May 5th, 2013 by Mike Fulton

As a general rule, it seems to be the case that publishers have done a relatively poor job of making older catalog titles available in eBook format. Go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble or your other favorite eBook seller and look up some book you remember from 20 years ago.  More likely than not, it’s not available as an eBook unless it’s from a fairly successful author.

Even books that spent time at the top of the bestseller’s lists are often not available.  One great example is the Belgariad/Mallorean fantasy series from David Eddings. A total of twelve books, most of which spent several weeks at or near the top of the bestseller’s lists when they were originally released.  And yet, none of them are available here in the USA as an eBook.  In fact, of Eddings’ twenty-five novels, only seven are available in eBook format here.

In the case of David Eddings, I suspect that there is some issue regarding royalty negotiations with the estate that is the main problem, because some of his books are available in other countries but not here.  However, aside from situations like that, I think the biggest factor is that mass-market eBooks are still a relatively new thing.  It’s still a young market. To whatever degree eBooks existed before Amazon released the first Kindle in late 2007, they were a niche product used mainly by hardcore computer users. For comparison, if you look at the situation with older music catalog releases on CompactDisc 5-6 years after that formats was first introduced, I suspect you would see a similar situation with the availability of older titles.

But “young market” is not a good excuse, for many reasons.  The first reason is that the publishers should know better.  If you look at the availability of older titles on DVD, you’d see that they were released earlier and more quickly than had happened with music on CD. In fact, this helped make DVD one the fastest growing media formats ever.

Why did they release older titles more quickly?  The DVD format was created and introduced in the mid-90’s, about the same time that significant numbers of people started buying music on the Internet.  Tracking sales statistics for online purchases was much easier and more accurate than for brick-and-mortor stores, and it soon became apparent that the sale of older catalog titles, overall, was a much bigger part of the market than had been previously realized. This fact did not escape the notice of the movie studios. While new releases still got the most attention, they also made an effort to make older titles available more quickly as well.

Another reason why the “young market” argument isn’t a good excuse is that, unlike the process of bringing older music titles to CD or older movies to DVD, there’s no potentially expensive restoration or remastering process required.  With music and DVD, the process of bringing out an older title can require a significant investment of time and money. With music, taking an older set of analog master tapes and making a decent digital master could take a serious amount of work. With movies, even more so.  It’s not unusual for it to cost a quarter million dollars to restore a movie for a DVD release.

With books, and we’re talking basic mass-market fiction with minimal illustrations, there’s no such expensive and/or arduous process involved. Even if the text isn’t already available in digital form, it takes no more than a few hours of work to scan and proofread.  Once the text is in digital form, it takes just a few hours of work, at most, to create an eBook.

How Much Should It Cost?

Above all else, any eBook edition should never be any more expensive than the cheapest paper-based edition.

If the book is available as a mass-market paperback, and is still “in-print” (an increasingly archaic concept) and reasonably easy to find on the shelves at bookstores, then I think the same price as the mass-market paperback is reasonable. Although I’m not complaining if it happens to be cheaper.

I am not at all a fan of the idea that an eBook should cost more because there’s a trade paperback or collector’s edition hardcover edition.  I’ve seen prices go up on books that have been available for years because of this sort of foolishness.  It’s especially stupid when there’s a new CE hardcover, because the markets don’t really overlap much. If I were to buy a new hardcover edition of Dune for myself or as a gift, it doesn’t really affect my decision to buy the eBook version, or vice versa.

If the book is no longer easy to find on the shelves, then my thought is that it should be somewhat cheaper than a current mass-market title.  I think pricing it the same as a current title is foolish because you’re just driving away a lot of people that would otherwise make a purchase.

Once upon a time, with paper-based books, it made sense that older titles which were no longer selling very well would be eventually taken down off the shelves at the bookstore. After all, shelf space is a limited commodity and you want it used for books that are going to sell, not just sit there. Anything on those store shelves has to generate a certain level of income or be replaced by something that will.

It’s a long-standing idea of retail that if you’ve got a warehouse full of stock that is no longer really moving at the original price, you knock the price down. And knock it down again, and again until it’s in the bargain bin. The money required to create the product has already been spent, and every day it sits on store shelves or in the warehouse is costing you more.  At some point, you stop worrying about how much it cost to manufacture and start worrying about being able to recover any money from it at all. If you end up selling it at at 10% of the original price, you’re probably still better off than just letting it sit.

With eBooks, “warehouse space” is virtually infinite and virtually free, so it’s probably easy to decide that if it doesn’t cost you anything to store the product, there’s no compelling reason to drop the price until sales pick up. Just leave the price where it is and sales will still trickle in. As long as the publisher isn’t losing any money, what’s the problem?

The problem with looking at it that way is that it means there’s not a lot of incentive to spend any time or effort on older titles that you’re not convinced will sell very well. Even if the break-even point is really, really low.

Lower prices on older catalog titles would provide incentive to buyers to try out authors and genres they’ve never read before. Why wouldn’t you want a fantasy reader to decide it’s time to check out James Patterson’s Alex Cross mystery series because they can get some of the older books for $3.99 instead of $7.99?  I guarantee you will sell a lot more copies of Along Came A Spider at the lower price, and maybe you also create a new James Patterson fan in the process.

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December 25th, 2012 by Mike Fulton
Posted in eReaders & Reader Apps

It’s been about 3 years now since I started using Kindle and in that time I’ve all but abandoned paper books.  I’ve got a good-sized stack of unread paperbacks that are always calling out for attention, but in vain.

I originally had one of the first-generation Kindle devices, with the non-backlit LCD screen, but it was only a few months old when the Apple iPad was introduced and I subsequently started using the Kindle app instead.  The iPad’s screen was a tad harder on the eyes, back in the days before the Retina display, but not having to carry around two devices made up the difference.

Many of the current generation of Kindle devices are actually using a specialized version of the Android operating system, which is good news for those of us who are using the app on other devices, because it means that there is less reason for Amazon to introduce new features that don’t make it to the Kindle apps running on other hardware.

While there have been some decent improvements in the Kindle app over the years, there are still some missing features which seem, to me anyway, to be pretty obvious improvements.

Continuous Scrolling

The basic metaphor of the Kindle app,  like many other eReader apps, is that of turning pages like in a physical books.  When you finish a page, you swipe your finger from the right side of the screen towards the left side.  The screen shows an animation of the page being turned over.

Pretty, but I’m wondering if the concept of “pages” isn’t one we’re ready to leave behind.  Why not just let us slide our thumb up or down along the edge of the screen to move up and down in the text?  It seems to me like it would provide a smoother reading experience, although I’d suggest leaving the page-flip style around as a user-selectable option.

Organization

The iBooks application has a feature that I’ve wanted in the Kindle app almost since day one.  You can create categories and assign documents to them.  I can create a “Science Fiction” category and a “Mystery” category, for example, and assign books to each as desired.

I can see why someone whose Kindle only has a dozen or two documents might not think this sort of thing is really all that important, but I have HUNDREDS of documents and I am desparate for better organization features.

Aside from categories, I’d also like to see more sorting options besides “Recent” and “Author name”.  Why isn’t “Title” an option?

Font Sizes & Line Spacing

I would really like to see the font size selection become a bit more analog.  The minimum and maximum sizes are fine, as far as I’m concerned, but I’d like to see more intermediate steps.  Especially on smaller screens, it’s hard to get the font size dialed in the way I like, and more intermediate steps would help. I’d also like to see options for controlling linespacing and extra space between paragraphs.

More Sync Options

The sync feature is supposed to be one of the Kindle’s big features, but really it’s kind of broken.  All it really does is take you to the furthest point you’ve gone on any device.  It doesn’t take you to your current location, which is what you really want.  If you’ve skipped ahead for any reason, on any device, you’ve essentially broken the sync feature.  And if you have more than one person reading the same book at the same time, it doesn’t work for that either.

What we really need is the option to select between the current position on each device and the furthest read position for each device.  Let us choose a default setting so that we can easily go back and forth between reading a book on our phone and our tablet, and not step all over the sync settings for someone using the Cloud Reader.

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July 16th, 2012 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Digital Magazines

Anybody who knows me reasonably well can tell you that I love magazines. I read a wide variety, although it will not come as a surprise that computer and photography oriented titles head up the list.

Comic books were a big part of my reading experience as a kid, and my comics reading spilled over into magazines. The comic book store I went to carried a few sci-fi magazines like Analog, but the first title I purchased on a regular basis was Starlog, which covered news and articles about Sci-Fi movies, TV Shows, and books.

As the years went by, my magazine appetite increased. As I became interested in photography, I started reading all the photography magazines I could find. Then computer magazines got added into the mix.

Maybe it was because I had started out as a comics collector, but I developed the habit of keeping magazines even after I was finished reading them. In some cases this was justified by their potential as reference material, but in many cases there was simply no good reason to keep them. But I did it anyway.

The concept of eBooks was around for a long time before Amazon came along and made it into an industry. For well over a decade before that, there had been attempts to sell eBooks you could read on your computer, but that idea never really caught on. There were always too many compromises involved. Not enough titles available. Not really portable. Even reading on a laptop is pretty clunky compared to a book. Text on computer screens was low-rez and extended reading could make your eyes hurt. But Amazon figured out how to do it right. A small, portable reader device with good battery life. A screen that was just good enough to read without hurting your eyes. And most importantly, a large catalog of current titles.

Just under three years ago, or thereabouts, I bought my first eReader device, the Amazon Kindle. It had been out for around a year at that point, and they’d finally gotten all little glitches out of the hardware, software, and the supply chain. Once it arrived, I was pretty much instantly in love and soon I was carrying it around everywhere.

The Kindle was supposed to allow you to read digital versions of your favorite magazines as well as books, but this never really seemed to work for me. Reading a digital version of a paperback novel is one thing, but a magazine relies too much on color and layout that just didn’t translate very well to a monochrome LCD screen. So while I was reading books constantly, I pretty much passed on the magazines.

As much as I loved the Kindle, when Apple announced the iPad, I knew this was the hardware I really wanted. Amazon had a Kindle reader app for the iPhone, and it was expected to be available for the iPad. I was a little concerned that the lower dots-per-inch color screen might not be as easy on the eyes, but I was looking forward to seeing how digital magazines would work.

The Digital Letdown

It turned out that digital magazines worked OK. Not great, but OK. Compared to expectations, they were a bit of a letdown. The biggest issues were problems with reading small text, and inconsistency in design and navigation. That latter problem was due in large part to the fact that there was no standard for creating a digital magazine and several competing delivery platforms, so three different magazines would have three different methods for doing things like showing the menu, moving from page to page, and so forth.

A big part of the problem had to do with the technical requirements of adapting a magazine’s design and layout for a mobile device. Things like embedding fonts in order to preserve a particular design were not things that eBooks had to deal with. Most eBooks have basic text which can be reformatted according to the device’s screen size and users preferences. Some may have a few inline illustrations. It’s pretty easy to translate from a paper edition into digital. The lack of color on some devices may be an issue, but there’s not really anything a publisher can do about that, except maybe to make sure that the graphics look reasonable on such a device.

The other problem in the early days was simply that many magazines didn’t have digital editions yet. Over the next couple of years, however, that situation gradually changed. Today, popular magazines that don’t have digital editions are now the exception rather than the rule.

Enter The NEW iPad

When the new iPad, also known as the iPad 3, was released earlier this year, digital magazine publishers had to step up their game. One big change was the addition of the Newsstand feature. This added a new category in the App Store for magazines and newspapers, and consolidated magazine applications into one easy to find location on your device, with a nice bookshelf style display, much like iBooks.

While the newsstand was a welcome addition, the main new feature of the new tablet was the ultra high-resolution retina display. Text in web pages and eBooks looked marvelous at even tiny sizes provided your vision was good enough to see it. However, it turned out that digital magazines created for the original iPad just didn’t look very good at all on the new device. Text was frequently fuzzy and full of jaggies. To be fair, it hadn’t looked all that great on the original iPad screen, but at least then you were willing to blame it on the lower resolution screen. It wasn’t just small text either. Even normal sized text generally didn’t look very good. Clearly the magazine publishers needed to update their software or their file format or something.

Well, it took them a couple of months, but over the last few weeks there have been dozens of updates to magazine applications in the app store. Most of the latest digital editions look much, much better on the new screen.

Still Not Quite Perfect

While there’re much better looking now, there is clearly still some room for improvement with the applications themselves. With most of them, there is clearly some sort of bitmap and vector graphics rendering going on in order to presen the magazine layout the way it’s intended to be viewed. It’s not a simple matter of having a JPEG image for each page. However, even on the relatively snappy new iPad, it still takes a couple of seconds in some cases to render each page.

The problem is, it doesn’t seem that most of the applications do that until the user actually navigates to a page. Even though the device is largely sitting idle while a user is reading a page, they are not making any attempts to pre-render the pages on either side of the one currently being viewed so they’re ready to go when the user is finished with the current page.

They should also be trying to do some minimal caching of pages previously rendered so that they’re ready to go with the user returns to them. This doesn’t necessarily have to be RAM-based if available memory is an issue.

Ultimately, however, these are all relatively minor gripes. For the most part, they’ll go away down the road as the applications become more sophisticated, the devices get faster, and the screens get more pixels.

Gained In Translation

The fact that digital magazines take up essentially no space physically is one of the big reasons I like them, just as it is with eBooks. I am, unfortunately, somewhat of a hoarder when it comes to magazines. It’s nice to be able to read what I want to read, not have to throw it away, and yet have it take up no extra space in my house.

A few digital magazines have made attempts at more than merely translating their print edition into digital format. For example, the digital editions of Sports Illustrated and Maxim Magazine have embedded video and extra pictures that aren’t found in the print edition.

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