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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November 21st, 2011 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Bookstores

Despite the fact that I have been reading eBooks fairly exclusively for the last two years, I still make regular trips to my local bookstore pretty much every week. Part of the reason is to check on new magazines. I read a number of electronic editions, but many are still print-only. Aside from the magazine rack, however, I still find myself going to the “Mystery” and “SciFi/Fantasy” sections to look at the new releases.

The reason is Amazon’s half-assed lazy approach to marketing.

That may raise a few eyebrows who think that Amazon is doing a pretty good job marketing-wise, so let me explain. When it comes to getting people to visit the site, Amazon does a darn good job. And when you get down to looking at individual products, they do a great job of presenting information. With regards to books, if you’re talking NY Times Bestseller list new releases, Amazon does a great job of featuring them prominently. After that, however, they stop trying very hard. Or maybe the problem is that they’re trying TOO hard on some things and other things are getting shuffled aside as a result.

I buy most of my eBooks on Amazon, but it’s often a very painful process. If I am looking for a specific author or title, it’s easy to search and locate what I want. But what about if I’m looking for something less specific? That’s where things break down.

When I look at the new release sections at my local bookstore, they have something like 50 hardcovers, another 50 trade paperbacks, and probably 100 mass market paperbacks, all released in the past couple of months. When I try to browse new releases on Amazon, the first problem is that they don’t really have a “New Releases” page as such.

Well, ok, they do have a menu link for “New Releases”. Click it, then select a genre from the left side, and you’ll have what initially looks like a list of new releases, 5 pages of 20 items each. However, if you look a little closer, you’ll see that you’re not really getting a list of 100 books in your selected genre.

First of all, many items are listed multiple times for different formats (i.e. hardcover, Kindle, etc.). On the first page right now, 6 of the 20 items are such duplicates. Another couple items were “pre-order” and not actually available yet. Some books shown don’t belong to the selected genre. And some items aren’t even books: there was a version of the ANGRY BIRDS mobile game listed.

If I browse on Amazon to “Books” and then to “Science Fiction and Fantasy” I see they have “Best of 2011″ and “New And Notable” near the top. The “New And Notable” section turns out to be a mix of 20 hardcover and trade paperback releases. They also have “New In Paperback” which has another 20 items and ALSO includes trade paperbacks.

The numbers tell the story: Amazon is failing to show me the vast majority of the new releases I see at my local bookstore. And why? It’s not that they don’t have the books in their catalog. If you do individual searches, you’ll find the book 99.99% of the time. The failure is that they’re not bothering to market them to people interested in new releases.

Since the individual pages for the books show the correct release dates, one must conclude that inclusion in the “New in Paperback” list is being determined by some flag in the database other than the date. They must have a separate flag for “include in new release list” that has nothing to do with the actual release date. That makes it a marketing decision. And a marketing failure in my opinion.

Aside from the limited selection of new releases, the next biggest problem is the huge signal to noise ratio in what they do show. Perhaps one of the prime examples is the inclusion of “pre-order” items which could be anywhere from a few days to six months away from actual release. This is especially annoying when you want to sort the list of items by release date and you end up having to browse through several pages of pre-order items to get to the products you can actually buy right now. Of the 40 items included in the two new release lists, 7 were pre-order items.

Another big example is the way that tangential products are often included in the lists. If I want to see a new rules book for Dungeons and Dragons, I would be looking at a different part of the website.

Many of these issues could easily be fixed by adding a few checkboxes at the top of the page that would allow users to select if such items should be included in the list, but either Amazon is too lazy, too unimaginative, or else simply doesn’t want users to have that option.

The most annoying aspect of this situation is that once upon a time, Amazon’s presentation of new releases more or less made sense. The site had much better options for browsing and “new release” was based on when the item was published rather than a flag used for questionable marketing purposes. Maybe they felt the old system was too hard for the average user to figure out? Maybe that was true, but the “easier” newer system isn’t working all that well for me.

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