Friday, May 7, 2010

Unburnable Books

Well, the iPad has come and it has not killed off Kindle. Far from it, and for a simple reason: Each occupies a separate niche. The Kindle features electronic paper made to read with the same ease as ink on paper. It does not carry the eyestrain of reading a lot of words on a glowing screen.

The iPad offers a screen, so it’s excellent for surfing the web, email, texting, and other computer activities. And all those apps make it amazingly fun and versatile, too. Anyone with an iPod Touch knows how addictive and even indispensable they quickly become; an iPad is an iPod Touch writ large.

A Kindle, on the other hand, is meant to snuggle in with for a long stint of reading. It’s not about those other flashier entertainments and distractions. It delivers words for reading, and it does this remarkably well. With added features, such as on board dictionary, the ability to search for words and phrases throughout the text, note taking, and archiving, it makes reading potentially more rewarding, or at least handier.

How many of us actually put a book down, get up, grab a dictionary, look up an unfamiliar word, say, “Hmph, how about that?”, put the dictionary back, return to our reading chair, pick up our book, find the page we were on, and keep reading? More likely we’ll make a mental note to look up an unfamiliar word while guessing at it from context, then forget about it, or frustrate ourselves later trying to remember how to spell it or find the exact spot it occurred. They’re never where we thought they were, either, as if they slip and slide around to evade us.

Reading on a Kindle, if you encounter one of those odd words -- and of course there are precious few among such brilliant readers as us -- you can immediately find out what it means, in the dictionary of your choice, and continue reading, all without disturbing yourself. With a few flicks of finger or thumb, the press of a couple buttons, and some lip-reading as you sound out the grotesque diphthongs involved, or worm through the etymology, you’re free to keep reading, this time knowing what is being talked about.

A Kindle allows a reader to carry up to 3600 books in a slender, light, and comfortable-to-use unit about the size of a clipboard. If you read a book a day, that’s about a decade’s worth right there. Do the math. And imagine the clutter you won’t have.

Remember when CDs began fading in favor of MP3 and other digital download formats? Kids wonder why their parents own all those silver disks or bother with trying to store and find them. That’s books now, too.

A single battery charge for Kindle, which takes under 4 hours, lasts up to two weeks. It operates on a G3 network, too, so you can download more reading material, or browse the Kindle store at Amazon, pretty much where ever you might be. You can also receive updates of your favorite periodicals, too, no matter where you roam. In many instances you can also start reading books on Kindle before they’re available in the dwindling number of brick-and-mortar stores.

Oh, and yes, some books are free downloads, and others, especially classics, come a remarkable bargains, such as the complete works of Charles Dickens, over 200 works, for under five dollars. Yes, they’re in public domain and available free at various sites online, but a token payment for formatting is not too much to pay for such convenience.

Please note, you can read or listen to books downloaded onto iPod Touch or iPhone, or other phones, these days, too. Someone I know uses low contrast at night to read on an iPhone, and reports no trouble. This is fine, but the topic here is digital readers, electronic paper, designed so that you’re not squinting into the glare of a backlit screen.

Not being familiar with all platforms, I will not debate the merits of Kindle versus Sony Reader or Nook. I will say any electronic paper book reader is probably better than being left behind as the world of books goes digital. Adjust now and save time later.

That this will affect publishers goes without saying. Suddenly writers wonder what publishers can offer that they can’t either do for themselves or do without. Copyediting can be accomplished by sufficiently determined groups of friends and supporters. Layout and format can be done on any desktop computer. Printing, binding, storing, shipping, and distribution, as well as wheedling shelf space at retail level, all becomes obviated by using electrons instead of atoms. Advertising, which, face it, publishers do only for planned Best Sellers, and then mostly grudgingly, ineffectually, and in the lamest, most decrepit ways possible, can be accomplished by viral buzz and various online social networking campaigns. Word of mouth was always the best way to sell a book anyway, and these days it’s possible for a Tweet or Face Book status update to reach millions within a few minutes.

What’s left? Royalties?

Kindle reportedly offers 70% royalty if a writer puts a book into PDF or other Kindle-friendly format and sells it directly through them. At that rate, no publisher can compete, and has nothing much to offer anyhow.

Oh, sure, you can still deal with publishers for the hard copy editions you may want to sell, but that suddenly looks like the second tier consideration, as far as making money and a splash is concerned. Agents take note; you need to calibrate your sales pitch accordingly.

It is not there yet, of course. Considerably more hard copy than electronic books sell, but it is changing fast, and it won’t be long until the headlines trumpet e-books as dominant. It will be for good reasons.

Kindle and Sony Reader are the leaders right now. Who knows what might come along to dazzle readers? Until we find out, Kindle and Sony Reader are the best bets, and they are well worth a look.

Can you OCD types carry a few thousand books every time you leave the house? Now, yes you can. Easily.

Oh, and fascists please note: These new kinds of books are unburnable.

Give an electronic reader a try soon.

What have you got to lose but the need to find more shelf space?

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