Okay. Here we go, with a brief (and possible extremely random) ramble about ebooks.
In January, I did officially join the iPhone hivemind, and the iPhone has turned out to be an interesting, odd bit of apparatus – simultaneously incredibly useful and a shiny piece of nonsense technology, it’s good at certain things, and at others it’s not exactly ideal. I have found myself wondering exactly how the hell I ever survived without GPS, and I’m almost over the feeling that I’m carrying a gadget from a Bond movie in my pocket. I’ve also managed to avoid spending an absurd amount of money on the kind of apps which are, to be honest, flashy toys that are only going to get played with briefly before they become rather boring. There are aspects to the iPhone which are great, but which I don’t always need – having an audio recording device and video recorder on my person at all times is kind of amazing, and yet for most of the time I end up forgetting it can do that – the curse of the technology that does so many things, you can never remember which one you need.
Anyhow – there’s one thing I’ve found that the iPhone does really well, and where it’s something that’s genuinely useful to me and not just a flashy bit of kit to satisfy my occasional tech-geek habit – acting as a document reader. I do a lot of reading as part of my freelance work, especially when I’m doing manuscript reports, and considering I now deal exclusively in computer files (gone are the days when Macmillan had to send a hundredweight of paper my way), a document reader was always going to be useful. My EeePC has been pretty useful that way over the last three years – it was one of the first Netbooks, before the market exploded – but it’s never been ideal, and the fact that the iPhone meant I could carry PDFs around easily in my pocket has made life an awful lot easier. I also liked the fact that the iPhone gave you the chance to actually read books – at the stage when I bought it, there was an e-book reader called Stanza that was pretty good and gave me access to a certain amount, even though the ‘shop’ side of things suffered from a problem that afflicts a lot of the iPhone – the fact that it’s such a closed shop that you can buy something on your iPhone and you don’t actually know where the file you’ve payed for actually is, or if you can get at it. At the least, it wasn’t the kind of thing I used lots, and for most of the time I was converting .doc files into PDFs, and reading them that way. All was good.
Then, just a few weeks ago, the new version of the iPhone OS was released, which resulted in a selection of nice cosmetic changes – and an iPhone version of iBooks, the much trumpeted Apple Bookstore and E-books reader that’s essentially intended to be a book equivalent of iTunes. And iBooks has certainly had a big impact on me… mainly because it’s the nicest bit of ebook reader software I’ve encountered yet.
The things that separate iBooks from the other bits of e-reader software on the iPhone are, basically, cosmetic – but they count. Touches like being able to see your books lined up on a large bookshelf are very nice – but most important of all, iBooks actually gets close to feeling like reading a book. Page turns are animated, the interface isn’t as intrusive on other e-reader software, and the whole thing actually feels like reading a book in a way that the Kindle app doesn’t (where it’s rather like you’re reading the book on microfiche, with the pages whizzing past into the ether). It’s also not too difficult to make my own books that iBooks will read – for slightly more complications, I can rustle up iBook friendly versions of books I’m doing manuscript reports on, and carry them wherever I go. I’ve also heavily stocked up on the wide range of free iBooks-compatible books that are available – I’ve got everything from Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh to various H.P. Lovecraft short stories, Conan epics, and various novels by DRM-hating authors like Cory Doctorow.
Because, of course, any books bought in the iBooks store come with DRM, and are only compatible with iBooks. The same way that books bought through Amazon are only compatible with the Kindle, and the same way that any books bought through Waterstones are only compatible with Adobe Digital Editions… and the whole e-books thing starts to make my head spin. It’s absurdly complicated – there are at least three seperate ways of buying e-books, all competing, and none of them fit easily together. It’s a situation that makes the rivalry between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD look both mild and understandable by comparison – and I find it a bit worrying. Mainly because, as has ben pointed out by people far smarter than me, there is a massive discrepency between how much people think books cost to make, and how much they actually cost to make.
I’ve got first-hand experience of this – the publication process is long, bizarre, and complicated, but it’s what makes the books that you like into the books you like. The editing, the proofreading, the shaping… there’s an awful lot of effort that goes into it. And however much the big corporations want it to be the equivalent of selling processed cheese or burgers, there’s a lot of gambling involved. But above everything else, it isn’t cheap. Books cost money to make, and so that’s got to be paid for somehow. The publishing industry is terrified of having the same thing happen to it as has already happenned to the music industry – digital is coming, and it’s understandable that publishing wants to protect itself.
But the public, over the years, has ended up thinking that the physical size and weight of the book is what matters, is what costs money. Because that’s what they’ve been told – there’s the big hardback that costs lots, and then months after that, you get the smaller, lighter, cheaper paperback. Weight=money. You feel like you’re actually getting something, a physical artefact, for your money. When you pay for an e-book… you’re not getting anything physical. All you’re getting is the data. Which is the most important bit of the equation, but not all the general public actually realise this. (It doesn’t help that supermarkets price cut to such an absurd extent, frequently using them as loss leaders – the last time I was in Asda, last September, they were selling copies of Twilight by Stephanie Meyer for £3 (to coincide with the DVD of New Moon) – a bloody absurd price, but one they can afford to sell at as a big unwieldy conglomerate). I can remember a conversation at a book business meet-up early this year, with a guy who insisted that e-books should be priced at 2 or 3 quid, maximum, saying that you’d sell lots that way. And yes, you would. You’d also not make money, and eventually end up with some very bad books (and for anyone who wants to say something like “Yes, but rubbish like Twilight gets published already…”, as someone who reads slush pile manuscripts and stuff that hasn’t been very well edited, all i can say is this: You think you know bad books, but you really, really don’t…). It’s finding that magic price point, the one that fits – the one that the publishers are happy with, and the public is willing to pay.
It’s a messy, weird situation. The DRM factor is frustrating. And the pricing is frustrating (even on the iBooks store, where there sometimes doesn’t seem to be rhyme or reason in how much one book costs in comparison to another). And the fact that Amazon allow UK customers to buy Kindle books at US prices (basically undercutting everyone within range, in a very Wal-Mart/Asda manner) both frustrates me and makes me angry. I like the principle of the iBooks store, but they’ve got a very long way to go before the range is what it needs to be. I’d like e-books to be a welcoming thing, not a bewildering many-headed hydra that’s just as likely to confuse as it is to enlighten. I’d like there to be a setup that doesn’t make me think “Oh, for god’s sake, it would be so much easier if I just found a way of stripping the DRM out of these e-books”.
I just have the instinctive feeling that if I do spend money in the iBooks store, at some point down the line the DRM is going to come back to bite me. I like the setup, and I like the idea of eventually getting an iPad (although my lack of money at the moment helps prevent me right now, and I’d rather wait until the second generation, and I’m slightly uncomfortable with Apple’s closed-source methods – it’d be nice to see an independant tablet turn up with a similar presentation, but much more flexible for people who want to break out of the box) – I’d just like to know that the industry I work in, and the industry I’m trying to get into as a writer, isn’t going to drive itself off a cliff, and is capable of seeing the wood for the trees.
I can see many of the advantages. (An ebook version of Lord of the Rings which doesn’t strain my arm to lift? I’m in…). And I get the feeling that in a few years, the tech really will be there. But the setup is so cofusing right now that very simple solutions can’t be done simply because there’s so many ways of getting e-books, and so many hurdles to jump through. (I like the selection on Waterstones.com – but the pricing is downright eccentric (especially on science fiction books), and the DRM essentially says “THOU SHALT NOT USE THIS ON APPLE PRODUCTS!”) For example – if the situation was simpler, you could bundle a ‘digital copy’ with a hardback edition of a book, like DVDs do now (maybe in the same manner that many computer games have time-sensitive extra content, stuff that’s only available if you actually buy the product, rather than pirate it or get it second hand)- you want to make it easier for the customer to use your product and access it in multiple formats (and making hardbacks more attractive can’t be a bad thing – saying “You can read this on your mobile as well”, rather than demanding another £14 or so for a more convenient data format, can’t be a bad thing – reward your customers, rather than give them a reason to pirate).
Many people are against DRM – but I don’t know if we’ll get to a situation (as music is now) where books are DRM-free, simply because e-books are much more tech-dependant than music. You can easily convert any piece of audio technology to play MP3s, but there’s only a small number of ways in which reading an e-book is actually comfortable – I’ve done it reading them on a computer screen (for work purposes), but it isn’t really a pleasant experience. Comfort is a major part of the equation – MP3 players are often only meant to be used for a short amount of time, or as an accompaniment for something else, while an e-book reader (whether it’s software or hardware) needs to be something easily portable, and something we could conceivably sit down with for hours (I know some people don’t like the idea of reading from the iPhone and iPad’s LCD-style screen (instead of the easier-on-the-eye ‘e-ink’ option) – but if you fiddle with the brightness (which iBooks gives a very easy option for) it’s a very comfortable experience, and I really think that it’s just a matter of the market getting used to it).
We need to get to a point where, as with music, there’s one clear winner in terms of format and software – but the hardware is as important when it comes to books, and is pricier simply because MP3 players don’t need large screens. I suspect we’ll see the death of black-and-white e-readers sometime in the next few years, and that the e-readers of the future will be phone apps, the iPad (or whatever is spawned as a result of the iPad’s very alluring but not-quite-perfect tech), and whatever tablet-related computer that’s going to come next. Trouble is, we kind of need to be in the situation where there’s a winner now – and I just hope that we don’t have to wait so long for that winner that the battle’s over before it’s even properly begun…
(Apologies for any incoherence. If you want to read stuff about ebooks that’s much more intelligently put together, Nick Harkaway and Cory Doctorow have said an awful lot more, and much better than me. Plus, have a look at the Bookseller-related blog Futurebook for some more extremely interesting reading on the subject.)