A renaissance of reading?

Hmmm… I’m not entirely surprised by this Guardian report. I’ve noticed that teenagers of my acquaintance who have Kindles are definitely reading more. An interesting way-point on the journey to a new ecosystem.

Underlining the speed of change in the publishing industry, Amazon said that two years after introducing the Kindle, customers are now buying more ebooks than all hardcovers and paperbacks combined. According to unaudited figures released by the company on Monday, since the start of 2012, for every 100 hardback and paperback book sold on its site, customers downloaded 114 ebooks. Amazon said the figures included sales of printed books which did not have Kindle editions, but excluded free ebooks.

In a surprise move in May, the company went into partnership with the UK’s largest bricks-and-mortar books retailer, Waterstones.

Much to the consternation of the publishing industry, Amazon has refused to release audited figures for its digital book sales, something it does for printed books. It told the Guardian that the company would not discuss future policy on the matter.

The company said its figures also showed that British Kindle users were buying four times as many books as they were prior to owning a Kindle, a trend it described as a renaissance of reading.

“As soon as we started selling Kindles it became our bestselling product on Amazon.co.uk so there was a very quick adoption … [And they] are buying four times more books prior to owning a Kindle,” an Amazon spokeswoman said. “Generally there seems to be … a love of a reading and a renaissance as a result of Kindle being launched.”

So much for “the end of the book” complaint.

The rise of e-reading

Fascinating Pew report on the e-reading phenomenon.

Main findings:

A fifth of American adults have read an e-book in the past year and the number of e-book readers grew after a major increase in ownership of e-book reading devices and tablet computers during the holiday gift-giving season.

The average reader of e-books says she has read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by a non-e-book consumer.

Those who read e-books report they have read more books in all formats. They reported an average of 24 books in the previous 12 months and had a median of 13 books. Those who do not read e-books say they averaged 15 books in the previous year and the median was 6 books.

For device owners, those who own e-book readers also stand out. They say they have read an average of 24 books in the previous year (vs. 16 books by those who do not own that device). They report having read a median of 12 books (vs. 7 books by those who do not own the device).

Overall, those who reported reading the most books in the past year include: women compared with men; whites compared with minorities; well-educated Americans compared with less-educated Americans; and those age 65 and older compared with younger age groups.

30% of those who read e-content say they now spend more time reading, and owners of tablets and e-book readers particularly stand out as reading more now. Some 41% of tablet owners and 35% of e-reading device owners said they are reading more since the advent of e-content. Fully 42% of readers of e-books said they are reading more now that long-form reading material is available in digital format. The longer people have owned an e-book reader or tablet, the more likely they are to say they are reading more: 41% of those who have owned either device for more than a year say they are reading more vs. 35% of those who have owned either device for less than six months who say they are reading more.

Men who own e-reading devices and e-content consumers under age 50 are particularly likely to say they are reading more.

The prevalence of e-book reading is markedly growing, but printed books still dominate the world of book readers. In Pew’s December 2011 survey, they found that 72% of American adults had read a printed book and 11% listened to an audiobook in the previous year, compared with the 17% of adults who had read an e-book.

This is really interesting stuff which, among other things, tends to undermine the widespread meme about the ‘death’ of the book. It’s the old misconception: confusing function with format.

Full report here.

Why isn’t Amazon stamping out Kindlespam?

Further to my Observer column about Kindlespam, I’ve been brooding on the subject.

The most obvious question is why Amazon doesn’t do something about it. After all, the Kindle is now the company’s key product, and the stench of corruption coming from Kindlespam must pose a strategic threat. Users can’t do much about it — other than by ignoring the avalanche of fake ‘eBooks’ on the site. And it’s very difficult (if not virtually impossible) for an author who suspects that his or her content is being ripped off to check, because she can’t inspect the content without buying and downloading the suspected rip-off. So any comprehensive trawl for infringing content would be prohibitively expensive and tedious. The only outfit that can check stuff before it’s published on the site is Amazon. So why aren’t isn’t the company doing it?

At first, I thought that Amazon’s rationale might be similar to the one Google takes on the issue of infringing or objectionable YouTube content: given that 48-hours’-worth of video is being uploaded every minute, it simply isn’t feasible to pre-scan stuff before it’s published. But Google will take it down on receipt of a complaint. That won’t get Amazon off the Kindlespam hook for two reasons: (1) Compared with video, pre-scanning of text is perfectly feasible, and computationally not that difficult; Amazon could easily do it. (2) Detection of infringing content in Kindlespam by rights holders is very difficult for the reasons outlined earlier, so while a take-down-upon-complaint policy is perfectly feasible, complaints will be much less frequent than they are on YouTube.

So we’re left with a puzzle. Pre-scanning for crap, spam and infringing content in Kindlespam is perfectly feasible — and indeed only Amazon can do it effectively. Yet it does not do it. Why?

One answer (suggested in my column) is that the company is making too much money from Kindlespam. (After all, Amazon get a 30 per cent slice on every bit of Kindlespam sold.) But another answer has just occurred to me. (I’m slow on the uptake.) If Amazon did pre-scan all the self-published stuff on the Kindle store, then it might have to take legal responsibility for the resulting content. It might have to take on the liabilities of a publisher, in other words.

So at the moment, Amazon is trying to have it both ways. It provides a platform (Kindle self-publishing) from which it rakes in dosh, but takes no responsibility for the avalanche of crap that the platform enables. Experience with conventional spam suggests, though, that this can’t continue: in the end the textual bindweed will choke the plant. And then what will Amazon do?

LATER: Behind all this is the whole problem of so-called content-farms — some of which are now probably using the Kindle as one of their outlets. They have been a scourge of the Web for a while, because essentially they are parasitic on Google’s AdSense system. The company has finally responded to the problem in classic Google style — with an algorithm, codenamed Panda. Virginia Heffernan has a good piece about this in today’s NYT. The headline — “Google’s War on Nonsense” — says it all.


This morning’s Observer column.

At first sight, it seems magical. At a stroke, all those tiresome gatekeepers – those self-important agents, editors and publishers who stood between you and recognition – are abolished. Suddenly, the world can see your hitherto unrecognised talent in all its glory. Isn’t technology wonderful?

Er, up to a point. This ebook technology has proved so successful that Amazon now claims to be selling more electronic publications than conventional printed ones. The company is clearly surfing a wave. According to one industry expert, for example, nearly 2.8 million non-traditional books, including ebooks, were published in the United States in 2010, while just more than 316,000 traditional books came out. That compares with 1.33 million ebooks and 302,000 printed books in 2009.

Impressive, eh? It’s only when one peruses the cornucopia of literary productions available on the Kindle store that one detects the first scent of rodent…

Amazon enters the Singles market

This is a really interesting development for anyone interested in long-form journalism.

Amazon issued a call today for “compelling ideas expressed at their natural length” for its e-book store.

Specifically, per Amazon’s guidelines, that means non-fiction works in the 10,000-30,000-word (30 to 90-page) range that deliver a well-researched and thoughtfully executed argument related to business, politics, science, history, current events or other topics in the field of intellectual discourse.

Qualifying works will be labeled as “Kindle Singles” and sold in a corresponding section in the Kindle Store for “much less than a typical book.”

“Ideas and the words to deliver them should be crafted to their natural length, not to an artificial marketing length that justifies a particular price or a certain format,” said VP of Kindle Content Russ Grandinetti in a statement. “With Kindle Singles, we’re reaching out to publishers and accomplished writers and we’re excited to see what they create.”

The Kindle Singles category seems like the perfect place to offer individual copies of works that typically wind up in anthologies — historical and contemporary essays on political theory and philosophy, for instance — that are simply too short to be bound individually, but too important not to be in circulation. The section could easily take aim at the education market by allowing students to forgo the purchase of course readers and unwieldy anthologies — often peppered with works that never become part of the course material — and provide additional visibility for “accomplished” self-published writers of non-fiction.

Why e-books are a weight off my mind (and on my conscience)

Last Sunday’s Observer column.

When the history of e-reading technology comes to be written, an Irishman named Michael O'Leary will be assigned a small but significant role in the story. This is not because the chief executive of Ryanair has a secret life as a geek, but simply because he has perfected a system for squeezing his customers until their pips squeak. And therein lies the tale…

Random House cedes some e-Rights to Styron family

From today’s NYTimes.

Because e-books were not explicitly mentioned in most author contracts until about 15 years ago, disputes have arisen about who has the right to publish digital versions of older books. But along with other publishers, Random House, which releases Styron’s works in print, has said that clauses like “in book form” give it exclusive rights to publish electronic editions. In a letter to literary agents in December, Markus Dohle, chief executive of Random House, the world’s largest publisher of trade books, said authors were “precluded from granting publishing rights to third parties” for electronic editions.

But in a statement last week Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, said the company was continuing talks with many authors or their estates about publishing e-books of their older works. “The decision of the Styron estate is an exception to these discussions,” he said in an e-mail message. “Our understanding is that this is a unique family situation.”

Mr. Applebaum added that Random House had released e-book editions of two titles by Styron published after electronic rights clauses had been added to contracts. “We are hopeful future discussions with his family members will eventually result in additional e-book publications,” Mr. Applebaum said.

People in the publishing industry said Random House’s apparent acquiescence in the Styron case could lead to a flood of other authors or their estates moving e-books to separate digital publishers.


Going Out of Print

Perceptive Tech review column by Wade Roush.

For book publishers, color screens are interesting but probably not revolutionary. Vook titles like The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen ($4.99), a cookbook that bundles recipes with related instructional videos, provide a taste of what's possible. But with most long-form writing, the words are paramount. If their purpose is to stimulate the mind’s eye, then color and animation are overkill, which is why I doubt that the iPad will wholly undercut the market for the Kindle-­style devices.

For magazine, newspaper, and textbook publishers, on the other hand, the iPad and the wave of tablet devices just behind it create enormous opportunities. Magazines are distinguished from books not merely by their periodical nature and their bite-size articles but by their design. If digital-age readers still want information that’s organized and ornamented in the fashion of good magazines–and there’s no reason to think they don’t–then devices that mimic the form and ergonomics of old-fashioned print pages will be needed to deliver it.

But to succeed on the new platforms, publishers will have to innovate, not simply imitate established media: they will have to move beyond the current crop of static digital magazines. The problem with most of the publications built on e-­magazine platforms from Zinio, Zmags, and other startups is that they are simply digital replicas of their print counterparts, perhaps with a few hyperlinks thrown in as afterthoughts. Publishers should look for better ways to use tablet screens such as the iPad’s, with its multitouch zooming and scrolling capabilities, and to make their content interactive.

And an interesting (and much longer) New Yorker piece by Ken Auletta, which suggests that the real significance of the eBook boom will be a radical rethinking of the publishing business.

Tim O’Reilly, the founder and C.E.O. of O’Reilly Media, which publishes about two hundred e-books per year, thinks that the old publishers’ model is fundamentally flawed. “They think their customer is the bookstore,” he says. “Publishers never built the infrastructure to respond to customers.” Without bookstores, it would take years for publishers to learn how to sell books directly to consumers. They do no market research, have little data on their customers, and have no experience in direct retailing. With the possible exception of Harlequin Romance and Penguin paperbacks, readers have no particular association with any given publisher; in books, the author is the brand name. To attract consumers, publishers would have to build a single, collaborative Web site to sell e-books, an idea that Jason Epstein, the former editorial director of Random House, pushed for years without success. But, even setting aside the difficulties of learning how to run a retail business, such a site would face problems of protocol worthy of the U.N. Security Council—if Amazon didn’t accuse publishers of price-fixing first.

It’s the old story: digital technology means having to rethink more or less everything:

Jason Epstein believes that publishers have been handed a golden opportunity. The agency model, he says, is really another form of the consortium he proposed a decade ago: “Publishers will be selling digital books directly to the iPad. They are using the iPad as a kind of universal warehouse.” By doing so, they create opportunities to cut payroll and overhead costs. Epstein said that e-books could also restore editorial autonomy. “When I went to work for Random House, ten editors ran it,” he said. “We had a sales manager and sales reps. We had a bookkeeper and a publicist and a president. It was hugely successful. We didn’t need eighteen layers of executives. Digitization makes that possible again, and inevitable.”

Auletta closes his piece with speculation that Amazon (and maybe, one day, Apple) will move to exclude publishers from the process and deal directly with authors. After all, most readers don’t buy books because they’re published by a particular publishing house. For them, the author is the brand.

Interesting stuff.

Typologies of reading

Lorcan Dempsey pointed me to an interesting essay by Evan Schnittman about different kinds of reading. Evan distinguishes between extractive reading (as in consulting reference works), immersive (“the exercise of deep reading that is dominated by narrative prose and requires a significant investment of time and concentration”) and pedagogic (“designed to train, not immerse. It is designed to move a reader through a series of deeper understandings of a topic, by building on a fairly specific sequence of learning objectives”).

To this, Lorcan has added a fourth type: interstitial reading (“reading in the interstices of our lives. The bathroom comes to mind, but I am in particular thinking about reading and travel.”)

The iPad seems an ideal device for interstitial reading, supporting social networking, immersive reading, extractive interaction with the web, and so on. However, it does not have the portability of the magazine, newspaper or paperback. For this reason, rumours about the smaller iPad seem to make a lot of sense. The Kindle on the other hand is eminently portable, and, importantly, can be held with one hand. But it is less well able to support the full variety of interstitial reading and network interactions. For this reason, it is not surprising to see it open up as a platform to other apps, although one imagines its niche will continue to be the immersive reader, albeit one that fits such reading into the various interstices of his or her daily routine.

This echoes my own recent experience. I have an iPod Touch and was initially sceptical about eBook software for the device. But then I started to use Stanza and Eucalyptus and have become totally converted — especially by the latter, which hooks directly to Project Gutenberg. So downloaded onto my iPod is a nice little library of books that I love re-reading (like Joyce’s Ulysses), or have wanted to read for ages.

Because I do a lot of ferrying of teenage kids around, I’m often waiting for people to turn up. In the old days, if I didn’t have a newspaper with me, that was dead time (I rarely remembered to bring a physical book in the car). Now, this ‘dead time’ is often a delight. In recent weeks, for example, I’ve read two E.M. Forster novels. And large chinks of Mr Bloom’s adventures.

eBooks outsell real books on Amazon at Christmas?

From Engadget.

We’re still not about say the e-book reader industry has branched out beyond the infancy stage, but one of its flagship products certainly has reason to celebrate. Amazon has announced it’s hit some pretty big milestones with the Kindle. The two bullet points it’s currently touting loudest is that the reader has become “the most gifted item” in the company’s history — quite an achievement given the size of the online retailer, but what’s missing here is any quantitative sales data to give us even a ballpark of the number of units sold. The other big news is that on Christmas Day (we’re guessing not Christmas Eve, else the press release surely would’ve mentioned it, too), e-book sales actually outsold physical books. Those brand new Kindle owners needed something to read, right? It’ll be interesting to see if that momentum is maintained through next year, especially with some major publishers starting to show some teeth with digital delays.

The Kindle bits were all part of Amazon’s annual post-holiday statistical breakdown, so in case you’re wondering, besides Kindle, the company is claiming its other top-selling electronics were the 8GB iPod Touch and Garmin nuvi260W, and in the wireless department the honor goes to Nokia’s unlocked 5800 XpressMusic, Plantronic’s 510 Bluetooth headset, and AT&T’s edition of the BlackBerry Bold 9700.