Monthly Archives: July 2010

Amazon Introduces Kindle 3

Amazon announced the third-generation Kindle today. On their home page, they detail what’s new, summed up as amazingly small and light. This new Kindle also includes the revised e-ink originally introduced in the Kindle DX, and claims battery life of up to one month.

It’s available for pre-order now, but won’t release until August 27. All around, it looks like a sleek, dedicated ereader, one that’s miles ahead of the clunky, first-edition Kindle.

Other things that struck me, not all of which are noted by Amazon:

  • The second-generation Kindle is no longer available, it’s still there but just sold by third-party sellers (many of whom have priced it far beyond what it’s now worth).
  • Similar to the Barnes & Noble Nook, there is now a Wi-Fi only Kindle available for $139.
  • The third-generation 3G Kindle remains priced at $189 (same as Kindle 2). They’re obviously underpricing the Nook, which has similar models available for $10 more.
  • They’ve incorporated a more prominent D-pad, that’s similar to, but much smaller than that on the Kobo reader.
  • The Kindle DX is barely mentioned and difficult to find on the Amazon site. It seems the DX has waved the white flag and surrendered to the onslaught of the iPad.
  • Includes native support of the PDF file format.
  • The page featured on the faceout shot of the new Kindle is from a book called “The Art of Choosing,” complete with a quote from Joseph Campbell. Chapter title: Past Is Prologue. Is this a not-too-subtle reflection on Gutenberg, his fancy device, and how customers can handle a world where every book written gets published.

All around, this looks like the no-brainer choice right now for a dedicated ereader, though Borders/Kobo and Barnes & Noble will react soon. It’s more certain than ever that the $99 ereader will be here by the holiday season.

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Guys Read: Funny Business Book Trailer

One of the things I often hear at writer’s conferences for kid’s books is that boys don’t read. As someone who at one time was both a boy and a voracious reader, I’ve always felt that this has a lot more to do with how books are presented (and marketed) to most boys than with any gaping deficiency in boys themselves.

Then I found the Guys Read website. They group books into boy(ish) categories: at least one explosion, animals, dragons, robots, etc. How about we get all of them into one dang book? That would be awesome. It’s fantastic to see some of the books that first got me reading featured, like Where the Wild Things Are which I learned by heart before I could read and Childhood’s End which totally blew my mind in the 5th grade.

The organization is the brainchild of Jon Scieszka who I’ve been fortunate enough to hear speak at two writer’s conferences. He’s the author of The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and other books with a wickedly boyish slant. He also served as the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and, all around, is a spectacularly funny guy.

Guys Read releases its first anthology, titled Guys Read: Funny Business, this September. If the book trailer is any indication, it’s a must read for boys everywhere.

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Odyssey Editions Covers Reminiscent of Early Penguin

Invisible ManI’ve been fascinated by the announcement from Amazon and the Wylie Agency. For those not following the story, Wylie published 20 novels on Kindle as an exclusive deal through Odyssey Editions, a new imprint created by the literary agency. Calling it “E-Book Editions of Modern Classics,” Wylie is bypassing not only traditional publishers, but also Apple, Barnes & Noble, and a slew of the other usual suspects. And their list does indeed include some modern classics, such as Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer.

I won’t dwell on the details of the arrangement, that has been covered exhaustively elsewhere. (I’ve given links to some of the better reports below.) But one thing stood out for me: the covers. When I saw them I immediately thought of another publisher, one at a similar stage in publishing history when a new format was first catching on: the quality paperback.

Penguin Books: Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row by John SteinbeckPenguin originally also launched with stripped down covers that featured little more than the author’s name and the title of the book. As detailed in this fantastic article from Smithsonian, Penguin used different colors to denote fiction, biography, mystery, etc. but other than that the covers are essentially blank. These stripped down covers branded the publisher much more than any specific author or book. Similarly, it seems Odyssey itself is the brand for the 20 ebooks it just released. While no plans to publish new titles have been announced, one can see this minimalist cover conveying some of the trappings of these first 20 titles to any new titles it may publish. Instant classic anyone?

My hunch is that Wylie studied the Penguin model, and is imitating it. Other similarities between the two ventures are apparent. They are both new imprints that launched during a down time in the economy. Each chose a limited number titles and placed a premium on quality fiction. The titles they initially published were all previously available in other formats, all that’s new is the packaging and the reduced price it brings.

The one major difference: Penguin needed to sell 17,000 copies of a book to break even. Since launching last Thursday, Odyssey Editions is most likely already profitable.

Of course, the cover design for Odyssey Editions has to be a lot more versatile than that for early Penguin. Though they look fine on the Odyssey site and Kindle itself, on the Amazon site they’re far too small to be legible. Also, the Kindle logo covers the Odyssey logo in the lower right corner of each cover. Is a slight redesign is forthcoming?

It’s surprising that more publishers haven’t gone this route of clearly branding their titles as ebooks continue to rise in prominence. How else can publishers distinguish what they bring to the free-for-all ebook market?

Notable coverage of the latest ebook kerfuffle:

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Interactive Story is an Oxymoron

I’m reading The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. The book is based on the work of Joseph Campbell, an analysis of the basic elements of myth and story that stretch back for millennia. Fascinating stuff, if not entirely new.

Since I got the book, it’s been released again as a third edition. This bit caught my attention in the introduction to the 2nd edition, from 1998:

Shortly after the first edition of this book came out, a few people (threshold guardians) jumped up to say the technology of the Hero’s Journey is already obsolete, thanks to the advent of the computer and its possibilities of interactivity and nonlinear narrative. According to this batch of critics, the ancient ideas of the Journey are hopelessly mired in the conventions of beginning, middle, and end, of cause and effect, of one event after another. The new wave, they said, would dethrone the old linear storyteller, empowering people to tell their own stories in any sequence they chose, leaping from point to point, weaving stories more like spider webs than linear strings of events.

It’s true that exciting new possibilities are created by computers and the nonlinear thinking they encourage. However, there will always be pleasure in “Tell me a story.” People will always enjoy going into a story trance and allowing themselves to be led through a tale by a masterful story weaver.

I’m not sure if Vogler goes far enough. More than ten years later, the iPad is heralded as a miraculous device that will usher in a whole new type of storytelling. The idea that stories are destined to be reinvented as interactive experiences predates the looming ebook tsunami. Presumably, it was also predicted long before the hyperlink came along. But such thinking fails to understand what a story is at its core. If the basic structure of the story hasn’t changed in a few thousand years, it has nothing to fear from ebooks. New devices will create whole new types of games… but story, nope.

AmphitheaterIf stories were meant to be interactive, the stage would never have been invented. Actors would have just scattered through the crowd and everyone would have become part of the production. Instead, we got the amphitheater that separates the storytellers from the audience. Centuries later, movie theaters are dark for a reason that goes beyond helping us see the film. We want to get lost in the story. Is anything more annoying than someone yacking on their phone next to you at a movie? Nope, because it pulls you out of the story. And those choose your own adventure books that they had when I was a kid were fun, but a novelty. I remember that I had to pick what happened next, but I don’t remember any of the stories.

The power of a good story, in part, is that it does have a definitive beginning, middle, and end. There is cause and effect. Life hardly ever works that way. Stories do, and appeal to a need for such order that is almost primal. Once we have to choose what happens next, order evaporates and with it the story. It becomes a game at best, a chore at worst. Instead of laughing at someone else’s mistakes or commiserating with their plight, the reader of an interactive story shares responsibility for its outcome.

Experiencing a story only works when it’s a passive medium, and that’s okay. Interactive story is an oxymoron.

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Limited-Edition Bloody Cricket Book for $75,000

It’s often said that a writer’s job is to bleed on the page, but so-called luxury publisher Kraken Opus seems to have taken that mantra a bit too seriously. As reported in The Wall Street Journal last week, a pint of blood from Indian cricket star Sachin Tendulkar was mixed with paper pulp to produce the signature page for a book about his cricket prowess. The book was limited to an edition of only ten copies, which are offered at the staggering price of $75,000 a pop. Apparently all ten copies are spoken for, so it’s too late for the rest of us.

The article details a number of other luxury collector’s editions that have recently been released:

Earlier this year, Taschen Books sold pieces of the moon with 12 copies of its massive photography book on the lunar landing (one of the lunar-rock editions sold for $112,500). Taschen previously published a $7,500, 800-page book on Muhammad Ali, GOAT (for “greatest of all time”), that comes with four signed photographs of the boxer and a sculpture by Jeff Koons.

“No one says, ‘I want to download the e-edition of this book,’ ” says book analyst Michael Norris of research firm Simba Information. “If it’s a physical object that’s beautifully done, people see the value.”

Is this the traditional publishers answer to the coming e-tsunami? They could offer books bound directly by the author. Or those that feature a few handwritten pages, each slightly unique. Or for writers who also have at least a snippet of artistic talent, the doodle could replace a signature on the title page. All of it, of course, would be available as an extremely limited–and pricey–collector’s edition.

Publishers like Subterranean Press have long been producing higher quality, collector’s editions for well-known science fiction and fantasy authors. But their prices cap out at around $500 and often don’t get much above $50. Are they being too modest? Could they charge a small fortune by producing truly customized editions? Of course, limited-edition, pricey titles will only work for well-established authors. Most of the luxury books mentioned in the article feature celebrities, not writers at all. The rest of us are challenged to even give our words away, gratis.

I’ve often thought that as competition for ebooks heats up, paper books are going to compete by getting nicer. This type of personal touch is a possibility, and could well create a small safe haven for publishers, not the meat-and-potatoes type of safe haven, but maybe a little icing on the cake. I just hope that the blood in wood pulp thing doesn’t catch on as a full-fledged trend.

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More Doom & Gloom for Bookstores

Can ebooks grow from their current share of roughly 10% to a full 50% of the book market by 2015? As Mike Shatzkin points out in a brilliant post, everyone seems to agree that this is inevitable, yet few seem willing to consider the full ramifications of such a seismic shift. He calculates that this equals brick-and-mortar sales dropping from 72% today to just 25% of total book sales… in just five years.

It’s unlikely that more than a handful of highly specialized, niche booksellers could survive in such a brave new world. Though his post was really about big publishers, and how shrinkage of shelf space for physical books removes one of their prime advantages, the post got all its attention around the idea of bookstores disappearing. (He follows up on his original premise in a  subsequent post.)  My own earlier post on the likelihood that bookstores will disappear is one of the most trafficked pages on this site. This topic seems to cut right to the core of book lovers.

I fully agree that ebooks are likely to grow fivefold in five years, and the fate of bookstores will likely mimic that of record stores. In the meantime though, just to be contrarian, here’s a few pellets of ammunition that may slow it down a bit and help us all sleep a little better:

People will still buy paper books. It’s often quoted that once you go digital, you never go back. I think this is likely an early adopter trait, and later adopters may not take such a direct route. Anyone who reads occasionally may well flip back and forth between the paper variety and ebook variety. Gift books too, will continue to be the paper variety.

Books will get better. Paper books will adapt to the rise of the ebook long before 2015. We’ll see limited editions with full-color illustrations, super-limited pricey editions with a doodle from the author, and bundles that include paper and ebook in one nifty package. Overall, there will be a renewed focus on the production of the paper book as an art in its own right, something that goes above and beyond the words on the page.

Bookstores already know how to fight. First the chains were going to put the independents out of business, then the online stores. Yet independent bookstores still survive. They may never thrive, but they’ll find ways to continue even as ebooks clobber the market. Booksellers are in their business for love, not money, and that has a great way of rallying support.

People don’t go to bookstores to buy books. Each time I go to my neighborhood bookstore, I chant a little mantra in my head about how I’m just going to look. I won’t buy anything. Really, I won’t. I promise. And then an hour later I stumble out like the book junkie I am with a bag full of new titles. I don’t go there to buy books. I go for the experience. I love browsing books online, but it doesn’t even come close to doing it in a real, flesh and paper bookstore.

Luddites will save us all. There’s a kernel of folks out there who would rather burn down a library than pick up an ereader. No one really knows how extensive this group is, but it is composed of avid, vocal readers. Yes, some will be converted. But many will go to their grave with a paper book clutched to their breast. They’re also willing to pay a high premium. Until all these folks die off, there will be a market for good old-fashioned paper books.

Of course, the above probably won’t matter much once the price (with discounts) of an ereader drops to zero. Still, it’s a nice little fantasy…

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$2 Portraits Project: Seeing the Unseen

As a friend mentioned in the comments section on my post on The City & the City by China Miéville, you realize how much you intentionally work to unsee, unhear, and even unsmell parts of your day-to-day life as you read the book. At about the same time, I first came across San Francisco photographer Thomas Hawk, and what he is calling the $2 portraits project. When anyone asks him for money, he agrees to pay $2 but on the condition that the person pose for a picture in exchange. Hawk captures true portraits, and he writes down a piece of the life story that goes with it.

The project has since expanded to include other photographers in a photo pool on Flickr. I love the portraits, but the stories are what really brings it home. Justin Beck added an audio clip on his blog, detailing his meeting with a man whose name is way too interesting to not record. Looking through the portraits, I’m struck with the idea of how rare it is that you see a homeless person smile. They always work so hard at putting on the miserable act to elicit charity, while most of us work so hard to unsee them. This project humanizes these people, shows where they came from and what family they might (or might not) have. All around, it’s a fascinating slice of the web.

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