ebooks, freebooks, seebooks, webooks

This post refers to the ebook we were writing under the Green Mile review but I’ve started a fresh thread.

I finished reading that Nation article about Amazon. As part of the 28% of the U.S. ebook reader population, I have a few opinions…

The Kindle, which I use (and as an app on iphone and ipad), requires books to be in a proprietary file format. This is a bitch when you want to read on a computer, for example.

All my library ebooks go through Amazon to download them. Libraries are only allotted a certain number. The red tape for access with profit as motive feels so remedial, like how newspapers are now charging online subscription fees where the text used to be free. Some books are lendable depending on the publisher’s choice (so I could share my purchased ebook with a friend — during which period I wouldn’t be able to read it on my reader), but the practice has not caught on.

I noticed that as long as I transfer library ebooks via USB rather than deliver via wireless from Amazon’s store, I can keep them until I connect to wireless again, at which point the overdue books will be zapped from my cache. So I transfer books  this way to avoid paying Amazon for a bestseller and keep them until I’ve finished reading them before I go online again. if I have a giftcard I might buy a few titles, as I did for Franzen’s Freedom, priced well below the hardcover price.

To get free ebooks, I’ve pillaged gutenberg.org, and I admit to pulling pdfs off file-sharing sites to read some authors who the library barely carries in ebook format. This stealing method wasn’t perfect — a lot of typos in the text and blank pages to click through. The size of the type was not optimal.

I downloaded a few free domain books by browsing Amazon when I first got the reader. Kindle search is not intuitive and I find it mostly annoying. It is too easy to buy books on the thing. Not everything is available, not even close. My sister-in-law recommends finding books by subscribing to the discount/99-cent book emails, but I don’t want impulse buys filling up my inbox.

After I’ve been reading on the Kindle awhile and go back to print, I am pleased to rediscover different physical aesthetics of books, some with high-quality paper, some with cool covers and fonts. Some books with handwritten notes of a stranger in the whitespace. Kindle books are all the same font and format.

The Kindle has spoiled me in other ways. Reading real books, I get frustrated about having to use a dictionary when I need a definition. Kindle has a built-in dictionary that will look up a definition for you just by placing the cursor next to the word in question.

Another detraction for ebooks is that you can’t flip through pages easily. It’s hard to gauge how long a book will take to read because it tells you by percentage how far through you are, not by page number of however many pages.

However, readers can save notes, which means you could potentially use it as a study tool if you read a textbook on a Kindle. Universities will be issuing lots of ebooks due to the ease with which anything can stay in print digitally. With tools for note-taking, highlighting, and tweeting/bookmarking, a savvy student could save time with the ebook version. You have to really like a single page view though, and it can be tricky to find what you’re looking for — although the search has come in handy for me a few times. More on search in a minute…

Also, ebook art sucks. For example, reading Jennifer Egan’s Geek Squad on Kindle was an illegible cheat when it got to the experimental Powerpoint chapter.

Benefits are many: I can read the Kindle hands-free, set up horizontal with the cover set as a tripod. I read it vertically like a book too; it fits in one hand and is not too bulky, I can hold it comfortably. A huge book is not cumbersome to hold on this format. But it sucks when your Kindle runs out of juice and you forget the charger cord on a weekend trip, for example…This has happened to me too many times.

The Nation journalist has a point about book addiction: studies exist revealing women’s reliance on romance novels being like drugs. I know more than a few mystery readers with a closet stuffed full of books by their favorite sleuth scribes. Sales tell the tale: Ebook sales are outnumbering physical book sales on Amazon in 33 months they’ve been available vs.15 years of book sales in physical form. Clearly the early ebook converts are hooked. In several conversations with book clubbers and other compulsive book buyers, the easiest way to get a fix is to download books on a Kindle. It’s the primary mode of reading for many word lovers. I look at the trending trash in my library’s ebook catalog — it’s not highbrow: the dealer is giving it out to any author who hits the high notes of the junkies, those escapist readers: romance, scifi, and mystery series folks are the target market. The demand definitely affects quality! The publishers will churn them out as fast as they can at the selling rate.

All of this is relevant because we are going to release your (Mike Bahl’s) book as an ebook –the story collection known as Scenic Utah — without any need to get mixed up in any of Amazon’s shenanigans. In my mind, the book is going to be laid out by me in Adobe with art of your choice and we will get it printed on demand, orderable and downloadable from some as yet undetermined webpage. And when someone wants to cough up the dough to read it in print, we will use their monies print it off. A single copy or more. This can be done via multiple sources in paperback. Unless we can get a deal on hardback. Otherwise it’s coming out as a readable pdf and in any other ebook format we can muster. I don’t think this is the way we’ll reach a broad audience but at least we are DIY. We take pride in our small audience of readers.

Finally, this “Search Gets Lost” piece in the Nation’s print edition followed the one about Amazon practices. The writer mentions finding “the heart of the book” in statistically improbable phrases:  “Amazon introduced a list of SIPs, or statistically improbable phrases, the most unlikely combinations of words to be found in a given book equipped with Search Inside!. Appearing toward the end of the listing, these quirky but fascinating phrase lists offered readers a new royal road to the heart of a book. As the sociologist and blogger Kieran Healy found, SIPs “effectively convey the essence of an author’s ideas, provided that the author is a phrase-maker.” Look up Marx’sCapital, Volume I, and you’ll find a list of SIPs that include “average social labour, appetite for surplus labour, direct exchangeability, social labour process, abstract human labour, labour fund, labour objectified, specifically capitalist mode, surplus value, necessary labour.” … Even for fiction, the method proved surprisingly effective: the two phrases “rich cunt, fifteen francs” might well call Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer to mind even if you didn’t know they were Amazon’s SIPs for the book. And SIPs were not the only feature of their kind; there were also Capitalized Phrases (“people, places, events, or important topics mentioned frequently in a book”). Amazon’s concordance program listed the 100 most common words in some titles, using font size to indicate their frequency, and made it possible to grasp features of an author’s style with new ease and precision. As Deborah Friedell noted in 2005, the reader could establish immediately that “time” was the word that occurs most frequently in the Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot, while “contain” and “multitudes” did not make the top 100 of Whitman’s favorites.

On blogs, like our Tumblr and WordPress, we are able to create our own SIPs with self-tagging. And hashtags on twitter, I guess. I am lazy about it mostly. Maybe we need to just blog a list of SIPs when we review books. This would be a poetic experiment in the Heart of Lit.

OKAY! The topic has gotten too big for my head so I will let it rest for now–I may’ve just gone off a bit half-cocked but this has all been pinging around mI mente for awhile.

Mike responds

So can your kindle read a .pdf? (I think I e-mailed myself an aritcle about setting up a file for kindle sales, but also, amazon is kinda a dick and I don’t know how I feel about selling through them. But it also isn’t right to cut out a whole swath of population because a corporations sucks). Is this the format nook and ipad use? Is there another one? I guess I understand the company’s desire to make their product exclusive, but it’s more than annoying. It’s not just amazon. Going from a pc to a mac with a word document is a pain even though they’re both allowed. And apple is pulling google maps, even though google’s already done the work for them. Sure, I guess it’s more profitable if you force the consumer to buy something that your company makes, but it seems more efficient (and quite possibly more profitable eventually) to just hone in on something and do that really well. Like, acknowledge that google has the best mapping service and then put that on your phones so the consumer will be happy and stick with you and then you don’t have to waste your time and money mapping everything everywhere and can instead focus on processor speed. Know how in movies set in the future people just push a button and a nutrient-rich food cube comes out and they eat it? Turns out what’s unrealistic about it is that there are never any stomach-formatting problems.

So, to make this not about telephones, but books: DRM is stupid. Casual sharing has always been a part of books, music, movies. I know the internet makes less than casual sharing possible. But it just doesn’t worry me. At all. Not just little old gonna sell 3 copies of Scenic Utah me, but in general. Just make it easier to buy and sell it for a reasonable price (I see plenty of ebooks that list for the same price as hardcover, which simply doesn’t make sense. Bandwidth costs money, but not as much as printing presses and paper) and people won’t want to take the effort necessary to torrent. Because, as you said, it’s a less than perfect process. And it’s one thing to open up an mp3 and find it’s not actually the song you want, but it’s another to be reading a book and then discover a page is missing.

I do not own a dedicated reader. But I think my phone is supposed to be able to handle this sort of thing. But I don’t know, because they’re jerks and don’t make it easy. Last week a friend wanted to read a Fifty Shades book now and we looked at Google Play and Amazon, trying to figure out how to make it work and we did not. And it would be silly to spend fifteen bucks on something she would then be unable to read. Know what I can for sure do though? View a pdf and it’s really quite simple.

Only allowing a set number of copies to be out at a given moment in time through the library makes sense, seeing as that was entirely true with physical copies as well. But there were, if memory serves me, plenty of publishers that were totally unwilling to grant libraries access to ebook copies at all and may still be. Which I just don’t get.

Here’s an analogy which is probably terrible: I feel like the publishing industry views physical books like lemons and they love lemons. There’s a couple varieties. They’re tasty. They know how to use them to brighten a day. Easy and manageable. But then someone introduced the ebook lime to the publishers and they just fucking shit their pants. Like, without even trying the lime first to see it’s not really all that different from a lemon. Can more or less be used in the same way. It has a few small differences and these differences cause some advantages and some disadvantages. But then they were like, we’re going to turn these limes into lemons and the analogy totally fell apart because it wasn’t all that good to begin with. Point being: they’re really not that different. Ultimately books are about the words and whether they’re in a physical format or a digital format, they’re still the same words and information.

So Egan’s powerpoint chapter looked illegible on an electronic device? Google tells me you’re not the only one who thought so. That is ridiculous and insulting to the reader. If you can’t take a powerpoint presentation, which is supposed to be viewed electronically and make it look good on the electronic device, then you should not be formatting/publishing ebooks. Period. Most of your aesthetic complaints come down to this lack of care/attention. Which, come on. Sure, it’d take some time to make the powerpoint look right, but this is a whole chapter of a book. It needs to be there and needs to be read in order to understand the work as a whole. Take a couple seconds to pick a font. Put some decent cover art on the thing. (The reader reads a page at a time, right? This seems an opportunity to make the cover art a page and to look, you know, decent).

The problem may well be that VV isn’t making ebooks. I don’t necessarily mean just you, but people like you. Most of us are still romanticizing the print book and are handcrafting zines and chapbooks, making new designs on old formats. And we turn our backs on ebooks. We just say, those are stupid and ugly and I want nothing to do with them rather than try to make them aesthetically pleasing. Which doesn’t seem that hard. Making physical things that are pretty is pretty hard though. (It’s troublesome to assign oneself to a generation/class of people one doesn’t necessarily belong to)

I think ebook is certainly the way of the future (and should be of the present, too), but to point out that ebook sales outnumber physical sales on amazon is a little misleading (unless the statistic is in 33 months amazon has sold more ebooks than in 15 years of selling physical books). Amazon is a digital format and should be prone to selling more ebooks. And a divide has formed or is forming. And people who like/romanticize physical books may be being driven away from Amazon. Whereas before they would see no problem picking up a bestseller from Amazon for cheap, they may now “see the importance” of supporting a physical, independent bookstore and may be making the trip. This last one is a bit of a grasp because I have no evidence to support it, just a gut.

The ebook doesn’t need to be the realm of trash-lit. There’s so much potential there. House of Leaves, for example, would have benefited greatly from an ebook format. When I first read it, my edition had a code/key in the front. Something like, italic-printed words should appear in blue, but the publisher wouldn’t fork up the money for blue ink. Words printed in 14 point font should be in red, but the publisher wouldn’t fork up the money for red. Which is cheaply and easily remedied with an ebook format. But, for the most part, those who have a passion for literature are still clinging to physical books. And until someone (I do mean us, here because I have a huge god-complex) changes that, ebooks will be the domain of trash-lit.

I don’t think I linked to it before, but it appears as though Emily Books has an idea of what to do. It seems to be nice and simple and to capitalize on the simplicity they have a subscription format, where you get a book a month, automatically downloaded. I don’t really know the economics of this stuff from a publisher/producer end, but as a consumer, anything over $10 for an ebook seems a bit much. $5 seems a deal. And the cover art seems less than stellar, but it’s no worse than any other independent press. I’ve also not read anything, so I can’t vouch for the content, but the concept seems solid.

I’m glad we’re having this discussion in the open. Transparency is certainly lacking for the most part in these discussions that are being held by the major publishers behind closed doors.

Dear God, I’m a blowhard and I haven’t even mentioned the search article, which I haven’t read yet, so I think I should shut up now.

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One thought on “ebooks, freebooks, seebooks, webooks

  1. Pingback: A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan | The Heart of Literature

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