E-books and E-wolves

E-book sales are rising: Amazon, the largest bookseller in the U.S. has been reporting since 2011 that it sells more e-books than print books. In fact, book readership is also rising, partially because of the spread of e-books. The Pew Research Center published a report in April 2012 that the average e-book reader reads more books a year than the average non-e-book reader.  In the U.K., The Guardian reported in August 2012 that Kindle users there were buying four times as many books as they were before becoming a Kindle-owner. In a more recent Pew study published October 2012, younger readers are actually reading even more than adults. E-books haven’t completely replaced print books in the lives of readers, but usage is growing and we may see them dominate someday soon, given the sale trends in the book market. Regardless, people are starting to agree that we are seeing a true “renaissance of reading.” With change and opportunity, however, come the wolves; in this case, the “digital” wolves.

Librarians, both public and school, have been wise to respond to the popularity of e-reading. Many libraries are experimenting with lending out e-readers pre-loaded with digital books. It is becoming more common for public libraries to subscribe to services like OverDrive, so that patrons can check out e-books from the library for free on their personal e-readers. Similarly, some schools are using Follett Shelf to provide e-book access to students and teachers.

Unfortunately, there is often a sticker-shock attached to the transition to e-books. These are definitely not cheap services—and the Digital Rights Management (DRM) policies of these e-book providers leave consumers at the mercy of the publishers’ whims. On the surface, it appears DRM policies are used to combat piracy so that e-book files will not be set loose to be copied and distributed freely on the Internet. However, DRM is much more powerful than that; it ties e-books to specific distributers and devices. That is, if you buy an Amazon e-book, their intention is that you can only read it on an Amazon device, likewise with Barnes and Noble Nook e-books, etc.

If a library decides to go with a service like OverDrive, they pay for an annual subscription to a finite number of copies. If they stop paying for the subscription, they lose the e-books. A base subscription might cost a school library $4000 a year, with $2000 of that available for selecting the actual e-books. An elementary school librarian that I know in the Madison Metropolitan School District told me that this would represent about 75% of his entire budget for library materials—for most school librarians, this would be a non-option. With Follett, a library purchases the e-books indefinitely for a higher cost than a print book, but with limitations on which books are available or how a book can be accessed. Price inflation and price setting among these publishers and suppliers has meant that the e-book purchasing power for a library is probably shrinking.

Is this simple supply-and-demand, where the publishers and suppliers know that consumers are willing to pay exorbitant prices because of the uniqueness or convenience of the product? Or are they simply taking advantage because no one has stepped in to stop them? Anti-trust laws were put into place at the turn of the century so as to protect consumers from unfair price controls and business practices. While there have been some minor challenges to content providers like Amazon and Apple, it seems that, as far as the law is concerned, digital content is still in its infancy and consumers are not the ones in control. The proverbial wolves are in the henhouse.

When you purchase a DRM e-book, the book is never truly yours. Unlike most purchases, once the money changes hands, the product is not totally in the consumer’s possession; publishers or distributors have control over where and if you can access it. Strings are always attached. Case in point: Media commentator Martin Bekkelund wrote a blog post in October 2012 about an Amazon customer, Linn Jordet Nygaard, whose Kindle was remotely wiped and her entire Kindle library deleted with no proper explanation from Amazon, other than that they reserve this right and that she is hereby black-listed. (Update: after a lot of bad press and general uproar from the web community, Linn’s Kindle library was mysteriously reactivated.) While this has not been my experience with Amazon Customer Service and my Kindle account—I have always found them to be exemplary, fair and honest—it is an important reminder not to take your rights as a consumer for granted. In this case, it’s probably best to think of e-books not as owned, but rented.

What are libraries to do if they want to be fiscally responsible while responding to their patrons’ demands? It seems pretty risky to go all-in and make an investment that could be negated at the whim of a content provider. Furthermore, vendors that provide viable options with a decent amount of content seem to have priced themselves at a level that is out-of-reach for many libraries.

A grassroots movement called ReadersFirst.org is encouraging libraries to band together and advocate for their e-book users. However, it’s high time that we as consumers and taxpayers also band together for our libraries to demand that e-book publishers and suppliers stop taking advantage of our public money and provide a fair service at a fair price. Perhaps the government needs to invoke anti-trust laws against the monopolistic, monopsonistic and oligopolistic behaviors that prey on our library and school budgets.

Paperwhite and the Four Kindles

My new Kindle, the Kindle Paperwhite, was delivered on Wednesday. It’s been one of those weeks though, and I really didn’t get to check it out for real until this weekend. It’s my fourth Kindle and let’s just say, it’s the best yet.

If you know me at all, you know that I am a Kindle junkie. My boyfriend says that I should get a commission from Amazon, because I am constantly selling people on them. I love them and I am convinced that anyone who considers themselves a reader would never be the same.

You say, “I would miss the smell of the pages/the feel of the the book in my hand.”

Maybe. But I don’t. I thought I would. But I don’t–because reading one-handed is INCREDIBLE. I can bundle up on the couch and just stick one hand out of my blanket and not have to expose a draft when I need to turn the page. I can lay on my side or my back or however I feel like and not get a tired neck or hands from keeping it at a good angle.

And it’s lighter than any book I would ever read. And smaller too. So handy that it’s always in my purse or bag. At all times. This means that I am almost never without a book. Back when I read paper books, if I was reading anything that was more than two inches thick, the Harry Potter books, for example, they mostly sat on my bedside table and they didn’t get read every day.

It’s also nice to be able to change the font size, font style, margins and line-spacing. You can’t do that in a paper book. I also love that I can look words up on the spot. I like highlighting and annotating right in the e-book. I can see my notes and marks in my Amazon account and print them out from the internet if I want.

Yes, you could get a tablet like a Kindle Fire or an iPad and then you can read and go on the internet and have apps… but the reading experience is nothing like e-ink. Good luck reading that tablet outside or in a sunlit window–too much glare. E-ink actually looks better the more light there is. No glare, just the look of letters on paper.

I got my first Kindle as a Christmas gift in 2009, the Kindle 2. It was a pretty awesome start and had a battery that lasted 4 weeks, the longest of any e-reader on the market at the time. The downside was that I couldn’t read EPUBs or check out library books.

Then came the Kindle keyboard, which I upgraded to in September 2010, when it released. The battery life doubled to 8 weeks. And the screen was even clearer.

In November 2011, I got the Kindle touch (also when it released, because at least point, I just had to have the next best thing). So much smaller and lighter. The touch screen was fine, but I did think the bevel was kind of steep. The screen didn’t seem as clear as the previous generation, but the weight was awesome. I didn’t like the feel of the leather case for this one though and eventually went for a sleeve.

Around this time also came the possibility to check out library books on the Kindle with OverDrive. Amazon also launched the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime membership (which I do, but I have honestly never taken advantage of.) I never thought I would care about library Kindle books, just because there’s always a wait list and I liked having a new book instantly when I wanted to read it. I put myself on a few wait lists, and since then, I’ve pretty much been plenty occupied with those for awhile that I haven’t been reading many purchased ones.

As for the Paperwhite, it’s a hair thinner, the bevel is just right, the touchscreen works better and the screen resolution is even clearer. I never would have thought it could be so good. The weight is about the same (this one weights two grams less than the Touch–that’s like two paperclips, I think). The front-light is okay; it definitely does the trick, if you want to read in bed or something, but I don’t think I’ll use it much. When the front-light is on, it seems like the screen is kind of blue and I’m not sure I like that–seems a little like an LED/LCD. I hate reading on backlit LED/LCD screens like the computer or the iPad, thus the appeal of e-ink for me. They took away the Text-to-Speech feature, which I never really used anyway, but I know my ESL students did use it sometimes when they read on the Kindle keyboards in my classroom–so this wouldn’t be the greatest model for them. It’ll work for me though. In fact, I’m as happy as a clam.

Even if I haven’t sold you on the Amazon Kindle, I do believe that dedicated e-readers are the way to go, especially if you consider yourself a reader. If you’re a Barnes and Noble fan, the Nook is great too (though I still don’t think it can compete with the Kindle’s battery life). If you’re anything like me, though, you’ll read even more once you have an e-reader.

My Self-Published eBook (TRY ME!)

Here is my eBook Publishing handout.

As part of my Director’s Brief, I tried my hand at digital self-publishing. This is a multi-media guide with text, pictures and videos. (So if you have a black-and-white eReader, the content will be limited.) Here is one of my attempts, created on Apple’s iWork Pages:

http://tinyurl.com/knitbook08092012

Please try it out! It’s a little buggy yet with line return formatting (and I suspect that all of the video clips are showing the same thing somehow, at least on my device), but I’m moving on for now. You have a couple of options for access:

  • download the file (39.6MB) and load it to your device manually
  • open the link in a browser on a device enabled to read EPUBs
  • download it and use something like www.magicscroll.net or the Firefox add-on called EPUBReader

If you have an Apple device, this is easy…
a) import it into your iTunes library and then sync it with your books.
b) open the link in a Safari browser and iBooks will take care of the rest!

It is published as an EPUB, which according to Wikipedia, can be read on the following platforms (pretty much everything, except Amazon devices):

Unfortunately if you are a Kindle user, as I am, you are out of luck for the moment. Amazon’s eReaders do not support the EPUB format quite yet. (There are rumors that they will someday…)

So, what do you think…?

Brain Dump on eBook Publishing

In December of 2011, I attended the SLATE Conference (School Leaders Advancing Technology in Education) at the Kalahari in the Wisconsin Dells. One of the sessions I attended was by Keith Schroeder, a school library media specialist in Green Bay. The name of his presentation was, “Creating ePub Books for Customized Learning.” At the time, I was intrigued and definitely saw how school librarians might bring eTextbooks to their staff, especially in a coming age of one-to-one computing in school and tablet computers.

I plan to [attempt to] make an eBook–probably out of an old classmate’s Master’s Thesis (with permission of course, on the caveat that I don’t publish it anywhere online and ruin her current academic pursuits. Kyle [or anyone], if you’d like to offer up one of your longer pieces that I can post online as an eBook, I’d be happy to play with it… I simply have  never written anything long enough in my opinion to be useful for this project (I took comp exams for my Master’s.)

Keith gave us a lot of tips on what worked best for ePublishing (which I serendipitously took notes on!)  In my investigation for my Director’s Brief for this class, I’ve come across some developments that make me wonder how things have evolved since December. This morning, I emailed Keith to pick his brain a little and see what his thoughts are now. I also emailed an old college friend who has been publishing and selling her eBooks on gluten-free recipes.

Among my first findings on eBook publishing:

  • EPUB is probably the format you want to use. PDF is okay, but it can’t really be manipulated in an eReader. Kindles don’t read EPUBs, however, so you would need something different for the Kindle Fire. Multimedia eBooks that include videos and color pictures probably aren’t ideal if the target it is black and white eReaders.
  • Start with an EPUB template. If you don’t, you will struggle with things like Table of Contents and formatting. I have a eBook template that I got from Keith at SLATE for Apple’s iWork Pages 4.0.5 program. HOWEVER, now Apple has iBook Author, which I’m guessing is the next big thing, at least coming from them. Also, I saw this blogpost that said “book templates are dead.”
  • For an interactive textbook, collect videos, pictures, links, passages, sources, etc. first. Videos need to be converted to m4v files, under 15MB and 320×240 resolution.
  • Calibre is a great program for converting eBooks to different formats for different eReaders. I’ve used this program in the past (back in 2010 when I attempted–and failed–at making an eBook) and it worked pretty slick. This article gives a nice overview.
  • Other apps worth considering: Book Creator, Creative Book Builder.
  • Digital Book World is a pretty handy site with lots of news, interviews, reviews for the digital publishing world, hence the name.
  • Lulu.com is a popular self-publishing platform. I really need to look into this, because I’ve seen it cited in several places, including our reading for today, The Long Tail. They even have a section dedicated to educators. More from the self-publishing industry: SourceBooks, Smashwords, Booktango, FastPencil, Author Solutions, Your Ebook Team
  • AcademicPub makes eTextbooks for educators. Looks good, but I want to find out if you send away for content and they make it, or if you can do it yourself. At first glance, it sounds like they are selling a service.
  • The Digital Shift, part of Library Journal and School Library Journal, posted an article, A Guide to Publishers in the Library Ebook Market.
  • No Shelf Required is a blog about eBooks I am going to take a closer look at too.
  • I used to read Penelope Trunk’s blog pretty regularly. Apparently she had a run-in with her eBook publisher that I would like read more about, especially since she went through the process of publishing this way–what were the hang-ups?

So, that’s what I’ve got so far. I’m kind of excited about where it’s going to take me!