Category Archives: eBooks

From Collins to Braddon to Radcliffe to Walpole

I love the way Wikipedia and public domain ebooks have taken surfing to a whole new level. A random thought can lead to a month of reading material. I no longer need to be content with hunting down summaries and snippets, then deciding if a bigger investment is needed. Instead, I can just download whole tomes and read as much or little as my interest merits.

I finally finished The Lady in White last week. It’s been on my to-be-read list for about five years. It took me four years to get the book, then another year to pick it up and read it. This weekend, I read the introduction and all the other related material that came with my spiffy edition. Lo and behold, I had just read my second sensation novel. Who knew there was a literary movement that happened entirely during the 1860s and 1870s in Victorian England? Just take Gothic story elements and put them into what, at the time these books were written, was a contemporary setting. It sounds a bit like the paranormal romance or urban fantasy of its day.

This all led to my next discovery: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, first published in 1862. It’s one of those titles that seems familiar, but I had never placed the book in any context, nor imagined that it was a wild success in its own time, nor thought that it’s the product of a highly prolific author. Braddon apparently wrote 75 novels. She scribbled out 14 of them before the typewriter was even invented.

Then Wikipedia led me to its more elaborate entry for the Gothic fiction. I downloaded two books here. The first is The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe from 1794. This is apparently the quintessential Gothic romance, complete with swooning damsels and never-ending landscape descriptions. The second is The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole which was first published in 1764. This is billed as the book that started Gothic romance. Walpole claimed that the story was a translation of a work by an Italian author, who later turned out to be as fictional as the rest of the book, but it does still make for an amusing–if not quite true–introduction.

It’s this last book that caught my attention for now. It’s amusing, though perhaps not in ways intended. It’s the literary equivalent of bad acting, yet still groundbreaking. All around, it was a great afternoon of not just researching these books, but getting to dive into their full text… a few seconds after discovering them. Collins led to Braddon led to Radcliffe led to Walpole. It might be three years before I finish all these books, if that ever happens, but with paper I’d still be debating which one–if any–I should buy first.

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28 Cents per Book, Am I Really This Cheap?

It’s been a little over two months since I got my Kindle. The thing about the whole experience that’s amazed me the most is how I haven’t stepped into a physical book store since then. Such a book store drought before would have been unthinkable. My book acquisition demon seems to be satiated by downloading samples. I have nearly a hundred of them on the device now. I’m also rediscovering classics, love that I can access them instantly, for free, and then read as much or as little as I want with no feeling of having to stick with it. And I’m sampling a lot of indie authors too, though admittedly only getting past the sample stage for a select few.

Here’s the list of books I’ve downloaded in full (samples are too numerous to easily list) and what I paid for each. Public domain books were all free.

Paid books:

Public domain books:

I’m averaging a staggering 28 cents a book. (Though if you factor in the cost of the Kindle and case, it comes out to almost $16 per book.) That’s downright embarrassing. I really thought I had spent more money on books, as I seem to be downloading them all the time. I didn’t buy the device so I could get cheap books. I bought it so I could have access to books that otherwise weren’t available. Some of the public domain books, such as those by Mary Johnston and Marietta Holley, are out of print. I love that so much of this esoteric stuff is available instantly, and in full. The fact that it’s free is a bonus.

I also haven’t given up on paper books. I’m still reading them, but focusing on the hundreds of unread books that I have piled up around the house. There is something strangely satisfying about hacking my way through these piles faster than they grow, for the first time ever. I seem to have found a new rhythm of one paper book from the shelf, then one ebook. But if my paper purchases slow down (yes, at some point I’ll go back and buy more) and if I’m averaging a mere pittance per book, how does this bode for publishing? Not well, it seems. Even Amazon can’t be all that excited about a 28 cent average per download. Yes, they got paid for the device, but my hunch is they’re barely breaking even supplying me with downloads.

Does this mean that I’m officially giving myself permission to spend more money on books?

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First Thoughts on My New Kindle

I finally broke down last week, and bought myself a Kindle. I debated for a long time between it and the Kobo reader, but with the problems Borders is facing, ultimately opted to go with the industry big boy. I also was tempted into the ebook world, in part, to see what indie authors have been producing. Almost all of them seem to worship at the altar of Kindle.

Here’s my initial thoughts:

  • Absolute first impression: The screen resolution is amazing. This is more apparent with the pictures that come up when you shut the thing down than text itself, but all of it really does look a lot like paper. I spent a big chunk of this weekend reading on my new toy, and my eyes might even feel less strain (bigger text, after all) than they would from a paper book.
  • The case is essential. I didn’t get it at first, and the thing was just too light, didn’t feel anything like a book. But now that I have the case, it opens like a book and has the right weight to it. Plus, it has a handy little night light that’s great for reading in bed. The leather cover also has a good feel, and smell… yes ebooks can smell nice too.
  • It’s not just a bookstore at my fingertips, but instant access to pretty much every book in print today, plus tons of classics in the public domain (available for free) and new offerings from indie authors. It’ll be interesting to see if I continue my lifelong habit of stockpiling books, or prowl for a new book once I finish (or give up on) the one I’m currently reading.
  • When I first sat down to actually read a book–not to play with the settings–it all felt a bit surreal. I had an immediate urge to put the thing down and go find a real book. This passed, and part of the problem may have been that I didn’t like the first book I tried to read on it. I’m now working my way through The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and not noticing the Kindle. (The House of the Seven Gables is fantastic by the way, and I do occasionally wonder what Mr. Hawthorne would think of having his books available on such a new-fangled gizmo.)

Still, I don’t see me giving up paper books any time soon. Nostalgia aside, I have a ton of them (probably literally) around the house, both books I’ve not read yet and those I’ve read and will want to revisit someday. Though I bet I won’t buy all that many new paper books, not when the ebook variety doesn’t take up space.

Those piles of unread books that stare at me and inflict much guilt… they need trouble me no more.

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Here Cometh Google: Thoughts on Google eBookstore

Google made its long awaited entry into the world of ebooks today, with the launch of Google eBookstore. The program has a number of things that make it unique in the ebook world. Check out Publishers Weekly or Google’s own blog post for the nitty gritty.

Unlike the stores for iPad, Kindle, and Nook, Google eBookstore is not tied to any particular piece of hardware. They’ve made free apps available for Android and the iPhone/iPad. They also support the Adobe eBook platform, which means that their ebooks can be read on Nook and Sony readers. Google eBookstore also supports any Javascript enabled browser. The only real noticeable absence is the Kindle, no big surprise there. Though my hunch is Google also won’t make a Windows Phone 7 app available any time soon.

Other than the basics, here’s my initial impressions of the program:

  • The integration with independent bookstores is awesome. Independents can partner with Google eBookstore to sell ebooks on their own websites. I love this, no more guilt if I find a book in a great independent but then don’t want to go home with it right then. Powell’s has already signed up for the program, and my hunch is that there will soon be a stampede of independents to join them.
  • There is a whole lot of noise about how this program lives in the cloud. You buy the book once and then can sync it across multiple devices (Kindle offers a similar feature through Whispersync). I get why this is cool. It’s difficult. But was there a problem before all the fancy devices came along? Nope. It was simple to open my paper book right where I left off… and it was never much of a hassle to take it with me, especially since then I didn’t have to carry all this other crap (smart phone, tablet, laptop) with me.
  • You can’t get to Google eBookstore from the Google home page. You have to click on “More” in the top navigation, then “Books” and then a link that actually takes you into the eBookstore. Plus, the URL they chose for the program is: books.google.com/ebooks. Overall, kind of buried. It seems they don’t expect customers to treat this store as a destination, but it’s about having Google ebooks surface as people search, or as they shop on partner/independent sites.
  • The merchandising is worse than clunky, like the featured categories at the bottom of the store home page with amateur graphics and no cohesive design elements to pull it all together. Again though, none of it feels like this bookstore is being built as an eye candyish destination.
  • I found 1,537 reviews of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. One of the three editorial reviews at the top of the page is in Chinese, so not a whole lot of help to me. Also, even on the full reviews page, each review is given just two lines. I’m not sure why they don’t show the full text of about 10 reviews per page, and let me scroll through them. Again though, this approach seems to speak more about search, than a shopping destination.
  • The program also boasts “more than three million titles including hundreds of thousands for sale.” That line threw me at first. If there are hundreds of thousands of titles for sale, where does that leave the other 2.7 million titles in the store. Apparently, these are all free. They’re public domain. Of course, every store for ebooks has all the classics available. The question really will be how much of a differentiator will the millions of obscure, public domain titles be. This plays well into a search strategy, where these books will surface. Each one may not pop up often, but presumably when it does it’ll be massively qualified… and free.
  • One of the headlines on the main overview page is: Discover the world’s largest selection of ebooks. Ummmm… is that possibly a swipe at Amazon? Their original tagline was: Earth’s Biggest Bookstore. It also highlights how Amazon has drifted from its original selection, selection, selection mantra to focus on the exclusivity of its platform.

All around, a big new competitor just entered the ebook arena. For a product that just launched, it feels pretty complete. Though understandably the window dressing is still to come.

It’ll be fascinating to see if ultimately the ebook market sticks with the one-stop shop (Kindle or possibly iPad) or if it prefers this multi-faceted approach where the book itself is merchandised and sold by one company, the order for it is fulfilled by another, and the device on which it’s read is manufactured by a third.

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Are Enhanced eBooks Really Enhancing Anything?

One of the things I hear often about the children’s book market is how picture books are suffering. Shelf space is evaporating for them as Barnes & Noble and Borders scale back their number of stores. And kids–at least those who read at all–are jumping into full-fledged novels much younger than they did even ten years ago. End result: Less demand for picture books.

The iPad is often touted as the savior for a re-imagined picture book, the enhanced edition. I’m still not all that sure that I get what a book can do on the iPad that makes it better, but I started to think that maybe I should get me one just to make sure I’m not missing anything. Then I came across Oceanhouse Media. They produce ebook versions of Dr. Seuss and Berenstain Bears.

Here’s an example of what they’ve done with the Grinch on the iPhone:


I love that Oceanhouse is trying to take picture books into this new medium, but, um… why not just get the paper book here? Both kid and mom look so uncomfortable, squished around this screen. The only real advantage isn’t an advantage at all. Parents no longer need to read the book to their kids. The app will do that for them. Mom is there in the video of this Grinch app, but she’s pretty much superfluous.

So… rather than going on a rant about how I wouldn’t trade the time I spent with my mom and Where the Wild Things Are or, a few decades later, my nephew and No, David!, I’ll just say I don’t get it. On their site, Oceanhouse indicates that they’re not particlarly interested in developing concepts for single apps, but would like to hear from owners of “branded content.” That pretty much says the value in these apps is Seuss or the Berenstain Bears, not the app itself. It’s all in the branding, not the so-called enhancement.

Maybe this new medium will one day re-invigorate the picture book, but what we’ve seen so far isn’t it. These apps need to do something new, something unheard of before, something not possible before. They can’t just reformat picture books with little cues about objects in them, but need to invent a totally new art form. In the meantime, I’ll stick with picture books. Maybe everyone on my list this year will get one, new titles by new authors.

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Kindle Singles: Is Amazon Becoming the New Gatekeeper?

I originally wasn’t going to mention Kindle Singles here, as it seemed pretty well covered just about everywhere else. For those not in the know, Amazon announced a new format last week for shorter works. In their words: 

Today, Amazon is announcing that it will launch “Kindle Singles”—Kindle books that are twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book. Kindle Singles will have their own section in the Kindle Store and be priced much less than a typical book. Today’s announcement is a call to serious writers, thinkers, scientists, business leaders, historians, politicians and publishers to join Amazon in making such works available to readers around the world.

The consensus here and there agrees that this is a splendid hing. Apparently I’m not the only one who’s read a mediocre non-fiction book that would make a magnificent essay. I’ve even written a few books where I had to add a certain amount of fluff. We needed enough words for a book, so that the price charged for the work would make the whole thing float. This marketing constraint no longer matters in the ebook world. Written works can be whatever length they need to be. And there is definitely a hole in the market for works longer than a solid article, but shorter than a full-fledged book. It’s amazing no one has called it out explicitly until now.

Then today I decided to visit this glorious Kindle Singles Store to see what was rising to the top of its bestseller list, only to realize that the coverage is really just about an announcement, not the actual product launch. There’s no Kindle Singles section of the Kindle Store, yet. The press release finishes with: “To be considered for Kindle Singles, interested parties should contact digital-publications@amazon.com”.

That’s the most interesting part of this announcement. There are tons of novella-length works already in the Kindle Store. (Check out “Honolulu Hottie” by my writing buddy Lancer Kind for just one great example.)  Amazon seems to be explicitly calling on non-fiction writers, and trying to curate some big-name fiction authors for the launch. That raises many questions. Is Amazon setting itself up as a new gatekeeper? Will they ultimately make all submissions available? And who exactly is at the other end of this e-mail alias? What do they think constitutes a “serious writer”?

My hunch is Amazon is looking to collect well-known names to roll out with much fanfare at the store’s launch, and then they’ll open the floodgates to all takers. But it’s an interesting approach to the free-for-all market that has defined the Kindle Store from the start.

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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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