Skip to main content

Chris Meadows

Chris Meadows, Editor of TeleRead, has been writing about e-books and mobile devices since 1999: first for ThemeStream, later for Jeff Kirvin's Writing on Your Palm, and then for TeleRead starting in 2006. He has also contributed a few articles to The Digital Reader along the way. Chris has bought e-books from Peanut Press/eReader, Fictionwise, Baen, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, the Humble Bundle, and others. He is a strong believer in using Calibre to keep his library organized.

Chris Meadows's Webseite. Chris Meadows auf Google+. Chris Meadows auf Twitter.

I’m e-Reading on Wider Screens Now – How About You?

IMG_20160728_141603.jpgNate asked me to write a short piece on what devices I’m currently using for e-reading. As it happens, there is one I’ve been using a lot lately, and what that device is—and why—might surprise you.

The thing is, I haven’t been doing a whole lot of reading lately. Much of my reading has been concerned with going through RSS feeds looking for articles on subjects that interest me, or that I might cover for TeleRead. And while I’ve been able to do that on my Nexus 6 smartphone on account of having it in my pocket most places, lately I haven’t been out to that many places on account of keeping expenses down while I look for a new job. And I find it’s simplest to do a lot of that reading in bed.

So my choice for bedtime RSS reading has been—the Teclast Kindow hybrid Android/Windows tablet I reviewed for TeleRead a few weeks back. I honestly didn’t expect that—it runs an older version of Android, after all, and its battery life is crazy short. But the Android RSS app I use, Press, runs just fine on it, and I only need it for short periods at a time—the rest of the time I can plug it back in and let it charge up for the next time.

I think the main reason I prefer to use it for bedtime reading tasks rather than my Nexus 7 or Fire tablet comes down to the screen shape. Most small name-brand Android tablets and phones these days are optimized for viewing video media, which generally means 1.78:1 widescreen. Hence, when reading in portrait mode, the screen is downright skinny. Not that this hampers legibility—we’ve been reading narrow columns in magazines for decades, after all—but I think that when you’re used to a wider page shape, the narrower one just has a feeling of wrongness on a subconscious level.

Of course, for wider screen shape, I could go with my iPad Mini 2 instead—it’s got almost exactly the same size and shape as the Kindow, better battery life, and a higher-resolution Retina Display to boot. But the Kindow’s screen looks good enough to me, and the iPad doesn’t have the Android apps I prefer to use; even the new iteration of Reeder, the RSS reader I used to use back in my iPod Touch days, feels awkward and unwieldy after having gotten used to Press on Android. And if I should decide I want to check my email or dash off a quick message to someone in Hangouts while I’m reading, the differences in how the apps work and the problems I have with Apple’s on-screen keyboards make that annoying. (I wonder what it would be like using a Pixel C in bed, though?) Another important factor for reading in bed is that Android devices run the blue-light-reducing app Twilight, which is a lot more adjustable than iOS’s “Night Shift” mode.

IMG_20160728_141002.jpgBut what about reading e-books? Off and on, I’ve been trying to work my way through a Kindle e-book about the history of the Internet, and have largely been doing that on my Kindle Paperwhite because it has a great screen for reading and fewer distractions.

But I could see using either the Kindow or the iPad for reading on a larger display, with a wide-page form factor. I’ve never had the sort of eyestrain troubles with LCD some readers find, and the Kindle e-reading app is available to sync my reading location across all three. And for reading generic EPUB, they’ve all got good enough displays and good enough e-reading applications that I could be comfortable on any of them—Marvin for iOS, Freda for the Kindow’s seldom-used Windows 10 partition, and Google Play Books, eReader Prestigio, or a whole host of others for Android.

Before using the Kindow and iPad, I honestly wouldn’t have expected my e-reader preference would come down to screen size and shape. If you’d asked me, I would have pooh-poohed the idea that a phone or tablet with the narrow-portrait form factor might not be as good an e-reader. Words wrap, don’t they?

My Nexus 6 has the highest-resolution screen of any device, mobile or desktop, that I own, so you’d think it would be my best overall choice. But resolution isn’t everything. After using these wider tablets for a while, I’m simply struck by how much more natural it feels to read a page in this shape—whether that’s of an RSS feed and news articles, or an e-book.

What about you? If given the choice between different devices, would screen form factor be a major issue in your decision? And have you had experience reading from those different form factors to help you make up your mind?

Trans-Pacific Partnership IP Chapter Leaks, & It’s as Bad As We Feared

tppWikileaks has obtained and posted a recent draft of the intellectual property chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. All in all, it’s pretty bad news. The Guardian covers the high points, the Electronic Frontier Foundation analyzes it in detail, Cory Doctorow has commentary on some of the more obnoxious provisions at Boing Boing, and Mike Masnick looks it over at Techdirt.

The biggest thing that’s obvious right off the bat is that provisions that protect the rights of corporations and rights-holders are mandatory, while everything protecting the rights of the general public is optional. Rights-holders get “shall,” while the public gets “shall endeavor to.” Copyright is extended across the board to life-plus-70-years, period, while everyone agrees that having a “rich and accessible public domain” is nice and all and countries really ought to try to do that.

Just as in the United States’s DMCA, the TPP declares that DRM circumvention is to be prohibited, even when copyright infringement isn’t involved. Countries can make exceptions for non-infringing uses, but they don’t have to. (It’s that whole “shall” versus “shall endeavor to” thing again.)

In determining damages for copyright infringement, there are no exceptions permitted for works whose rightsholders cannot be found, which forecloses on any attempt to deal with the orphan works problem. It also permits seizure of any material or device used in committing copyright infringement, even if it’s something like a home computer that is used for many different purposes.

There is strict protection for trade secrets accessed from computer systems, with no mandatory exception for journalism or whistleblowing. There are also a number of provisions that impose top-down control over aspects of domain name registration and disputes, and imposition of a USA-style DMCA notice-and-takedown system.

We’ve noted the problem with this kind of secret treaty negotiation before. The biggest issue is that they’re a way for governments to do an end run around the need to involve public citizens in the lawmaking process. Instead of explicitly making the laws, they require participating governments to make those laws, whether the people want them or not. The negotiation process involves government agencies that are highly susceptible to content-industry lobbying, but where are the advocates for the rights of ordinary citizens?

And the negotiations are always held in the dark. If it weren’t for Wikileaks, we wouldn’t be able to see what’s in the treaty at all. To quote the Guardian article, “Obama has pledged to make the TPP public but only after the legislation has passed.” What good does that do? We’re supposed to ask our representatives to vote for a pig in a poke? And by the time we find out from official sources what the treaty is supposed to do, it will be too late to stop it?

The good news is, this sort of compromise invariably doesn’t play well with either party. Republicans don’t think the treaty does enough for business, while Democrats think it does too much. Hopefully that opposition will lead to trouble passing the agreement.

And unlike the treaties of years past, we have the Internet now, and Wikileaks. The general public isn’t limited to just what they hear on the nightly newscasts; they can go to the source (or at least a leak of the source) and read these things for themselves, if they’re so inclined. Hopefully we’ll see some informed public opposition to this governmental push to give more of our rights away without first consulting us.

reposted with permission from Teleread

image by SumOfUs

Copyright Office Accepts Comments on Resale Royalty Bill for Paintings

paintingsIn 2008, I wrote on TeleRead about groups advocating imposing droit se suite, the repeated royalty payment on resold works of art that exists in Europe, onto books, so that used bookstores would have to pay a new royalty on every used book they resell. This, of course, wouldn’t have the effect they would hope, in which a sudden new stream of revenue is created for authors. Instead, it would very likely put most used bookstores out of business, and those authors wouldn’t realize how important they had been to sales until they were gone. (Of course, this is a problem e-books don’t have, since you can’t legally resell them, so far.)

Late last year, DMCA author Bruce Lehman introduced legislation intended to bring this right to the US, though only for expensive paintings at the moment. On Techdirt, Mike Masnick has an update on the legislation’s current status. The US Copyright Office is now accepting public comments on the Resale Royalty Right, for 45 days instead of the usual 90, as the bill’s current sponsors want to bring it to a vote as quickly as possible.

Masnick notes that a state resale royalty bill in California in 1977 was tossed out as unconstitutional, but even before that art dealers simply routed around it anyway.

Now, do I think this is a slippery slope intended to bring resale royalty rights to every form of media, including printed books? Doubtful. There’s a world of difference between a $10,000 painting and a paperback book, whatever the used-bookstore droit de suite crowd might think. But I do think it would represent an important erosion of consumer fair use rights that have already been ground down pretty thin by the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions and recent court decisions relating to reselling imported goods.

Photo by Rob Lee.

UK 20p eBook Sale Controversy Distracts from Retailer Control Issues

A few months ago, Sony launched an e-book store in the UK and started promotionally discounting some bestsellers to just 20 pence (about 32 and 1/3 cents, US, as of 9/29). Amazon, with its Most Favored Nation pricing clause, immediately followed suit, leading some commentators to blame Amazon for evilly daring to discount e-books so cheaply until The Bookseller followed up and noticed they were actually just price matching someone else. The 20 pence promotion has proceeded apace, with authors and publishers being paid the full retail value of each 20 pence e-book sold.

Predictably, controversy surrounding the pricing promotion has continued as more books have been added, with publishers and advocacy associations complaining about the de-valuing of their e-books and the threat to copyright protection this somehow poses. Apparently this slippery slope will cause consumers to come to expect that every e-book must now cost only 20 pence from now on. (Consumers really ought to be annoyed at what publishers and authors clearly seem to think of their collective intelligence.)

Peter Shea, general manager for Sony Digital Reading Services, said the retailer recognised "that there is a concern about a perceived devaluation of ebooks", and that it chose the price point of 20p for some titles "as we see this as such a significant discount off list price that consumers can appreciate it is not the 'new price of ebooks'."

Meanwhile, on Forbes, Suw Charman-Anderson writes that the price war—and the larger issue of retailer discounting as a whole—is actually distracting publishers from their real problem, which is the lack of data they get from retailers. She links to a FutureBook post by Nick Harkaway stating the problem is not so much consumers getting used to paying less as it is the retailers having the reins in publishers’ relationship with consumers.

Harkaway feels that the publishers suffer from a case of myopia brought on by the distance between the inner workings of their industry and consumers:

I think – though I’m not sure – that the traditional industry is suffering somewhat from a perspective issue; because individual houses have made enormous internal infrastructural changes to meet the digital age, they feel strongly that they are doing a lot. The trouble is that none of these changes are really visible externally. Ebook pricing remains absurd, and the text is still often poorly laid out or botched. Ebook deals with authors remain contentious and retain the appearance of being a fiddle. The industry’s digital engagement with the audience remains in most cases negligible. Fundamentally, publishing remains cut off in its silo. It’s not true that the digital shift always brings disintermediation. Amazon and the rest are the ultimate mediators, so good at it that they sit astride the connection between publisher and purchaser so that neither can see the other – and the industry allows this to continue and indeed to intensify.

On Forbes, Charman-Anderson suggests that publishers need to hurry up and build out their own retail solutions so that they can have contact with the customers—and, more importantly, access to all the sales and other data those customers’ interaction with their store generates. It is possession of that data that has allowed Amazon to tailor its strategies so successfully—and Amazon’s reluctance to share that data with publishers increases its own power.

By having control of pricing in their own outlets, publishers could experiment with combining digital and print formats, or try other methods of bundling. Rather than trying to nobble Amazon’s pricing, publishers should try to outcompete it—at least as far as their own books are concerned.

This can’t be a bad idea. I know that Baen has done well ever since it started selling its own e-books direct to consumers, and so has O’Reilly. Baen doesn’t do much in the way of bundling (save for binding CDs full of e-books into certain of its hardcover releases), but it does release other offerings, such as entire series bundles from time to time or its higher-priced early-release “E-ARC” e-books. And O’Reilly bundles like crazy and hasn’t seen any decline in its business out of it. And both publishers are also DRM-free, and were so long before Tor got the idea.

But of course, they aren’t major big six publishers, and those are the ones who might most need to reach out to consumers directly to save themselves. However, publishing industry consultant Mike Shatzkin points out there is a problem with this idea—if a publisher discounts below MSRP, Amazon might insist that its discount should be based on the publisher’s sale price, rather than the suggested retail price. But presumably that could be hashed out in contracts.

In any event, publishers continuing to cry wolf over even the most blatant promotional sale prices for their e-books doesn’t speak well to publishers’ perception of their customers’ intelligence—or to their judgment in how to express it. Sooner or later, something’s got to give.

Amazon Asks Court to Throw Out Apple App Store Lawsuit

About 18 months ago, Apple sued Amazon for false advertising and trademark violation over using the term “app store” to describe its, well, Android app store—which is to say, the store where you go to buy apps. The wheels of justice grind slow but fine. Yesterday Reuters reported Amazon has submitted a filing asking a judge to throw out the lawsuit, on the basis that the term “app store” was so generic that it shouldn’t be considered false advertising.

I was amused to note that Amazon includes mention of times Apple CEOs Steve Jobs and Tim Cook even used the phrase generically to discuss competitors’ stores. Did Apple’s CEOs make false and misleading statements during their earnings calls, Amazon wonders?

The whole thing is really pretty ridiculous. Does Apple seriously think people will confuse Amazon’s app store with its own? For one thing, the applications run on completely different devices. For another, as I’ve said before, it’s like Wal-Mart trying to trademark the term “discount store,” or Barnes & Noble trying to trademark “book store”. The formulation of “X store” as “store where you buy X” shouldn’t be trademarkable except where X is someone’s brand name. “App” has been an abbreviation for “application” for as long as programs on computers have been called applications. That ship has sailed.

But it seems like Apple has turned its focus from innovation to litigation lately. All these lawsuits smack of rules lawyerism—take advantage of every possible opportunity to sue a competitor and slow them down, because you can. It’s sad that this is the direction the company has taken. But at the same time, I have to admit it would be foolish in the extreme to try to pretend this isn’t the way that big business has always worked.

I’m not sure I’m really rooting for either side in this case, but I do think that it would be remarkably silly if “app store” became a trademark of Apple. Hopefully the court can see some form of reason.

Found via TechCrunch.

Author’s eBook Giveaway Runs Afoul of Google Copyright Bots

pythonbookApparently Google has a problem with its ads being posted on sites that “distribute copyrighted materials.” (Never mind that this should mean they shouldn’t have ads on any sites, given that under the law any material that is created is instantly copyrighted to its creator.) Techdirt’s Mike Masnick posts about technical author Cody Jackson, who decided to give away electronically a book he wrote about the Python programming language as a way to give back to the open source community—which resulted in Google disabling AdSense ads on his site because of this violation of its policy.

Puzzled, Jackson pointed out that he is the author and copyright holder of the work in question, and he had explicitly granted permission for this distribution. No dice, Google said. So he removed the links to torrents on Pirate Bay and Demonoid, even though he felt they were still perfectly legitimate…and Google still refused to reinstate ads on his site, apparently because he had the temerity to mention Pirate Bay and Demonoid—but Google won’t actually explain exactly why.

Back when I was blogging for myself, I at one point had Google disable ads on my blog because I had the gall to post, “Hey, look, I’ve added Google ads to my site.” Apparently mentioning the ads counts as incitement to click on them, which is a no-no. (The first rule of Google ads is…you don’t talk about Google ads.) I’ve not been terribly thrilled with Google’s advertising program since then.

It sounds like Jackson ran afoul of an automated system that isn’t subject to human review—the advertising equivalent of zero tolerance. And with a behemoth like Google, it can be difficult to get in touch with any actual human beings. So here we have an example of how Google, who has done so much for promoting the distribution and location of information, is actually serving to block (or at least penalize) its legitimate flow.

At $17.99, The Casual Vacancy eBook Not a Casual Purchase

casualkindleWith her new book, The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling is not going to repeat her Harry Potter mistake and keep the electronic version sequestered away for years. But as far as many e-book fans are concerned, it might as well. The book, publisher-priced by Hachette at $35 and available in hardcover from Amazon for $20.90, will cost a whopping $17.99 in its e-book version, undiscounted, when it goes on sale tomorrow in the US. That’s $1 more than the highest-allowed pre-DoJ settlement Apple iBookstore e-book price band of $16.99.

The reason for this, as PaidContent points out, is that the book is coming out in an important window: between the time publishers had to terminate their contract with Apple and the time they’re required to have entered into contracts that let other e-book stores discount their titles. So they don’t have to be bound by Apple’s price restriction and “most favored nation” clause, but they don’t have to let anybody else mark the book down yet either.

Of course, give it a few weeks for the new contracts to kick in and it’s likely that the book will be marked down—perhaps to Amazon’s standard bestseller price of $9.99, or perhaps to something still a little higher. It will be interesting to see what Amazon does with what is sure to be one of the hottest books this holiday season, as it will go some way toward telling us whether Amazon really does plan to return to its old $9.99 ways, or is going to skew e-book prices higher and keep its hardware prices low instead.

But meanwhile, the publisher gets the benefit of the extra cash from those price-elastic people who absolutely have to have the instant gratification of reading the newest book by one of the best-selling authors of all time right now no matter what it costs—and they get to charge $1 per head more for the privilege than under the old system. All the people who wanted to pay less probably would have waited anyway.

Authors Trade Revenue for Wider Distribution under German Self-Publishing Deal

XinXiiWhen it comes to self-publishing, we Americans tend to think in the context of Amazon and other American businesses. But there are now thriving self-publishing companies all over the world, and Publishing Perspectives has a report on a couple of them in Germany, Epubli and XinXii. These companies by and large give authors most of the revenue on their e-books when sold through their websites, save for when they have to work through a separate distributor like Amazon.

XinXii recently made a deal with Mondia Media to make its e-books available in German e-book stores of Vodafone, T-Mobile, and Sony, but also internationally. However, the deal came with an additional bite out of authors’ revenues—on e-books sold through these channels, XinXii’s CEO said authors get “somewhat less” than the 50% royalty they get from Amazon sales.

The article isn’t really clear on what international bookstores XinXii distributes through, apart from its CEO mentioning Spain’s “Casa del Librio”. Given that it already had Amazon, it’s hard to see this deal as a lot more symbolic—XinXii gets to say that it is “international” without actually losing its authors that much revenue, because they probably won’t sell that many e-books, relatively speaking, through these stores anyway.

Still, as Publishing Perspectives’ Andrea DeMarco points out:

The best self-publishing companies have the true wherewithal to claim that they’re good for authors and an improvement over unjust and inefficient traditional publishing hierarchies. However, once authors are receiving less than half of the revenue from their books in exchange for mere distribution, it’s hard to see how such a platform can claim either an economic edge or moral high ground.

If a publisher’s going to pay you less than half of the revenue, shouldn’t they be doing more for the money than just distributing it to other services? Especially when you could put it in Amazon yourself and keep more of the money?

But that being said, if the self-publishing market isn’t as mature over there yet, it’s not surprising there might be some costs to getting distributed as widely as you can.

Connecting Real Paper to the Internet

post-itsHere’s an interesting piece on paidContent talking about the possibility of embedding electronics in genuine paper in order to add the ability to play audio, send Facebook likes, and otherwise link up a genuine ordinary paper to the Internet. The net-enabled paper would apparently use electrically conductive ink that would react when touched, like the capacitive screens of modern tablet, but not much is really known about the new technology yet.

The tech seems to be strictly one-way—there’s no mention of any sort of e-ink style responsive display in the article (though the project’s homepage does suggest some hybrid interactive display formats). The videos with it tend to talk about things like making it economically possible to provoke sounds out of various paper things like posters or facial tissue boxes. When used in newspapers, it could do things like collect click counts and provide analytical engagement data for publishers and marketers. The paidContent piece doesn’t touch on privacy concerns at all, which is a bit odd when you have quotes like:

Dundee University product design researcher Jon Rogers says: “For pretty much the first time, in a scaleable and manufacturable way, we’re going to connect the internet to paper. When you start to connect that to news, we’re in a goldmine zone.”

If you’re the sort of person who runs your finger along the text as you read, do you really want someone following along with you out on the Internet?

Still, I think it might be interesting if they could build the technology into print books, not just newspapers. Might be able to bring in a few gimmicks more commonly associated with e-books, like Facebook-sharing the part you’re reading, or perhaps running your finger down a bit of text to “highlight” it on your computer.

This technology might have some life for things like posters and restaurant menus. But as far as newspapers and magazines are concerned, I suspect it may be one of those things that looks neat on paper (if you’ll pardon the pun) but fails to catch on in the real world due to price and lack of demand. Newspapers and magazines are moving more toward going all the way to electronic, to shake off the expense of printing costs and move toward the way more and more people are reading now. Are they going to want to add integrated electronics to the old-style media format to make things even more costly?

Photo by Interactive Newsprint.

A Golden Age of Digital Plagiarism Checking

turnitin_thumbPaidContent has an interesting piece on another plagiarism kerfuffle in the news lately, as a columnist from one newspaper used verbatim quotes from someone else without crediting them for it, and the editors of the plagiarizing writer’s paper posted an apology that many felt wasn’t sincere enough. But the interesting part to me isn’t the plagiarism.

Late in the article is a link to a four-page Greg Beato piece in Reason Magazine discussing the democratization of fact-checking in the modern age. Providing numerous examples, Beato posits that we are “living in a golden age of fact-checking,” but instead of that happening before publishing, the burden has been shifted to afterward thanks to all the numerous informational resources that are out there at the public’s disposal, and the thousands upon thousands of netizens who are happy to put in some of their spare time doing the legwork.

And Beato doesn’t even bring up tools like Turnitin, the plagiarism checker which can check submissions against hundreds of thousands of web documents. Really, we have some amazing tools, and a lot of them are thanks to the same revolutions in information presentation that have brought us the digital reading devices we use every day. Search engines. Google Books. On-line article archives.

Of course, some of these tools are a double-edged sword. Turnitin can be used by plagiarists to help them conceal evidence of their borrowing, after all. But it seems that this is only important in the world of college students, because so many newspaper columnists think so little of it that they don’t bother to try.

One thing I’m curious about, though, is whether this plagiarism really is more widespread in the digital world, or simply more likely to get caught by the resources we now have. Were newspaper writers doing this same sort of thing before the Internet came about, and just not noticed as much because we didn’t have the resources to find the borrowing?

StoryBundle Commits Pay-What-You-Want in ‘The Second Degree’

Just got an email this morning noting that StoryBundle’s doing its second pay-what-you-feel-like collection of indie fiction. In keeping with being the second, this one is called “The Second Degree Bundle” and features a number of crime and thriller novels, with five available for any amount and two bonus books available for donations of at least $7. As with the previous e-book bundle, these all come without any DRM at all.

The StoryBundle offer bears some similarities to the Humble Indie Bundle for games. As with the Humble Bundle, you have sliders to control how much money goes to the authors and how much to the site itself. (They suggest a default 70/30 split.) However, unlike the Humble Bundle which allows you to assign as much as you want, up to the entire amount you pay, to charity, StoryBundle just has a checkbox to let you donate 10% to either tree-replanting organization Trees For The Future or Philadelphia children’s writing program Mighty Writers.

The e-books are available for just over 21 more days. If nothing else, it’s an interesting idea. Can books, which you read in a few hours and then mostly forget, successfully use the same donation appeal as video games that might keep you entertained for days? The fact that a second bundle is available suggests the first one must at least have done well enough to be going on with.

Does Amazon Have Physical Stores In Store?

ZDNet has some more speculation on the possibility of Amazon opening physical stores, sparked by the recent announcement Wal-Mart would no longer be carrying Amazon’s devices. Wal-Mart, ZDNet thinks, fears Amazon’s increasing dominance in retail through the “mobile cash register” of its tablet, and doesn’t want to put itself in the position of helping its competition.

The article quotes a Reuters article speculating, though the Reuters article actually doesn’t do much more than say Amazon might do it. And people have been saying that for months now, ever since Amazon started capitulating to the states demanding that it collect sales tax within their borders. If Amazon has to collect sales tax in a state anyway, it might as well add physical facilities there as well, not least because they can be such handy things when it comes to receiving deliveries of things ordered on-line. (I had an $18 Amazon package of ballpoint pens stolen from my doorstep a couple of weeks ago. Where’s an Amazon Locker when you need it?)

Do I think Amazon will come out with physical stores? Perhaps, eventually. I don’t know if they’ll ever be as ubiquitous as Wal-Marts or even Barnes & Nobles, but then again you don’t exactly see an Apple Store on every street corner either. Amazon has demonstrated some fairly creative ways of using other forums to drive commerce to its digital stores. Case in point: it recently came out that the next version of Ubuntu Linux will feature Amazon affiliate links in its desktop search, as a way of driving some affiliate revenue for Canonical while ostensibly providing more useful search results to Ubuntu users.

A common argument I hear against the Amazon store idea is that it’s very very difficult to have physical stores turn a profit in this day of on-line shopping. Just look at what’s happening to Best Buy right now. Amazon is supposedly much too canny to pour its money down a hole like that.

But on the other hand, Amazon has done some pretty-crazy-seeming things before—like giving away “free” two-day shipping on anything for just $79 per year as part of its Prime program, then adding streaming movies, an e-book lending library, and other benefits to the program, or selling best-sellers hand over fist at a loss of several dollars per e-book in order to build out its e-book platform. And yet far from being derided (except by people like this fellow who seems absolutely positive that Amazon continuing its Prime program is a sure sign the company is about to go to the dogs and insists this means it’s time to short the stock), it’s universally feared for its incredible competitive savvy by every major publisher and bookstore owner in business to the point where Apple and five of the Big Six (allegedly) had to foment an illegal conspiracy in order to keep the big bully under control.

If Amazon can figure out how to make physical stores increase overall revenue more than they cost to operate the bricks and mortar, it’s a sure bet it’ll put up exactly as many of them as it takes to maximize those benefits. I’m almost positive they have armies of bean-counters working secretly behind the scenes even now, crunching numbers and sliding beads on abaci to work out exactly what the best strategies for stores would be and where to put them.

It will be interesting to see what happens if Amazon stores start coming to town…

Do We Cling to Analog from Mindset or Necessity?

moleskinesIn a pair of pieces on Publishing Perspectives, Rachel Aydt and Edward Nawotka ponder the way that the analog/digital divide may not be as divisive as we thought. Aydt looks at iconic notebook maker Moleskine’s partnership with memory-organizer app Evernote on creating a Moleskine notebook that can be photographed and automatically sorted into Evernote categories.

[Mokeskine America president Marco] Beghin challenges our ideas of mobility by continually describing his own; not just his physical life, but the moment to moment life between analog and digital.  “We don’t stand for analog or digital. We’re in a mobile continuum that looks more like analog, digital, analog, digital. We can teach how to be mobile in this continuum.”

Nawotka wonders if “the digital age […] is driving people back to analog.” Are people getting tired of the nebulous “cloud” and seeking solace in material media?

I have my doubts.

As Beghin says, we’re on a continuum. We might like reading e-books, but even those of us who refuse to read paper books at all still use paper money and paper checks. We sign legal documents in pen, and have them notarized by those neat little hand-squeezed emboss seal thingies. We scribble things down on post-its and stick them up everywhere just because there isn’t a good electronic equivalent. The idea of the “paperless office” is universally accepted as a joke, since thanks to the computer our use of paper has actually exploded.

(That being said, apparently paper use has declined enough lately to endanger our toilet paper supply, and one paper manufacturer has actually launched a marketing campaign to try to get people to use more of it. And one company has come up with a little tiny paper-strip printer that’s meant to move social media from the web to tangible form you can hold in your hand. So maybe there is something to this moving-from-cloud-to-print thing after all?)

I spend my days between tech support calls at my day job scribbling down the first draft of a story I’m writing in pen and ink form on a notepad because I’m not allowed to use the company computer’s Internet for such things. I type it up later when I get home, making changes and tweaks along the way, and so the paper and ink forms a sort of tactile part of my writing process, out of necessity. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t rather be writing it electronically, but when it’s a case of writing it on paper or not writing at all, I’ll choose paper.

I don’t think we’re going to be able to get rid of paper for quite some time. There are too many legacy structures built onto it. It reminds me of a post from a Wired writer the other day who plans to ditch her paper wallet and use her smartphone as her only wallet for the next month. Even she admits she’ll still be carrying a physical ID in case of “some sort of crazy emergency.” (I doubt the police would be very impressed by the photo of her driver’s license on her smartphone if they happen to pull her over.)

So next time you write a check to pay your rent, you might ask yourself whether it’s because you still “believe” in analog, or just because your landlord doesn’t take PayPal yet.

Photo by mecookie.

How Technology Has Changed Stories In My Life

writing-handIn the first of a series of monthly essays on The Literary Platform, Professor David Trotter ponders the question of what technology can do for stories. A lot of people seem to fall into the trap of considering “interactivity” to be the holy grail of the technological enhancement of stories (even otherwise visionary author Vernor Vinge famously thought hypertext was going to be the wave of the future), but Trotter isn’t quite so convinced. He discusses some “dazzling projects” that have brought interactivity to fiction, though admits he does not believe interactivity is either the be-all and end-all of technology for fiction or even all that technology can do for fiction.

I think that we need to find a way to put the vertigo back into the original question about what technology can do for stories. That will involve a history of the uses to which electronic communications media have been put. How, and why, did interactivity emerge from more than a century’s worth of innovation as the (technological, social, moral, political) principle to which we now so widely subscribe? There was interactivity before digitalisation, not just in life (where would the species be without it?), but in some forms of mediation, and, to a degree, in literature.

Over the last couple decades, I’ve watched technology do a lot for storytelling both in the world, and in my personal everyday life. In my opinion, “interactivity” is really only the tip of the iceberg, and not even a necessarily very interesting one at that.

There are really lots of ways technology is changing stories. For just one example, John Scalzi posted on his blog today about the experience of writing fiction on his iPad. (I’ve been doing some of that myself lately—scribbling story chapters with pen and paper while I work, then typing them into my iPad via a Bluetooth keyboard clamshell case and copying and pasting into Google Docs via my MiFi. Dig me, the wireless writer of the future!) And recently Charlie Stross wrote about how the new story processing program Scrivener (which I also use myself) has changed his writing process. (Stross also once composed an entire novel on a smartphone as a writing stunt.) Those are examples of technology affecting the way stories are told, aren’t they?

Perhaps my first encounter with technology changing storytelling came when I got to college in ‘91 and found some amusing story files collected from the Internet on a local BBS. They were early posts by creative college students to a mailing list called Superguy, where writers wrote and posted stories involving humorous and parodic takes on super heroes. And every so often, they’d get together for crossover events in which characters from several stories would meet up and work together.

And these people were from all over the country, and in many cases had never even met in real life—but here they were, working together on stories that got written and posted to an audience of hundreds, possibly even thousands of readers at their height—using nothing more than e-mail and maybe the occasional long distance phone call.

As my college years went on, I ran into more and more shared writing universes, and participated in a lot of them. And Internet writers weren’t the only ones who found benefits in collaborating. Shared universe anthologies like Thieves’ World, Wild Cards, and Liavek all sprang up around this time, though they were forged mostly from old-fashioned pre-Internet communication media.

Perhaps the next great advance in technological benefits to storytelling came with the invention of Hydra, which was renamed to SubEthaEdit, a shared editing space on OS X computers in which multiple people could have their own cursors and write on the same document at the same time. I’d never seen anything like this before. Not too much later, someone else came up with a fairly primitive but still functional Windows/Linux implementation of the same basic idea, called MoonEdit, which I used to great effect in writing shared-universe City of Heroes fanfic with a great bunch of writers including professional fantasy novelist Mercedes Lackey.

Later on, EtherPad developed a web-based version of the same tech before being bought by Google, whose Google Wave subsequently fizzled but now Google Docs offers much the same flexibility and a lot more reliability in real-time updating. And it’s amazing the globe-spanning reach the Internet has brought to this instant collaboration. The other day, I realized I was sitting in a Google Document with people from three other time zones (California, New Brunswick, and Britain, with me in Missouri) watching a Briton write on a story. I remember when I couldn’t even have afforded the long distance phone bills to talk to them all, but now I could Skype them very easily if I wanted sound or even video—but why bother when we can communicate well enough in text without?

If you want to talk about “interactivity” in stories, well, reading a story interactively is really pretty pointless, because no matter what you do all the choices you’re allowed to make are already plotted out for you. If you’re given the options only to turn left or right at a fork in the road, you can’t choose to go back the way you came—the choice isn’t there. But there are few thrills to compare with writing a story interactively, with your friends. It’s like playing a game where there are few rules, or a form of roleplaying where you have the ability to jump into each other’s characters and even go back and redo things if they didn’t come out right the first time. What a rush!

And shared text editors aren’t the only form of interaction in writing the ‘net brought about, either. An AoL employee founded Ficlets, to great fanfare and five minutes of attention from Internet celebrities John Scalzi and Wil Wheaton, then re-launched it as Ficly after AoL killed it. This site let people write collaborative stories round-robin style in chunks of 1024 or fewer characters, and was likewise a blast when you managed to get into a storytelling chain with other fun writers.

Fan and Internet writers aren’t the only ones to have discovered the benefit of Internet technology for collaboration, of course. In recent years there have been several groups of professional writers involved in doing this either as a hobby or professionally. Mercedes Lackey’s City of Heroes fanfic grew into a new shared-universe superhero novel series, Secret World Chronicle. Neil Stephenson and Greg Bear came up with their Mongoliad. Elizabeth Bear (no relation to Greg) had her Shadow Unit. So Amazon’s doing serials? Writers on the Internet have been doing serials for decades.

It’s also made it possible for more specialized types of stories to find their niches. For example, if you look for almost any minor fandom, fetish, or following, chances are you can find a fiction repository for it somewhere on the Internet. Interests so rare or obscure that it simply wouldn’t have paid to try to publish works involving them can suddenly build entire village-sized communities where people post and read stories for free just by putting everyone in the entire world who shares those interests together in one virtual place. It’s sort of the flip side of the way Amazon made making a living in self-publishing more feasible by creating a single storefront to sell your self-published books or e-books to anyone anywhere.

As I write this on the right-hand monitor on my desktop, I can look across to the left and see in my main Google Docs window two other writers in a shared setting in which I work discussing background material for one of the continents on a distant-future colony planet. I might never even have met these people without technology—and, indeed, I still haven’t met either one of them in person. But we’re writing hundreds of thousands of words of story together—not for professional publication at the moment, but who can say where things will go in the future? If a Twilight fanfic can become the next best-selling novel, anything can happen.

So, what can technology do for stories? Make it possible to create them, collaborate in them, and find them in ways that we couldn’t have dreamed of before we had it, for one thing. But I’ll be interested to see what Trotter’s series of monthly essays comes up with.

Image by Josef Stuefer.

Aakash $35 Tablet Great News for India, But What About the Rest of the World?

Ubislate-7C -gprs-wifiTechcrunch has gotten its hands on one of the long-awaited Aakash UbiSlate CI tablets, the famed “$35 tablet” that the Indian government plans to use to connect students all over the country to the Internet. The 7.5” tablet will have wifi in the basic version, with a $64 3G update that offers a $2 per month 2 GB cellular data package. It will reportedly soon be rolling out to universities around the country.

The article includes a brief video demo showing the tablet doing voice recognition (of the word “democracy”) and browsing Wikipedia, and discusses the benefits of cheap computers to education as demonstrated by projects like One Laptop Per Child. Other than that, it’s rather light on details about just how the tablet is going to be made available, how much the government is subsidizing them, how much they actually cost to make, and whether they’ll be made available outside of India.

A $35 tablet is great news for India, where the wage standard is so much lower that it’s more expensive there than it seems. But it would be even more impressive in the rest of the world, where the gold standard for cheap tablets, the Kindle Fire, come with more restrictions than you can shake a stick at. Even if they did like OLPC and charge twice the “standard” price, a $70 7” tablet good enough for an entire nation to use in education would probably draw a lot of business. (Actually, it’s not even really clear that the tablet is going to cost $35 in India when you get right down to it; a TechAdda piece suggests the price of the wifi version is 4,000 Rupees, or about $74, and the 3G version is 4,400 Rupees, or $81.)

But is such a thing even possible? Let’s face it, teardowns have suggested that the Fire, Nexus 7, and other such tablets are already being sold pretty close to the margin. And there’s a limit to how much price you can chop by skimping on components. No matter how you slice it, an LCD screen is expensive. (My day job involves customer service and tech support for a major brand of television, including ordering replacement parts, and it turns out that replacement LCD screens actually cost more than the brand new TV itself due to economies of scale. Make sure your kids use that Wii wrist strap, because if you break it you’ve bought it.)

If they actually are going to go for $35, surely the Indian government must be subsidizing those tablets. If they were offered for sale in the west, my guess is that they’d probably be about the same price as any of the scads of cheap Chinese Android tablets with similar capabilities.

On the other hand, new display technologies are coming along year by year. Sooner or later, we will see tablets start to get that cheap. Who knows what the e-reading world will look like by then?