Are e-readers filled with garbage?

man-smoking-jacket

Every now and then I like to look back through older posts on my blog. It’s a form of masochism built upon equal parts fascination with forgotten ideas and revulsion at missed typos and awkwardly phrased run on sentences that really don’t know when to end, that should have ended sooner, and aren’t something I do anymore. One snarky post caught my eye and I thought I should retread that ground.

The post was based upon an article in The Guardian, one of the last bastions of book snobbery that manages to not trip over its own superiority complex – sometimes. The article had decided that all of these new-fangled e-readers weren’t filled with the right kinds of books.

Kindle-owning bibliophiles are furtive beasts. Their shelves still boast classics and Booker winners. But inside that plastic case, other things lurk. Sci-fi and self-help. Even paranormal romance, where vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls.

Ahh, good, they’ve figured out what people actually enjoy reading. Do go on.

The ebook world is driven by so-called genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. It’s not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare. No cliche is left unturned, no adjective underplayed.

“So-called” genre fiction categories of horror and romance… This article was published by a so-called newspaper.

At this point, you can see why I originally wrote about this article. Like many of these worthiness arguments, the article is quick to deride any genre book, particularly e-books in this case, as not having “classic” potential. You know, classics like The Godfather (crime), Lord of the Rings (fantasy), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (science fiction), Frankenstein (horror), or Pride and Prejudice (romance). Why would anyone ever read dreck like genre fiction?

As I’ve said before, I could easily write a post-a-week pulling apart one of these articles. They are very common and rely on the same handful of bad arguments. In my original response to the article, I wrote that literary fiction – the preferred genre of the authors of these sorts of articles – and biography markets have been kept afloat by this sort of snobbery. People like to be seen reading high-brow stuff, and people like to give worthy books to friends and family. Not one person has ever bought a political memoir to read, they are always a Father’s Day gift. And as the article states, e-book readers don’t have to let people see what they are reading, so they don’t have to pretend any longer.

The reading public in private is lazy and smuttyE-readers hide the material. Erotica sells well. My own downmarket literary fetish is male-oriented historical fiction (histfic). Swords and sails stuff. I’m happier reading it on an e-reader, and keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.

Well, maybe people will pretend just a bit longer…

Since this was an article from 2012, the talk of e-books was as they were ascending in popularity. Growth in the e-book market has since slowed, with the market being 20% of the total sales for the major publishers, down from a high of 28% five years ago. Of course, in the fiction market e-books are more like 50% of sales for the Big 5 publishers. And those publishers are having trouble with new fiction titles, as they haven’t had any “big titles” selling well, instead relying on genre fiction backlists and the sudden interest in political books… Wait, what?

It puzzles me why the author of this article insisted that e-readers are filled with garbage, particularly since the arguments supporting the claim lack evidence. A large chunk of book sales from major publishers are e-books, so it can’t all be the dreck titles, can it? What proof do we have that e-readers only contain Twilight fan-fiction and Dan Brown* novels? The proof we are offered is that anything genre is garbage: checkmate person who reads books! So maybe these article writers at The Guardian are onto something, maybe e-readers like the Kindle are filled with garbage.

Guardian on Amazon

 

*Sorry Dan**, you and James Paterson are my go-to punching bags here. If I’ve offended you or James by suggesting your books aren’t high-quality writing, then I’m quite happy to edit out those comments from my blog for a small six or seven figure fee. Just post me one of the bags of money you use as a pillow, that should cover it.

**Language expert take on Dan Brown novels: “A renowned male expert at something dies a hideous death and straight away a renowned expert at something quite different gets a surprise call and has to take an unexpected plane flight and then face some 36 hours of astoundingly dangerous and exhausting adventures involving a good-looking (and of course expert) member of the opposite sex and when the two of them finally get access to a double bed she disrobes and tells him mischievously (almost minatorily) to prepare himself for strenuous sex. Where are we?” And another.

 

 

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Appealing to the echo chamber with memes

Don’t you just hate seeing a misleading meme that was clearly aimed at reinforcing an audience’s biases? Isn’t it just terrible how easily misinformation can be spread in this manner? Isn’t it funny how memes stop us thinking too hard about the content such that we don’t fact check them?

Well, I hope I’m not alone. Or we’re all doomed. Doomed, I say.

Now I could discuss any one of hundreds of memes that circulate daily in political discussions. But, as a heavy hitter who has addressed the issue of memes before, I’m going to be tackling serious misinformation.

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That’s right, this meme on the benefits of books is serious misinformation.

Now, before people start thinking I’m being melodramatic in calling a non-political meme that is just a bit of fun about books, remember, books are a $124 billion industry. So when people are talking about the format wars with memes like the one above, it is serious… Well, as serious as any discussion of an entertainment and leisure industry can ever be. Particularly if we take the existentialist view of the world.

I could, of course, have used a different meme. One with anti-science messaging, or a misleading political message designed to further divide public discourse, or one about cats, everyone loves cats. But if I did that, people would take one look at the meme and have either agreed or disagreed, and would be uninterested in anything else discussed. And this is part of the problem. Memes, like a lot of modern discourse, are designed to get you nodding your head in agreement before you think too hard. They allow you to outsource your thinking and fill in your knowledge on a topic by appealing to you with relatable content.

This meme is styled in a friendly cartoon manner. It has a whimsical font. Whimsical! It could be flirting with your partner and you wouldn’t mind. It is also appealing directly to the people who like their books to be made of the flattened entrails of trees, with relatable jokes about how terrible e-books are. But don’t think. It doesn’t want you to think.

Let’s take these points one by one.

Glare:
Books have glare. If you’ve ever sat out in the sun and read a book on white paper you’d have noticed how much squinting is involved. Either that or you had a patch of white scarred onto your retinas. Books also don’t fare well without a decent light source. Soft light causes just as much squinting.

No battery:
Neither does a shovel. Lots of things don’t have batteries, including my computer that plugs straight into the wall. The idea that an e-reading device (Kindle, iPad, etc) requires a power source, unlike the “superior” book, isn’t a like-for-like comparison. A Kindle holds thousands of books and can access libraries and stores directly. A smartphone can tell you the time. Let’s see a paper book do that.

Dog ears:
Nope. No self-respecting reader and book lover dog ears books. This is sacrilege. It would be like promoting the ability of books to retain coffee stains.

No pop-up ads:
None on my Kindle or iPad either. You’re reading wrong. Oh, and books have ads in them, usually for other books by the same publisher and/or author.

Smells good:
Clearly never borrowed a book from a library. I’ve borrowed some, even own one, that smells like it has been swimming in vomit at some stage. This is actually a reaction from the chemicals used in production. And e-reading devices smell just fine. As long as they don’t get left to swim in vomit at any stage.

Probably won’t get stolen at the beach:
Probably says more about the meme creator’s selection of reading material than anything. Maybe read less Twilight and more Kerouac to have your book stolen.

The trick to memes is that they slip the misinformation past you while you aren’t concentrating. Whether it be a misattributed quote or some cherry-picked statistics, it is easy to deceive people when they are busy looking at a pretty picture.

In the case of the paper books (DTBs), the “benefits” are dubious as soon as you think about them for more than two seconds. And notice that they aren’t benefits, like improved empathy, or greater cognition, or better communication abilities (see the rest of the list). Instead, the list is all about bashing e-books.

When the format wars discussion starts, everyone rolls out their usual banal reasoning for their preferred format. Without fail someone will talk about the smell of dead tree books (DTB), or the feel of eviscerated tree flesh in their fingers, or refer to some dodgy research that denigrates e-books. For some reason, the reading world is filled with technophobic troglodytes intent on proving that their old-fashioned way of doing things is better. This meme is no different, and I’ve addressed this issue before.

Whether it be dodgy “science”, or misleading memes, we need to critically assess the information we receive and share. Otherwise, the errorists win.

Reading format

ralph-and-chuck-cartoon

One pointlessly heated discussion that seems to occur with painful regularity in reading circles is which book format is superior. Do you prefer audio, or digital, or paper, or papyrus, or clay tablets? Personally I can’t see anyone topping the long-term data retention of carving stuff into stone cave walls. Bit time-consuming for authors though.

When this discussion starts everyone rolls out their usual banal reasoning for their preferred format. Without fail someone will talk about the smell of dead tree books (DTB), or the feel of eviscerated tree flesh in their fingers, or refer to some dodgy research that denigrates e-books. For some reason the reading world is filled with technophobic troglodytes intent on proving that their old-fashioned way of doing things is better.

Currently I read books in three different formats: DTB, e-book, audiobook. I like reading all three formats and they have various advantages and disadvantages. I have many fond memories of dead trees. The time I used one to level a table with an uneven leg. The time I threw one at the TV on election night. The time I used a bag full of them to prop open a door with a hydraulic hinge. Good times. I’m sure I have some fond memories of e-books and audiobooks…

Let’s run through a few pros and cons of the three formats.

DTB Pros:

  • They are a book.
  • You can read them.
  • They make you look smart/nerdy when you have lots of them on shelves.
  • Can turn to the end of the book to see if that character actually died.

DTB Cons:

  • Being a physical entity they have to be physically moved to your house.
  • Generally more expensive than an e-book.
  • Are heavy and awkward to hold.
  • Hate having tea spilt on them.
  • Can’t stop a .45 slug, despite claims to the contrary.

E-book Pros:

  • They are a book.
  • You can read them.
  • When you want another you just download it instantly.
  • Everyone thinks you are reading the latest political biography when you are really engrossed in the love triangle between a teenage girl, a 100-year-old pedophile, and a smelly dog (yes I got dragged to the Twilight films by my wife).
  • Text can be resized.

E-book Cons:

  • E-books can’t be used to start a fire in a life threatening situation.
  • E-book files won’t be forever, but the database will be, which means updating your collection.
  • E-readers cost money too.
    • Dedicated e-readers are the domain of avid readers, everyone else can just read on their phone or tablet.
  • Hate having tea spilt on them.
  • E-readers are even less likely to stop a .45 slug.

Audiobook Pros:

  • They are a book.
  • You can read them.*
  • Can be read when you’re doing something else.
    • Exercising and reading is a personal favourite.
    • Certainly a better way to read when driving.

Audiobook Cons:

  • Can be expensive.
    • Are becoming cheaper in digital versions.
  • Some voice actors don’t have great voices, nor acting.
  • Takes longer to read… unless you read by sounding out the vowels still.
  • Are probably the least likely to stop a .45 slug.

What is my key point out of all of this? If you like reading you will like reading regardless of the format. The medium isn’t the message.

The reality is that we have to stop with the snobbery of the format wars. Every format has benefits to enjoy. Every person I have met who has bravely tried e-books and audiobooks has commented that they were unsure until they made the leap. Then they fell in love with all the formats.

I love books in all their forms, you should too.

*Yeah, go ahead and try and argue that point. I dare you.

Death of the e-reader?

 

E-Readers Are Cool

For quite some time now, which is another way of saying I can’t remember when exactly, I’ve been saying that e-readers are one screen improvement in phones/tablets away from redundancy. Now tech writers (whom I love) are coming round to my way of thinking, with a recent article in Salon suggesting that e-readers are going the way of mp3 players and vinyl:

Tech writers have begun rolling out their eulogies for the humble e-reader, which Mashable has deemed “the next iPod.” As in, it’s the next revolutionary, single-purpose device that’s on the verge of being replaced by smartphones and tablet computers. Barnes & Noble is spinning off its Nook division. Amazon just debuted its own smartphone, which some are taking as a tacit admission that more people are reading books on their phone these days, to the detriment of the Kindle. The analysts at Forrester, meanwhile, expect that U.S. e-reader sales will tumble to 7 million per year by 2017, down from 25 million in 2012.

At New York MagazineKevin Roose argues that this is “bad news for the book industry.” He writes:

If you’ve ever tried to read a book on your phone, you’ll know why. Reading on an original Kindle or a Nook is an immersive experience. There are no push notifications from other apps to distract you from your novel, no calendar reminders or texts popping up to demand your immediate attention. And this immersion is partly why people who use dedicated e-readers tend to buy a lot of books. (One survey indicated that e-book readers read about 24 books a year, compared to 15 books a year for paper-and-ink readers.)

A drop in e-book sales, which are actually more profitable for publishers than hardcovers, would certainly mean trouble for the industry. But I’m not convinced that’s where the death of e-readers will lead. Nook and Kindle owners might buy more books than your typical American, but I’m guessing a lot of that is simply because they’re more, well, bookish. As Pew wrote in January, “Adults who own e-readers like Kindles or Nooks read e-books more frequently than those who only own other devices (like tablets or cell phones). However, it is difficult to know whether that is because dedicated e-readers encourage more reading or because avid readers are more likely to purchase e-reading devices.”

Devices come. Devices go. The Kindle and Nook helped teach us all to pay for e-books, and I’m guessing that will be delivering publishers dividends for years to come.

I think we can all agree that e-books themselves aren’t dying, or books for that matter. I’d argue that reading a novel, or similar, will continue to be a pastime for many years to come, regardless of medium: digital, physical, or metaphysical. We’ll probably still be reading books when flame breathing giant lizards enter our dimension to destroy civilisation. After that time we’ll be too busy building something other than giant robots to fight the monsters to worry about reading.

When e-readers originally hit the market, phone screens were much smaller and the iPad was in its infancy, thus the e-ink screens of the e-readers offered a much better reading experience. They were a hit with the avid reading crowd, with the ability to shop for books, read them, shop for more books, read them, maybe do a bit more reading, then think about charging the e-reader in between side-loading some more books. But all of those advantages were heavily reliant upon the better reading experience.

Phones and tablets as e-readers have many advantages: they tend to go everywhere with us; they can access all libraries; they can access all online bookshops, not just the one you bought the e-reader from (*cough* Amazon *cough*); they can be used for audiobooks; they have a larger market share so better technology advancements (i.e. where’s the colour e-ink we were promised?); and they can do things other than be used as a reading device. Now with a range of screen sizes in phones and tablets (e.g. Samsung Note, iPad Mini, iPad, standard phone, etc) there is a non-dedicated e-reader suited to you!

Although, let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. This magical new screen I’m seeing in my crystal ball – did I mention I see a breakup on the horizon for Brad and Angelina? – isn’t here yet. Until we have the new screen and e-reader owners are upgrading or replacing their old devices, the dedicated e-ink e-reader is still going to be the device of reading choice for avid readers. The articles are talking about a decline in sales from a peak of 25 million in 2012, to a “predicted” 7 million in 2017. Is this really surprising regardless of a tech upgrade?

You see, this is why I love tech articles so much: the lack of a reality check. 25 million sales in 2012 (26 million in 2011 from my source), on top of other sales in previous years, pretty much taps out the avid reader market to sell e-reader devices to. So any sales after that are going to be from old e-readers dying and needing replacement, which is probably where the 7 million figure comes in (note that my source shows that to occur in 2016, not 2017). That isn’t the death of the e-reader, that is the maturation of the market. I guess we could try to convince avid readers to not spend as much money on books and instead spend more money on buying e-readers, but that would lead to all sorts of problems. We’d need shelves to store all of these e-readers on, maybe even taking up entire walls; file them using some sort of system that allows us to easily find them in order; perhaps hire a person, let’s call them a librarian, to look after these e-readers until someone comes to use them.

So despite my agreement that e-readers will eventually be replaced by other devices, I think that news of the death of the e-reader is greatly exaggerated.

Sony exits ebook biz

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there are these things called electronic books now, e-books for short. Now these are brand new (invented 1971, possibly as early as 1949) and understandably the devices to read them are even newer (first e-reader released 1998). So it may come as a shock to many of you that quite a few people read e-books on e-readers now instead of paper books. It will come as even more of a shock to you that the Sony e-reader has become a thing of the past.

That’s right my fellow book lovers – lovers in the adoration sense, not in the brace yourself, oh yeah, uh-huh, uh-huh, chikka bow-wow, sense – it appears that Sony has decided it doesn’t want a dedicated e-reader, in fact it doesn’t even want an e-book store. They have announced that they are pulling out and customers are being transferred to the Kobo store.

Of course, I don’t think anyone is particularly surprised by this decision. Raise your hand if you’ve ever actually seen a Sony e-reader. Now keep it up if you’ve actually owned one. If you can see anyone with their hand still raised, I’d question how you manage to turn people’s web cams on. Sony has been playing at the bottom end of the market for e-readers and e-books for quite a while now. The chart below from Goodreads shows Sony were picking up Kobo’s scraps in the market.

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 8.49.23 pm
http://www.slideshare.net/GoodreadsPresentations/whats-going-on-with-readers-today-16508449

So what does this mean for us readers? Well, it means the big dedicated e-readers remain, the Kindle and Nook. It also means Kobo could pick up a bit more of the e-reader and e-book market. But that isn’t particularly interesting to me, I’ll discuss why in a moment. What is interesting is the Sony e-reader is probably the victim of the modern device market.

I read an interesting tech article that was discussing mobile phones. They pointed out that the companies making money on phones weren’t actually making money on the phone sales, especially at the mid to lower price points, but instead cashing in on the app stores and downloads. The phone is a loss leader for the software business they run. Nokia and their deal with Microsoft is a classic example of this, with Nokia battling to compete for market share and profits.

Translate that to e-readers and the same thing applies. It was even worse for Sony, as the other competitors were/are selling their Kindle, Nook, Kobo, etc, as a loss leader to get people using their store or affiliates. This meant that the big stores attract the users, who buy the associated tech, which locks them to the stores (to some extent at least), leading to e-book sales profits. Terrific! As long as you don’t think too hard about the slave labour making the devices.

The reason I don’t find the market positioning of the e-reader devices of much interest is down to a few things. The first is a little statistic that has been showing up in surveys from Goodreads and The Pew Institute; namely that 29-37% of people read books on their phone (23% on a tablet). A dedicated reading device is only really in the book space now because the e-reader screen has less eye fatigue. At the moment! Watch this bubble burst as phones and tablets eat away at the readability technology, such that e-reader screens become redundant. Mobile devices also don’t have to be linked to any one e-book store, so interesting times are on the horizon.

Another view on e-readers future: http://techland.time.com/2013/01/04/dont-call-the-e-reader-doomed/

Can’t we all just get along: DTB vs E-book

Print vs ebook infographic
The big take home from this infographic is that readers are more interested in reading, not on the format it comes in. I also found it interesting that people read slower on an e-reader (which I’d guess is because the screen is smaller and requires more ‘page turns’ which breaks reading flow) yet those using e-readers read an average of 9 more books per year (24 vs 15).

In summary: reading is good, go and enjoy a good book.