Tablet

From Youtube: "This collaboration between The Wonderfactory and Time, Inc. is an excellent example of how tablets will enable the creation of innovative, addictive experiences by publishers, media companies, and advertisers. "

Don't even try telling me you don't want one. And this comes at a time when five major publishers announce a new download platform. The Day of the Tablet is nigh!

The Third Player

When we think of the Big Three West Coast tech firms poised to change publishing, we think Amazon, Apple and Google. Between them they embody a shift in discovery, distribution and hardware in reading and typify a move away from the traditional centres of the book world, in favour of more new media-native presences. Kindle currently dominates the US ebook market, and is likely to have a similar impact wherever it goes (Amazon recorded strong profit growth this year driven by the Kindle). The iPhone has a real but still emergent ebook market that will be exploded with the expected arrival of an Apple tablet device next year. And Google has Book Search and the forthcoming Editions, which could rival Amazon and Apple in terms of book downloads. The playing field is set - in her recent presentation Sara has a magnificent analysis of how this field breaks down.

However regarding Google most of the strategic thinking and recent commentary, of which there is acres, has focused on either the legal controversies surrounding the settlement or the plans regarding Editions. Google is seen in terms of discovery and retail. Perhaps, though, there is another story going on here.

Mobile has been the buzzword of ereading in 2009; you practically can't turn around without being hit over the head with another statistic about how many people have smart phones and how mind boggling the potential for expansion is, and how seductively convenient it is to have convergence on one handy device. Moreover we've seen the maturing of the space - Stanza, Scroll Motion's Iceberg and Eucalyptus are all excellent readers, there is a healthy Books chart on the App Store and fine developers like Missing Ink Studios and Enhanced Editions are beginning to truly prise open the potential for books on a phone.

So it all looks great. Only, in case you hadn't noticed, it's all on the iPhone. And all of sudden people are making noises about the iPhone, and not especially pleasant ones. Inevitably when something is successful and universally adored, people will find reason to dislike it. This is just how the world works.

Which brings us back to Google. In the whole discussion of ereading somehow we largely forget about other phones, in particular the Google owned Android OS. My case is that Android has been hitherto underestimated and may end up equaling Apple and Amazon in it's own right.

Let's not pretend: if there was an iPhone vs. Android fight right now then the iPhone would win, in terms of users, user experience and reading. To a certain extent this is not Google's fault as such, seeing as they don't produce the hardware, marketing or apps for the phones, but still, no one can deny the iPhone remains far ahead. As for other competitors like Windows Mobile, the revamped Nokia with it's oddly named Ovi Store etc etc in the end they will probably converge with Android due to the sheer madness of proliferating mobile dev standards.  So the iPhone wins, and whats more, with the handsets being unchained from their sole carriers and Apple amassing an eye watering, earth shattering $34bn the growth prospects are very good indeed.

However there are also signs to suggest that Android may start picking up. Firstly it has an inherent ability to grow more widely as it can be used on any number of different manufacturers handsets. Secondly the quality of those handsets is improving all the time - the HTC Hero is gaining traction (Full disclosure: I have one, it's good but I'll admit that the 3GS is a bit better) and the Motorola Droid, to name just one other, promises to be massive. Thirdly the App Marketplace remains weak in comparison to the App Store, but is also growing fast, as Google developers and UX people plus a ton of backing make it better, has a growing audience and has none of the problems sometimes associated with the submitting to the App Store. Fourthly, in publishing terms, there has been a dearth of books or reading software on the Android which is only now being rectified. Look at the burgeoning Comics section of the Marketplace and Aldiko, who want to do for Android what Lexcycle did for reading on the iPhone.

Widespread reading on Android may therefore not be that far away.

There is a further strand to the story. Over the past couple of months it has sometimes felt the trickle of new reading devices has morphed into a full on flood. It's impossible to keep up - everyday Engadget runs a new story on some boutique new ereader. Amidst this torrent however a few things have become clear. Phones were touted as good reading devices because they came with multi-functionality and it was assumed people only wanted a single device for all their communication and media needs (to speak in press release jargon). From here the idea of the tablet or the multi use e-ink mixed display gained traction.

In order to make the devices better people needed a robust, web friendly operating system and quietly waiting in the wings was Android. Witness just two of the recent crop of readers, the Nook from Barnes & Noble and the Alex from Spring Design (currently locked in a legal battle). Both use Android as their OS, and this is just the beginning (there are other examples). Needless to say that Android has the potential to become the default operating system for many readers, and is a strong candidate for being the OS that eventually becomes dominant for reading. Google could end up with a hefty share of the mobile reading and tablet device reading markets, initially in terms of software but who knows, maybe one day even in hardware.

Ultimately Google could be in a position where everything in the book chain, from finding the book on GBS to producing the object you hold in your hands, is part of its empire.

Balanced against this though are the other two big beasts, both unquestionably expert and successful in their fields who no doubt will fight their corners with tenacity and elan. We shouldn't forget Android though, nor it's possible role in digital publishing.

Cool-er e-reader

Nick sent me a link to the COOL-ER reader, and I have to say I'm impressed. Somehow the launch of a totally new, and if I may say so, totally sexy, device passed me by. This is launching at BEA right now and is available for pre-order in the UK, shipping later this month. They have also got an ebook store ready to launch in the States, with up to 700k titles (so they claim). In terms of functionality it doesn't seem to go beyond the Sony- no touch screen, no colour, no wireless. In some ways this might put it a a disadvantage against the Kindle, but on its side it has the most iPod-esque design of any ereader yet, ADE compatibility, lightness (45% lighter than others apparently) and, from our perspective at least, availability in the UK.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I think ebook readers will only take off in a mass way once they are seriously desirable devices. These are, and hence form an important step. Activity around devices is hotting up. With the recent announcement that Amazon and the newly bought E-Ink corp are working hard at developing colour e-ink screens, the staturation point for ereading devices inches closer.

Repeated for the nth time: it's not about an iPod moment, it's about iPod moments plural. And I think this might just be one.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

A little bit ago I wrote a kind of iPhone app wishlist for independent publishers. Well, it looks like Indiebound made good on their promise. Their new iPhone app (in the U.S.) is the exact right step booksellers should be taking. For more on the genesis of the project, here's a great overview at Follow The Reader.

A Bookish Experiment

A while ago you may remember Book Camp, a day of bookish experimentation.  On the back of that I've been thinking of a bookish experiment and was wondering if it's been done. We are seeing a proliferation of reading formats- from grand, Royal hardbacks to reading on the Nintendo DS. Each of these has a different style, a different tempo to how one reads.

I'm convinced that all reading relies on rhythm in some way, a rhythm that is signified by breaks in the text. Turning the page establishes a certain rhythm, just as swiping a page on the iPhone does, or even the lines between tweets. Nonetheless what remains consistent is that we rely on the relationship between rhythm, break and comprehension for our experience of texts.

Big blocks of text have no break and rhythm, hence they are so intimidating to look at and confusing to read. Ebooks fundamentally work as they effectively recreate, if subtly alter, the rhythm and beat of reading long form texts.

My experiment would be something along the lines of: assemble the same text on every different reading platform, device and print mechanism possible.  Get a focus group and then either get them to read the passage on every device and answer a series of questions, or get everyone to read on one platform and answer a set series of questions.

The goal would be to try and work out how our understanding and enjoyment of texts shifts with the platform and the various rhythms established. With that data writers and publishers could then start to think of optimising, adapting and even composing content for different reading experiences.

Bindun?

Don't Write Off Ereaders Just Yet

This picture, taken at the R&D labs of the New York Times (featured on the TOC blog), seems to be saying that far from reading devices going away, they are now on an unstoppable trajectory: investment, diversification, rapid innovation, everything is there. Yet in many ways, other than the blip that was the Kindle 2.0 launch, 2009 has conspicuously not been about the device. Think of Amazon's recent announcement of an iPhone app; the meteoric rise of Stanza, unbowed by the Amazon play; the emergence of GoSpoken as reading software in there with the carriers and a range of smartphones. Think of the solid sales of the Nintendo DS reading package. This has been a year when buzzwords like mobile and twitter have taken on all comers and seen them left in the graveyard of 2008, not even worthy of a # tag.

New displays, new ways of reading. E-ink seems a remnant of a digital past as much as the future.

However I think we shouldn't take our eyes off the reading device, and that this will still be a major, if not the only, focus of digital reading.

Why?

Because reading experiences on readers are very good and replicating that on other formats is extremely difficult. As the NYT pictures shows, this is a very healthy space.

There is a problem though. For reading devices to break out into the mainstream, to force their way back into the conversation, they have to become wildly desirably and also achieved a heightened simplicity. This might be sumamrised by saying people need to want them, and then need to be able to use them to a degree that has hitherto not been the case. I want / I can.

Two examples: Apple and Google. When Google first launched the general search engine strategy was to be an overall web portal, with search as one feature amongst a large and complex content menu. Google zoned into search and just search; their design was clean, focused, easy to use, without distraction and solely consumer centric in it's layout and absence of extraneous content. The number of words on the homepage was, and as far as I know is, ruthlessly limited to avoid clutter and confusion. You can say Google's growth was driven by any number of factors but only a fool would suggest this effortless interface wasn't one of them.

Again, the iPod had a phenomenally intuitive control, especially given the bemusing buttons and rollers of it's competitors (and I should know as I held out for some time, before caving in with a combination of resignation and glee). Characteristic of it's manufacturer this no doubt has been an enormous boon to the device. Beyond that though the now iconic look from legendary Apple designer Jonathan Ive was what made us want one. The iPod wasn't just useful, fun etc- it was jaw grindingly desirable.

Usability and covetability. Two principles for world domination.

What strikes me as being the interesting parallel with these two, aside from the the slightly obvious observations just outlined, is that both came from behind. They did not have first mover advantage. Instead they used these design concepts to leapfrog into pole. Indeed, it could be argued that precisely not coming first was an advantage in that it allowed the pair to fine tune their product and get these two crucial areas right.

Going back to the ereader then, I get the sense that we are on the cusp of when useability and covetability collide, uniting in a glorious burst of reading device nirvana. Ok maybe not quite, but once those user interfaces have been tweaked, and once someone like Ive gets there hands on a reading device, they will be back.

Don't write off e-ink yet.

A New Class of Online Media (But Would It Work for Books?)

Hello Digitalist readers! (Digitalists?) James and Sara asked me to guest blog, so I'll be posting every now and then. I'm the Internet Marketing Manager for the U.S. side of Macmillan, and you can find out a little about me here. It's best to imagine a flat American accent when reading my entries.  I'm very interested in the film industry's experiments with online content and new revenue models, especially as they attempt to sidestep the failures of the music industry. The Criterion Collection has taken an interesting step forward, almost contrary to their “mission statement.” If you're not familiar with them, think of them as a Taschen or Rizzoli of DVDs. They began creating laserdiscs of canonical films and lost classics in the 1980s, inventing both the Director's Commentary and the supplementary materials that are now de rigeur in the trade. They've been producing top-notch DVD editions of world cinema for some time now, and they enjoy a well-earned sterling reputation. (I felt my own amateur film buff status validated when the Criterion edition of one of my favorite films appeared in 2006.)

Since each Criterion DVD is as much an art object as you're going to get on a commercial scale, I would expect them to resist the digitalization of content. Well, surprise: with their website re-launch, Criterion is offering online rentals of a broad selection of their almost 500 titles. For $5 USD you get to watch the film as many times as you want for one week. A little like iTunes Movie Rentals or Netflix Instant, sure. But Criterion's real innovation is your rental fee also acts as a coupon off the purchase of the physical DVD from their online store. They’ve found a great way to link the online and offline content experience.

They can do this across territories because all of their DVD releases are region-free already. In publishing, it would be like a UK publishing house retaining global rights.

Could this work for ebooks? The subscription model idea has been kicked around the industry for a while now – what if it was tied to an easily accessed online platform? A publisher doesn't even need to experiment with rentals. Simply offer ebooks on mobile devices and dedicated e-readers cheaply, with the cost acting as a coupon toward a physical book purchase.

Kindle 2: Return of the Design Conscious

In hindsight it was always going to happen: we had seen the leaked pictures and the sheer weight of good taste pressuring down on the product development team at Amazon meant that the Kindle would have to get a redesign.  But it was still a relief to see that the "retro cool" of the original has been discarded on what is known as Kindle 2.  Angular and unsightly, the old Kindle has been replaced by a smoother, sleeker, cleaner, rounder, more focused, crisp and above all iPodesque looking machine. The brushed metal back is a particularly nice touch and the wayward paddles that made Kindle 1 difficult to hold have been moved down slightly, which should make it somewhat easier to use. It even has an ickle joystick navigation "rocker". For me all the rest of the new features are secondary (other than perhaps the voice to speech).  Design is about usability and desirability; ebook readers will be made or broken on these facets and up till now have had a deficit of both.

A better display, more memory, the ability to sync bookmarks etc etc. Fine. What really matters is that the Kindle has moved from being an eccentrically interesting object to own, to being an object that is actively desirable, the difference perhaps between the Microsoft Zune and the iPod. Yes that's the second time I've dropped the iBomb; no, I am not saying this is the (no doubt apocryphal) "iPod moment".

Just that it's a step in the right direction, and in device terms at least, that direction is the iPod.

Anyway. There is loads of coverage, as I'm sure you've seen: here are reports from Engadget, the Bookseller, the Guardian and Techcrunch.

The Sony ebook read - some final thoughts

I’ve been up and down the land with my little Sony e-book reader now. I know what I think about it. This is a beautiful and innovatory little gadget that will, I think, find a place under many a Christmas tree this year, even with the credit crunch around. But what do the public at large think of it? First of all I asked Cliff, a friend who runs the local pub-hotel, a keen reader, but no geek (he only discovered the iPod this year). Cliff ran his fingers over the Sony and declared, first of all, that he liked the look and feel of it. I showed him the controls and he had the knack of picking a book and moving backwards and forwards very quickly. Then I let him browse through the collection of works on the thing.

His eyes opened wide.

‘You get all this stuff?’

‘Yes. The free stuff is out of copyright which means that…’

‘You get all this stuff!’

God bless the public. They know nothing about copyright, do they? All Cliff saw was a vast collection of old books he hadn’t read in ages, a few he’d always meant to read, and the possibility of going on his cruise in February with a complete library stored in something that will fit into the side pocket of a briefcase. ‘Sold’ did not describe Cliff’s response to the Sony. He was absolutely in love with the thing and checking out its availability online in a flash. This I found deeply interesting because here was someone who is not naturally keen on electronica at all.

My next guinea pig was my daughter, Kate. She graduated from UCL with a first in English earlier this year and is an utter bookaholic. Again, she is not a natural for this thing. She likes writing in longhand, loves pen and paper, and actually buys CDs because she prefers the sound to the thin, compressed audio you get with iTunes.

Kate has done some work experience in publishing and is looking for a job as an editorial assistant somewhere (all vacancies to me at davidhewson.com please). So she has a couple of different perspectives on the thing - as a reader and someone who’s seen inside the publishing industry. The reader in her was impressed too. She found the screen and the type excellent, and the device very simple to use. Like everyone she was taken aback by the sheer volume of material it can hold. And she liked it as a piece of equipment too - it felt good to hold and didn’t scream ‘geek’.

Her work experience had given her some insight into handling manuscripts, though, and here the demands are a bit different. Like me, she would have liked some way to make notes or at least name bookmarks in a manuscript, or perhaps even edit text in some way. But that, I guess, is not what the Sony is for. This is an ebook, nothing more, nothing less. If you want email, web access, store browsing and a lot of fancy features you will have to wait for something else.

Will this dent the Sony’s sales? I doubt it somehow. This clever little thing hits most of the buttons it seeks to press as a simple, convenient and very powerful means of carrying your own library along with you. It was a real pleasure to use. The battery life is simply amazing. And I’m sure the next version will be even better - though this one will, I think, do good service for years.

One thing did become clear when I spoke to other people about ebooks though. They are seen as a supplement to the printed word, not a replacement for it. Both Cliff and Kate said very emphatically that they would not stop buying real books if they had a Sony. A simple electronic device, however clever, was no substitute for the physical medium of ink and paper. If something was really precious to you, then both felt that they would go to a book store and buy the ‘real thing’, if you can call it that.

As a mere author, you’ve no idea how reassuring I found that. Ebooks, it seems, are not what iTunes was to the CD market. They’re a new source of sales, not some digital newcomer that will sweep away everything that went before. Well, not for a while anyway.

On the road with the Sony reader: Part 2

The author David Hewson continues his exploration of the new Sony ereader. I promised to take a look at Sony’s digital book on the road, since that is probably where many people would expect to use it. Imagine packing for your holiday and storing hundreds of books on a single little electronic device. True it is electronic, but no more fragile than a camera. And it would read beautifully on a beach.

It was not beach weather when I turned up at Kings Cross for my events in South Shields and Edinburgh where, very soon, I discovered what a different world we inhabit when things go digital. I happen to go under the fancy title of international director of the authors’ organisation International Thrillerwriters Inc. We have a growing band of members outside the US where ITW began, and some of the most enthusiastic are in South Africa. A band of them, under the editorship of Joanna Hitchen, have a short story collection coming out next year under the title Bad Company, published by Pan Macmillan South Africa. I promised to ask Lee Child, until recently an ITW member too, if he’d write the foreword (knowing Lee, one of the most generous bestsellers around, I didn’t think this would be difficult).

At Kings Cross I got the message that the collection was finished, ready to be read and enclosed as a pdf attachment. It downloaded onto my Nokia in under a minute using 3’s trusty mobile broadband and, before we were out of London, I’d transferred it to the Sony reader and was able to start reading the first typeset proof, finished in Johannesburg, edited in Cape Town, immediately. Excellent it is too. But could you imagine that a few years ago? Transferring an entire book across continents and then reading it, on what looks very like a real book, all while sitting on a train?

Bad Company is a professionally typeset book and, like most of those sold for the reader, looks pretty much on screen as it will on the page. Unfortunately you can’t expect that kind of publication quality with everything you can put on the reader. Some of the out of copyright classics Sony supply for free seem to be formatted more for computers than ebooks, in that they have extra line spaces between the paragraphs. This can be quite distracting. The reader’s screen is a touch short in any case, and wasted blank lines do get in the way of fluent reading.

I also took with me two versions of my current first draft of the ninth Nic Costa book, some 25,000 words, one in pdf format, one in rich text (the reader can handle both). The rtf worked fine and was as readable as an ebook, though if you switch between the three text sizes the reader does take a little while to process the rerendering of the text. The pdf was much more problematic. I use a Mac which will produce pdfs at the drop of a hat - as easily as printing. They look fine on my Mac, and on a PC too. But the Sony doesn’t like them at all, and they were dogged in particular by soft line breaks turning into hard ones, rendering the text unreadable. (Update: this can be fixed - see end of story). 

If, like me, you are an old book addict this is a bit of a problem. I use a wonderful piece of software called Voluminous which can track down out of copyright ebooks from sources such as Project Gutenberg and turn them into a readable format through a simple search interface. It would have been wonderful if I could have just hit ‘print to pdf’ and sent them to the Sony, but this wasn’t to be without faffing around with rtf and deciding fonts and font sizes.

Searching the web for a solution I discovered I wasn’t alone in noticing this apparent glitch in the Sony’s software. Is it a big deal? Probably not, since you can use rtf instead. Also it’s important to point out this is a machine aimed at normal human beings, not authors and publishers. It is simply a reader, not an editing console. You can’t write notes in the margin, search for text, or do anything to a manuscript beyond insert simple unidentified bookmarks. Readers probably won’t miss a thing, but as an author I would look for those facilities in a manuscript handling device - which this is only up to a point.

But these are professional quibbles which will not bother the mass market. The honest truth is the Sony behaved impeccably throughout my trip. The battery life is astonishing (partly because it doesn’t have fancy features such as wireless internet and a keyboard). The readability is excellent under a variety of conditions. I couldn’t help noticing the passenger in the next seat sneaking a look at it on the way north. And that brings me to the next and final article in this brief series. Let’s show Sony’s invention to a few potential everyday customers and see what they think.

But first an event at Edinburgh’s beautiful Central Library - where I might just show it off out of interest too.

*Thanks to the comment below I am happy to retract my statement that Mac pdfs don't work on the Sony. It's all a question of formatting and getting the page size right. Which isn't easy by the way - some help for Mac users from Sony would be appreciated.