Sunday, January 31, 2010


Forever (that is, 16 months) I have scraped articles off the web and downloaded them as text to my smartphone to read while I waited for carryout - or anywhere else I had minutes to kill. These are handy and comfortable to read on the 2.3" screen except the system doesn't hold my place and I have to scroll down to continue every time I get interrupted.

I recently took a trip and was anticipating 30 hours in transit and 6 plane changes. Naturally, I wanted to travel very light and not lug the stack of magazines that is my usual diversion. On my trip, since I carried a different phone (because of coverage), I downloaded a couple books to my old PDA so I could have entire novels on a 3.5" screen at 10 oz (including charger). This worked perfectly as I read one book on the way out and finished the other on the way home. I had the books I wanted, not whatever was in the airport newstand, and still have them when I got home. Incidentally, in the same pocket; I carried my contacts list, schedule, ticket and event confirmations, MP3 player, backup memory for my photos, notepad, and calculator.

Digital journalism was a natural fit for the personal computer as soon as the web was a widespread distribution medium. Music became virtual in a big hurry, followed by movies and television. Books without paper will be the next traditional medium to fall.

Actually, Project Gutenberg started to digitize books in 1971 with a goal of distributing and preserving out-of-copyright books. In 2004, Google announced it would partner with prominent libraries to digitize entire collections. Other, less prominent, projects are also working to turn literature into bits.

The market problem has never been content. Whether Gutenberg's 30,000 titles or Google's 7,000,000; the real question is who wants to drag their computer into bed with them and read off a screen. Whether the morning newspaper, or War and Peace, a computer does not have the familiarity and versatility of dead trees. Often there are also issues with the presentation be they intrusive advertising; fixed size and length of text that may not be comfortable on your screen; or scanned images that aren't text, and may not be sharp either.

For content that is expected to be read offline, resourceful people have always been able to move it to a PDA such as a Palm or Windows handheld. More recently with the introduction of E Ink ; Sony, Amazon, and now, a host of other companies offer a reader that is, not an exact replica, but competitive in feel to a paperback book. And Apple, this week, promise to up the market with their iPad which features a full-color touch screen instead of the gray-on-gray of the current generation of E Ink. (Disclaimer: I have not actually seen or held dedicated readers. My comments are hearsay.) At least as significantly, most of the device vendors include a store to buy the books. Not only can a non-geek now get a device to read books and periodicals but they can also load it up with content as easily as they load their MP3 player with music.

When Amazon introduced the Kindle in 2007, it included a revolutionary flat-rate price of $9.95 for best sellers. Naturally publishers were not happy with this 50%-60% or more discount off the usual cover price for books on paper. But consider that mass-market books rarely sell for list. Also, there is no marginal cost for each additional copy of the book sold. If a $25 book wholesales for $10 and costs $6 to produce and distribute; plus another, maybe, $2.50 for the author; the publisher will get $1.50-$4.00 clear profit per copy. They can make the same profit by sending the electronic manuscript furnished by the author or editor to Amazon or any other distributor for $5-$7 for each copy sold. Even if the sales are totally cannibalistic, the publisher has nothing to lose. (Here, Apple threatens to break the model by allowing the publishers to set their own price - which is the opposite of what the iTunes store did in 2000.)

Although each device is linked to its own bookstore, they are also multipurpose. They can display content in other, generic, formats and play MP3s. Some may have software to read a book out loud. Some may have a wireless connection for content and web browsing while others have to be linked to a computer to upload books. And using a PDA, smartphone, or netbook as a reader may offer other computer features such as a calendar, contact list, or writing and calculating tools.

Most book formats, especially paid ones, can be resized and automatically reflow according to your visual needs. For example, what might be a 325 page paperback was 411 "pages" on my PC and 1934 "pages" on my PDA. You also may want to consider features that enhance the readability. These might include placemarkers, search capability, ability to add notes, and the ability to move books to another device or share them with friends. Even the quality of how the table of contents or index links into the book can affect your experience.

If you want to dip your toe into ebooks, a web search will turn up a plethora of sources for books in a variety of formats that you can read on a laptop or smartphone you already own. Then you can decide whether you want to buy a dedicated device or go back to paper. If you read 2 books a month, you might be able to recover the cost of a Kindle within a year; plus you won't have to build another bookshelf or run to the consignment store.

One site I've gone to experience ebooks is where the author self-publishes his books in a variety of formats. Try it out for yourself!

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