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.

 

 

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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 you 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.

The continued war on e-books

Stupid meme is stupid.
Stupid meme is stupid.

Do you love the smell of books?
Do you prefer the feel of paper?
Do you feel slightly superior to others because you paid for the hardcover?
Do you grasp at any excuse to deride e-books and the people who read them?
Well, I have found the article for you!

Recently on Mental Floss an article entitled “5 Reasons Physical Books Might Be Better Than E-Books” sought to comfort snooty readers who wanted ammunition to fling at e-book readers. In the proud tradition of deriding any new technology as bad (see e-books, e-cars, driverless cars, etc), this article introduces us to some research that is wonderfully out of context for the intent of the article’s argument. Let’s dig in.

Though e-book readers have become a more common sight around town, traditional books still have their evangelists. According to The New York Times, e-book sales have been falling in 2015. Print definitely isn’t dead. In fact, according to some research, it may actually be a better choice for some readers. While scientists are still trying to tease out exactly how digital reading affects us differently, here are five ways e-books might be inferior to their dead-tree cousins.

When deriding things it is always best to reference another article that derides the same thing. In this case the article references the wonderfully misleading NYT piece on e-book sales slipping. Pity that the sales didn’t slip… That’s right, the NYT misrepresented a slowing in e-book sales growth as a drop in sales. And did they mention why readers were stating a preference for paper? Yes. Hidden in the article is a little quote about how publishers had been protecting their paper sales by inflating e-book prices. Now, my economics is a tad rusty, but I’m pretty sure making something more expensive when there are direct substitutes on offer results in a decrease in sales of that item and an increase in the sales of the substitution item. At least, that’s what I’ve heard…

1. E-BOOKS CAN REDUCE READING COMPREHENSION.
In a study of middle schoolers, West Chester University researchers found that students who read on iPads had lower reading comprehension than when they read traditional printed books. They discovered that the kids sometimes skipped text in favor of interactive features in the e-books, suggesting that certain multimedia in children’s e-books can be detrimental to the practice of reading itself. However, the researchers noted that some interactive features in e-books are designed to enhance comprehension, and that those might be more helpful than game-type interactive graphics.

This is a fantastic study in how multitasking is terrible for concentration and thus impacts reading comprehension. iPads have all sorts of cool stuff on them, including little notifications telling you that your friend just liked your latest picture of your meal. And building those distractions into the book being read: sounds like a great idea! What this study doesn’t do is support the idea that e-books reduce reading comprehension.

2. YOUNG KIDS CAN GET DISTRACTED BY E-BOOKS.
Similar results were found by a small study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center that consisted of 32 kids reading e-books and print books with their parents. It found that “enhanced” e-books might be distracting. Kids who read enhanced e-books—ones with interactive, multimedia experiences—were more engaged with them physically, but in the end they remembered fewer narrative details than those who read print books or basic e-books [PDF].

Don’t read the link. Don’t read the link. You read the link: didn’t you. Leaving aside the tiny study size for a moment (a point the study authors acknowledge), the study itself supports the points I made above about being distracted whilst reading. And if you look through the study you see a great little chart that showed the comparison of reading comprehension – expressed as story details recalled – was actually superior in basic e-books than in print books or enhanced e-books.

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The findings of the study were literally stated as:

The enhanced e-book was less effective than the print and basic e-book in supporting the benefits of co-reading because it prompted more non-content related interactions.

Odd that the “e-books are bad” article failed to highlight this finding…

3. YOU REMEMBER LESS ABOUT A BOOK’S TIMELINE.
Another study of adults also found that e-books can be hard to absorb. The researchers asked 25 people read a 28-page story on a Kindle and 25 to read the story in paperback, then asked the readers to put 14 events from the story in chronological order. Those who read the story on a Kindle performed worse on the chronology test than the book readers, though they performed about the same as print readers in other tests. Earlier research by the same scholars, from Stavanger University in Norway, found that Norwegian 10th graders also remembered more about texts if they read them in print rather than on a computer screen [PDF].

Finally we come to a study on actual e-books on an actual e-reader versus their dead tree counterparts. Of course I’m again blown away by the sample size of the study, a massive 50 people. That should easily extrapolate to the rest of humankind. The linked article doesn’t give us much information, but I found a better one, and it has this summary:

In most respects, there was no significant difference between the Kindle readers and the paper readers: the emotional measures were roughly the same, and both groups of readers responded almost equally to questions dealing with the setting of the story, the characters and other plot details. But, the Kindle readers scored significantly lower on questions about when events in the story occurred. They also performed almost twice as poorly when asked to arrange 14 plot points in the correct sequence.

I’d link to the original paper, but it is behind a paywall. Suffice to say that the error margins were pretty big (even the paper readers got 34% of the plot points in the wrong order). And this was a short story, something that shouldn’t be that difficult for any reader. So this probably says as much about the story as anything. They’d need far more stories and participants to get a good idea of what is going on. But I will concede that reading on paper vs e-reader vs screen is definitely a different experience and has an influence. What that influence is, positive, negative, or just different, needs more research.

Interestingly the study of reading PDF texts on a screen vs paper texts in high school students showed why scrolling is a terrible way to read anything. Scroll down to read more about PDFs sucking.

4. THEY’RE NOT GREAT AS TEXTBOOKS.
While e-book textbooks are often cheaper (and easier to carry) than traditional door-stop textbooks, college students often don’t prefer them. In some surveys of college kids, the majority of students have reported preferring print books. However, a 2012 study from the UK’s National Literacy Trust of kids ages 8 to 16 found that more than 50 percent of children reported preferring screen reading [PDF].

It is odd to start a point and then go on to disprove it. E-book textbooks being cheaper, easier to carry, and in some surveys preferred by the majority of respondents, seems to me to be the opposite of “not great”. The preference for paper textbooks claim comes from a survey of 527 students, yet is immediately refuted by the UK survey of 34,910 students. I wonder which one is more representative of how students feel about textbooks?

In the comments of the Mental Floss article, someone made a good point in regard to the format of textbooks. Oftentimes the textbooks are PDFs, which brings us back to the point about scrolling, and adds the problem with taking notes. Clearly the format of the e-book plays a big part in how people feel about them.

5. THEY’RE TIRING.
Staring at a lit screen can be tiring for the eyes and the brain. A 2005 study from Sweden found that reading digitally required a higher cognitive workload than reading on paper. Furthermore, staring at LED screens at night can disrupt sleep patterns. A 2014 Harvard study found that people who used e-readers with LED screens at night slept worse and were more tired the next day. So, if you’re going to go for an e-book, go for one without the backlight.

Now let us talk about how bad e-books are for your brain…. Sorry, did I say e-books when I meant LED screens like your iPad and computer? Silly me. Having bright light, especially from white background screens, shining in your eyes at night isn’t a good thing. But that is about as related to e-books as X-Factor is to talented singers. So the message about changing your screen setup for night viewing only really applies to readers if they utilise a backlit screen for reading.

And now that we are at the end of the article, let’s throw in some information for the pretence of balance in the hopes you will ignore the headline and main article points:

BUT DON’T THROW AWAY YOUR E-READER JUST YET.
However, all this may not mean that reading on a Kindle is really going to melt your brain. For instance, reading an e-book on a computer is a much different experience than reading on a Kindle, which is specifically designed for consuming books. So, too, is playing with an interactive e-book on an iPad, compared to using a simpler e-book device that only presents the text, with no opportunities to click away into digital distractions.

This really does appear to be information that would have been better presented in the context of the “e-books are evil” points above; doesn’t it. Throwing in this sort of context at the end rather than in the discussion of the study findings is a cheap tactic, a ploy that sees important information left until after you have already formed your opinion on a subject, or just plain stopped reading the article. This information has far less chance of being retained than the others points made earlier in the article, thus the article has created the bias they were after (deliberately or otherwise).

And some studies have found that part of the difference between the way people absorb information from e-books versus paper might be due to approaching e-books differently—in one test, participants didn’t regulate their study time with digital books like they did with paper texts, leading to worse performances. It’s possible that our expectations of e-book reading—as well as the different designs of the digital reading experience on a computer or iPad or Kindle—might affect how we approach the text and how much effort we put into studying them. As generations of e-book readers evolve, and people become more accustomed to the idea of sitting down with a digital textbook, these factors could change—for better or for worse.

These are all good points, again made at the end of the article rather than at least being hinted at throughout. And unlike the main points in the article, these are unreferenced. Are these points from the studies already referenced (some are) or some other studies that aren’t worth mentioning? In the former, you would expect these points to have been raised earlier in the article in the proper context, in the latter, this feels like an attempt to downplay the statements as less important than the referenced points above. Either way we are left with the sentiment “change is scary” rather than “change is change”.

Hopefully this breakdown of the Mental Floss article shows just how disingenuous many of these anti-technology articles are, especially the “e-books are evil” articles. I’m not trying to say that e-books are what everyone should be reading, or that our forests are now saved from Dan Brown. There is clear evidence that our changing technology is changing the way we read and absorb information, and this transition period is still a learning phase as to how and if we will change our reading preferences. But negative preconceived ideas about e-books (or technology) don’t help in communicating about the change that is happening.

Update: This study compared reading on paper and screens and found stark differences. The sample size was again small, but the study appears to have been better conducted than the others I’ve discussed above. The conclusions from the paper suggest, as I have, that we need to look at teaching/learning how to read e-books and utilise e-readers.

To sum up, the consistent screen inferiority in performance and overconfidence can be overcome by simple methods, such as experience with task and guidance for in-depth processing, to the extent of being as good as learning on paper.

Further reading – https://theconversation.com/do-students-lose-depth-in-digital-reading-61897

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.

More anti-Amazon nonsense

This morning I was browsing my various news feeds when I noticed someone had written an article about the arrival of the Amazon Kindle store in Australia. Clearly this article was going to feed my confirmation bias on how awesome it was to have an Aussie version of Amazon available, just like Canada, the UK, India, Germany, Spain, etc. No longer being locked out of some editions of books because of our region, an Aussie store is one step closer to Aussie writers not having all the publishing issues that currently exist, a .au suffix making us feel special: all good! Right?

Well, not according to the article Amazon’s Australian Kindle store: an unhappy ending for the book industry? by Ben Eltham. Rather than stream bile right here, I’ll dissect Ben’s opinion piece about the demise of the protected Aussie book market, and hopefully inject some much needed reality.

Amazon has been prising open the wallets of Australian consumers for years – but what will its local push on Kindle mean for readers, writers and publishers?

It is always good to start an article by using emotive language and by poisoning the well. The use of a logical fallacy so early in the article does not bode well for Ben’s opinion piece.

The local book industry is threatened by Kindle’s entry into the Australian market. When Amazon opened its Australian Kindle store last month, it was to feisty reaction from independent bookshops. Charismatic Sydney bookseller Jon Page of Pages & Pages Booksellers even relaunched his “Kindle amnesty” – a scheme that allows conscientious local readers to swap their Kindle for the Australian book sector’s preferred e-reader, the Kobo, and receive a $50 book voucher for their trouble.

This opening reference to a stand by one independent bookshop being representative of all bookshops is another example of polarizing the argument before raising any actual evidence, essentially further poisoning the well. You see we are set up to believe that the Kobo e-reader is somehow better for Australian bookshops, despite Kobo also being in direct competition with stores in the same way the Kindle is, as well as to love the “feisty” response to the big bully Amazon arriving.

“We’re calling it Kindle Amnesty 2.0,” jokes Page, who is spruiking for the Kobo Aura HD, which he argues is “equal to or better than the Kindle Paperwhite”. Those who read via tablets such as the iPad or Galaxy have access to Kobo reader apps. “We want to take the fight to Amazon because they are so dominant in this market, particularly with the Kindle device,” argues Page. Pointing to the Commonwealth’s 2011 Book Industry Strategy Group report, he claims that Kindle represents about 70% of dedicated e-reading devices. (This figure does not include tablets, phones or laptops). “That’s a problem, because the Kindle locks competition out and locks customers in.”

My idea of a joke is a thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter, especially a story with a funny punchline. “We’re calling it Kindle Amnesty 2.0” doesn’t really make the grade as a joke, but this is all about, again, poisoning the well and polarizing the reader to the author’s opinion without needing to state facts or evidence.

The next point about the Kobo being as good or better than the Kindle is neither here nor there, it just doesn’t matter. I agree that the Kobo is a great e-reader, but most e-readers are pretty good, you are really choosing an e-reader based upon the stores and catalogue they offer access to. I’ve written before about hearing Kobo Australia’s chief seeming to have a very good idea of what is needed in the market place for readers and authors. But ultimately the raising of Kobo vs. Kindle in a discussion about Aussie bookstores is like raising a conversation about which is the tastier bacon at a vegetarian food store.

Finally we do get some actual data, showing that the Kindle is the biggest e-reading device. Well, d’uh. Amazon have the biggest store and have expanded into the most markets, have invested in technology early, have created new markets themselves, and have….. Okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. The point is that the argument raised is that Amazon and the Kindle have a monopoly. Which is true. What is false about this assertion is the idea that the monopoly isn’t one that can be supplanted by the next generation of technology, or better business models arriving, or the competition preying on Amazon’s weaknesses.

You see, the key weakness for Kindle is also it’s strength. If you lock readers into one store you allow the competition to usurp the market by doing the deals with many stores and libraries (hang on, that’s what Kobo is doing in Australia and Canada!). You also have to remember that the Kindle or any other e-reader is only really for avid readers. Tablets and phones are for the more casual readers, thus they aren’t locked into one device or one store. So we are only another generation of technology away from e-readers losing their advantage over tablets and phones, and the entire Kindle argument becomes moot.

Industry sentiment is divided over the impact of the entry of the tech giant into Australian online retailing. Some have been forecasting impending doom. Others are merely apprehensive about Jeff Bezos’ juggernaut. Amazon’s thin margins terrify competitors. Despite vast revenues, the parent company makes no profit. Amazon raked in US$17bn in net sales last quarter, for an operating loss of US$25m. Analysts and brokers are starting to wonder whether, eventually, Amazon’s gravity-defying stock price will tumble to earth.

This part is a doozy. Ben has framed a false dichotomy in how the industry perceives Amazon. Where is the mention of the people who love their Kindle and the Amazon store? Where is the mention of the people who like their Kindle and Amazon but want to be able to use other formats and borrow e-books from their local library? This is a common false dilemma fallacy used in arguments.

Next the argument goes to Amazon’s business model, providing some facts but leaving out others. Why? Why not mention what the “thin margins” are that terrify competitors? I’d sure like to know. The next point is about how Amazon makes heaps of money, yet doesn’t profit….. Remember above how I mentioned that Amazon had stayed ahead of the competition by expanding and investing? Well that’s where all that revenue is going, straight back into making their business better.

What I’ve always wondered was why an online bookstore was the first one to grab hold of the e-reader concept. E-books are not new, nor are e-readers. They have been waiting in the wings for a decade or more, waiting for a company to invest and make things happen. Why wasn’t this investor a publishing house? Why not a major bookstore chain? Surely they are meant to be knowledgable about their industry and future trends, so why weren’t they the ones creating the new digital marketplace instead of Amazon? The answer is obvious. Amazon had the balls to do it and had an eye on the future, instead of a protectionist view of old and antiquated business and media models. To the victor go the spoils.

But other industry observers have argued that an Australian Amazon presence will be good for consumers and readers. As Kobo’s Malcolm Neil told Melbourne’s Independent Publishing Conference recently: “Amazon is good because the customer likes them … We’re not going to win the argument by telling people they’re wrong.”

Didn’t I say above about Kobo’s boss being a bright guy that knew what the industry wanted? If you’ve heard Malcolm talk about the publishing industry before you know that he has a lot of good points that have been left out, can’t think why. Malcolm’s points are the first example in this article of a different viewpoint being offered. But we’ve already been setup to either disagree with it or ignore it.

Martin Shaw, books division manager at independent retailer Readings, argues that Amazon’s Australia venture may not be such big a deal. “It is only ebooks,” he says. “That market has got so many players in it now, who knows what sort of impact it will have? We will just have to see how the dust settles.” Shaw foresees a coming war of devices in which competitors try to lock customers into competing ecosystems. “I think there will be a lot of devices flooding the market trying to get people to enter the walled garden,” he says. “That will force other e-tailers like Kobo to become more aggressive.”

This speaks to my points above about Amazon and Kindle only being one technology change away from losing market share. I used the example of tablets and phones, but there are other examples in the online stores themselves. Both Kobo and Amazon have exclusive author deals happening. We’ll probably see more of this, which starts to sound like publishing houses and their favoured deals with stores.

Of course the irony is that, in our globalised world, Amazon is not really “starting up” in Australia at all. The retail behemoth has long been prising open the wallets of Australian consumers, who have been buying books and all manner of other things from Amazon in the US for years – estimates of how much that market is worth vary enormously. The move by Amazon to begin an “.au” store that trades in Australian dollars and sells Australian ebooks through Kindle merely makes that custom one step easier. “All that’s changed now is that it’s an Australian-facing site,” Page argues.

I think the irony with this paragraph is the use of the term irony when there appears to be none. But it does give the article a chance to move away from the viewpoints the author disagrees with and move back to more Amazon hate.

There are upsides for consumers. The Gordian knot of digital copyrights, based around various national boundaries, has meant that some US and Australian titles were not available as ebooks in Australia. The new Amazon.com.au store can now stock a much wider range of titles that have Australian-only digital licences.

Lower prices for consumers: Yay!

And prices will be forced lower. Shaw says that we may see “a race to the bottom”. Amazon’s deep pockets, he says, means “they can go there [to low prices] and stay there for as long as they want”. Australian book prices are still much higher than comparable titles internationally. In Amazon’s view, that margin can be returned to consumers in the form of lower prices.

Okay, Yay and Bullshit. Currently Australian e-book prices are ridiculously high. You cannot justify the high cost of an e-book when there are no distribution or printing costs. I have been meaning to post some figures taken from a few publishing houses and their presentation to the shareholder meetings, figures that show just how profitable e-books are for them thanks to the lower costs associated. There is actual irony here, because those same publishing houses are using e-books lower price to justify lower advances and smaller royalty percentages to authors. So Amazon making prices more competitive is a good thing, for readers and authors.

A quick look around the various sites for Australian ebooks revealed some savings. An ebook of Ross Garnaut’s Dog Days worth $9.99 on Kobo, was $9.49 on Amazon. Eleanor Catton’s Booker-winner The Luminaries was $10.68 on Kobo; on Amazon it was $9.35. (As a comparison, a paperback of Dog Days costs $15.29 from Bookworld, while The Luminaries costs $22.49). For other titles, owing to so-called “agency pricing”, Kobo and Amazon’s prices have converged: Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda was the same price on both.

Notice that this is the only time “agency pricing” is mentioned. It will not be discussed again. Despite the importance it plays in this entire argument about e-books, pricing, readers, authors, the industry and who is screwing whom.

The other potential winners of Amazon’s entry are successful authors and self-publishers. Amazon’s benefits to authors are controversial, but for the top tier they are real. The Australian publishing industry has been rather wary of embracing the digital world and while it’s hard to pinpoint precise figures, there’s a perception that many local authors have lagged well behind their US counterparts in ebook market penetration. Australian self-publishers will now get a 70% royalty for books sold to Amazon.com.au accounts. International experience has shown that a lucky few will reach big new audiences with bestselling self-published titles. Although on the other hand, mid-rank and lower authors may find themselves little better off.

Well, d’uh. Any new bookstore or way to buy books will favour already successful authors (NB: self-publishers are authors too), because, wait for it, people buy books by successful authors. What is not mentioned is that Amazon algorithms are more likely to expose readers/buyers to authors they haven’t heard of because of purchases they have made or books they have liked. I don’t know if Kobo have a similar system, but I do know that most bookstores do not have anything remotely similar to the promotional power of Amazon for new, emerging or midlist authors.

The statement about Australian self-publishers will “now” get 70% royalties is deliberately misleading. They already get a 70% royalty, that has been the policy from day one at Amazon, it is what all the other self-publishing platforms have come to adopt as well (correct me if I’m wrong on this, I haven’t checked them all).

Meanwhile, agents, publishers and booksellers still face real challenges from digital, Amazon or not. Digital is reshaping the industry and still threatens to cut middlemen out of the chain. Online-only retailers like Bookworld may be the most vulnerable, lacking the size and scale to adequately compete. When Amazon bought Book Depository, the UK retailer popular with Australian consumers, there was consternation in the book industry, despite the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission deciding not to oppose the move.

Yeah, who’d have thought an antiquated business model would be under threat by changes in the industry? And didn’t the article make the point that Amazon has already been in Australia to a large extent for years? So doesn’t this kinda negate any points made here?

As books blogger Patrick O’Duffy wrote recently in a long analysis of Amazon’s entry into the Australian market: “By starting this process of moving into Australia, Amazon is going to permanently affect the local writing, reading, publishing and bookselling world.” That much at least seems certain.

Um, no. This final statement and paragraph are about 10 years out of date. E-books and the ability of authors to manage their own careers without ‘gatekeepers’ is what has changed the industry. This has happened for quite a while now. To say that Amazon opening an Aussie store suddenly changes things completely negates the history and many of the points raised in this article.

Now that I’ve addressed the article by Ben Eltham, paragraph by paragraph, I think it is clear that this article is nonsense. It is just another in the long line of e-book, e-publishing, self-publishing, fear-mongering articles that have come to represent “informed” comment on the publishing industry over the last 5 to 10 years. I for one am sick of these articles, in fact I hate them. It isn’t just the continued “fear of change” mantra they all adhere to. The main reason I hate these sorts of articles is that they are trying to pretend that the publishing industry is hurt by changes that benefit readers and writers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Readers and writers are the publishing industry, everyone else is there at their behest. If those middlemen want to stay in the game then they have to offer something to the readers and writers that is beneficial to both. And the success of Amazon (Kobo, etc) and the various publishing houses (agents, editors, designers, etc) that have adopted/adapted to the new paradigms, only illustrates how out of touch these articles are with the industry. Instead of discussing the real issues, like the squeeze on authors, we get another stream of uninformed bile.