Digital Reading, Tools of Change, and Reading Tools

First: from Teleread, a Kindle 2/DX Hack to improve the font. I recently used two Amazon gift cards and a refurb discount to order a Kindle II, and it’s charging in the wall unit behind me. I’m not sure if it’ll replace the Sony 505 or 700 as the device I like best, but I want to try to use it again because, until the Sony wireless device comes out and until I can try the Touch or the Pocket edition, I’ve said many times, as have Jane and Angie, that the Kindle ease of use has everyone else beat. I like the shopping options with the Sony, not to mention the fact that I can borrow digital books from the library, but I also know it is could to take almost an hour to go through the steps to load a book should I buy it.

This past week, Angie James, Jane Litte, Kassia Krozser, Malle Vallik and I presented at the O’Reilly online web conference Ebook Strategy and Innovation. Our panel was titled “What Do Readers Want?” and the point Kassia, Malle, Angie and I made last year at the 2009 Tools of Change in Publishing is still valid: in most discussions of digital reading from the book itself to the devices you read it on to the place from which you buy that book, the reader is left out of the discussion and, in our collective opinion, there’s a lot of mystery, myth and flat out confusion about who the digital book reader is, and what she wants.

The web setup itself for the conference was so cool. The phone line I called in from and the computer I was using were linked by the web software so that I could chat with the participants and speakers in a small chat room while everyone was also listening to the presentations and watching the slides from the presenters. Even though Kassia had horrific phone problems, we’d prepared a sequence of questions and topics so even without a coxswain, we managed to get the shell moving. And mostly moving in a straight line.

Our panel talked about ebook pricing, DRM, access, DRM, format confusion, purchasing difficulties, and meta data – which is the information about the book that comes with the book itself, like the title, cover copy, hero or heroine name, whether the book is part of a series, and what subgenre the book is from. One of the participants suggested that we needed to come up with a better name for “meta data,” which I agree with because ‘meta data’ doesn’t make much sense if you don’t know what it is. “Custom Data,” “My Data,” and “Book Notes” were suggested but I think the naming rights for that one are still available.

My section was all about the Test Drive and that, across the board, the Test Drivers had to jump one, two, or a dozen hurdles to get their devices working, whether it was getting the device and the computer to talk to one another, or loading a book onto the device itself. The initial setup and the purchasing process are so littered with hurdles that require the user to recertify herself as a legitimate reader that it’s a wonder those tentative on the digital book issue even try it at all. The bottom line of my section of the presentation: do not get between a reader and her book. Get out of the way. On that issue, sadly, the Kindle and the paper book are head and shoulders above the rest of the options.

There’s a very, very awesome recap of our presentation online at Required Field if you’d like to take a look.

I’m looking forward to the Tools of Change in Publishing 2010 conference in February. We’re“media partners” which means I’ll be writing about and tweeting from the conference and will be able to offer a discount on registration later this year if you’re interested in attending. Unlike last year, where I stumbled around intimidated and confused as to where the women were (most of the conferences I attend are romance industry oriented and, ergo, much more populated with women, who, frankly, are TOO MUCH FUN in the bar), I’ll be able to find the key presentations that apply to curious fiction readers (I hope) and write up more of the conference sessions and the demo area where new products are displayed.

But as for Kindle II: Matzoh Edition, it’s back in my house, and Passover isn’t for another six months. Jane made this point during the online panel last week, and I’ve said the same – if anyone asks me what digital reader I think they ought to buy, the tech-savvy-level of the user almost always means that the Kindle is the best option. As Malle said during our panel, the reader doesn’t care what format or what device, she just wants the book so she can read it. I am going to try to hack the font set as TeleRead details, and see how it looks. One reason I am SO into digital reading, aside from the gleeful greed of having a few hundred books with me all the time, is the ability to crank up the font size. I have terrible eyesight (I’m crosseyed, nearsighted in one eye, farsighted in the other, wear bifocals and have astigmatism and possible early signs of glaucoma, plus a partridge in a pear tree) and what Malle calls “comfort reading” is the major reason I adore reading on a digital device.

I honestly feel kind of conflicted about the Kindle vs. the Sony. On one hand, I love the Sony for the reasons I mentioned above. On the other hand, Kindle does some things so very, very well. Reminds me of house shopping. I remember when Hubby and I were house shopping, a friend gave me a piece of advice: “there is more than one perfect house.” At the time, the housing market was a competitive, awful endeavor to contemplate, and it was comforting to know that if we weren’t able to buy one house we wanted, there would be another we liked as much. I wonder if that’s true of the digital readers – there may not be one perfect device, with clear screen and great contrast, wireless access and ease of use, customizable menus and book organization options, onboard light and outstanding battery life. It may be that the ideal book reader is going to be a different animal for every reader. Which leads me to the aspect of the conference that I’ve been pondering most:

What seems to be missing most of all in the creation of book devices is an examination of How Women Read. I don’t mean whether or not you identify with the hero or whether you skip the sex scenes. What do you do with your books? Do you reorganize them? Do you like to have them near you at a moment’s notice? Do you sort and resort them, shelve them by subgenre or organize them by author or date of publication? What’s your ideal library, whether it’s digital or paper? I think, and I may be overstating it, that our relationships with our books are somewhat unique as a readership, and I’m curious whether your relationship with your books is one reason why you may or may not be curious about digital reading.

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Sycorax says:

    The Kindle got some bad press in Australia today.
    http://www.smh.com.au/digital-life/digital-life-news/kindle-in-bad-books-as-aussies-hit-with-higher-costs-20091012-gt52.html

    I like having my books close by, proudly on display. They feel like part of my identity. My bookcases are an important part of the decor of my home. I love looking through bookcases the first time I go to someone’s house, and trying to learn them through their books. I feel someone could easily do the same with mine. I love lending books to people, but I’m sad when they’re gone for other reasons – moving, travel, etc. They’re organised loosely by genre (fiction/non-fiction/plays/poetry/reference). I’ve had them alphabetised by author since I was nine.

    I’ve tried ebooks recently and really enjoyed the experience, but I’m too attached to books as beautiful, shareable objects to switch completely. At the moment I’m downloading ebooks of romance authors I don’t know, who might be turn out to be terrible.

  2. 2

    Thanks for the report from the electronic frontier.  I’m intrigued by the evolving process of ebooks, ereaders and the people who read them.

    I’m already using my new Sony Pocket more than I anticipated.  It’s not perfect—there are funny page breaks and sometimes the text doesn’t lay out exactly as intended—but for an inexpensive, lightweight ereader it meets my needs.

    I didn’t have any problem loading books on it using the eBook Library software, and haven’t attempted to organize anything yet.  Most of my ebook purchases are books I’d be recycling to the library book sale anyway, so when I’m done I often delete them off of my ereader.

  3. 3
    Mary G says:

    For me the scariest part of the reports from Australia is this:

    “In addition to books, the Kindle is designed to download newspapers, magazine and blogs but Australia’s two largest newspaper companies, Fairfax and News Corp, have said they were unlikely to deliver their papers to the device.  It is understood both companies are unhappy with the deal offered by Amazon, which would result in a 70-30 revenue split and force them to work exclusively with the Kindle for four years.”

    Sooo… not only does Amazon have DRM from hell, and an extraordinary slice of revenue from something they had no hand in producing, but they are trying to lock the publishers into arrangements where they cannot supply their materials to anyone else – I call that corporate greed run amok.  No way will I ever give my money to support something that is clearly designed to create a monopoly – which will ultimately be to the readers (and authors) detriments.  Wonder if the SEC will end up taking a look at this?

    As for books in my home: I have mine loosely organized into categories (non-fiction; romance; mystery; ‘other’) and then by author – but not alphabetized.  I only have them organized at all so that I can quickly see if I already have a book by a favorite author before I accidentally buy it again!  I do re-read favorite books and like having them where I can easily browse them.

  4. 4
    Marianne says:

    I am DYING to own an eBook reader, but can’t decide which one will be the best for me.  I KNOW Kindle has a rep for being the easiest and most user friendly but I do NOT like that they have me locked into Kindle format unless I’m tech saavy enough to hack it and do whatever to get it to upload PDFs.  That just generally annoys me.

    I lean toward Sony, except when I had one that I was giving away as a prize, I couldn’t get it to talk to any of my computers, no matter what I did, and the Sony customer service was no help at all.

    So… now what?  Touch?  Palm? 

    Color me frustrated.  You wouldn’t think it would be this difficult.

    As far as how I organize?  I’d probably do it by author, then title and not worry about genre.  But right now that is so low on my priority list that it might as well not even matter.

  5. 5

    Oddly enough, I was having this conversation this weekend. I have an iPhone and use both Stanza and the Kindle app for book reading. And what drives me batty about both is the inability to meaningfully categorize my books. Search is terrible and oh, well, just about everything is wrong.  There’s no point in listing the problems.  Everything. Whatever seems obvious to you about finding, sorting, categorizing your books on the device, you can’t.

    But what I HATE is the inability to sort books in a series. I have all the Sookie Stackhouse book on my iPhone (I own them in paper too) and it is impossible to figure out which book comes where in the series. There is no list of the order of the books in any of them.

    ACK! And I love reading on my iPhone. Love it, to my great surprise, I can tell you. But as the number of books grow, the lack of ability to meaningfully categorize is a bigger and bigger issue.

  6. 6
    SB Sarah says:

    @Marianne

    With the Sony readers, you can load your books into a SD card and use that without using the reader software. Many cards can be plugged directly into the computer, and there are USB ports meant to hold SD cards, too.

    That may work for you, though the DRM books have to be registered to the device, and can’t be put directly on the SD card then read on the Sony. Bypassing the registration step does not work – unless you crack the DRM.

    Library books, however, are lovely on the SD card. I have a bunch on there.

  7. 7
    Rae says:

    Until they come out with an eReader that can be synced to MY public library account and allow me to borrow books or a NetFlix/RedBox variety of borrowing account, I can’t see myself buying one. It’s not the tech ability that’s the hold up, it’s not the fact that they still haven’t sorted out just how they’re going to deal with pricing, it isn’t even me taking a stand on liking the feel of dead trees in my hand – it’s that I read too much and I can’t afford to shell out the money that would keep an eReader fed enough to satiate me. I know there are some libraries that have started to make eBooks available, but my lil county system isn’t there yet. And until they are, it just isn’t happening.

  8. 8
    Lena says:

    I’ve had my Sony 505 for just under a year now and love it. A lot. But there are a few things I want…

    I want more control of sorting my books. I want to be able to scroll through everything tagged ‘Romance’, pick out a particular book and see what else it’s tagged with. (Part of a series? Paranormal? Historical? Category?)

    I want to be able to tag things actually on the device, rather than having to connect it to a computer and tag it there.

    I want to have one piece of software on the computer that can handle everything, rather than having to switch between Digital Editions, the Sony software and Calibre.

    I want book blurbs to be part of the meta data and to be easily visible as I’m flicking through my digital library.

    I want to be able to mark books as ‘read’ or ‘not-read’.

    I want to be able to bring up every book I’ve started but not finished without having to remember to bookmark it.

    I’m not planning on getting a new reader for at least another year and probably longer. Hopefully at least some of these things will be sorted out by then.

  9. 9
    BevQB says:

    I’ve got hundreds of ebooks in LIT format. Some dating back to pre-DRM, pre-Metadata days. Way back when I first started buying ebooks (thinks to RT Mag and EC), I selected the LIT format because I figured a Microsoft product would be around longer than the other formats. DOH! Microsoft seems to have done its best to make sure that LIT and MSReader (IMO, the BEST way to read ebooks) have basically become irrelevant.

    So now, all these eReader shills seem to think that I should choose yet another format that may fall by the wayside in a couple of years. Yes, I could continue to buy in LIT format and then convert. But you know what? I do not want to work that hard just to read a freakin’ book, dammit!

    So I no longer read ebooks AT ALL. My tired old middle-aged eyes can’t take reading off my PDA or my computer screen. Yet, for me,  investing in the ereaders that are currently on the market just is not worth the money or trouble.

    Just give me a PDA with a 5-7” screen that runs some version of Windows, has near eInk quality, and decent battery life. WHY is that so hard to get right?  The UMPCs came close, but no cigar. I mean really, wouldn’t the features found on a PDA solve a lot of problems for people like me?

  10. 10
    Deb says:

    I’ve been using a Sony since they first came out (pre-ordered my 500 as soon as pre-orders were made available) and have never had any problem loading a book.  I’m perplexed by how it can take an hour to purchase and get it loaded for reading.  That shouldn’t take more than about 2 minutes.  I upgraded to the 505 earlier this year and still haven’t had any difficulties.  Am I the only one who doesn’t find the reader software difficult to use?  I never had any problem setting it up or installing it on any of my computers.  When I had to de-authorize a (work) computer that I no longer had access to me, a simple email had it taken care of in no time at all (I had authorized my max number of devices).

    I love my Sony!  I have far more problems with the idea of the proprietary nature of the Kindle than anything I’ve ever experienced with Sony.

  11. 11
    ghn says:

    The only thing the idiots who _insist_ on making e-books hard to find (the format issue – the books I want may not be available in the format I want), hard to get (geographical restrictions), hard to use (DRM) AND more often than not with ripoff prices will see is a growth in pirate editions. The whole “supply and demand” thing.
    The tragedy in this is of course that the authors won’t get any income from the pirated books. But then what is a girl to do when she stands there, virtual money in hand, and actually manages to find a _right_ thing (right format, that is) only to get kicked out of the store when she wants to buy? (geographical restrictions). And if she actually manages to buy something, she finds out that the quality is … not what she thought it was. Like a sweater shrinking six sizes the first time it is washed – and by the instructions on the label, too! Migrating one’s library to a new computer is a study in frustrations when DRM is involved. Been there. Done that. Got several t-shirts already.

  12. 12
    Anna/ocelott says:

    I’m with you, Deb.  I love my Sony 505 and have never had an issue with it.  I can’t read on the computer because it hurts my eyes and gives me headaches, a problem which my Sony has solved beautifully.  Sometimes the formatting goes a bit wonky, but it’s always readable, and really, I just drop the file in and go.

  13. 13
    caligi says:

    I bought a Sony 600 (Touch) and really like it. I guess I’m fairly tech-savvy, because I was totally turned off by how little control I’d have over Kindle data. Loading the Sony is not straightforward. If epub isn’t available, and the Adobe option is DRM encrusted, I buy the MS Reader format – which I have to flip to IE to buy – feed it through a third-party .lit converter I found to remove the DRM, feed THAT through Calibre to convert to epub and then put it on the Sony.

    It’s not hard, but I understand that most people are either unable or unwilling to figure that sort of thing out. For me, it was imperative that I own what I pay for. I’d never distribute what I’ve stripped of DRM – I won’t even read the coverless books my thrifty cousin “reclaimed” from a dumpster – because I like to support the authors who entertain me. But, I want to know that I can read what I’ve paid for on whatever device I’d rather read from. That means giving the stink eye to DRM.

  14. 14
    liz m says:

    I’ve said this before recently and I will say it again – being the only SAHM in the family / neighborhood sucks. That seeming non sequitur handled, my relationship with books used to be pack rat. I knew someone who rented another apartment for her books and I was filled with envy.  I clutched them to me like security blankets. I had entire runs of publisher offerings for certain lines for specific decades. And then I got over it. I ended up with one wall of shelves, and then I had to move those into storage, and now I wonder why I pay the storage rates at all, why I don’t just chuck them. Because saving for a good wall unit hasn’t happened, and the money I spend on that could be spent on more books.

    It’ll happen at some point, I need to go select the truly irreplaceable items from the rest. Life is short, I won’t read that again. E-reading changed my life, and after I finish a book I delete the file. It’s done, I’m moving on to new worlds.

    Now all of that said, when it comes to my ipod, I still own all of those cd’s. I am in fear of a data loss of my collection. So if I still collected books, I would understand the need to organize and catalogue, but that part of my life is far behind me now. So long Avon ribbon books, so long Topaz and Lovestruck. I can’t be bothered with you now.

  15. 15
    Kristi says:

    I keep reading all these wonderful posts and scan all the comments because I really really really want a Kindle on my Christmas list. But all the comments scare me.

    I own over 2,000 books and buy more each month, I’m constantly donating to the library (and trying to lend from the library when I feel bad for shelling out on all those books!).  I have my favorite books upstairs in my nice bookcase and my regular books downstairs in my office.  They tried to stay alph-ordered but I’m lazy and they are crammed everywhere.

    Ugh

  16. 16
    Claudia says:

    My hubby bought Astak’s 5-Inch Pocket PRO, and I must tell you amazing I just love it, it reads pdf,html,word,txt, mobi, and mp3 yes you read right mp3.
    It comes with a protective case, earphones and a 1Gb. SD card, and 300 free ebooks all for $ 199.
    Really easy to use, lightweight, and you can even choose the color, kindle, never really convinced me, I was inclined towards sony ereaders, but my hubby the tech savy of the family, says this one is much better, you can charge it with a mini usb cable and has a replaceable battery (a nokia phone battery)
    Just perfect

    http://www.astak.com

  17. 17
    caligi says:

    I wouldn’t buy a reader that doesn’t support epub. My money has epub winning the format war.

  18. 18
    BevQB says:

    My hubby bought Astak’s 5-Inch Pocket PRO, and I must tell you amazing I just love it, it reads pdf,html,word,txt, mobi, and mp3.

    Claudia, it also reads LIT files (although it’s got problems). Astak is my “backup” plan if I’m not crazy about any of the promised and rumored devices supposedly releasing by early 2010. If nothing else works for me, I’m hoping Astak will have shaken the bugs out of its readers.

    I wouldn’t buy a reader that doesn’t support epub. My money has epub winning the format war.

    It’s starting to look that way, or at the very least maybe ePub and Kindle will end up being the last major players standing. But then again, I bought LIT because I figured Microsoft would win the original format wars, so it may still be too early to tell (particularly since we haven’t yet seen what Apple has up its sleeve).

  19. 19
    Amy! says:

    Commenting late, but I wanted to go away and think about it before I said anything.

    I think that it’s a really bad idea to recommend, to anyone, no matter how unsophisticated, that they buy a format that is not open.  I think it even more ill-advised to suggest a device (that the format is tied to) on which the manufacturer has already used a remote-delete facility.

    I read a few ebooks back on my handspring vizor; when sony and google executed their deal to make material available, and sony dropped the price on the 700, I bought one.  I’m a bit disappointed in … everything but epub.  I’ll end up with another device, but since all of my epubs are DRM-free (and the publishers who won’t do that can burn, for all of me), I won’t ever lose my books (they’re backed up, redundantly … learned my lesson years ago).

    Anyone who buys an easy-to-use proprietary-format DRM-protected format now is going to be an opponent of digital reading in two years, or five years, or however long it takes for the format to die and become unreadable.  That’s when, not if.  The only possibility for proprietary formats would be a hundred-year trust, with right of free download on confirmation of identity.  Anything less is … stealing from the reader.  Clue to publishers, and ebook manufacturers: you can steal from your customers … once.  As a long term business model … patent it, so no one else is stupid enough to try it, ‘kay?

    Amy!

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