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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April 20th, 2011 by Mike Fulton
Posted in eBook Publishing

A sad trend that’s developed recently is for the eBook edition of a new book release to cost a little more than the hardcover edition. For example, the pre-order page on Amazon for the upcoming new release in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series (aka True Blood), Dead Reckoning, shows a price of $14.99 for the Kindle edition, while the hardcover edition is going for $14.70. Granted, it’s not a big difference, but as we’ve discussed several times before, it just doesn’t make sense for the eBook version to cost more.

On Amazon, when this sort of disparity exists you’ll often see a little notice next to the price, saying “This Price Was Set By The Publisher“. Or, as I like to think of it, “Yes we know it’s stupid but it’s not OUR idea.

The reason for this disparity has to do with a difference between how books are sold wholesale. For physical editions, the publisher typically sells each book to the reseller, such as Barnes & Noble or Amazon, at a wholesale discount from the cover price. The discount percentage may vary depending upon volume, payment terms, or a variety of other factors, but ultimately it typically falls in the area of 50-60% off the cover price. So if a new hardcover edition is priced at $26.99, the wholesale cost to the retailer was probably between $10.79 to $13.50.

This is how most products are sold, although the wholesale discounts involved vary quite a bit depending on the product involved. However, the one thing that’s the same across the board is the fact that once the original manufacturer (like a publisher) has set the wholesale price they’re charging the retailer, their involvement in the pricing process is finished. They often have a “suggested retail price” but the retailer can set whatever price they want. They can offer a 50% discount, a 30% discount, or no discount at all.

The situation with eBooks is different. Some eBooks are sold via the traditional wholesale model, but for certain categories, like new fiction releases or new major non-fiction releases, the market has been shifting to what is known as the Agency Model. This is where the publisher sets the final price for the end customer, and the retailer gets a fixed percentage of each sale. The prices always are the same from one reseller to the next.

Thus: This Price Has Been Set By The Publisher

You may think, isn’t price-fixing illegal? Yes, normally, but they’ve found a loophole. In this scenario, Amazon (or Apple or whomever else) is acting as a sales agent for the publisher, and you’re actually buying the eBook directly from the publisher, not from the retailer. In exchange, the agent/retailer gets a particular percentage of the sale as a commission. That’s why it’s called the “Agency Model”.

Smells a bit fishy to me, but apparently it satisfies the legalities involved.

One has to wonder why the retailers would ever agree to such a system that gives them virtually no control over pricing. My thought is that while this shift was caused by Apple to some degree, the situation that let them do it was caused by Amazon.

I know that many people think Amazon has been backed into a corner and that they’re holding the short end of the stick in the current situation, together with the end customer. I think that’s true to a certain degree, but I think we got here because Amazon was a bit short-sighted with regards to pricing policies in the first place.

Kindle Pricing In The Early Days

When Amazon first introduced the Kindle, instead of the usual wholesale pricing used for physical books, they decided it would be a good selling point if all new releases were priced at $9.99. Amazon would keep 65% and 35% would be split between the author and publisher. Basically it was not that different from the agency model mentioned earlier, but turned on its head, with Amazon setting the prices rather than the publisher.

If you look at the early advertising for the Kindle, it’s clear that Amazon thought that the $9.99 price for new releases was a major selling point. And it does sound pretty good at first, until you noticed that you were spending $400 (the original Kindle price) to save $5 or $8 on a book. Granted, not everybody does the math before they buy, but that sort of thing is pretty obvious. Those who actually did the math would realize they might have to buy 50 or 80 books before they broke even on the hardware.

It should have been obvious to Amazon that the convenience factor of an eReader was really the bigger selling point. And in fact, if you look at later advertising, you’ll see that the focus shifted from the price of new releases to the convenience of having a library you could hold in your hand.

Unfortunately, the $3.49 cut of the $9.99 price that went to publishers & authors was less profit per copy compared to a hardcover edition. I’m sure that Amazon hoped that the sales volume would ultimately grow to the point where the reduced per-copy profit was more palatable. However, early on when the installed base of Kindle users was still fairly small, it was essentially just a sacrifice for the publisher & author.

These pricing issues made many publishers upset, and eventually several of them rebelled against Amazon over pricing issues in early 2010.

At the time, Apple’s release of the iPad was imminent, and they were making deals with publishers for their new iBookstore. Furthermore, Barnes & Noble had just released the Nook and were in the process of making their own deals.

Apple wanted to ensure was that eBooks sold through their new iBookstore setup would not be available at lower prices from other resellers, at least for high profile new releases. However, there’s really no way to guarantee that with a traditional wholesale model, so they started signing agreements with publishers to sell books using the agency model. This allegedly included the provision that the publishers had to set their prices such that nobody else was selling the same book any cheaper than the prices on iBooksstore. Apple may not have been completely happy with the idea of giving up all control over pricing, but they must have figured that as long as nobody else’s prices were lower, it wouldn’t really matter.

Once publishers started signing up with Apple using the agency model, they had leverage to use with Amazon. Since Amazon was no longer the only game in town, the publishers were able to push through new deals based on the Agency Model. Amazon resisted the change for awhile, but eventually they agreed.

I have to wonder if the irony of the situation occurred to anybody at the time. The publishers essentially ended up reversing the same deal Amazon had originally done with the $9.99 pricing.

And that’s basically where we are today. The eBook segment of the market keeps growing, so most of the players are mostly content, but I can’t help thinking it would be even bigger if we had just adopted a regular wholesale model across the board in the first place.

Amazonian Missteps

The Kindle is a great example of a product that was so good, and the marketplace so ready to adopt, that it was able to survive and prosper despite a variety of mistakes and missteps along the way.

To those who followed the Kindle early on, the first big issue was simply availability. Amazon sold out of the first batch of hardware pretty much immediately and the device was perpetually sold out for the next 5-6 months. On the one hand, that makes sound like the device was selling great, and I’m sure it was by most standards. But just imagine if they had been able to meet the demand. Might they have sold twice as many devices? Three times? We’ll never know, but maybe they would have sold enough units that the sales volume for those $9.99 new releases would have been high enough to keep the publishers happy.

When I said Amazon was short-sighted earlier, I meant that they should have planned for the day when there would be some real competition, and they should have realized that publishers would have the option of jumping ship when that day arrived.

Amazon seemed to be relying on the idea that increased sales volumes would ultimately make their $9.99 pricing more acceptable to publishers, but it doesn’t seem they had contingency plans in case that didn’t happen fast enough.

They almost certainly should have given publishers a bigger cut of that $9.99 price early on, as incentive to get with the program and push the platform.

One has to wonder where things would be now if Amazon had went with a more traditional wholesale model for all Kindle eBook pricing from the start. Maybe some people might have missed out on a few good $9.99 deals those first few years, but I think maybe we would have been better off in the long run.

Not All eBooks Are Created (or Priced) Equal

Oddly, or maybe not really so much, these pricing issues seem mostly confined to fiction and or major non-fiction like political commentary. It mostly seems to be books that come from the old, traditional publishing houses.

If you look at other categories of non-fiction books, like computer books, for example, it would appear that eBook versions are sold more or less through the basic wholesale model. And for the most part, the pricing makes sense. Most telling is the fact that you never see an eBook edition that is priced higher than a physical edition.

Why they can’t manage to do the same thing for other categories of book escapes me, except that I can’t help noticing that we have mostly old traditional publishers on one side of the equation, and mostly newer, more tech-savvy publishers on the other side. Hmm…

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