The new social: reading a book

It has been noted by some observers that Amazon has not really taken advantage of the Social Web in building a community of Kindle lovers and ebook readers. This failing was described in a particularly succinct post, in which the blogger describes a scenario in which she has just finished reading a great book, and feels compelled to share it with her friend on the west coast. She could call or email her friend about it, but since it’s 2 a.m, she just wants to go to sleep. She may or may not remember to tell her friend about the book.

Now imagine it’s 2am and I’ve read this book on my second-generation networked digital reader, maybe the Kindle 2.0.  As soon as I’ve finished the book, the device prompts me to rate it (4 stars!).  It also knows about my social connections.  It asks me if I’d recommend it to my friend, who has enjoyed similar books, and I say yes.
The next morning my friend wakes up and picks up his e-reader.  There’s a recommendation from me — and a 20% discount to purchase this book immediately. This $5 digital book is now just four bucks, and it’s instantly on his device.

This eloquent writer has just described the evolution of the book from a solitary, isolated pastime to the foundation of a social framework. Many voracious readers enjoy the solitude and isolation while lost in a great novel. Many others take an equal amount of pleasure in sharing their thoughts and reactions to a book they’ve just read with other readers. This need to share is what gave rise to book clubs in the 1950s. Fast forward a half century and you have virtual social networks for everything from  Andean beekeepers to computer aided Origami creators. Why not for book lovers too? In fact, you don’t have to look beyond Facebook to find them. Two of the most popular are Visual Bookshelf and Shelfari. They allow members of the network to post recommendations, write reviews, and check out what others in their network are reading. What a perfect marriage of old and new technology!

So why hasn’t Amazon, the king of books on the Internet, embraced this aspect of Web 2.0? What better way to promote the viral nature of a great book than to let avid readers send it to their friends? Well, it probably has something to do with these three letters: AZW, which is Amazon’s proprietary DRM format for e-books. This format can only be read by the Kindle, and that’s what keeps us all shopping at the Kindle store. But it’s not a huge leap to envision the capability of sending a file from one Kindle owner to another, in AZW format, to leverage the instant gratification and impulse purchase trends common among digital consumers.

The blogger quoted above suggests that DRM’d books hinder this adoption process:

And let’s suppose that people did send around free digital books.  If I didn’t have an e-ink reader, what would I do with them?  After I got a few freebies from friends I’d probably go buy a Kindle, and then that seductive “share this book” button would take hold.  The existence of some free books is an incentive to move up to a specialized device.  They create the necessary ecosystem and will ultimately motivate, not destroy, publishing sales.

I think she has a point: Making it easier to share ultimately results in higher sales. This vision may be taking a step closer to reality with the announcement yesterday that Amazon is acquiring Shelfari:
Shelfari joins the family

It’s an exciting day here at Shelfari. The rain has stopped, the birds are chirping and the biggest news of all – we are being acquired by

So maybe we’ll see Kindle 2.0 with recommendations and sharing capabilities…


Sony’s E-reader opens up, sort of

The buzz in the e-book world is all about Sony’s announcement this week of its forthcoming support for a more open standard of e-books, called “e-pub”:

From Gizmodo:

A firmware update scheduled to drop later this week will allow Sony Readers to use the .epub format, an open standard (with DRM support) that has the backing of several major book publishers. This means you’ll be able to get books from sources other than Sony’s own Connect store, which currently only has one third the titles of Amazon’s Kindle store. The Kindle, however, currently uses the Mobipocket format for its Kindle Store books, and does not yet support .epub.

More from PCWorld:

…EPUB. It is known more technically as “the International Digital Publishing Forum’s XML-based standard format for reflowable digital books and publications.” Many book publishers apparently are already publishing upcoming ebooks in this format and this is something Sony wants to capitalize on by making the Reader the first device of its type to support this. The Reader model PRS-505, starting next month, will be able to let users access ebooks in the EPUB format. It will also support, said Sony, Adobe ebooks with DRM protection as well as “the capability to reflow standard text-based Portable Document Format (PDF) eBooks for improved flexibility and readability.” These Adobe updates will be possible with the use of Adobe Digital Editions 1.5 software.

[For an earlier discussion of this standard, see my May 19 Post]

To paraphrase another, admittedly more significant milestone, that took place nearly forty years ago this week, “That’s one small step for a reader, one giant leap for e-books.”

Adopting an open format can only help accelerate the range of choices for readers, which in turn will help drive demand for more titles, and other documents that could be stored on an e-reader. Note that the E-pub standard allows for DRM to be applied after the conversion process, which makes it up to the publisher whether the content is protected or not.

It remains to be seen whether Amazon’s rumored Kindle 2.0 will support this standard. One piece of information was notably absent from all the hoopla around the Sony announcement this week. Sony recently made a major announcement about their corporate strategy and it contained the following quote:

Ensure that 90% of our electronics product categories are network-enabled and wireless-capable by the fiscal year ending March 31, 2011 (“FY2010”)

No mention this week about when the Sony Reader will have this capability. To my mind, this is the feature that most differentiates Sony’s reader from the Kindle. Despite Kindle’s less than elegant form factor and interface, the ability to download content wirelessly, at no extra cost, puts it miles ahead of anything else in the category. When does Sony plan to incorporate the wireless feature into their reader? (The PSP already has it, and so do a couple of their TVs.) Until they do, they will remain a distant second in the e-reader world, despite their adoption of a more open format of e-books.

E-Pub: It’s not a social network for beer drinkers; it’s a digital publishing standard

Last week I attended a conference in New York called Digital Book 2008, organized by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF). The organizers might consider changing the name to the CIPNATA, for the Consortium for the Introduction and Proliferation of New and Arcane Technology Acronyms. Here, as Exhibit A, is an excerpt from the IDPF’s home page, which asks the question that’s been on everyone’s mind:

What is EPUB, .epub, OPS/OCF & OEB?

“.epub” is the file extension of an XML format for reflowable digital books and publications. “.epub” is composed of three open standards, the Open Publication Structure (OPS), Open Packaging Format (OPF) and Open Container Format (OCF), produced by the IDPF. “EPUB” allows publishers to produce and send a single digital publication file through distribution and offers consumers interoperability between software/hardware for unencrypted reflowable digital books and other publications. The Open eBook Publication Structure or “OEB, originally produced in 1999, is the precursor to OPS.

Throughout this one day confab of several hundred publishing and technology executives, I heard these acronyms, and many other unfamiliar ones bandied about. Another concept that was the subject of many presentations was what is known in the business as “reflowable text”, which essentially refers to the ability of the text to maintain its formatting, searchability, and readability regardless of font or screen size. Since page numbers in a printed book are constant (page 245 is the same in everyone’s copy), digital versions of the content by necessity cannot use page numbering; if the user changes the font on the device from 10 point to 20 point, the entire book must be re-formatted and still maintain the readability. The near universal PDF standard is based on a bitmapped image of the page and does away with features such as a table of contents when downloaded to an e-book reader. Book designers and layout editors express reservations when faced with the possibility that the aesthetic quality of their publication may be compromised to accomodate the reflowability of text. This is much more of an issue for image and graphic intensive publications than plain text, so that reading a James Patterson thriller might be a more satisfying experience than browsing through say “Skydiving for Dummies”.

It’s anyone’s guess if this new format will be the one to that becomes the de facto standard for digital books. No doubt the publishing industry will learn from the Tower of Babel that the braintrust in the recording industry produced, leaving listeners to choose from a veritable Baskin Robbins of protocols, including WMA, AAC, MP3, MP4, WAV, OGG Vorbis, Chunky Monkey, etc. And of course, don’t forget everyone’s three favorite initials, DRM.

The most promising sign that the publishing world is not blindly following the recording industry down a litigious death spiral is that the new E-Pub format does not have DRM built in by default. If the publisher chooses to add it to the otherwise freely shareable e-book, then it can be done easily, (providing yet another diversion for bored high school students who will no doubt crack the DRM code while cutting their AP Physics class).

The Future of Reading – A Play in Six Acts – Redux

Now that it’s been nearly six months since Amazon introduced the Kindle, it seems like a good time to revisit some of the dire predictions that were made about its prospects and the future of the book. A particularly foreboding scenario is painted (complete with Orwellian overtones) in the following post from DiveintoMark on November 19, the day the Kindle was announced:

The “play” cleverly juxtaposes some comments Jeff Bezos hade made in earlier years in favor of consumer’s rights with respect to books they own,

“When someone buys a book, they are also buying the right to resell that book, to loan it out, or to even give it away if they want. Everyone understands this.” Jeff Bezos, Open letter to Author’s Guild, 2002

...with the excerpts from the Kindle TOS that includes the somewhat Big Brother-like DRM restrictions Amazon imposes on Kindle owners who purchase content for it. Several quotes from GNU-Guy Richard Stallman’s “The Right to Read” (his manifesto against the DMCA) are thrown in for good measure and contrast.

The “play” is well presented, if not a little melodramatic, but what’s of greater interest is the 250 comments that were posted in the two weeks following the original post. They mostly rail against the restrictive nature of DRM’ed e-books, and some are misinformed (such as the comments that claim the PDFs cannot be downloaded to the Kindle). Nearly all predict that the Kindle will be an abject failure. However, if you read through all 250 comments or so, as I did, you will gain some valuable perspective into the whole debate around authors’ rights to royalties, publishers’ role in the world of e-books, and the open source movement’s impact on the future of content.

Probably the most insightful post was a quote by the author Margaret Atwood:

“The biggest threat we [authors] face isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity”.

It would be nice if the author of the original post re-opened comments, to see if anyone has revised their predictions.


Tarzan Economics: It’s a jungle out there…

There have been an increasing number of posts recently about the availability (or lack of) textbooks in Kindle or similar e-book format. Here’s a post that appeared this week on the Amazon customer forum:

I emailed Pearson, one of the largest publisher of textbooks in the world, asking why most of their books were not yet available for the kindle; this was their response:

David, thanks for your inquiry about whether we offer eBooks. As a matter of fact, Pearson was one of the early leaders among publishers to offer our textbooks in digital format, beginning in 2004. Today we have more than 1,000 titles available through Course Smart (, which is online site where all of the leading publishers are offering their digital textbooks for sale. Students can save up to 50 percent off the price of the hardback edition of the textbook, and, as you note, there’s no heavy book to haul around, nor do you need to worry about selling it back at the end of the term. The ebooks have all of the content of the hardcover edition, with the same pagination, but allow you the ability to search the text using key words, highlight passages and make notes electronically. All you need is web access. Be sure to check out the site and see how it works.

Regarding the Kindle, some of our professional and technology books are available this way, but most textbooks are not, as the Kindle does not support text that is heavy with illustrations, which many textbooks are. But we’re monitoring developments closely.

David Hakensen
Pearson Education
Corporate Communications

A visit to the Coursesmart site confirms that indeed there is a wide selection of titles available for download to a PC. What the corporate spinmeister omitted from his response to the inquiry is that in spite of coughing up roughly half the cost of a new hardcover edition, you don’t actually own the book. It operates more like a subscription, and your right to use it expires in six months. That’s right, it evaporates, kind of like the morning dew under a warm sun. And if you hoped to stretch your textbook budget a little further by sharing your e-book with a classmate, forget it. That’s a violation of the Terms of Use. Also, better make sure it’s the right book for you, because you can’t get a refund of your subscription fee after two weeks, or if you’ve viewed more than 20% of the pages (See Terms of Service).

But if you’re a textbook publisher, you probably think you’ve found the Holy Grail. No printing, warehousing or shipping costs, no worries about second-hand texts putting downward pressure on your monopolistic prices, and you still get half of the MSRP! It’s “innovative” thinking like this that makes me think that it was the publishing industry that originally coined the term “DRM”, but that it’s really code for “Dated, Regressive Manipulation”. Their collective response to the challenge posed by the digital age has been to use the technology to protect their margins at all costs.

Don Tapscott puts it well in his book “Wikinomics”:
Publishers can’t reasonably adopt open approaches that would cannibalize existing revenues without a viable means to shore up their ailing income streams. Jim Griffin, the managing director of One House LLC calls it “Tarzan economics”. “We cling to the vine that holds us off the jungle floor, and we can’t let go of the one until we’ve got the next vine firmly in our hand”. The problem is that media incumbents are moving too slowly. They’re getting mired in the thick underbrush of thorny contractual agreements and outdated and costly infrastructures. The economic model is based on a business model suited for the era of analog publishing, not for a world of user-driven creation and distribution.
For an example of thinking outside the digital fortress built by the textbook publishers, have a look at the following post:
  • FlatWorld Knowledge – the publisher I’ve been waiting for?

  • David Wiley is part of a startup called FlatWorld Knowledge. Their aim is to release digital textbooks free of charge, with students paying for the print copy if they want. What is more interesting though is the way they take the notion of the text book and make it more of a social object. So the educator can edit the book for their class, the student can interact with other students around it, and people can sell related services and content. In fact, when you view their little cartoons it makes you realise just how limited the traditional text book model is in education. Why didn’t we do this years ago?
  • The Tarzans of the publishing industry may cling to any vine that keeps them aloft, but in their quest for the next branch to grab onto, they are ignoring the three forces that are completely altering the landscape they’ve existed in for centuries: Open-Source, Creative Commons Licensing, and, most importantly, Free. (Chris Anderson: Free: Why $0.00 is the Future Of Business, Wired, March 2008) (
  • Simply compare the state of a couple of other industries in the pre- and post-digital world: Kodak is a shell of the company it once was when film was the dominant photographic medium. And look at what happened to the telephone companies when long distance rates declined from a dollar a minute to zero. There will be the inevitable protectionist efforts, through vigorous enforcement of copyright law, and vain attempts to protect their content, but the outcome will be the same: new entrants, (like Flatworld Knowledge) unburdened by legacy cost structures, generating sustainable revenue from content that is free or close to it.

    Cracks in the (UK’s) Publishing Industry’s Armor…

    There are some signs that the publishing industry is slowly beginning to get one foot out of the 19th century and into the 21st century. In an item under the headline “Fiction for Free from Penguin”, reports:

    Penguin is to offer free downloads of the first chapter of every fiction title it publishes.The publisher has been trialling its “Penguin Tasters”, making PDF downloads available from selected novels via its website, for the past six months. It currently has the first chapters of over 50 titles available for download onto computer screens, iPhones, Palms and Blackberrys. The publisher says the decision to include all fiction in the scheme as of next week is “a 21st century version of what Allen Lane set out to do when he started Penguin-making good quality contemporary fiction available to everyone”.

    In a similar vein, the same site posted this item:

    Random House chair and c.e.o. Gail Rebuck last night welcomed digitisation as a liberating force for books—but said it was inevitable that it would transform the book publishing industry. Rebuck compared current digital developments to the advent of moveable type in the 15th century, and argued that book publishing faces a time of great challenge but also “unprecedented opportunity” which will free the book to reach new audiences in new ways. Rebuck warned against complacency around e-books, describing them as a phenomenon that traditional publishers must take seriously. She also stressed the need for vigilance over copyright, not just in the interests of publishers but most especially for writers. However, she said that ultimately it did not matter if, in 2050, a writer is read in a traditional paperback or a hand-held device. “As a publisher, I am happy to supply either to customers, and the essence of what I am selling will be the same, whatever the technology transmitting it. I think there is an irreducible quality to reading that means the book will never die.”

    And in a hint that the Kindle and Sony’s reader are coming to the UK, theBookseller reports:

    The two biggest publishers in Britain are to offer dozens of likely bestsellers to read on a hand-held screen this autumn in a sign that, after many false dawns, the electronic “ebook” may finally have arrived, reports the Sunday Times. Two rival devices due to come on sale in Britain over the next few months – Sony’s Reader and Amazon’s Kindle. Random House and Hachette, which together control just over 30% of the British book market, are to offer downloadable versions of titles by authors ranging from Delia Smith to Ian McEwan and Michael Parkinson. Every other major publisher is drawing up plans to follow suit, pitching the books at just below the price of a hardback, according to the piece.

    But in this article describing Penguin’s decision to sell its audiobooks DRM-free, it’s apparent that the suits at the big publishing houses are starting to pay some attention to the digital revolution. Quoted in the Guardian, the CEO of Pearson, Marjorie Scardino, said last week:

    “I don’t think we can be worried about every incursion from electronic selling and electronic use. We have got to think about what the future is going to be and look at how to experiment with it”. Scardino admitted that another potential electronic version of literature – digital books or e-books – has yet to take off because there is still no attractive digital book-reading device. Last year Amazon tried to revitalise the market with the Kindle, but Scardino reckons it “is not quite there yet, and I think we are still waiting for that piece of kit. It’s like downloadable music – iTunes came first but without the iPod I think that would not have really mattered.”

    OK, it’s time for a short history lesson here. The iPod was introduced in 2001, although there were other MP3 players on the market at that time. Music sales peaked at $16.7B in 2000 and fell by over 30% by 2006. Whether or not Amazon’s Kindle will turn out to be the iPod of ebooks is unknown at this stage, but one thing is clear: the traditional model of publishing using dead trees and glue is going to crumble over time. Ever hear of of a company called Harms, Witmark & Remick? They were the largest sheet music publisher in the US in the early 20th century. In 1929, they were bought by a “new media” company, Warner Brothers, because the introduction of the grammophone led to a decline in sheet music sales. Can you spell Deja Vu?