Author meets the future: how electronic is it?

We invited one of our fave authors, David Hewson, to blog his experiences using a Sony Reader over the next week or so. David's hardly a technophobe, but on the other hand he ain't no geek. Here's the first of his guest posts as he begins his journey into 'digital reading.' Back in the mists of time when I wrote about technology for the Sunday Times I once asked Bill Gates about ebooks. It was at a press event in a house in Gramercy Park New York, circa 1995 when the Microsofties were trying to prove to the world that they were family-friendly by launching a bunch of products, some successful, some disastrous, aimed at the home, not the office.

Mr Gates (who had allegedly somewhat ruined the atmosphere by referring to children in one interview as ‘basic subsets of the family entity’) was, for once, up for any question I could think of. So I wondered if he thought we would all be abandoning paper to read books and newspapers on screen before long, fully expecting a technophiliac answer predicting the death of print everywhere.

‘No,’ he said, confounding all expectations. ‘We don’t have the technology and we don’t have the need, not for a long time.’

Is thirteen years long enough? On my desk now is Sony’s newly-released PRS-505 ‘portable reader system’, available at Waterstones and a variety of other outfits - if you can find one in stock - for £199. These things have been thrust at journalist, publishers and lucky readers for a little while. But Sony very kindly thought they would shove one at an author too to see what one of us thinks, and I am the lucky scribe.

I’ll be taking it on the road for some promotional events up north this week, and showing it around to people I know to get their opinions too. So look for a couple more posts when I am more familiar with the beast. But first impressions count - as do first prejudices.

To be honest I’ve always felt a little sympathy with Mr Gates’ initial view. I spent a lot of my time staring at computer screens. All of my books are written using a very nifty piece of software specially aimed at authors, Scrivener. Even so I will print out drafts of the manuscript repeatedly and read them with a pen in hand because, let’s say it out loud, reading on screen just isn’t the same.

At least not on a conventional flat screen, which the Sony very much does not have. I won’t bore you with the technology but it is nothing like the flat screen in your TV or computer monitor. This is a kind of electronic ink. A tedious fact in itself were it not for two things: it actually looks very good indeed, sharp and very much like real text. And it has no backlight so the Sony uses no power whatsoever when you are simply reading a page - only when you ‘turn’ to a new one.

How close to paper is it? Very close, particularly in bright daylight (when most electronic screens are utterly readable). The background isn’t as white a you’d expect, and you can’t see much in dark situations where a laptop would be very readable. But it’s a lot better than I expected, and I was quite happy flicking through books very quickly with it indeed.

So there’s the first lesson I learned about the Sony. You need to see it to believe it. Prejudices, for or again, really don’t count for much because this is quite unlike anything else you’ve ever encountered before.

Here’s the second big surprise: the size and feel of the thing. It’s tiny, little bigger than a paperback book, beautifully made, with a sturdy and expensive-looking satin metal shell encased in a cover that feels very like brown leather (which it isn’t). I’ve seen other book readers and they all, let’s be frank, look like calculators that have spent too long in McDonalds. The Sony isn’t plasticky, doesn’t shout ‘geek’ and feels very, very nice in the hand. It’s also, perhaps deliberately, under-featured compared to something like Amazon’s Kindle (which isn’t available in the UK and won’t be for some time). The Kindle has a keyboard, wireless internet and a lot of possibilities.

The PRS-505 is pretty much an ebook reader plain and simple. You can load mp3 files on it (using an external memory card since the built-in memory is aimed at book storage, not music). You can even load your favourite photos and look at them in black and white, though quite why I don’t know. But this is about reading books really, and I rather like that idea. You don’t get distracted by thinking, ‘Let’s just check the email’. It’s also dead easy to use - with buttons for moving forward and backwards in a book, a bookmark button that ‘turns’ the corner of the page to store a location, and some other buttons on the side that let you browse your library (and, a little tip, allow you to go to a page number if you type them in).

The thing comes with a hundred free out of copyright classics such as Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, and Dracula. You buy ebooks online from the Waterstones site, download them to your computer, then transfer them to the reader via a simple USB cable. There’s special software to automate this on Windows, though you have to do it manually if you’re a Mac user like me - which isn’t hard. You can also load pdf and Word files on it too.

So first impressions are good, better, to be honest, than I expected. I shall be climbing on board the train to Newcastle with more than a hundred books on this thing, including one of my own, and the first 25,000 words of the book I’m writing now (which you lot won’t see till 2010). Supposedly I can turn 6,800 pages before needing a recharge which ought to set me up for a four-day trip I’d hope.

Next week some time I’ll tell you what it feels like after a couple of days.

Pan, Stanza and the iPhone

We're very excited that from today, if you have downloaded Stanza on your iPhone, you'll be able to read excerpts of some of our titles on the iPhone. We've forged a partnership with Lexcycle, the creators of Stanza (which has half a million downloads). What's more because the full version of these titles are available to download DRM free from our website, they can be loaded into Stanza Desktop software and synched with the iPhone. Check out for more information. Unfortunately at this stage you can't actually download the full text of our books book direct to your iPhone- instead you have to download them onto your PC from our website and then synch them with your iPhone. We understand this is a limitation and Lexcycle are looking at ways of improving the user experience. At the moment we have only a small range of titles available but we expect this to grow as we persuade more authors this is a good idea. We are really excited about the potential of the iPhone and other mobile devices as readers. They are portable, easy to use, with decent, large screens. Crucially they are already owned by millions- no one has to go out and buy a dedicated reading device to enjoy ebooks in this way.

Stanza is an app we have been following closely since the launch of the app store. We think it will continue to be a great success, continuing to drive forward the development of reading applications. Do check out the excerpts and let us know what you think. This really is only the beginning and is a learning experience for us all.


Crunched: the Next Generation

Everyone seems to be writing about how the economic crisis will affect their small part of the world, so I think I should do to, especially now that Robert Peston has transcended to a higher state of being and will be unlikely to comment on ereaders. Usually this would be a little too obvious but the reason I felt compelled to write is that at the exact same time half the world's banks spontaneously combusted the next generation ereaders emerged like new born defenseless hatchlings into the cruelty, pain and danger of the grown up world. Awww. iRex announced the new iLiad. It's big, (10.2" big), shiny, comes with a touch screen and costs what, even in times of boom and plenty, would be considered alot: $849 with wifi (not 3G). So in the UK probably £849. Without wireless. Still, designed with the business user in mind it looks good and might work.

Then Sony announced their new reader, the PRS 700. And, praise be, it comes with a touch screen, looks shiny and new, keeps the cool leather case; alas, shame be upon it, there is no wireless connectivity. Price point = $399, you do the maths for the UK version.

If all this excitement wasn't enough leaked pictures started appearing of a new, shiny, sexier(ish) Kindle, making a perfect storm of new ereaders that between them mark round 2.0 in the long hard road to flawlessly desirable ereaderdom, even if we don't know whether the Kindle pictures are real or not. For fun we can assume they are.

The irony is of course that every economic chart currently resembles a cliff or at least the bad side of a relativelty steep mountain. There has been much talk of how publishing might be "recession proof"; of how sales are up due to Super Thursday and the impending Frankfurt Bookfair will be as big, glitzy and money spendingly awesome as ever. To my mind such talk sounds a bit like the commercial equivalent of waving a big red flag at a big angry bull, but no matter. Book publishing has always survived previous recessions roughly in tact so it's fair to assume the same will happen this time round. We can assume that demand for books will not be as elastic as for Ferraris and second homes in Hampshire.

All of which might suggest that there is great potential for ebooks at this juncture, as there is a flexibility inherent in the format that allows for greater responsiveness to market conditions and experimentation in commercial models. All of which is fine, but won't really matter if nobody buys any ereaders, the principle consumption vehicle for ebooks. Articles on consumer spending are a plethora of dark clouds and the ereaders, as a reasonably large discretionary spend on a unique piece of functionality, are caught up in the high street maelstrom. All three of the ereaders announced may fall into a category of goods savaged as the credit crunch carries on crunching with the result that ebook forecasts have to be revised for 09. Demand is, one would think, fairly elastic for an iRex iLiad.

It comes at a sensitive time for digital publishing as the industry finds a toehold in reader's imaginations and retailer websites. This is an area of publishing that has never experienced a recession and divining what impact it might have is like guessing which bank will fail next- a matter of luck as much as judgement. Charlie Stross has written that no one knows what a web 2.0 recession looks like. Not a 20th century one seems a safe answer, if such an answer can be said to exist. Credit to the manufacturers they have all, by the looks of it, upped the stakes in terms of the quality and functionality of the next gen readers. We have to respond in kind by making sure that our products are available and of high quality- books that are worth investing in, worth skipping a restaurant and staying in for and easy enough for anyone to do so. Ebooks have to be as good as their print cousins- and better.

The long winded message of this article can be summarised fairly easily: to ensure that the just announced next gen of ereaders doesn't fail, manufacturers will have to seriously consider cutting price points in reaction to the (real and anticipated) collapse of consumer demand as a result of the crunch. While ebooks will be robust enough without it, they could really start kicking ass if we get a bit creative.

Apologies to anyone immeasurably bored of hearing the words "credit crunch" and "economic crisis". You are not alone.

the future is a foreign land

Timo Hannay has shared his personal perspective on the business of publishing now over at his Nature web publishing blog, Nascent - link

It's almost as hard for a publisher to become a technology company as it is for me to become Japanese. But if we're in the business of information – and we are – then mastering information technology isn't an optional extra, it's central to our future. In taking on this challenge, I think we would do well to apply the mindset that has served successful real-world immigrants so well:

  • Learn the language(s)
  • Respect new cultural norms (where possible, don't sue your customers)
  • Suppress any sense of entitlement (onus is on us, "Only the paranoid survive" – Andy Grove)
  • Work hard
  • Listen, learn, adapt

This may sound like a humble posture, and in some ways it is. But as for real-world migrants this humility will be our strength.

Skills in the Digital Era part two

The Society of Young Publishers evening on Wednesday proved to be very illuminating, and it turned out that I agreed with everything Chris Meade had to say, especially about the importance of the creative roles in digital media, although from the other side of a five-year cline, and had anticipated some of his conclusions in my talk. Speaking as a trade publisher, I argued that although editors in our part of the archipelago needed new knowledge and understanding, as they always have, they didn't need new skills, and I outlined ten key islands of knowledge, five collaborative and five individual. A few people asked if they could have a copy of the talk, so I'm posting it here. The first part sets out some general ideas, the second part looks at how to apply the ten points specifically to the creation and publication of eBooks. "My background is as an editorial manager, originally for Picador and for the last two years for ‘digital’ as well, which means Pan Macmillan’s eBook and online publishing programme. I was brought into the project team because they had got to quite an advanced stage before realizing that creating an eBook is not as simple as File, Save As, and editorial input was needed to resolve some of the new questions proposed by the new medium. I’ve also been involved in the Digitalist, which some of you may read, and so Jon asked me to contribute from the perspective of a ‘digital editor’ in a trade publishing house.      The first part of the advertisement for tonight’s session asks what new skills are looked for by those hiring and promoting under the ‘growing influence of technology and the Internet’. Having joined the industry twenty years ago, before we had computers, before we had email, and before the Web, if not the Internet, was invented, I have seen the ‘growing influence of technology and the Internet’ all my working life; but the essential skills required of editors, and for the purpose of this talk I’m using ‘skills’ in the sense of a coherent set of knowledge and the techniques for applying that knowledge, such as the skill of reading or of driving, have not changed radically: from acquiring a book and negotiating the contract to editing the text to inspiring the sales and marketing people, the skills remain essentially the same. And while the way editors publish books has changed it has not changed radically, although the tools have changed, and the idea that using any tool more sophisticated than Outlook or Word requires a separate skill set that can be delegated is unlikely to disappear for the foreseeable future, sad though that is. There are important and successful authors who don’t have computers, email, or the Web, and it would be entirely possible for an editor to work likewise: a straw poll agreed that an editor of 1988 who time-jumped to 2008 would, apart from the slight problem of not having read anything for the last twenty years, be able to edit and publish successfully.      So in the context of a discussion of the ‘portfolio of skills that publishers need’ perhaps the most important point I want to make is that although I was asked to speak as a ‘digital editor’, in my view there is no need for a digital editor as such in a trade publishing house, rather an editor who understands the digital world: editors have always been needed who could publish into new markets, who could create new markets, and editors are still needed who can publish into new digital markets with the same expertise they publish print books, often at the same time with the same material, and that’s where new knowledge will be needed. Although other publishers have come to different conclusions, notably Penguin, who have thirty to forty staff who have half their rold based on digital projects, the two most important decisions we made at Macmillan while devising the digital programme this year were, first, to locate the editorial process for eBooks directly in the editorial department for books published in 2009, once the digital team had established the workflow and processes, and second to publish our standard eBooks at the same level of editorial quality as our paper books, with the same content as far as the technology allowed. In brief, this relates to two key issues: accuracy of conversion, which we set at 99.999999%, instead of some competitors’ 99.95%, and attending to the reader experience by providing accurate and appropriate metadata, which is one of the points I want to illustrate later on to show why I believe editors need new knowledge not new skills. These two together meant it was natural for an editor to work on most of their titles as if they were destination-neutral.      So when I replied to Jon’s invitation by saying as I’ve outlined that editors need new knowledge but not a new set of skills, he suggested I take the opportunity to demystify the concern that some editors have about the ‘digital world’ and to draw some conclusions about how the digital/electronic changes we’re seeing and going to see will impact on your lives, and he gave me two main questions to address: 1. how have you found the process of moving from a traditional publishing process, where edited words primarily end up on a page, to something that incorporates the blogs and communicating with readers? And 2. what preparations, if any, should editors make for e-books, which are becoming more of a standard.

“How have you found the process of moving from a traditional publishing process, where edited words primarily end up on a page, to something that incorporates the blogs and communicating with readers?” Well, actually, I don’t think we have moved. All trade publishers are, or should be, at the early stages of incorporating new ways of composing and creating texts, and of considering what texts are, but traditional publishing always has communicated with readers to some degree – think of the nineteenth-century novels that are now classics that were written first for serialization. Twentieth-century publishing was less receptive, if receptive at all, to reader response at the creative stage, and just because Web 2.0 encourages new ways for readers and writers to get involved with each other it doesn’t follow that publishers want to, or can, take advantage of it, in much the same way that the poetry subculture of the twentieth century did little to affect conventional poetry publishing. In a way, the healthier and more active this reader-collaborative culture is the less likely it is that a publisher will want to become involved for fear of contaminating it. In practical terms a digital workflow makes it easy to chunk text and deliver it in new forms, both printed and virtual, but it’s still a one-to-many publishing process. Even new writing forms, such as Keitai Bunko in Japan or distribution forms such as MPS Mobile’s Global Reader aren’t radically different, interesting though they are, as shown by the fact that many Keitai are subsequently published in traditional print form, as of course are some of the most popular blogs. Writing that uses new media by incorporating visuals, sound, movies and so on in different delivery platforms such as the new Sony Reader, Alternate Reality Games mixing narrative and interaction by readers and contributors, self-published material, collaborative wikinovels and other kinds of informal, or extra-formal creativity, are exactly the kind of material that a traditional trade publishing house such as Pan Macmillan, however innovative, finds it very difficult to use, or even acknowledge, in a publishing process, and it’s unlikely to be seriously practical in the short term, which means until someone can think of a way to make money out of it, not least because digital projects are typically seen by customers and authors as free or very low-cost, when in fact they’re often more expensive than traditional ones because of the high set-up and development costs. Having said that we do in fact have one project of this kind, but it only exists because it hangs off a very well-established author known for his use of innovation, and it’s seen and will continue to be seen as peripheral to the editorial process, something that happens outside the editorial department, created by the digital or the marketing department and brought to editorial to be realized, and when it is approved it’s the editor who has the relationship with the agent and with the author who will attract the readers/players/contributors, the editor who presents the idea, negotiates the contract, and so on. So the short answer to this question about communicating with readers is that it’s the marketing people who have managed this change, and as long as most of a publisher’s content is sold as books, whether print or digital and whether through shops or the Web, it’s marketing that will have to continue to change the most to find new readers and new ways of reaching readers. We publish in an industry that requires content to be submitted to the trade buyers nine months before publication, and the process will remain far too inflexible for the foreseeable future. In fact of course designing or imagining a process crushes most of what makes this interesting. And more importantly perhaps our traditional process shouldn’t: the book, whether printed or in digital form, is inimical to this sort of two-way ephemeral communication. What it needs to do instead is create a new post-publishing process, a sort of après-lit, which makes clever and effective use of reader involvement through websites and with social-networking tools, but that is familiar Web 2.0 material and outside the scope of this answer.      The second question, ‘What preparations, if any, should editors make for e-books, which are becoming more of a standard’, is more easily answered and is where we get to the practical hands-on answers you were promised. But before I answer that I should say that in my view while they are now an essential part of a trade publisher’s programme they are not becoming more of a standard: there was a rush this summer to publish only in Adobe epub format, but there are several other important formats available, not least PDF, which Adobe has been careful to ensure is supported in Adobe Digital Editions; Mobipocket, which was bought by Amazon and can be read by the Kindle as well as mobile devices; and MS Reader, which is a legacy product that has some useful if under-exploited features. So to answer this question I’ll also answer the underlying one, ‘How much is digital going to change the way I work?’ In doing so I have chosen ten key islands of knowledge. 1. Get the rights. Penguin got 700 titles up for the Waterstone’s launch – then had to take 120 down as they discovered rights hadn’t been agreed. 2. Understand moral rights. The new formats mean titles that had no moral rights will re-acquire them once republished. When commissioning indexes, state that the index will be used in all editions. 3. Assign ISBNs correctly. Each format of a title needs a unique ISBN. 4. Understand localization. Harper didn’t get any UK titles up for the Waterstone’s launch – all theirs are US titles. 5. Understand version control and decide on a strategy – there are no impression numbers in eBooks. 6. Get to know your output formats. MS Reader i, ii, iii – good. Jeremy Paxman, A Portrait of the English (pub. Penguin) – hyperlinked table of contents, hyperlinked index, text is well laid out with extracts distinguished as on the printed page. Comfortable to read without distractions. iv, v – reasonable. Abbeys and Priories of Great Britain (pub. Heritage Trail) – excess leading between paragraphs, hyphen not an N dash in the title bar: too much leading in the glossary. Not very comfortable to read.

Mobipocket vi – bad. Cult of Dr Who – no page break for a new chapter, artwork missing, straight inverted commas, no italics for book title, basic grammatical error in the heading.Mobipocket vii – good. Pocket Oxford Dictionary: each word has its own page, colour is used intuitively, the distinction between underlines and hyperlinks is clear, navigation is easy. Although it has straight inverted commas, it’s obvious that a lot of thought has been put into making the best use of the medium. viii – bad. A Passage to India (pub. Rosetta Books): no sign of any thought. Meaningless emblem to go with the chapter heading, every paragraph is full out, no italics for book titles, basic typesetting mistakes. ix – bad. 9/11 Commission Report. Artwork unreadable, leading wrong between and within paragraphs, endnotes not hyperlinked.

ADE x, xi – mixed. Dr Who (pub. Pocket Essentials). Clear layout, helpful bookmarks, italic and bold all converted successfully; but the index is not hyperlinked so is useless. xii – mostly good. Thirteen Moons (pub. Random House).  Chapter titles, large and small caps, leading generally correct. 7.  Get to know your conversion or output process. ADE officially imports from XML, Mobipocket from HTML, Word, PDF or text, MS Reader from Word. 8. Understand metadata and decide on its importance for your books (bookmarks in Perdido Street Station; bookmarks in a Tor book). 9. Build in metadata-friendly elements to your books at the earliest stages. unnamed sections in Electricity (‘or was it goodbye’). 10. Understand a digital workflow.

It is a little bit exciting, I must admit

Michael beat me to it last week, but I wanted to reflect further on the Waterstones / Sony ebook launch last week. Anecdotally, Waterstones store staff report a great deal of interest from customers, and the rumour mills (or well-planned leak??) put a *correction: five* figure number on the Sony Readers sold by the morning of Thursday 4th September. As I’m sure all of those working in the digital publishing departments of trade publishing houses will agree, it’s nice finally to have a major high street bookselling brand pitch itself into the ebook ring so wholeheartedly – and the Sony device is the most compelling (and competitively priced) there is of the dedicated devices so far available here in the UK. I must say it did make my heart leap just a little bit to see huge POS displays promoting the Sony Reader and the associated ebook catalogue from Waterstones in the Tottenham Court Road and Piccadilly branches, and it was fun to go in and do some underground detective work to discover that the Waterstones staff seemed quite clued up about it all.

There has certainly been an uplift on direct sales of ebooks from our own web site over the weekend, although this may well have something to do with our our promotion of eight non-drm’d SF books which started last week. It is also bringing out terrible trainspotting tendencies in me as I find myself wanting to look at our web-based sales analysis tool on a regular basis...

As for the press and publicity; well, the media seems to have gone mad for it, don’t they? Not always in a positive way, but based on the premise that all publicity is good publicity, great timing, Sony and Waterstones! Launching on the back of silly season and given the choice of a piece about a ‘potential revolution in reading’ or another funny animal story, Sony seems to have won every time. However, as Diane Shipley has written on the Picador blog here, it would be nice to see a little more excitement in the media, a little less of the wrinkled noses.

Of course, I still believe the future of books on screen is not going to be dominated by a single, dedicated reading device. I don’t really believe the Sony reader is the killer device or even a killer device, but it’s certainly making an impact on the media and consumer imaginations. And I am becoming quite fond of mine. Reading will no doubt continue to take place across a variety of mediums dependent on the reader’s personal lifestyle, preferred existing gadget(s) and tendency towards paper sniffing – or not.

And now for a little grumble: it would be really, really be nice if you could actually search the Waterstones ebook site by author / title / ISBN / keyword rather than having to browse the category or bestseller pages. Harrumph.

10 Reasons Not To Write Off Reading From A Screen

Below is a post I recently wrote for the new Writer's Handbook blog- well worth looking it for aspiring and established authors alike. Much of the material comes from an earlier post for the Digitalist condensed into a more digestible format.

Over the past few months there has been much discussion of an impending digital revolution in the way we read books. While much of this is hyperbole there has been incredulity in many quarters that anybody would ever want to read from a screen. We are all attached to books and the idea seems, at first glance, anachronistic. However there are some good reasons why it might not go away as quickly as you’d think. Here’s why:

1.) We do it all the time anyway. Whether its emails, blogs, the newspaper or text messages for the bulk of us, most of our reading is already on screen. The New York Times now was 13 million online readers per day against a print readership of 1.1 million.

2.) Those who read books read the most online. The Guardian reported that “women and pensioners were [the] most active readers” (22/08/08). A recent study showed women, the most enthusiastic readers, dominate social networks; 16% of “silver surfers” spend over 42 hours per week online. Moreover overall internet usage was up 158% in the UK from 2002-2007.

3.) e-Ink technology removes many of the disadvantages of screens. Using ionized black and white particles it eliminates eye strain and glare, expertly recreating the look and feel of paper and print.

4.) New devices (using e-Ink) like the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle are backed by technology giants who know how to make a product work. They come with features like an MP3 player (the Sony) and wireless connectivity (the Kindle). Expect them to only improve in the coming years.

5.) In Japan mobile phone fiction- keitai novels- have gone from being a niche market to big business, with some novels being downloaded over 200k times a day. It has been reported that half of bestsellers in Japan are now mobile.

6.) Likewise in China online novels are huge. The most searched for term on Chinese search engine is “novel”. According to Wired 10m “youth” now list reading online as one of their main hobbies.

7.) The iPhone has changed the parameters again by offering a fantastic reading experience, on a portable easy to use, multi-functioning device. Apps like eReader and Stanza make an already desirable phone a viable ebook reader.

8.) Paper costs are going through the roof- up 150% this year. With no slowing of the commodity book in site paper and manufacturing costs are likely to increase. Along with the cheapness of delivery the economics of electronic reading start to make sense.

9.) Government policy is to invest in ereading. Education policy wonks view reading from laptops and PDAs as a handy workaround to encourage book averse but technophile teenagers to read. A school in Birmingham even replaced all textbooks with Palm Pilots.

10.) The internet offers a whole new way of consuming content. Bundling, chunking, web only content, integrated multimedia elements, exciting new serialisations are only the beginning. This is reading from a screen not as something like lost but as something gained.

No one is saying that we will all run off any read all our books off a screen. Books are here to stay. Reading from one type of screen or another is not about to replace books, rather it is an addition to the varied climate to literature that already exists, a creative challenge, a commercial opportunity and new way for readers to enjoy texts.

Tethered Reading

The recent noise about the iPhone highlights a trend recently discussed by Jonathan Zittrain in his book The Future of the Internet; namely how "generative" IT platforms are giving way to closed "tethered" appliances. The iPhone is such a device, in that it is ultimately policed by Apple and is capable of being controlled by them. Zittrain acknowledges the benefits of tethered appliances in an age when the internet is becoming increasingly dangerous but he raises a few spectres of what might result from a world dominated by tethered appliances, where the openness and flexibility engendered by neutral networks and development platforms, an openness that has lead to an unprecedented flowering of productivity and creativity, gives way to greater manufacturer control.

While the threats are many and various it occurred to me that there is an implication for publishing. Imagine you are reading a book on a tethered device like an iPhone or an Amazon Kindle. Both of these devices are connected to Apple and Amazon and are capable of being remotely updated. Imagine you have bought a book which is stored on the said device. Imagine the book is labeled libelous or in some way defamatory, inflammatory or otherwise in contravention of the law and is ordered to be removed from sale.

If you own the print copy then whilst the book can be stopped from selling anymore, you can still possess your own copy. The object still exists and stands as its own testimony and historical record.

On a tethered device that is not necessarily so; as Larry Lessig has noted "Code is law" and the book could be erased as the system operators, having that capacity, are legally coerced into doing so. This has implications not just in terms of ownership of digital materials but has a wider import in terms of how tethered appliances could shift the nature of discourse and alter our understanding of history.

While this is clearly an extreme and hypothetical situation, it's nonetheless something to think about.

Work in progress

The blogosphere has been buzzing since the App Store launched over last weekend with comments about 'dozy publishers' who have missed a great opportunity to make their books available on the iPhone. But apart from a few digital PR points scored against competing publishers, there doesn't seem to me to be any huge value in first mover advantage here for publishers, unless we want to make the decision to become software developers. The perception is that the App Store has 'opened up' the iPhone to publishers and to e-reading. The reality is that the iPhone has always been enabled for e-reading: you could read a PDF on the iPhone when it launched; you could preview books via online widgets in a browser; you could utilise the 'TextonPhone' application. So, whilst we have been awaiting the launch of the App Store with interest, we didn't see enormous advantage in, for example, creating a reading app ourselves or Being There on Day One, just for the sake of it. Will it really have been a huge mistake if we wait six months to see how things develop and then start to make our books available on the iPhone? I don't think so, actually. For us it was always a watching brief, to see what came out of it and then to see how things shook out.

What will emerge as the most popular reading app? Will a viable iPhone platform for sale of commercial ebooks be developed?

Interestingly the price of apps is already plummeting as free apps get more highly and more frequently rated and the paid-for apps drop down the ratings. Perhaps this suggests even more strongly that the App is not The Thing; it is merely a container or a channel for the content, which will still be The Thing. Many of the apps are great if you want to download a tonne of free Project Gutenberg ebooks and so on, but few seem to be offering paid-for titles and those which do often offer just one author's titles or even just one title. Which ones have developed the best commercial model, or whether there is an obvious platform winner, is still unclear. And surely the existing situation in which tonnes of different books are available as individual apps will only make clarity of choice and availability a nightmare for the consumer?

I don't agree with Kassia Krozer at Booksquare that DRM is the main issue (though it certainly still minimises massively the number of ebooks we could make available immediately on the iPhone as most authors / agents still insist upon it).

I think many publishers have decided, as Adam Hodgkin argues today, to 'wait and see'. Now is definitely a time for experimentation (and watch this space, as experiment we will). But I don't think any boats have been missed, here. What will really move things on is not tonnes of competing apps featuring individual authors or access to free stuff, but a cross-publisher platform for iPhone delivery, which enables clear consumer choice across a variety of titles.

And before you say it, I'm not sure Fictionwise is it unless they make their terms a *lot* more attractive for publishers.


XO2I've been following the One Laptop Per Child project with great interest and was thrilled when the first pictures of the XO laptop were released. The design was so clever, robust and practical and I thought at the time, really, you couldn't do much better. Since then, things have not all gone the right way for OLPC and the XO. The target of 100 million orders in 2008 has not been met - 600 thousand have been sold. The cost of the laptops - intended to be $100 - has been more like $200. There have been problems finding the right partners (erm, no-one say Intel) and the right package - the package that governments will buy millions of. Governments are reluctant - the latest move is to include Windows as an OS option, and it is hoped this will make some purchasers more comfortable with the compatibility of the machine (sounds like OLPC needs a 'switch to an XO' campaign).

Despite all this, there have been exciting stories emerging from the laptop trials in Nigeria and Brazil, and I think the vision was glimpsed again in the first use of this device - just as the vision was glimpsed when the little laptop with green ears and a handle was first introduced to us. I loved that the laptops had an effect not just on the children, but on their teachers and their parents too.

“Pupils go even beyond what I can teach in the class. It's a very interesting thing to use. I personally have a better idea about teaching... We discovered that giving them time to discover something and to do it in their own way, they feel more happy and they are so excited in using it that, ‘Yes, I discovered it! Yes, I can get it!! Yes, I can do this on my own!!!’ Teaching is getting more interesting and less stressful.” — Mr. O., Galadima School, Abuja, Nigeria - link

Recently, the platform - Sugar - was spun off for separate development for other devices. Now, the BBC reports that there is a new design from the One Laptop Per Child project, the XO2.

The XO2 is immediately appealing, and has a bit of the iPhone wow factor, I think, presenting itself more as a book than a laptop. Being electronic, that makes it more like an eBook reader than a laptop.

The new version loses the green rubbery keyboard, sporting instead a single square display hinged at its centre.

This allows the device to be split into two touch screens that can either mimic a laptop with keyboard or the pages of a book.

"Over the last couple of years we've learned the book experience is key," he said.

The idea is for several children to use the device at once, combining the functions of a laptop, electronic book and electronic board.

Having two touch sensitive screens that can be used as reader, writeboard, keyboard etc. is a canny move, as it enables the UI to be adapted to the content.

As an eBook reader it is ideal and another example of the power of combining digital lifestyle elements in a single device. It will have internet connectivity, a manually renewable power source (assuming this feature will persist from XO to XO2), a mainstream OS and various applications, and be able to store up to 500 eBooks. And it will be cheaper, projected to cost $75 and be available in 2010.

Update: Teleread have posted an interesting piece about the XO2, opening up the idea of the XO2 as a way for Microsoft to get back into the eBooks game. [Thanks, P.]