Archive for the ‘Blog Entry’ Category
For the past few days the big kid has been playing The White Rabbit in a production of Alice in Wonderland. He did a fantastic job of acting and singing (by the end his voice was going and some of those higher notes were a struggle, but he survived it and had a lot of fun. Here’s a link to my flickr set of pics from the production
I was going to write up something about how the iPad may or may not change the game on the ebook market, but then Amazon apparently already has decided that Apple will change the game and is trying to hold on to their lead before the iPad comes out. Though we’ve not heard anything from Amazon at this point, the CEO of Macmillan (and entirely unbiased party I’m sure) has said that when negotiations on ebook pricing broke down with Amazon, that as retaliation Amazon pulled all Macmillan books from its catalog (ebook and dead-tree style). Sure enough you can’t buy a Macmillan book from Amazon this weekend, there has been much ranting and raving on the internets about this as a horrible negotiating tactic (the metaphor I’ve heard most is that amazon is throwing a tantrum and taking its toys and going home). I’m willing to wait for more complete information before I pass judgement.
When I finally found somebody who seemed to be writing about the subject and not their rage, or using the situation as a platform for their ideology, I posted a response on their blog. This piece by Tobias Buckell (edit, new link as Tobias’s host was crushed under the weight of internet traffic) was the one I posted to, and I’m going to post most of my response here.
For as much as I respect him, Cory (Doctorow) has an anti-DRM/license drum he’ll beat till it kills a horse and then he’ll use it to beat the horse… and though there are MANY points I agree with him on, his quasi-religious fervor for the subject makes it hard to take anything he says on the subject without a heavy dose of salt.
I know I’m a bit of an Amazon apologist (I worked there 10 years ago and even though they shut down our building and we all got layed-off, I still generally like them), but I have found it depressing/amusing/interesting that all of the commentary I’ve seen thus far, has been made without Amazon making a peep. I know a lot of people think this silence speaks volumes, internet time, blah blah. For me, I think I’ll at least give them a weekend to say something considering most of the information we have on the subject (aside from the Macmillan titles not being listed) comes from an open letter from the Macmillan CEO… which I don’t count as an exactly unbiased source.
All that said, IF this is just a negotiating tactic from Amazon, I totally understand it. I don’t particularly LIKE it, but if I were facing the media distribution juggernaut of Apple marching into my market space in 60 days, I’d be tempted to use the nuclear option sooner than later to make sure the contracts were as good as possible while I still had SOME leverage. Apple had the benefit of that leverage with music for quite a while before there was serious competition in that market. Amazon was probably another year or two away from having significant enough market for eBooks to not have to worry too much about Apple moving into its space.
I’m trying to look at what the three companies involved (because Apple IS involved in this, even if they’re not mentioned in the stories anywhere) are looking to accomplish. The short versions are:
Amazon: Wants to sell books. Selling Kindles is nice, but it’s only a means to an end for selling ebooks and having a significant portion of that market. They want leverage to charge what they want to charge, and generally what they want to charge is going to be something they think will encourage the use of their service/device over others in the market place.
Macmillan: Wants to sell books. They’re trying to adapt to a new world and new market and maintain their business and control. They are probably looking at the very real concerns to their business brought up in a digital distribution world where content creators can go directly to an audience (I don’t think this is their primary concern, but I do think they’re keeping it in mind lest Amazon or somebody similar create a means for bypassing the publishers that actually works and chewing into their business). They don’t want to be tied to any distributor like Amazon or Apple, and are hoping to use the leverage of their content to keep their level of control in the market.
Apple: Wants to sell iPads. I’ve read agents on twitter say that Amazon wants to keep the prices on the books low to make money selling Kindles. That is, in my mind, rather obviously wrong. But Apple has, almost from inception, been about selling the hardware. Apple makes a comparative pittance on iTunes songs, but they make a ton on each of us buying a new iPod every couple years… and they make a pretty penny on iPhone apps and such. Apple right now needs content for its new device (same as Amazon did/does), and as they’re not the big kid on the playground in the book space, they’ve GOT to be willing to negotiate on terms that are favorable to the publishers. They need publisher buy-in for the iBook store just like Amazon needed publisher buy-in for the Kindle a couple years back. As far as books go, for Apple (and I’m an Apple fanboy too I guess), they’re primarily another bullet point on the list of features for the iPad (though I’d be surprised if Steve isn’t smart enough to be negotiating Apple sweetheart deals from publishers to allow the publishers pricing control to use as leverage against Amazon).
All three players have their strengths in this “battle”, and all have their weaknesses. Apple has the benefit of being 2 months removed from really being involved. Amazon & Macmillan have the benefit of ebooks being a relatively small percentage of their income. The main people who are talking about it are the ones who are potential collateral damage, the artists. I suspect this will be a few days blip on the historical radar of the book publishing industry soon… In the short term it seems Amazon has played its hand poorly, but I think we won’t know the big picture for a little while.
Yeah, sorry about that. The things I want to write about, aren’t the things for the very limited audience that visits this site. In general I don’t have an outlet for those things, so I don’t write them anywhere. For the family and friends, check the Flickr feed (which is WAY behind since all the pictures live on Alicia’s Macbook and SHE only wants to upload to her Facebook friends) and maybe the youtube channel. Happy Holidays.
Disclaimer: I’m largely going to discuss logistics of the eBook from an industry perspective and not a discussion of their validity as a replacement for the dead tree book on an emotional level. Too many of the complaints I’ve seen about eBook adoption relate to “oh I’d miss the smell of paper” and such. I enjoy listening to music on vinyl records still, but I recognize that it isn’t the most practical format to take with me to work, or on vacation. Likewise I’ll never get rid of every “normal” book in my house, but there are some scenarios in which I can see the eBook being a practical option. As the title of the old Wordtrip podcast pointed out: “It’s the Story Stupid”.
Disclaimer 2: I wrote most of this around the time the Kindle 2 came out which means some of it may be dated.
Before I start to talk (yet again) about the Kindle and the eBook industry, I want to do what everybody else has done, talk about iTunes and the music industry. This is obviously a flawed metaphor for comparison with the book industry, but it may be the best we can do. Back in 1999 Napster had owned the market, such as it was, on digital music delivery. If you wanted to hear a song all you needed to do was search Napster and it was there. Napster was a thing of consumer beauty. What it wasn’t, was a means of supporting the artists. Napster was free, and the service was free, and nobody was really getting paid for any of it (including, and especially, the artists). Some artists realized that this helped their market overall and contributed to their fan base, some artists realized it was stealing, and Napster realized that it wouldn’t be able to do things that way for much longer. The story goes that Napster went to the music industry execs and said essentially “we’ll pay you to legitimize this, what should we charge the users and what cut do we give you?” and the music industry decided it was too much of a threat to their existing business model and rather than help the consumer get what they wanted (music, ubiquitous can-find-whatever-I-want-easily-at-a-reasonable-price music) they shut down Napster.
While other peer-to-peer technologies arose, none gained the level of ubiquity that Napster had in its heyday, and nobody made “pay for digital music” mainstream until Apple introduced the iTunes music store to go with its already-successful iPod. There were a few subscription based music services which hadn’t taken off (commonly believed to have been largely due to the controls put on the music making it less useful for the consumer), and a few other pay for tracks & albums stores around, eMusic did it wonderfully for independent artists, but it was iTunes that really made it so all the kids could buy their pop songs on-line, feed them into their iPods, and allow the artists, producers, and Apple, to make money. Apple did this by doing something fundamentally less-good for the consumer, applying DRM to the iTunes song files, that convinced the music industry it was “OK” and people weren’t just going to be stealing the content. This gave Apple leverage to maintain the pricing structure they wanted and sell billions of songs. Eventually the music industry realized they had ceded more control than they wanted to Apple, and that the consumer would still (even prefer to) pay for cheap and easy-to-get songs without the DRM and everybody could still make money. The music industry decided to allow other digital music stores to sell their products without DRM before they would allow Apple to drop the DRM from their own, supposedly in hopes of wresting some of that control back from Apple. Probably the biggest of these other stores is the Amazon mp3 store where you can buy music for comparable prices to iTunes, in a high quality format, and have it auto-populate into iTunes for syncing with an iPod.
Apple still has the largest market in the digital music space, and even though they’ve dropped DRM they’re still using a proprietary format that primarily works in only their players (though now without DRM it is apparently trivial to convert those files into something that will play on any mp3 player). Many people think this has given them a monopoly in their market, because they’ve essentially locked the consumer into playing their music on Apple products. However I think one of the main reasons the iPod rose to success was because it not only allowed people to easily obtain music from the iTunes store, but because it always had the capability to play standard MP3s which people already had in their collection (some had Napster provided libraries, but many had also converted their CD collections into a digital format). It remains to be seen whether or not they’ll be able to maintain their hardware and/or software dominance now that the users can buy music in multiple places and for many other devices. This being locked in by the content they sold was much of the complaint pointed in their direction because it was less than ideal for the consumer (it has been argued well and many times by Cory Doctorow, see resource section for links).
All the blathering above is an attempt to lay the groundwork for discussion on the Kindle and ebooks. Now I want to speak to some of the pros and cons of the Kindle, and how it can succeed, how it might fail, and what it (and ebooks in general) might mean for the future of publishing. I’ll largely be ignoring the textbook and “assigned reading” market for the time being, not because they’re insignificant, but because they’re such a different beast (though I may touch on them later in the discussion).
Like music, ebooks have been around in multiple formats for many years. Like music, the publishing industry is concerned about the ability of the consumer to digitally copy a file they haven’t paid for instead of purchasing their own. Like music, the publishing industry is also worried about losing control as the gatekeepers of content to the general public. Unlike music however, no ubiquitous free means of sharing ebooks has cropped up (no ebook Napster). As with the iPod before it, the Kindle has come into a space where there exists other options for the consumer, some arguably better for the reading experience, or better for the end user options. There are other places selling ebooks besides Amazon.com, but, as with iTunes before it, the Kindle is the first to do a reasonably good job of making it easy for the consumer to purchase digital content in a relatively seamless way. Also like the iPod before it the hardware provider has a product which is not on the low end of the price spectrum, and the content distribution method has some pricing controls put in place that allow the distributor (Apple with iTunes, Amazon with Kindle) to set pricing structure to suit their needs.
While few people will argue that books are an industry which makes a significant amount of money, the purchasing habits of the book buying audience are vastly different than that of the music industry. The music industry is largely, if not primarily, driven by a young pre-teen through college age consumer who spends a not insignificant percentage of their disposable income on music. The book buying consumer base is broader and older. (I would insert real statistics here if I had them) My estimation is that in the US there are 10-20 million consumers of 10-20 new CDs each year, but for books the number of consumers who buy 10-20 new books a year of their own choosing is probably closer to the 1-2 million. Aside from the airline customer, generally a book purchase isn’t an impulse driven one. Many of us buy CDs, discover we only like half the tracks, and are OK with that. Rarely would we be happy enough to go back to an author if we only liked half of a book. So, in addition to the relatively obvious lack of a 99 cent book “section” corollary to a song, you have the vastly different purchasing trends that make digital distribution of books a different, and less easily adopted, market.
The cost issue is another one which complicates the ebook market. With music there is the obvious option of selling individual songs in addition to complete albums. With books it hasn’t been a viable option to sell individual chapters or serialized installments thus far. The closest corollary to a “song” is a short story, but the short story market has dried up a good bit (yes, you can still find/buy/sell short stories, but the market is one vastly different than that in which writers thirty years ago participated). Seemingly more people looking for that sort of short term entertainment have turned to television, and there is a whole discussion to be had about that at some point. Serialization would be a possible option (Stephen King tried this a few years back), but unlike a song, most serials aren’t usable without the rest of the “album”.
I know some have argued that ebooks are so much cheaper than dead tree books, but for the most part the discounted price on ebooks comes from the unknown independent artist, small press, or subsidized cost (as with the Kindle). As iTunes indicated, it wasn’t the indies who drove the market to a digital distribution (otherwise eMusic would’ve won that market), it was when you could get the very popular mass market artists available for download that digital distribution took off. Likewise, with literature it’s the Steven King, JK Rowling, Dan Brown, and Michael Crichton’s of the market who will drive enough people to ebooks and ebook readers.
One problem with a musical analogy is that most musical artists don’t make the bulk of their money from the production and sale of records, but from their live performances. As with Radio, a musician can almost give away their “product” and it not hurt their bottom line. Writer’s don’t have that one off performance based income. While you can take a segment of the retail cost out of the equation by not having to produce a physical book, the writer has a much more vested interest in getting paid for the consumption of his work in book form than a musician does in recorded form.
There are alternatives to the Kindle that each have their own strengths and weaknesses. The Cool-er eBook reader being one that got a bit of press recently and seems to answer some of the flaws in the Kindle; cheaper hardware, expandable, etc. Though the Cool-er and Sony both lack the killer function the Kindle nailed in revision one: “free” wireless access to download books almost anywhere and anytime. One can argue that the access isn’t free because of the price of the hardware, but it is functionally free to the user who purchases a Kindle.
The Amazon Kindle is sucking the air out of the room for other ebook readers on the market because, like iTunes and the iPod it has the integrated distribution system which makes it convenient for the consumer and comes from the largest on-line book seller. Also, like iTunes, it allows people to use at least some of their existing ebook formats. Unfortunately, also like iTunes/iPod, it uses a custom DRM. The competing DRM options may cause adoption issues from a user standpoint. If I purchase a book from Sony, or Amazon, I can’t read that on another reader. Amazon seems to be making an effort to mitigate this by developing Kindle apps for other devices (though currently it is only available for the iPhone). The main thing Amazon needs to do for their own sake is drive the market for long enough so people have enough Kindle format books in their “library” so that switching to another format would be costly or troublesome. This may not be best for the user, but if Amazon begins to license ability to read Kindle format books on competing hardware it may be enough of an incentive to push further adoption.
One of the keys to the adoption of the iPod/iTunes model was that people were able to use their existing library of songs, and the Kindle DX with its PDF support has made some steps in the right direction for those who already had e-books in that format. Though most people don’t have all that many ebooks in their collection, so one way to increase adoption rapidly would be to offer an “upgrade to ebook” where any book you’ve purchased from Amazon in dead tree format in the past could be purchased for your Kindle for $1-3. The publisher has already been paid for it, and the cost would mitigate the loss they may experience by you selling your original copy into the used book realm.
Kindle may be sucking the air out of the room right now, but if publishers want to keep Amazon from having the stranglehold on them that Apple has (or had) on the music industry it would behoove them to work out a format of their own with some sort of “upgrade to ebook” path that could be sold with the books and/or through retailers. Barnes & Noble would seem a good partner from a publishing standpoint where anybody could bring in their copy of a book, have the barcode scanned and covered with an “ebook right sold” sticker of some form and get that book automagically added to their master on-line ebook library accessible from any computer or wireless ebook reader. This could even be set up as a kiosk that could be installed in your local Starbucks where they could also have readers available to borrow while you’re having your cup of joe. You’d just need to sign-on to your account and have instant access to your library anywhere.
I don’t think ebooks will entirely replace dead tree books for quite a long time, if ever, but there are many places and uses where an ebook reader could be a much more practical than dead tree books. The ebook reader will almost never have the romance of dead tree books, but for textbooks books that would need updating (a part of your tuition could go to your annual textbook subscription), or technical books (with a baseline book cost and an upgrade fee each time the software/language/operating system was updated), or even summer “beach book” titles at a handy discount to reflect lowered production costs.
There are a few other ideas (probably much better than mine) in some of the articles listed in the resource section at the bottom of this post. I’d love to hear your thoughts on eBooks and how you think the market will shape up in the future.
Notes: Articles on the Kindle, eBooks, and publishing which wereused/read in preparation for writing the above piece:
And a violin recital
And some other stuff… but I’ll get into that later.
The following was my long-winded response to a member on Wordtrip regarding his dismissal of the Kindle because a retailer pushing their proprietary format “never works” in his opinion, and that he thought the device that will really be the tipping point for ebooks will be an “iPod” that plays anything.
The iPod was A big gun in the portable music market, but it was when they introduced the iTunes music store selling their proprietary audio format that locked people into using the iPod to keep using their newly purchased collection, that it became THE big gun in the portable music market (even though it was way more expensive than the competition).
The iPod always played mp3s, just like the Kindle will display PDF and HTML and DOC formats, but it was the easy digital delivery and purchasing of proprietary AAC, which gave the producers happy feelings about their stuff not being stolen, that made the legal on-line music market (and they’ve sold a few billion songs that way before going DRM free). Now you’ve got a lot of DRM free versions of music (amazon’s mp3 store for example) because the producers didn’t like to be locked into Apple, and what I suspect will happen is something similar when the Kindle has shown enough publishers that people will pay for digital content the producers will then start unlocking it for other eBook readers.
The Phone idea isn’t unlikely per se, and the Kindle app for iPhone is a step in that direction (they’re apparently going to be making for other devices as well), though I think the BIG dig against a blackberry/phone concept is that having read a few things on the iPhone and Blackbery, it’s just not as comfortable to try and read any quantity of content on a small screen. For me I think the more likely scenario would be something in the Netbook realm which cost about the same (or less) than an iPhone/smartphone, are about the size of a large hardback, and have a large subset of the computer functions. Acer (or Asus) has demoed that dual-touch-screen netbook that could be used as normal netbook, or held open like a book and read. They’re already working built-in wi-fi and cell in the netbooks, so if they tweak that technology a bit to allow for longer battery life it could be a Kindle killer (even though with a browser and mp3 player built in already the Kindle is going to make other people work for it).
The thing to notice on Amazon though is that, unlike Apple who keeps a stranglehold on “their market”, Amazon has shown incredible willingness to market their competitors. If you go to Amazon and search for a product, they show the used and new people selling items cheaper than they do AND if it’s a non-book product they usually default a sale to the cheapest people selling it even if they sell it as well. I’m not sure how they’d monetize that in a digital content market, but I’m not sure they couldn’t come up with a way. Bezos tries to be very customer-centric in the company’s decisions.
Secondarily an eBook reader will almost by design be a one-off market catering to a higher-end customer UNLESS the book industry figures out a way to drop prices on digital books to be consistently at the paperback (sub $Cool price range. Most people I know who are book lovers don’t go buy every hardback they own at retail price. Most are used book store people who pick up a ton of their collection at sub $3 per book pricing. The main market for the eBook is going to be the business traveler who would otherwise be buying a book in the airport.
Yes, I realize it has been over a month since my last post. I had worked on a few posts that haven’t made it out, but largely been taking a break to do some more reading. Then, when I decided I wanted to post a couple things in the last few days, I’ve discovered that Ecto has developed an issue on my iBook and hangs whenever I try and save or publish a blog post.
So, in short, while I try and fix my issues (and upgrade to the latest Wordpress).
A) Go buy Jamie Ford’s new book “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet”, it’s great, and you want to get the first edition before it hits the NYT lists (something I’m confident it should do, even if it’s “only” been in the top 100 on bn.com and near it on amazon so far… it’s going to make that leap).
B) Go buy/read Neil Gaiman’s newly Newburried “The Graveyard Book”
C) Go watch the Digital 3D version of “Coraline” which was absolutely beautiful and brilliant.
I killed my install of Ecto and re-installed and it seems to have worked. Also upgraded the blog to 2.7.1 finally. Now just trying to get new install of Ecto and Wordpress to talk nicely and get me a copy of all my old posts local.
This sort of thought experiment is likely only useful to philosophers, researchers, and novelists… but as somebody who fancies himself aspirational to at least two of those titles I think I almost have to comment.
To be truly evil, someone must have sought to do harm by planning to commit some morally wrong action with no prompting from others (whether this person successfully executes his or her plan is beside the point). The evil person must have tried to carry out this plan with the hope of “causing considerable harm to others,” Bringsjord says. Finally, “and most importantly,” he adds, if this evil person were willing to analyze his or her reasons for wanting to commit this morally wrong action, these reasons would either prove to be incoherent, or they would reveal that the evil person knew he or she was doing something wrong and regarded the harm caused as a good thing.
One of the truisms in fiction writing I find most interesting, is that your villains shouldn’t think of themselves as villains. Very rarely do people, no matter how “objectively evil” they seem, really think of themselves as “the bad guy” in a story. This is often culled down to “we’re all the heroes of our own tales” or something of the sort. Part of the way around this (particularly in fiction) is that so few people are willing to analyze their own reasons for doing anything beyond some basic set of political or religious ethics that one can almost ignore this and just paint them as the mustachioed maniacal bad guy.
As a parent I watch a lot of kids movies and read a fair number of kid’s books and it’s particularly noticeable to me when somebody doesn’t fall for this easy out. The one that jumped out at me when I started to think about this was Disney’s Meet the Robinsons of a few years ago. The bad guy has a handle-bar mustache, evil laugh, bad teeth, BO, and wears a bowler hat, as almost stereotypical as they could make him, but then they give him motivation and a reason, and show how he got there (and give him a path back). The Incredibles has Syndrome who is given a real motivation and character development. Princess Mononoke (not exactly a “kids” movie) has several characters that might be described as “bad” along the way, but they all have motivations that aren’t entirely unreasonable. In literature one of my favorite books is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and he goes so far as to make the (apparent) antagonists (the “Buggers”) through most of the book become something akin to a secondary protagonist by the end (or at least by the third and fourth books in the series) and does a wonderful job of showing the “humanity” in both the “good” guys and the “bad” guys.
In the realm of philosophy it is easy for us to villainize “the other guy” for their ridiculous religious or political beliefs which are so obviously wrong to us that our opponent must be evil. I think the challenge for us, as reasoned members of civilization, is to recognize the flaws in our own thinking, as well as the flaws in others’ thinking, and attempt to create an exchange of this understanding. This should be much easier to do when we’re talking the difference between a republican and a democrat in the US, than it is between a liberal Christian (or atheist) in the affluent west who wants to “live and let live” and somebody from an impoverished nation where versions of Islam (and other religions) have fostered a hate for outsiders and those unwilling to convert (or even a hatred for those unwilling to hate those who won’t convert), but that doesn’t excuse us from trying.
Three Cups of Tea (which I think I’ve talked about before) is the true story of Greg Mortenson who is approaching this problem in, what I think is, a correct way; by working to educate young children (especially girls) in impoverished areas. By educating the poorest of the poor he’s helping give them a means of improving their life and therefor improving their overall view of life and the rest of the people living it. (I’m not saying violence is never justified as a means of stopping other violence, just that it’s not generally viable as the only “solution” to a problem).
I think the key to remember is that while we can easily say there are evil actions, it is much harder to identify a truly evil person… most of us (”us” being humanity) are trying to do “what is right” by the definitions we have formed, and have been given by the society around us.
I’ve had this sitting in my “to write” queue, and realized that I don’t actually need to write anything. I just hope that somebody succeeds in this space.
In a nutshell, there is a huge, inelastic demand for college texts, even though textbook prices are high. Because of this there is a lot of piracy and a robust secondary market for textbooks — but not for long, because they are updated every couple of years, rendering old editions virtually worthless.
Flat World’s business plan aims to exploit the inefficiencies: Its books are online and free. Instead of charging for content it aims to make money by wrapping content up in “convenient” downloadable and print wrappers and selling those, along with study aides and related items.
Scott Adams (aka “the Dilbert guy”) has one of the most interesting and entertaining blogs out there. I’d like to think I’d be as witty and interesting were I to have the money to spend the time just “thinking” as he does… but that’s probably just me being generous with myself. One of his recent posts was all about the “failures” of capitalism and what we can expect in the future.
Things change. It’s the nature of the universe. Yesterday’s greatest ideas give way to ideas that are better, or better suited to the present, or at least different. Change is the only thing on which you can depend.
So what about capitalism?
I think capitalism had a good run, but it will soon be done. Socialism will be too expensive to maintain as the world economies slow, and communism won’t be making a comeback. The economies of the future will be something new.
Capitalism was conceived before the Internet, and before the gears of commerce became computerized. The system could absorb a lot of con artists because they didn’t have the ability to steal fast enough to cripple the system. As you know, that has changed. Crooks in expensive suits now have the ability to swindle trillions, collectively, thanks to the efficiency of the system. And idiots in expensive suits can do even more damage.
I don’t know what capitalism’s second act will look like, but it probably involves preventing individuals from being as self-destructive as they would prefer.
I think two points could be made here (ok, probably more than two points COULD be made, but I’m only going to try and make two). A) Capitalism isn’t pure anymore anyway so this is a moot point, and B) It’s more likely to be a continuous evolution of the free market and capitalism based economic systems than some sort of economic revolution.