Guild can claim that this is infringing on audio rights. And what of the thousands of books that never get made into an audio edition?

Incidentally, in the piece Blount discusses what must be among the most inventions in recent history:

And that sort of technology is improving all the time. I.B.M. has patented a computerized voice that is said to be almost indistinguishable from human ones. This voice is programmed to include “ums,” “ers” and sighs, to cough for attention, even to “shhh” when interrupted.

Wouldn't necessarily call that an improvement.

Harper Studio on ebooks

Harper Studio is supposed to be a "new" kind of publisher. Forget those fat advances and celebrity memoirs . . . Harper Studio is all about trimming the fat and good publishing.

I'm not so sure. Since I've been reading the HS blog, I've already noted some questionable assertions about ebook pricing. Now HS makes this groundbreaking discovery:

He told me he thinks we’re having the wrong conversation.  It’s not
about how fast we can get to zero — it’s about how the content should
be built……and then he said something that really inspired me:  The
first TV shows were basically radio programs on the television — until
someone realized that TV was a whole new medium.  Ebooks should not
just be print books delivered electronically.  We need to take
advantage of the medium and create something dynamic to enhance the
experience.  I want links and behind the scenes extras and narration
and videos and conversation…….

Is the Harper Studio blog the last one to realize this? I thought it was already clear to everyone that sooner or later authors would begin using ebooks to develop new ways of storytelling appropriate to the environment. Or at the very least, publishers would slam in a bunch of multimedia extras. (In fact, Penguin has long since begun doing exactly this.)

Of course, the kind of ebook envisioned here has already been being written on computers for ages. And given the level of enthusiasm for hypertext fiction among your average book reader, I'm not sure ebooks as a "new medium" present just the kind of growth opportunity Harper Studio seems to think.

The Problem with the Kindle

This is the biggest problem with the Kindle:

Amazon must address the needs of very real readers who read only a few books and magazines at a time, who like to download classic non-copyrighted lit and work-related documents for free, and who like to leaf through pages randomly. This last thing is important, though it may be insurmountable: Airport-friendly page turners don’t really require non-linear random-access reading, but everything smart from Harry Potter to Infinite Jest does, and that’s one concern that the Kindle, or any ebook reader, still does not address well.

Sure, there are people out there who read hundreds of books every year and keep 10 going at once, but even among bibliophiles, prolific reading like that is rare. And among the majority of the American reading public (as measured by the NEA), anything over 11 books per year is a lot. It doesn’t really make sense to have an ebook reader that can hold hundreds of titles at once, unless you’re planning on being the one to sell hundreds of books to fill it.

Max is right:

The Kindle may become the preferred device of the discerning and prolific reader, but the iPhone, or something like it, will do just fine for everyone else.

Obviously one could think up uses for the Kindle–perhaps as a tool for researchers who don’t want to lug around volumes or as a tool to book salespeople–but it looks like Bezos has created a product without a huge audience. Of course, if one were to play up the Kindle’s ability to deliver newspapers and magazines in a uniform, simple format . . .

eBook Prices: Can They Fall Further?

Continuing the ebook pricing conversation, Rich Mintz (from Obama’s online campaign) has this to say:

As a heavy consumer of books (and a former independent bookstore owner), I’m not particularly interested in what publishing executives tell me books should cost — what matters to me is what the market tells me they actually do cost.

If the market as a whole can produce and distribute printed books profitably for $27.99, it seems to follow that it can produce and distribute e-books (which are logistically much simpler) profitably for $9.99. Empirically, the market is doing so now — and, over time, the prices of e-books will fall further, as book distributors figure out (as Apple did) that lower prices will result in higher volumes, revenues, and profits.  Simon & Schuster, and everybody else, will either get with the program or be left behind.

While I do agree that it’s ridiculous to expect consumers to pay hardcover prices for an ebook, I’m not sure that the market is "telling" us that ebooks are profitable at $9.99. As far as I know, no one knows if Amazon is making a profit or a loss on its ebooks (it’s quite possible they’re selling them at a loss to build up the market). Besides, with such a small fraction of the book-buying population even in a position to make use of an ebook, we can’t say what the market’s decision on a fair price for an ebook until more people can buy one.

Although, I am with Mintz on S&S et al.: if they don’t follow the market, once we figure out what that is, they’ll go the way of the record companies.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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