Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

The nook: More competition for Amazon's Kindle

10533_188131055019_9122810019_4293351_2828455_n Barnes & Noble has released for pre-order their Kindle-killer: the nook (lowercase 'n' on purpose).

'Kindle-killer' is perhaps a bit of an overstatement given that the Kindle owns the e-book reader market right now. But the Nook's imminent arrival is what caused Amazon to preemptively drop the price of the Kindle, so its impact has already been felt.

And make no mistake: e-book reading devices are important not only to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but especially to book/e-book publishers.

Why?

Because, since the arrival of Kindle and the Sony Reader, reading is up:

Amazon […] says that people with Kindles now buy 3.1 times as many books as they did before owning the device. That factor is up from 2.7 in December 2008. So a reader who had previously bought eight books from Amazon would now purchase, on average, 24.8 books, a rise from 21.6 books.

Sony adds this:

Sony […] says that its e-book customers, on average, download about eight books a month from its online library. That is far more than the approximately 6.7 books than the average American book buyer purchased for the entire year in 2008, according to Bowker, a publishing industry tracking firm.

More reading by consumers means more profit for the publishers. With a price war being waged between Amazon and Wal Mart (and now Target), there is real concern by the publishers over margins and profit.

There will no doubt be an exhaustive series of technical articles detailing the differences between the nook and the Kindle (here's one, from B&N's perspective). For now, though, we can take a look at this feature set from Barnes & Noble's eReading Blog:

  • Download eBooks, magazines and newspapers in seconds flat
  • Enjoy eBooks on an incredibly readable E Ink® reading screen
  • Navigate your eBooks and other content on a color touchscreen
  • Sync your eBooks to your iPhone, iPod Touch, BlackBerry, Mac or PC
  • Share eBooks with friends using one of our eReader clients
  • Read any eBook for free in a Barnes & Noble store
  • Get special content and promotions in any Barnes & Noble store

The one thing I really like about Barnes & Noble selling an e-reader is that I expect I'll be able to visit my local store and demo the reader. That's something you can't do with the Kindle. I would keep in mind, though, that the nook is a first generation product. Even the Kindle has gone through one iteration now, and I think in many cases people who bought the initial model wished they had waited. This may or may not be the case with the nook.

As far as e-book formats go, the nook supports EPUB, the open e-book format. This is huge. Most of the new readers post-Kindle support this format. Kindle, by comparison, only supports their own proprietary format (the DX model also supports PDF). People do not want to be locked into proprietary formats. They want open formats, which allows them to view any content on any device. Kindle-formatted e-books are viewable only on the Kindle and it's associated applications (like the iPhone Kindle app).

I'll leave you with possibly one of the most tantalizing features of the nook:

The Nook also has software that will detect when a consumer walks into a store so that it can push out coupons and other promotions like excerpts from forthcoming books or suggestions for new reading. While in stores, Nook owners will be able to read any e-book through streaming software.

In my opinion, it's this sort of interactivity which eventually will lead to the demise of the printed book.

The nook is available now for pre-order, will be available for purchase Nov. 30, and be in stores Nov. 28.

[ Advertisement: SF/F Shorts by Amazon ]

[ Follow me on Twitter ]

Some thoughts on traditional vs electronic publishing

You may have noticed a recent slant in my posting topics towards e-books and electronic publishing. This is not without purpose. For a while now I've been considering foregoing the traditional publishing route in favor of the electronic, self-publishing one. The reasons for this are many. For one, it's disheartening (yet encouraging at the same time) when established writers divulge sales information that poignantly dismisses the traditional route.

Second, this writing thing is not my only thing. It's something I thoroughly enjoy, yet I don't expect to make a living from it. I'm not saying I wouldn't want to make a living from it, but the realities are that my day job will likely always pay more, and I'm at the point in my life where I'm not willing to downsize or give-up my lifestyle (such as it is). Perhaps going the traditional route is a game for the young. Or perhaps it just isn't the route to take at all anymore, at any age, because the direction of things has changed.

Traditional vs. Electronic Publishing

Currently, I don't have a publisher. Nor do I have an agent. In truth, I wonder sometimes if I really need either. You see, the rules themselves have been altered. No longer do writers need to rely solely on publishers for exposure and distribution. Sure, publishers can give your career a boost out of the starting gate. But so much of it relies on the author taking it from there that the publisher/agent model soon becomes a hindrance and, in some cases, a detriment: while said writer is engaging in all the work, guess who's siphoning off the majority of the profit?

However, there's no doubt publishers have the potential to raise the bar in terms of quality. I'll be the first to admit that you have to wade through a lot of junk on the Kindle store, for example, before you find quality in the "self-published bin" (there's not really a "self-published bin", by the way). Publishers therefore have the potential to act as gatekeepers, holding back the stuff that probably shouldn't be seen by readers until it's been polished a bit more.

While I admire and envy those who have found success via the traditional publishing route, I'm seriously considering that it might not be right for me. I already have a day job; the reality of the situation is that I'll always be more self-sustaining doing that than writing. But I love putting words to paper, and especially concocting fantastic stories and the characters that populate them. Fortunately, there is hope for people like myself, and it is e-books.

E-books

E-books and the proliferation of high-quality e-reading devices are becoming the new medium for reading. Paper books will no doubt have their place for years to come, but it is a dying model. The world has gone green, and convenience coupled with instant gratification is a powerful driving force. Amazon, for example, touts their Kindle reading device with 3G wireless with this line: "...think of a book and you'll be reading it in less than 60 seconds". Competition in the e-reader space is growing every day. This, in turn, will continue to drive prices down. With many e-books already selling for $0.99, and price battles going on between the major players, this becomes a win-win for consumers.

But it's also a win for writers. Amazon, Scribd, even our own web sites become our distribution warehouses and provide the exposure we might not otherwise obtain. The middle-men—namely publishers and agents—are taken out of the equation. With more hands removed from the pot, the shares of those remaining gets bigger.

However...

Going electronic is not for everyone. For one, it's unlikely you can make a living off it (yet). But then everyone's definition of 'living' is a bit different, so a decision of this nature really becomes a personal one.

It's not an easy decision to make, either. I wonder in that you don't risk alienating yourself from ever breaking into the traditional model by jumping into the electronic one. Maybe that doesn't matter.

Of course, what I'm really talking about here is self-publishing, which has been around for a long time. Some authors (Paolini comes to mind) self-published, only to find great success under the traditional model after the fact. Is electronic publishing therefore any different?

[ Advertisement: SF/F Shorts by Amazon ]

[ Follow me on Twitter ]

eBook File Formats

There are a lot of eBook file formats: TXT, HTML, AZW, DOC/DOCX, OPF, TR2/3, ARG, DTB, FB2, XML, CHM, PDF, PS, DJVU, LIT, PDB, DNL… ok, I think I'll stop now. It's obvious that while one file format might be a nice ideal, it is anything but reality. Not everyone uses the same software, and there's no such thing as a universal e-book file format that all market players have adopted (EPUB stands out, but not every eBook retailer uses it).

At its simplest form, e-books are just text files. But text files are too simple. They don't contain the characteristics necessary for an e-book to rival a printed book in appearance. Also, TXT files do not support DRM.

E-book readers—both software and hardware—are a topic unto itself. For this post, I therefore want to focus just on the file formats that these (software or hardware-based) readers support. Also, I'll only focus on those formats I feel are the most relevant. It's not very realistic, IMO, for someone to read an e-book of any length in TXT format or even HTML. Other formats, such as PKG (which was a file format for reading e-books on an Apple Newton), are outdated enough to not garner further attention.

So, here are the formats and a bit of information about each.

AZW

Kindle-icon

AZW is the file format used by the Amazon Kindle e-reader. It is proprietary to Amazon and is DRM protected. The best way to both convert a file to this format and publish on Amazon's Kindle store is to use their Digital Text Platform site.

Their recommendation for having a successful conversion:

The preferred format for uploading content is as a single HTML file. To include images, provide a ZIP file that includes the images as well as the HTML file that refers to them (check the formatting guides to find out how to link to images from HTML). The HTML and image files all have to be in the same folder inside the zip file.

I've gone through this process to publish my novel, The Hall of the Wood, on the Kindle store; it is a pretty painless process.

Note: A lot of people/reviewers think Kindle only supports AZW. This isn't true. Kindle also supports (natively) TXT, PDF, Audible (Audible Enhanced (AA, AAX)), MP3, unprotected MOBI and (through conversion) HTML and DOC.

PDB

palmpdb

PDB is DRM-protected format advocated by Palm Digital Media. It stands for Palm Database, and originally was intended as a file format meant to be read on the Palm handheld device. It seems from looking around that many retailers support this format and that it isn't necessarily required to have a Palm handheld to read files in this format as software for PC's or Mac's is available. Also, the format is supported on many other handheld devices.

PDF

pdf_icon_large

PDF stands for Portable Document File. It was established by Adobe in hopes of creating a universal file format to promote the ready exchange of data, specifically document files. DRM-free PDF's can be read by the free Adobe Reader. PDF's protected by DRM can be read by Adobe Digital Editions, which has the ability to allow or deny access to a downloaded PDF depending on the conditions under which the file was obtained.

If an e-book was outright purchased, you should be good to go, though you will have to read the PDF using Digital Editions and will be further restricted from saving or printing the e-book. On the other hand, if you checked an e-book out from an online library and that e-book contains DRM, chances are the e-book will "expire" after the loan period is up, at which time you will no longer be able to view the e-book.

PDF documents can be created by any number of freely available software converters. My preferred method of conversion is to use the Microsoft Save as PDF or XPS add-in for Microsoft  Word 2007. Of course, there's always Adobe Acrobat Professional, too.

ODF

ODF_glassy_100
OOo_150_ODT_Icon

OpenDocument Format is an XML-based file format used to represent spreadsheets, presentations, word processing documents, and more. While ODF has emerged as an industry standard, the specification having been ratified by over 600 technology companies (including Microsoft and Adobe), it is of some note that while applications such as Microsoft Office support ODF, that suite also still defaults to its own proprietary file formats. ODF is, however, the default file format for OpenOffice, a popular open source alternative to Microsoft Office.

ODT, or OpenDocument Text, is the word processing specific version of the ODF file format standard. Similarly, there are presentation (ODP), spreadsheet (ODS), and other formats.

RTF

rtf_icon

The Rich Text Format was developed by Microsoft in the 1980's. Not surprising, it is an 8-bit based format, and while it can address larger character sets, it is through means that relegate the format to mostly a legacy role. Still, the format is quite prolific; converting to RTF is supported by most word processing and other applications.

DOC/DOCX

WordIcon

The default file format supported by Microsoft Word. With Word 2007, Microsoft introduced the DOCX format, which is billed as an open, XML format that, unfortunately, has not been as widely adopted as Microsoft might have hoped. One of the nice things about the DOCX format is that it results in much leaner files. However, it is not backward compatible with previous versions of Word.

EPUB

epub_icon

EPUB is an e-book specific format engineered by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) and intended to replace the Open eBook (OEB) standard. EPUB includes optional support for DRM. The standard is supported by the Barnes & Noble nook, Sony Reader, and Apple's iPhone as well as other devices.

As far as converting a document to the EPUB format, it looks like there are several options: BookGlutton hosts an HTML-to-EPUB file converter, Google Code contains a software library called epub-tools which looks suitable for batch style conversion of files, and LexCycle has something called Stanza which looks to be a desktop application. I'll have to give each of them a whirl to see which is the best option.

PRC/MOBI

Blackberry-icon

The PRC/MOBI file format is based on the Open eBook (OEB) standard (which I discovered was superseded by the EPUB standard; see above), and is considered one of the most prolific e-book file formats for mobile devices. The biggest proponent of this format is Mobipocket.

Mobipocket offers both reader and publisher software, both free. Mobipocket Reader will run on PC's as well as a number of handheld devices. There are two ways to use Mobipocket Creator to author e-books: use the application to create the e-book and then add content and design from there or, the more practical approach, import Word, text, or PDF documents.

The PRC/MOBI format does, of course, support DRM.

BBeB

(LRX/LRF)

320px-Reader2

BBeB, or Broadband eBook, is Sony's proprietary file format for e-books, as if we needed yet another one. It comes in two varieties: LRX for encrypted (DRM) e-books and LRF for unencrypted e-books.

Sony has their own e-book store where one can download e-books in these formats. The newest version of the Sony Reader is a device widely expected to give Amazon's Kindle a run for the money. In order to read books in the BBeB format, you will need a Sony Reader, much like the AZW format is married to the Kindle.

However, Sony opened the Reader up so that it also supports the EPUB format. This is a good thing, and leaves the Kindle as virtually the only device that locks its users into a proprietary format.

I haven't yet found a viable method by which to publish e-books in this format.

Two options have come to light for converting from a more standard format to BBeB:

1.) As ZenEngineer points out in the comments below, there is a freeware program called Calibre that will perform the conversion.

2.) Also, there is the bbebinder open-source project hosted on Google Code which converts HTML and TXT files to the BBeB format.

LIT

microsoft-reader_t

This is a Microsoft-specific file format whose time I can't help but wonder may be at an end. LIT files are readable only on Microsoft Reader, and while there are versions of the software for PC's and handhelds, the major players in those areas (Amazon, Sony, Apple) have their own proprietary formats.

Creation of LIT files seems a bit problematic as well. There is a Read in Microsoft Reader add-in for Microsoft Word 2000 and higher, but "higher" here does not include Word 2007. That kind of tells me the format is being abandoned by Microsoft.

References/Further Reading

Libraries Going Digital

image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0, obtained from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SanDiegoCityCollegeLearingRecourceCity-bookshelf.jpgAccessing the full text of books online is nothing new. One can peruse the digital shelves of such sites as the World Digital Library, the International Children's Digital Library, the University of Pennsylvania's Online Books Pages, or even The New York Public Library, which is working with Google Books to offer a searchable subset of their collection online.

Therein, though, lies the kicker: these so-called digital libraries are incomplete. Though a somewhat quick perusal of the NYPL's online catalog was impressive, the fact that they maintain an "e" catalog separate from the main one tells me their digital collection differs from what you might find by walking into the actual library.

That might be true of the NYPL, but not so for the library of Cushing Academy. You see, Cushing is going digital, all-the-way:

This year, after having amassed a collection of more than 20,000 books, officials at the pristine campus about 90 minutes west of Boston have decided the 144-year-old school no longer needs a traditional library. The academy’s administrators have decided to discard all their books and have given away half of what stocked their sprawling stacks - the classics, novels, poetry, biographies, tomes on every subject from the humanities to the sciences. The future, they believe, is digital.

The school's headmaster, Dr. James Tracy, is leading this effort. Dr. Tracy believes that printed books are "outdated technology, like scrolls before books".

In place of their traditional library, they are spending $500,000 to create an all-new "learning center". Upon entering this new facility, students will no longer see rows and rows of books, but instead will find:

  • three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet (at a cost of $42,000 these are obviously Dallas Cowboys-sized screens)
  • special laptop-friendly study carrels (at a cost of $20,000)
  • a coffee shop ($50,000) that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine
  • 18 electronic readers ($10,000) made by Amazon.com and Sony

(No, I did not make those dollar figures up)

I'll put aside the discussion of why they're turning hallowed reading ground into a social mecca with televisions and coffee shops to instead focus on the switchover of their printed material to an all digital library. There's no doubt the world is going digital more and more, so it's not surprising to see this happen. Convenience, accessibility, sheer breadth of titles are all good reasons for this. Also, as technology for digital readers continues to evolve, and as the readers themselves become more affordable, we'll continue to see growth in the e-book space. But will we ever reach the point where physical libraries either do not exist or exist exclusively as meeting places for people who share a common desire to learn (while sipping coffee made by a $12,000 cappuccino machine, of course)?

I have to say that personally I really have nothing against an all-digital world. While I continue to read printed books daily, I haven't set foot in a library since I graduated college. In fact, as I was performing some research for this post, I became impressed enough with the NYPL's digital catalog that I might sign up for a library card (or is it library e-card?) as soon as I'm done here. One of the most amazing aspects of this is that I don't live anywhere near New York, nor will I ever have to set foot into their library to take advantage of their catalog.

At some point, I plan to buy a Kindle or similar e-book reader. At that time, I may very well never buy another printed book again. You can bet that as successive generations become more familiar with e-Ink than the kind that comes from a printing press, that the perception of what a book is will change.

So, too, then will libraries.

Is this the last word on Kindlegate?

Amazon-kindle-booksAmazon's Kindle digital e-book reader has had its share of controversy. The latest, and perhaps biggest misstep, came when they remotely deleted e-books legally purchased by consumers, but which had been illegally made available for sale by an unscrupulous vendor who ignored certain copyright laws.

Ever since Amazon performed that act of deletion, removing such works as 1984 and Animal Farm right from under readers' noses, they have been playing make-up with consumers who, in some cases, have resorted to lawsuits to "ease their pain". Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, even issued an apology.

Now, we've come full circle. Amazon has offered to replace copies of 1984 and Animal Farm at no charge to Kindle consumers. The message was sent in an email, and reads (source here):

"As you were one of the customers impacted by the removal of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" from your Kindle device in July of this year, we would like to offer you the option to have us re-deliver this book to your Kindle along with any annotations you made. You will not be charged for the book."

"This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our "solution" to the problem was stupid, thoughtless and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we've received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission."

Also,

Amazon said in an e-mail message to those customers that if they chose to have their digital copies restored, they would be able to see any digital annotations they had made. Those who do not want the books are eligible for an Amazon gift certificate or a check for $30, the company said.

It would seem they're pulling out all the stops, giving consumers enough options that how could anyone not wind up satisfied?

If only it were that simple…

Amazon violated a fundamental right of people who live in a free society when they deleted those e-books. Yobie Benjamin says it best:

In most cases, it would require a government subpoena, grand jury summons or court order to require you to reveal the contents of your device, turn over the contents of your device and/or to delete the contents in the device.

Yet Amazon did so without any of those things. Clearly, they overstepped their bounds. Their attempts to make amends is proof enough of that. But did they go so far as to make the act unredeemable? Have they single-handedly crushed any potential for mass adoption of their Kindle and other similar devices that make use of DRM?

I think if anything good is to come of this it will be the shortening of the lifespan of digital rights management technology. We've already seen this in the music industry, where Amazon—and even Apple now—sell DRM-free MP3's. Amazon has laid bare the true evil of DRM for all to see. 'All', in this case, is the wider audience they are still trying to sell their device to. Sure, the Kindle is doing well, but there's a lot more people without the device than with it. If the device—and e-books as a whole—is to succeed, it needs this mass adoption.

Amazon, I'm afraid, may have cooked this goose a bit too long. It's past done.

As an aside, this post marks my 200th on this blog. It's not my 200th post overall, because I was blogging on another platform before I made the switch to scottmarlowe.com, but I did move over the "best of the best" of those posts onto here, so maybe we can call it my 200th 'good' post. Anyway, thought it was worth mentioning.