The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The sneaky e-reader

Good stats from Luke Wroblewski on the market for e-books and e-readers over here. This one jumped out at me:

29% of readers of e-books consume their books on their cell phones. 23% of readers of e-books consume their books on a tablet computer.

That jibes with the results of a quick survey I sent to the folks on my email list back in December: significantly more people said they read long-form material with their iPhones than with their iPads or Kindles. Now of course, this is largely a function of the sheer number of iPhones out there—but so what? The behavior is real and I’d argue the proportion is unlikely to shift anytime soon. Amazon will sell more Kindles, sure, but Apple will sell more iPhones at the same time. In fact, there are probably more iPhones and iPod Touches getting added to the “device pool” per unit time than Kindles of all flavors. (I’m sure Horace Dediu has the numbers on this, were I diligent enough to dig through his archives.)

Anyway, this big contingent of iPhone readers was one of the primary reasons I went ahead with the project that would become Fish rather than, say, something designed specifically for the iPad. I mean… 29 percent is a lot! Especially when most of the other 71 percent—the Kindle and iPad readers—have iPhones as well, so you can probably convince them to read something on that screen.

Meanwhile, Android phones are basically still a complete mystery to me.


An oral history of the future of the book

Bob Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book, talks about working for Alan Kay, starting the Criterion Collection and Voyager on laserdisc, Hypercard e-books, and interactive CD-ROMs — essentially, the whole prehistory of where we are now with just about all digital media:

The book was always fundamental to me. One of the things I really liked was that the original logo for Criterion, which we designed in 1984, was a book turning into a disc. It was central. When I was writing the paper for Britannica, I felt like I had to relate the idea of interactive media to books, and I was really wrestling with the question “What is a book?” What’s essential about a book? What happens when you move that essence into some other medium? And I just woke up one day and realized that if I thought about a book not in terms of its physical properties—ink on paper—but in terms of the way it’s used, that a book was the one medium where the user was in control of the sequence and the pace at which they accessed the material. I started calling books “user-driven media,” in contrast to movies, television, and radio, which were producer-driven. You were in control of a book, but with these other media you weren’t; you just sat in a chair and they happened to you. I realized that once microprocessors got into the mix, what we considered producer-driven was going to be transformed into something user-driven. And that, of course, is what you have today, whether it’s TiVo or the DVD.

And how did DVDs get commentary tracks? Let Bob tell you:

You have to understand how much of this stuff is accidental. I knew the guy who was the curator of films at the LA County Museum of Art, and I brought him to New York to oversee color correction. He’s telling us all these amazing stories, particularly about King Kong, because it’s his favorite film. Someone said, “Gee, we’ve got this extra sound track on the LaserDisc, why don’t you tell these stories?” He was horrified at the idea, but we promised we’d get him superstoned if he did, and he gave this amazing discussion about the making of King Kong, which we released as the second sound track…

We had people driving to our home, where our offices were, by the second day, and begging for copies. It was Los Angeles, it was the film industry—and finally someone had done something serious with film. Film was suddenly being treated in a published form, like literature. But this still wasn’t mainstream. Citizen Kane was three discs and cost $125. It cost us $40 to manufacture. The most LaserDiscs we ever sold was about twenty thousand copies of Blade Runner.

I don’t usually squee with delight, but: Squeee!


Pricing e-books

Counterintuitive hypothesis: The most significant thing that Amazon and now Barnes & Noble have done for e-books hasn’t been the creation and updating of their dedicated reading machines. It’s the creation of a genuine marketplace for e-books, where consumers can pick up titles easily, publishers can offer them and make at least a little money, and [in Amazon’s case] even little guys can get their stuff out there. You might have needed the reading machines to push the marketplace, but the marketplace will continue to be relevant even if everyone decides tomorrow that they don’t actually want a Kindle anymore. You can already read e-books on computers, smartphones, and pretty soon video game consoles. Amazon sold the razors, sure, but they can sell you the blades even if you don’t buy a razor at all. That’s big.

But creating a marketplace isn’t just about syncing to a device and matching readers’ eyeballs to content. You also have to establish, respond to, and eventually stabilize readers’ and publishers’ expectations about sales, especially about price.

This is harder than it sounds. How much should an e-book cost? How much should publishers have to share with the retailer? Just what are you buying? For hardcovers and paperbacks, these expectations have built up over a long time. This tweaked a bit when online sellers and big-box retailers started offering moderate-to-steep discounts over cover. None of this makes establishing norms for digital sales any easier.

For music, Apple pulled this beautifully in the early days of iTunes. At the time, CDs sold between 10 and 18 dollars for a typical album. This was actually really frustrating, because percentage-wise, it’s a huge variation. It was also an uptick from cassettes, which had rarely cost over $10.

Apple just perched on the low end: every track is 99 cents, every album is $9.99. They were competing with the free (P2P or friend copies) and the physical (real discs with better sound quality that you could play in your car), and they found a way out. Round numbers (good retail numbers for any product), close to what we were used to paying (but still offering competitive advantage). And they held it there, even when big media companies huffed and puffed because they wanted to charge more for high-demand (or high-cost) products. Apple’s establishment of trust with the music-buying public won out. And held out. Singles still cost a single. Which makes the digital music marketplace oddly pure.

At Booksquare, Kassia Krozser argues that the same price-stabilization is beginning to happen with e-books:

At Digital Book World, I’m going to do a brief presentation called “The Case for the $75 eBook”, because there is a marketplace for high-priced ebooks. In fact, I think there’s a robust marketplace for higher priced digital books, and I believe I can make a strong case for these price points.

That being said (ha!), I don’t believe the publishing industry can make a valid, solid, logical case for pricing most narrative fiction (and some non-fiction) ebooks above $9.99. Not only is this price point being cemented in the minds of readers by retailers, but, let’s be blunt, publishers have done a lousy job of making the value argument. The near-cynical approach of publishers to producing and selling ebooks has backfired. The process, the pricing, the product has been weighed by consumers and they are not amused. They like the $9.99 and below price point. It makes sense to them.

So, yep, I’m predicting publishers will have no choice but to swallow this one and figure out how to make their business work with ebooks priced below $10. It’s better to initiate this change rather than scramble when the retailers start demanding better terms. You can do it, publishing industry, you can do it!

It’s true! Maybe it’s just because we’re already primed by iTunes albums, or because $10 is the low-end price of a good trade paperback, or that $9.99 is one of those psychologically great retail numbers (Just dollars and cents! Not tens of dollars!), but it’s got real power.

For instance, I priced Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain at both Barnes and Noble and Amazon. The book lists in hardcover at $27.95. At Amazon, it sells for $18.45 in hardcover and $14.76 for the Kindle. At Barnes and Noble, it’s $20.12 (huh?), or — yes — $9.99 for the e-book.

Now this was easier because I like the B&N app for the Mac and I preordered the Nook. But if B&N sells its e-book for $18, I either buy the hardcover from Amazon or pass altogether. At $9.99, I bought it right away. I did the same thing for China Mieville’s The City and the City: Kindle $13.73, B&N $9.99. On the other hand, I sprung for The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway for almost $18 and still feel like I got hosed.

Now, digital books also offer the possibility that books, like CDs, can be split and sold separately. Maybe I just want to buy a copy of “The Undefeated” and “In Another Country” – a taste of Hemingway, not the whole short-form corpus. Big publishers haven’t really done this yet. But among independents and self-publishers, the other price point that seems to be emerging – the symmetry with iTunes is astonishing – is the 99 cent short story. And again — this feels just about right, especially appealing to folks reading these things on their iPhones, who don’t want to leaf through a whole novel or anthology, right around the same price as a cheap iPhone app or a single song.

But Krozser’s hypothetical $75 e-book suggests that there are still plenty of other price points and formats to be hammered out. Maybe $25-$40 is the perfect price for an e-textbook. Maybe a short, indie nonfiction pamphlet – 2011’s version of New Liberal Arts – could sell well for $3.99. Maybe digital copies of new books will be free for readers who buy the hardcover (factored into the sale price). It’s still wide open. But with competition between sellers and tug-of-war between customers and publishers, we’re bound to figure it out.


Telling stories with (but not exactly on) the iPhone

I think this iPhone-powered storybook is really clever. But maybe someone with a small child can tell me: Would a kid actually dig it?

(Or maybe: forget the kids. What’s the all-ages version? I like the idea of telling stories not just on screens but with objects [including big, rich, tactile books]. Could you construct some sort of apparatus that extended the iPhone’s capabilities? I’m thinking out loud here: maybe it’s a set of little electromechanical shadow puppets, controlled via a Bluetooth link to the phone. You download new stories via the App Store. Each has a soundtrack that plays through the phone, and the phone controls the servos that make the puppets dance and shake. You provide your own flickering light source. And your own cave wall.)


Books nowhere / books somewhere

Barnes and Noble’s Nook e-reader* has a lot of nice things going for it. But I’m really intrigued by a particular design/software/sales choice that’s gotten less attention than native PDF support or the color touchscreen or even the ability to “lend” e-books to friends.

Barnes & Noble has figured out a way to tie the experience of using the e-reader to the experience of shopping in one of their brick-and-mortar stores. In principle, this could allow B&N to use an electronic marketplace not to substitute for retail shopping, but to augment it (and vice versa). And I think this shows us an alternate way to think about electronic reading than the delivery model that most of us have taken for granted.

Here’s how this is supposed to work:

In any of the chain’s 1,300 stores, consumers can download books on the Wi-Fi network. Outside the stores, consumers will access AT&T’s 3G network to download books…

In an interview, William Lynch, president of Barnes&, said the company would aggressively market the Nook within its bricks and mortar stores. The Nook also has software that will detect when a consumer walks into a store so that it can push out coupons and other promotions like excerpts from forthcoming books or suggestions for new reading. While in stores, Nook owners will be able to read any e-book through streaming software.

The promise of the Kindle is that you can buy and read books anywhere at all – that is, nowhere in particular. The Amazon store has no location. You read the books on your screen, and they are technically stored on your device, but effectively, the books are likewise nowhere.

Barnes & Noble, on the other hand, is still committed to the idea that books have PLACES, that they are most properly browsed and bought and read in specific locations. They say: yes, you can use your Nook anywhere – but the very best place to use it is in one of our stores. What’s more: as long as you’re in the store, you can read as much of as many books as you want. Just like if you were flipping the pages. That’s huge!

This choice may have been inevitable: B&N had to find some way to leverage its retail chain, the only real advantage it has over players like Amazon or even Sony. They also have customers who are accustomed to coming to their stores, flashing their discount cards, drinking coffee and eating scones in their cafés. For Barnes and Noble, THIS is the natural constituency for their e-readers — not the wandering digital nomads who might buy a Kindle, might buy an iPhone, might buy a PS3, or might blow it all at Newegg, depending on how long they stay online. And B&N can also partner with other businesses — offering its library to readers at Starbucks (or some other coffee chain) or the CTA. Wherever books are read!

If this works — by which I mean, not only that the Nook sells well, but that customers actually take their Nooks into stores to take advantage of these added features, and the wi-fi actually works, and the coupons and ads aren’t out-and-out bothersome, then we’ll have a new way of thinking about the use of electronic readers in all sorts of contexts: libraries, museums, elementary schools, civic centers, college campuses. The content and its delivery become not just user-aware, but location-aware.

Above and beyond Nook’s competition with the Kindle as such, the fact that it actually offers a competing model for use opens things up quite a bit. Let’s see where this goes.

* I don’t like the term e-reader. The phrase I always WANT to use, which is justified nowhere, is reading machine. Is anyone with me?


In Case You Missed It

Does the Brain Like E-Books?” sounds and reads too much like a Snarkmarket original to be ignored. I like this bit from my friend and almost-colleague (if I had locked down that UCSB job) Alan Liu:

Initially, any new information medium seems to degrade reading because it disturbs the balance between focal and peripheral attention. This was true as early as the invention of writing, which Plato complained hollowed out focal memory. Similarly, William Wordsworth’s sister complained that he wasted his mind in the newspapers of the day. It takes time and adaptation before a balance can be restored, not just in the “mentality” of the reader, as historians of the book like to say, but in the social systems that complete the reading environment.

Right now, networked digital media do a poor job of balancing focal and peripheral attention. We swing between two kinds of bad reading. We suffer tunnel vision, as when reading a single page, paragraph, or even “keyword in context” without an organized sense of the whole. Or we suffer marginal distraction, as when feeds or blogrolls in the margin (”sidebar”) of a blog let the whole blogosphere in.

And I adore this closer look at the cognitive implications of reading, as relayed by Jonah Lehrer:

I think one of the most interesting findings regarding literacy and the human cortex is the fact that there are actually two distinct pathways activated by the sight of letters. (The brain is stuffed full of redundancies.) As the lab of Stanislas Dehaene has found, when people are reading “routinized, familiar passages” a part of the brain known as the visual word form area (VWFA, or the ventral pathway) is activated. This pathway processes letters and words in parallel, allowing us to read quickly and effortlessly. It’s the pathway that literate readers almost always rely upon.

But Dehaene and colleagues have also found a second reading pathway in the brain, which is activated when we’re reading prose that is “unfamiliar”. (The scientists trigger this effect in a variety of ways, such as rotating the letters, or using a hard to read font, or filling the prose with obscure words.) As expected, when the words were more degraded or unusual, subjects took longer to comprehend them. By studying this process in an fMRI machine, Dehaene could see why: reading text that was highly degraded or presented in an unusual fashion meant that we relied on a completely different neural route, known as the dorsal reading pathway. Although scientists had previously assumed that the dorsal route ceased to be active once we learned how to read, Deheane’s research demonstrates that even literate adults still rely, in some situations, on the same patterns of brain activity as a first-grader, carefully sounding out the syllables.

That’s right — Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés” actually pushes through to a different part of your brain — because it taps into new graphic possibilities, as well as semantic (and syntactic) ones. And that, my friends, is poetry — i.e. “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”

Or it is, so long as we keep making it new:

The larger point is that most complaints about E-Books and Kindle apps boil down to a single problem: they don’t feel as “effortless” or “automatic” as old-fashioned books. But here’s the wonderful thing about the human brain: give it a little time and practice and it can make just about anything automatic. We excel at developing new habits. Before long, digital ink will feel just as easy as actual ink.

Or today’s graphic avant-garde will feel as easy as tomorrow’s MOR pleasures.

Think about a newspaper – so much potential for marginal distraction! All those graphic collisions of text upon itself, with pictures and advertisements and such, in tiny type and held in an unusual bodily orientation. Then they added color! In the nineteenth century, the newspaper was a sensory onslaught akin to watching the commercials surrounding Saturday morning cartoons. Now, it’s straightforward, orderly — even stately.

There’s a great, probably unintentional allegory of this transformation in Citizen Kane. It plays out as the fossilization of a marriage, and the crystallization of Kane’s political intentions – moving from anarchic gadfly to demagogic gubernatorial candidate – but it’s also about the normalization (and neutralization) of newspaper reading. It goes from marginal distraction to tunnel vision, and in just six moves.

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