Nook: So far, so good

A couple of days ago, my wife gave me a Nook for my birthday. It is the first e-reader I have owned, and so far I have been very impressed.

Until now, I have not been willing to make the switch to ebooks. The first-generation e-ink screens always looked murky, and the machines themselves — the early Kindles especially — were just plain ugly.

But the new Nook, which B&N has saddled with the dreary name Nook Simple Touch Reader, has been a revelation. The 6-inch e-ink screen is very clear and bright. The case has an elegant, simple design. Clearly B&N has studied the uncluttered look of touch-screen iPods. They’ve stripped away virtually everything but the screen itself and a comfortable, thick, grippy, rubbery bezel to hold it by. No more dual screens or physical keypads. There are still a few well-disguised buttons on the case (on the front, a home key and page-forward and page-back buttons, plus a power button on the back), but the Nook is primarily controlled by its touch screen.

About that touch screen: All e-ink displays rely on some secondary technology to make them touch-sensitive. Early e-readers used a physical layer overlaid on the e-ink display, but the result was to make the screen hazy and dull. The new Nook’s touch screen uses infrared sensors rather than physical pressure to determine where your finger is. The sensors are arrayed unobtrusively around the edge of the screen. So it is not a true touch screen. In fact, I have found you can turn the page without quite making contact with the surface of the screen, so long as your finger comes close enough to trip the sensors. The end result is not as good as back-lit displays like the iPad. The Nook’s touch screen is less responsive, less precise. But you get used to it quickly. I have found typing and swiping on the Nook very comfortable. And the tradeoff is well worth it for the benefits of e-ink: a very sharp display without the eye fatigue caused by back-lighting, plus very, very long battery life (two months for the Nook, according to B&N). The only concern with the Nook’s touch-screen system is that over time the screen is likely to get dirty and smudged from my oily fingertips, and of course an e-ink screen can’t be cleaned with Windex.

Enough about the hardware. What about the experience?

I have found reading on the Nook absolutely exhilarating. Halfway through my first ebook, Colm Toibin’s wonderful The Master, I actually prefer it to physical books. Until now I have sympathized with the traditionalists who cherish the tactile experience of a “real” book. But the Nook has changed my mind. It is so much lighter and easier to hold than a 400-page book. To hold a big book effortlessly with one hand is a completely new experience. The ability to adjust the font, type size, and line spacing is also wonderful, since viewing conditions change throughout the day.

Yes, an ebook is less beautiful than a traditional book. Yes, something is lost when we stop thinking of “books” as physical objects. But I’d underestimated the benefits of going digital. So, to the traditionalists: It is not about which format is “better.” It is about adding a new format for books, not replacing the old format with a new one.

My sunny response to the Nook may be affected by the fact I am a writer. To me, my own novels have never been the paper-and-ink objects that readers buy; those are just the containers in which the novels are shipped. And for the most part the packaging is not my own work. What I create is just the string of words inside the covers, the text. All the rest — the cover art, the jacket copy, the typeface, the page layout — is all done by the publisher. To see all that stripped away, leaving just the text itself, returns the book to the essential thing that the writer himself made. Anyway, every writer is used to seeing books this way, as unadorned text on a screen — that is how they look as they are being written.

Reading on my Nook, I feel surprisingly encouraged about the future of publishing. The device itself generates excitement about books. Even now, I can’t wait to pick up the Nook and get back to The Master. I can’t wait to buy more ebooks, too. After so many years of reading, it is exciting to experience books in this new way. I suspect I will end up reading more than I have before. During those evening hours after the kids go to sleep, when I might have turned on the laptop and drifted off in a web trance, now I am likely to turn on the Nook instead for a quieter, more focused, less distracted reading experience. (Caveat: when I’m really writing well, I can’t read anything at all, so we’ll have to wait and see whether I actually wind up reading more books.) Surely I’m not alone in reacting this way. I can easily imagine the inexorable adoption of ebooks triggering more reading, not less, hardly the end-of-days scenario the doomsayers have been going on about.

Ebooks are a different way to experience a novel. In some ways better, purer. Just you and the text. There is complete privacy — no signaling to others about what you are reading, no book cover to invite them into the experience, to trigger a conversation. And no book designer to frame the experience for you, to color your perception of the book with an “important” cover or deckle-edged pages or heavy paper. Just the words, the happy dream of the story itself. I like it.

I’ll let you know whether I still like the ebook experiment after a while, when the novelty has worn off. But so far, so good.

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The Death of Print

See if you can discern the subtle pattern in these numbers. (Via.)

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The end of the shy author?

What usually gets lost in the perpetual refrain about authors becoming their own marketers is that there’s no particular connection between writing talent and a gift for self-promotion.

— Laura Miller, “Writer, Sell Thyself”

In a world where authors are expected to self-promote — and someday, perhaps, self-publish — would Salinger or Harper Lee or Thomas Pynchon, reclusive introverts all, have found an audience? Are we about to lose the writer, however brilliant, whose only gift is writing? Read the article.

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Seth Godin: Ten Bestsellers

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This video is not new. It is Seth Godin’s presentation at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference in February 2008. But I loved it at the time and still do. It is one of the few discussions of the digital publishing revolution that get me excited about the future rather than just scaring the hell out of me. Godin is a great speaker, self-promoter, and motivator, but there’s plenty of ideas here for ordinary mortals, too.

I recommended the video to a writer-friend today who is gearing up to promote his book, then I had trouble tracking it down on the web, mostly because I could not remember the name of it. So here it is, John: “10 Bestsellers: Using New Media, New Marketing, and New Thinking to Create 10 Bestselling Books.” Enjoy.

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What are books good for?

So what are books good for? My best answer is that books produce knowledge by encasing it. Books take ideas and set them down, transforming them through the limitations of space into thinking usable by others.… [T]he two cultures of the contemporary world are the culture of data and the culture of narrative. Narrative is rarely collective. It isn’t infinitely expandable. Narrative has a shape and a temporality, and it ends, just as our lives do. Books tell stories. Scholarly books tell scholarly stories.

— William Germano

Read the whole essay here. I’m not sure there’s really anything new in it, but it is an interesting consideration of what the word “book” means in the digital era and a good case for the continuing relevance of the codex — you know, the kind of book made out of paper, ink and glue. (via ALD)

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Why the novel will survive the disappearance of the book

Media evolution, of course, does claim casualties. But most often, these are means of distribution or storage, especially physical ones that can be transformed into digital bits. Photographic film is supplanted, but people take more pictures than ever. CD’s no longer dominate, as music is more and more distributed online. “Books, magazines and newspapers are next,” predicts Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the M.I.T. Media Lab. “Text is not going away, nor is reading. Paper is going away.”

New York Times, 8.22.10

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Is an ebook still a book?

When a printed book is transferred to an electronic device connected to the Internet, it turns into something very like a Web site.

— Nicholas Carr, “The Post-Book Book,” quoting his own upcoming book The Shallows

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Will e-novels be shorter?

Ephraim Rubenstein - Still Life With Burned Books

A few weeks ago, over on Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell wrote a post that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

I would estimate that about 80% of the non-academic non-fiction books that I do not find a complete waste of time (i.e. good books in politics, economics etc — I can’t speak to genres that I don’t know) are at least twice as long as they should be. They make an interesting point, and then they make it again, and again, padding it out with some quasi-relevant examples, and tacking on a conclusion about What It All Means which the author clearly doesn’t believe herself. The length of the average book reflects the economics of the print trade and educated guesses as to what book-buyers will actually pay for, much more than it does the actual intellectual content of the book itself. Length may also, of course, reflect some practical judgments concerning the book as a display object.

He went on to predict “an explosion in the number of very short books/essays” as we move to a world of electronic publishing, because buyers will not be put off by shorter books when they can’t actually see (or display) them as physical objects.

I hope he is right, of course. The extinction of padded-out nonfiction books would be good news for everyone, except maybe Malcolm Gladwell.

But what struck me most about the post was how rare it is to see a discussion of how this new medium will affect books themselves. The conversation about ebooks is obsessed with the business of publishing. Which traditional publishers will survive, which won’t? Which reader will dominate, iPad or Kindle or something else? How will authors get by when publishers’ margins approach zero, as resellers like Amazon drive down prices and tent-pole authors find they don’t need traditional publishing houses at all? In all this, relatively little is said about the books.

What about fiction? In a world of ebooks, will fiction shrink, too?

I think it will, but not for the same reason. Unlike nonfiction, which begins to feel overstretched when there are more pages than ideas, there is no “natural” length for a story. Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby are equally masterpieces, of unequal length. I just finished Wolf Hall, a cinderblock of a book, but it did not feel overlong at all. If anything, it ended too soon. (I raved about it here.) The test is whether a story works dramatically. Even a very short story can feel too long.

And that is what will force novels to shrink: as we increasingly move to reading on screens, everything begins to feel too long. The reading public is losing its ability to stay focused on a longer text. Online, readers are conditioned to graze, to nibble and move on. Even the verbs we use for reading on the internet, browse, surf, suggest how superficial the experience feels. These increasingly are our readers, of fiction and nonfiction alike: harried, restless, impatient.

Worse, ebooks will increasingly share the same screens as the rest of the digital tsunami. No longer will you turn off your computer and open a book in peace. The iPad and whatever is likely to follow will be fully web-enabled, so the whole Times Square of the internet will always be one click away. For the moment, dedicated ebook-reading devices like the Kindle offer a quieter reading environment, but that is likely to change as more versatile devices like the iPad enter the market.

I have seen my own patience for long books begin to shrivel. So many novels now seem to drag, particularly in the second act. To be fair, part of it may be other pressures: between two young kids and working, I am squeezed for time. But part of it is the distracted feeling we all share today. It is the way we read now.

I have begun to tune my own writing accordingly. I made a conscious decision to make my third novel shorter than my first two by about 20%. Most of the tightening is in that critical second act, where the pace tends to slow down and the plot often wanders, to no real purpose. I am keenly aware that this novel will be competing with an array of new media and that my hold on the reader’s attention is precarious, and it scares the hell out of me. My competition  is not other novelists; it is all the other media crowding onto my readers’ screens and into their minds, try as they might to shut them out. I simply can’t afford to shuffle my feet for a hundred pages and expect the reader to still be there for act three.

Of course, there is nothing new about novelists shaping their work to the tastes of contemporary audiences. Dickens’ novels are long and intricately plotted because that was what his audience demanded. He generally wrote for serial publication in periodicals, so his stories had to extend and ramify over very long periods, like modern TV series. (HBO’s “The Wire” was often compared to Dickens’ stories, and rightly so.) Serial publication also allowed Dickens to monitor how his books were being received and tweak them as he went along to give readers what they wanted.

It is hard to give readers what they want, of course, because it is impossible to know what they want. But I suspect that shorter novels will increasingly become the norm, just as shorter nonfiction will. This, it should be noted, is a hopeful prediction. Better that novels go on a diet than die out altogether.

Image: “Still Life With Burned Books” by Ephraim Rubenstein (oil on linen, 38″ x 50″).

The View from Below: A midlist author watches the ebook wars

This week, the battle over Amazon’s bid to corner the market on ebook sales — to establish itself as the iTunes of digital books — seemed to turn a corner. On one side, Amazon announced Steven Covey will abandon S&S to grant ebook rights to Amazon. On the other side, a consensus began to emerge in the publishing community that Amazon’s deep discounts on ebooks amount to predatory, possibly illegal monopoly-building — an effort to starve out its competitors. (You can read the gory details here, here, here, and here.)

In the end, I don’t think Amazon will succeed in becoming the iTunes of ebooks, not because Amazon is well-intentioned (it is not), but because it does not have the leverage. Apple was able to dominate digital music because of the iPod, which so clearly leapfrogged its competitors in terms of design, ease of use, and wide acceptance that it put Apple in position to dictate terms to its suppliers. It was hardware that won Apple its monopoly. Amazon has no such advantage. The Kindle is no iPod. To me, the Kindle seems primitive, clumsy, and ugly. It does some things well, but inevitably something better will come along, and soon, from a company with a better knack for design and technology. Smart phones may already be a better platform for reading ebooks. If nothing else, smart phones have the advantage of ubiquity: millions of people already have one in their pocket.

So I understand the publishing community’s hysteria over Amazon’s monopoly bid, but I don’t quite share it — not yet, anyway.

What I do not understand is the blithe, almost gleeful fatalism that tech geeks seem to feel about the struggles of traditional publishers to cope with the leap to digital.

Among the propeller heads, the prevailing view seems to be that Big Publishing is a horse-and-buggy business. Sudden technological change has rendered it irrelevant. All those editors and publicists in gaudy Manhattan offices — no longer needed. Ebook is to Big Publishing as asteroid was to dinosaur. Pity, but that’s the way it goes. End of story.

Certainly that’s the way it goes with web businesses. Amazon poleaxed the brick-and-mortar bookstores because it found a more efficient way to sell books. So if Amazon (or whoever) succeeds in cornering the ebook space, too, why sweat it? To the fastest, leanest, nimblest competitor go the spoils — and Lord knows, Big Publishing is none of those things.

To techies, it is all about maximizing efficiency. They wonder, What exactly do traditional publishing houses add to a writer’s work except cost — the added cost built into the price of every book to support this bloated, doomed, lumbering, inefficient, lazy, parasitic, contemptible industry? To them, Big Pub is precisely the sort of pathetic dinosaur the web specializes in obliterating.

Except that it’s not. Because publishers are not in the business people think they are, at least they are not only in that business. When people are asked what exactly it is that publishers do, the answers that usually come back are “gatekeeping” (filtering the publishable manuscripts from the dreck) and the various sub-tasks involved in manufacturing books (editing, book design, publicity, etc.). Those things are valuable, but if that was all traditional publishers did, I would say, Bring on the asteroid. There is probably more to be gained in the super-efficiencies of running the book business according to the ordinary Darwinian rules of the web. But those are not the most important things publishers do. Not even close.

What Big Publishing is, collectively, is a marketplace for new writing. Not a retail market like the one Amazon has created for ebooks, but an investment market, a futures market. Think of it as Silicon Valley for books, with every publisher a venture capitalist searching for the Next Big Thing.

VC’s invest in a portfolio of start-ups and nurture them through lean, money-losing years. The hope is that all will someday turn a profit and somewhere in that portfolio will be a breakout hit or two that justifies the whole risky endeavor. That is exactly how publishing houses invest in young writers. And like any good VC, Random House (or whoever) hedges its risk by investing in as many promising start-ups as it can find, betting that somewhere in its portfolio of young, talented, promising writers are a few that will break out and become hits.

Without this sort of start-up capital, there is no way an unproven writer could keep at it for long. I have never made a nickel for my publisher. Yet Random House continues to invest in me while I improve my writing, painstakingly build my readership, and grow my list of titles. At this point in my career, I need the help. So, like any entrepreneur, I trade off a lot of upside — the bulk of my royalties — in exchange for the money that enables me to build my business.

The question is, who will play the venture capitalist’s role if Amazon (or whoever) wins and books move to the iTunes model?

Consider Steven Covey and his new deal with Amazon. It may seem unfair that part of Covey’s earnings should go to pay for the stable of prospects on Simon & Schuster’s midlist. But it is only unfair in hindsight. S&S took a chance on Covey once by fronting him an advance. For all anyone knew, Covey might have ended up on the midlist himself, and S&S would be out the cash. In this case, it turned out to be a good bet. But Covey does not want to share the downstream profits. That makes perfect sense from Covey’s point of view, but does it make sense from ours, the reading public’s? (Yes, yes, I’m a self-interested member of the reading public. So what?)

Of course, we’ve already seen the iTunes model in action. Emerging young musicians in the brave new world of digital music can’t earn a living by recording anymore. They give away their MP3’s and survive by touring constantly (an option not open to writers: there is no market for our live performances, understandably).

So what? Life is tougher for young musicians. Should the public care? Well, has the quality or quantity of new, emerging musicians declined? I think so. The musicians may be out there, but you won’t find them on iTunes, not easily anyway. There is limited space on the landing page of the iTunes store, so most of those prime pixels go to established acts (today it’s Alicia Keys, Kesha, and an app for the movie “Avatar”). When there is only one record store in town and the store is that big, it’s awfully tough for a new band to get noticed. So, out on tour they go. And we music-buyers wind up listening to the same few bands over and over, often the same ones we’ve been listening to for years, or the ones anointed by Starbucks or American Idol as worthy of our attention. That is not a free or efficient market.

It is not clear how the iTunes model maps to book publishing. If there are fewer advances for emerging writers in an ebook world, will it make a difference? There will always be writers, after all. There always have been. There will always be a determined few willing to pay any price for their art, endure any hardship to keep writing. And a lucky few, an infinitesimal minority, will always be profitable right from the start. But the fact is, most writers need time to develop their talent and find their audience. Some percentage simply won’t be able to stick it out long enough. We can argue about how big that percentage might be, but we’d all be guessing. What we know for sure is that, without Big Publishing to act as patron, a lot of great books will never be written. Everybody okay with that?

Look, I don’t pretend to be objective about this. Obviously I have a stake in the current industry model. I’m one of those midlist guys still playing for time. So far, Random House, my publisher in the U.S., has stuck with me. They take their winnings from guys like Lee Child and bet it on a bunch of guys like me. If the current model breaks and writers have to scrape by as musicians do, who knows? Maybe I’ll make it, maybe I won’t. I have two kids. If push comes to shove, I’ll do what is in their interests, not mine. If that means doing something else, so be it. Maybe I have a great book in me, maybe I don’t. Maybe I’ll get the chance to find out, maybe I won’t. What matters is that there are a lot of writers like me, writers with potential who haven’t put it all together yet for one reason or another. Someday a few of us us will do it, a lucky few will come up with that Big Book — if we’re still writing.

That’s what’s at stake in Amazon’s big play this week.

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Publishing Agonistes

The major publishers are in a difficult position: they are service companies that function like manufacturing companies — 20th century businesses in a 21st century economy. The control of the book business is gradually slipping out of their hands.

— William Petrocelli, “No One Warned the Dinosaurs. Will Anyone Warn the Publishers?”

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Lukewarm Kindling

Anthony Grafton on the Kindle, which he loves but describes as “reading free of visual delight”:

Open an old-fashioned book — a book published by Zone this year, or, even better, by Alfred A. Knopf thirty or forty years ago, or, better still, one printed by Aldo Manuzio a few hundred years before that — and you enter a Gesamtkunstwerk. Traditionally, the typography and layout and illustrations of properly printed books were chosen by intelligent people to complement the text. A number of publishers still treat design as integral part of a book. Kindle does not. … Kindle cannot replicate, for example, the physical pleasure inspired by the feel of Knopf’s beloved deckle edges and the look of his preferred Granjon type.


I suspect that the Kindle will prove to be the Betamax to some other company’s VHS (perhaps the legendary Apple tablet, with a Kindle reader built in?). Meantime, though, I am pleased to have it — and happy to think the reassuring thought that, endlessly inventive monkeys as we are, we will find ways to make the new media as rich and strange and complex as the old ones.

Read the whole thing here (PDF, subscription required).

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“Immersive text-only experiences”

Over the course of the [Frankfurt Book] Fair various players offered phrases such as “a digital manifestation of what was a book” and “long-form narrative delivered digitally” and “story-telling” and “immersive text-only experiences,” and it is clear that the reason for such a profusion of vague terms is not obtuseness but a recognition that we’re not replacing one static-priced unit (pBook) with another static-priced unit (eBook), but finding that our single massive unidirectional pBook supply chain is now just one component of a tremendously variegated set of producer-consumer relationships.

Richard Nash

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Philip Roth on the novel’s “cultic” future

More clips from this interview here.

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This is your brain on e-books

Jonah Lehrer on the neuroscience of how our brains process the words we read and how that process will be affected by ebooks:

… most complaints about E-Books and Kindle apps boil down to a single problem: they don’t feel as “effortless” or “automatic” as old-fashioned books. But here’s the wonderful thing about the human brain: give it a little time and practice and it can make just about anything automatic. We excel at developing new habits. Before long, digital ink will feel just as easy as actual ink.

Interesting: the technology of ebook readers will improve, but so will our brains’ ability to use them.

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E-Books and Distracted Reading

Author Steven Johnson on what we may be losing in the switch to e-books.

Because they have been largely walled off from the world of hypertext, print books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of linear, deep-focus reading. Online, you can click happily from blog post to email thread to online New Yorker article — sampling, commenting and forwarding as you go. But when you sit down with an old-fashioned book in your hand, the medium works naturally against such distractions; it compels you to follow the thread, to stay engaged with a single narrative or argument.

The Kindle in its current incarnation maintains some of that emphasis on linear focus; it has no dedicated client for email or texting, and its Web browser is buried in a subfolder for “experimental” projects. But Amazon has already released a version of the Kindle software for reading its e-books on an iPhone, which is much more conducive to all manner of distraction. No doubt future iterations of the Kindle and other e-book readers will make it just as easy to jump online to check your 401(k) performance as it is now to buy a copy of On Beauty.

As a result, I fear that one of the great joys of book reading — the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author’s ideas — will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.

(Read the whole thing here.)

The internet is a near-perfect publishing medium, both a copy machine and “super-distribution system.” At the same time, it creates an attention deficit: accustomed to “surfing” and “browsing,” we can barely hang on long enough to read a short blog post, never mind the deep dive of a whole book. The internet promises to bring us the bounty of every book ever written delivered instantly at the click of a link — even as it trains us not to want them.

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Publishers as booksellers?

In a long and interesting interview with Poets & Writers magazine, Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has an interesting prediction for the future of book-selling: publishers, not online retailers like Amazon, will profit from selling directly to readers. It makes a lot of sense, especially as book-selling transitions more and more to digital and Amazon’s massive edge in order-fulfillment and customer service is nullified. Is it any wonder Amazon is rushing to solidify the Kindle’s position as the standard platform for eBooks.

Where do you think the future of bookselling is?

With the publishers. I think the publishers will be selling the books directly.

Are you talking about digitally or physical books?

Both. I think there are always going to be people who want physical books, but I think the digital part of the business is going to increase. One of the things that all publishers are worried about now is this idea that a book on Kindle is worth $9.99. If that establishes the price of what a book is worth, what does that say? What if I want to sell Maureen McLane’s book as a hardcover for twenty-four dollars? I think that’s a problem. Again, it’s a lesson from the music business. People have been used to the idea that intellectual property—that a book, an artwork—is worth a certain amount of money. It’s a mark of respect, in a way. But if you turn it into a widget, where every book is worth the same amount, it’s not good. This is where the author, the agent, and the publisher should be working together to protect their mutual interest. And not have the business be decided by a seller.

By Amazon.

Yeah. We should be deciding what a book is worth, not them. It’s a problem.

Are you envisioning bookstores going away the way that record stores did?

I think that bookstores are going to be around, but I don’t think they’re going to be the major channel. Especially if we go more and more digital.

Read the whole thing here.

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