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The changing face of publishing (back-office edition)

I'm just back from my long weekend in Oxford and London. Not much to see here: London is its usual grimy, over-crowded self, and despite the economy falling off a cliff the centre was just as claustrophobically crammed with shoppers as usual for this time of year. However, one thing caught my attention.

Along the way, I had a couple of meetings with editors — it's an occupational hazard — and in both cases they were neeping with glee over their shiny new Sony ebook readers. Sony finally got around to launching the PRS-505 in the UK a couple of months ago (I bought one a bit over a year back, on a trip to the US). Sample comments were along the lines of "it's revolutionized my commute" and "it's saved my back!" And I'm having a re-think about the niche these devices occupy.

Editors don't just hold meetings; they have to read a lot. Obviously, when they're actively editing a book they have to mark up a manuscript copy in some way that they can send back to the author — but a lot of the time they're just reading, to see whether a submission is worth buying, or to provide general comments by way of feedback (rather than red-lining individual bits of the text). A manuscript is a weighty beast: by convention you're supposed to print it out double-spaced in 10-point Courier, one inch margin all round, on A4 or US Letter paper. (The reason for this is lost in the mists of antiquity, but boil down to making life easier for the copy-editor and typesetters, so if you want to sell a book you meddle with the formula at your peril.) Anyway, manuscript format gets you about 300 words to the page, so a 300 page novel ends up running to the thick end of 450-500 sheets of paper — a ream or so. My editors work in London or New York and aren't mad enough to drive to and from the office: like everyone else, they catch the tube (or subway). It's dead time for any other purpose, so they're always reading on the commute, and hauling multi-kilogram chunks of dead tree across the landscape.

But these days, if they want to read a manuscript (which means it's already passed the first cut) they can ask for an electronic copy by email. And a Sony Reader can hold about 150-200 manuscripts, before you add a £10 memory card and boost the shelf space to something approximating a medium-sized branch library.

I've been thinking for a while that e-paper machines like the PRS-505 are a dead end. At the high end, e-paper readers that support a stylus or keyboard and allow annotations have got a promising role in those professions that rely on carrying copious documentation around (lawyers, engineers, and doctors being the prime candidates). And at the low end you can use your phone as an ebook reader, if you've got something like an iPhone or a Windows Mobile machine (with a decent-sized screen). But the in-the-middle readers that cost £150-300, like the Sony Reader or the Amazon Kindle, are trapped in the middle. 70% of the population don't ever buy books, and about 30% of the books sold are bought by maybe 1% of us. The real bibliophiles are probably going to stick to their first edition hardbacks, and the sort of folks who buy a big fat novel for the beach or the Christmas break twice a year aren't going to buy a machine that costs twenty times as much as that book (before you add any content).

But I confess, I wasn't expecting the editors to jump in with both feet, especially for a low-end reader that doesn't let them, er, edit. The publishing industry is small and the population of professional editors too tiny to support the likes of Sony. But if I missed one niche, I probably missed others. So where are they?

PS: Seen at Heathrow Airport: book vending machines that were not only selling books — they were selling disposable ebook players. Yes, that's right: cheap mp3 music players with headphones, pre-loaded with a single audiobook for £13 a pop. What's the story with these? Is the bill of materials for an mp3 player with, say, 64Mb or 128Mb of storage (voice compresses easily) so cheap that you can punch these things out at a profit via a trade channel that probably has a discount of 50-70%? And what, as they say, are the civilian applications?




Interesting that this particular device is being used by editors. I bought the iRex Illiad a few months back and though it's not perfect I can see how the stylus would be perfectly suited to editing. Maybe I should have waited a bit and gotten this instead (IANAE).

Now I'm just going to wait it out until Plastic Logic put their offering on the market.


I think the real customer base for these devices is people, like me, who read often, read quickly, and like having options. I still buy dead tree copies, but the electronic copies let me carry a good half my library around with me. Its lighter than a novel in most cases, which is a win for anyone who has to haul text books.
I've found a curious new use for it in the last few years, as my philosophy professors have started giving us PDFs to read instead of photocopies or extra books.

I think that the book geek and the gadget geek circles overlap enough that sony and amazon will continue to find sufficient buyers for their devices, though if sony doesn't get its shit together with its latest offering that could go the other way.


One niche, the one I occupy, is professionals who have to consult large piles of paper all the time. I think that like personal computers, e-book readers will have their first large-scale adoption not by individuals, but by professionals who will use them to make their work more efficient.

Specifically, I have a series of extremely large, heavy references to building codes, standard details, and engineering tables that I'd either have to carry with me or duplicate wherever I want to work. We have copies of them on our company intranet, so now I've got them loaded on my reader, and I can carry about a ton of books in my bag every day with room for my lunch. I don't need all of them all the time, but I can go to a meeting at a job site and whip out a reference as needed. No delays to look something up or go back to the office to photocopy and then fax a drawing. I wish I had better PDF search tools, but what I have is still pretty awesome.

Lawyers, too, would find an e-book reader useful for reducing piles of papers. Not just references, but briefs and other lawyerly papers could be electronic rather than on paper.

Teachers who accept digital homework could read it on their readers rather than printing it out and carrying it around.

In fact, about the only people I can see *not* having a use for an e-book reader are the general public, who would probably prefer to have a portable large-screen hi-def personal theater system.


They're trusting Sony? The company that tried to rootkit every machine they could?

Heh. Fools!


Geoff, I've got a Sony Reader too. If all you want to do is stuff chunks of RTF onto a device that charges over USB and presents itself as a USB mass storage device, and page through said RTF files, it's the bee's knees. I'll grant you the Sony walled garden of DRM'd ebooks is a bit piss-poor, but you don't have to go anywhere near it to make use of the machine. (I'm not about to install Windows just so I can use it, but thanks to Calibre I don't have to do that.)


10-point Courier? Not 12?


one niche you may not have considered is bibliophiles that want a pristine printed copy and buy the e-book version to read.
This is something I have been considering since the e-books themselves are inexpensive and it makes it easier to carry around the books.

Though like Jake I am waiting to see what Plastic Logic brings out. I would prefer the larger screen they are promising.


Paul: 10 point on 12, or 12 point, or something like that. (I haven't submitted a novel manuscript on paper in years.)

Kevin: yup, Baen noticed some while ago that the folks who buy first edition hardcovers will often also buy the ebook and pay again for early access to an un-copy-edited manuscript. This is that 1% of the readers buying 30% of the books thing again. Apropos Plastic Logic: a large screen on an ebook reader is like a large lump of glass on the front of your camera: sure it's a better camera, but it's no good if you can't carry it everywhere due to bulk. That's why I'm so interested in the iPhone and the smaller ebook readers (the Sony is jacket-pocket sized, for example, but "feels" like a paperback printed on poor paper, rather than a tiny backlit window onto glare).


I also have a prs-505 and use calibre.
@geoff - Sony actually supports more formats then most devices - including epub, pdf, rtf and lrf (their proprietary format). Obviously with conversion, which calibre has, just about any file type can be sent. You don't have to buy books through Sony to use their reader.
One use I see for e-readers in their present form is for people who want a e-book reader to read books and like long battery lives. Adding features will likely lower battery life. I love being able to read many books before recharging my prs-505. This may be a poor argument as the power requirement for the added features and existing features may decrease.


I bought a PRS-505 on the UK launch day and before that I had a Irex Iliad.

My problem is that I won't buy books with DRM unless I can remove it (So I'm left with Mobipocket and Lit) and to be honest there's not a huge amount of choice anyway. It always feels very disapointing when I have to buy a paper book these days. I don't really have room for them anymore. Looking at Fictionwise.com (Where I normally shop)there's actually a decent selection of Charlie's books but with some notable ommisions and it was really frustrating to have to buy Peter Hamilton's new book in dead tree format.


There's another obvious niche that needs voluminous printed matter; students. That segment certainly can support Sony et al.

However, putting textbooks in electronic form pretty much kills the three figure price point with yearly page number randomization business model. A maximum of one student per class will be buying the book, even ignoring torrents, so the costs will pretty much have to be rolled into tuition.


I'll tell you another market: anybody who rents, or who moves chasing jobs. I have to move house pretty often, and even allowing for painful pruning, my library is still a back-spraining beast. If I could afford an ebook reader, I'd load it all onto a memory stick and give the dead trees to Oxfam. No nostalgia for "real paper" here!


Re the ebook reader.

With modern electronics, there is hardly any cost component for the physical items. I'd be surprised if there were more than 3 significant components, and all of them cheap - all the costs are either capital/design or marketing/selling.

The chips and plastic for the reader probably cost about the same as the cost of the paper for dead tree books - and you don't notice that.


I saw those one-shot mp3 audiobooks while I was passing through EDI last week. It's a nifty idea, and I don't even listen to audiobooks. What bothered me about them was how little information the "cover" provides you about the content. Is it an abridged version? If so, just how abridged is it? What's the running time? Is it going to see me through my entire trip?

Also: can I listen to it again and again, or is it loaded with some kind of playback-limiting DRM? Is battery life a limiting factor? Does it have a rechargeable battery, or can I pop in a spare AA if it runs out of juice?

(Sample photo on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dantaylor/2745349591/ )


Man, I've been wishing for a decent stylus-and-keyboard ebook reader that lets me mark up pdfs (or occassionally Quark files) and copy the markings to an external file (in my case, an index) for a while now. It would save me an awful lot of time. And typing. Not to mention how much more useful a hyperlinked index in an ebook could be.

But I guess that's a little different from annotations and references that such things usually do.


Hmm - looks like the single-shot audiobooks have been around for some time already: http://www.gadgets-weblog.com/50226711/just_what_the_world_needs_disposable_audio_books.php .


I looked at the Sony Ebook reader at my local bookshop. It looked lovely displaying single pages, but i found the way the screen flashed black at each page turn very offputting



During my lunch break I read free E-Books on my Sony Clie,it' sturdy and fits in my pants pocket! Now Charlies' latest books I buy from the Sci-fi book club because if i'm just saving postage why not have hard copy? But maybe some kind of subscription model like Netflix would catch on with the general public.


"If I could afford an ebook reader, I'd load it all onto a memory stick and give the dead trees to Oxfam. "

Julian... me too.. if I could. This is one thing that will hold ebooks back though. I could rip my CDs to a drive and load them onto my iPod. I can't do that with the books I've already paid for, I need to buy them again. If I was buying a LOT of books, the Kindle would be attractive at $350... but as it is I buy maybe 4-5 books a month and have 1000 or so in my house. A Kindle makes no sense for me at the current price.



Someone noticed the disposable MP3 player niche? Well that's another one of my bright ideas snapped up for want of time to explore it. Oh well.

As far as other niche's go in your area - I'd question the role of the publisher. As far as I can see they snitch a large percentage of the profit for control of the access to market. That's never been a good place to be, particularly after the Internet broke things apart.

I'd suggest there is scope for someone (such as yourself) to provide cut down A5 eBook readers at


less than £99, with control of the route to market as the payoff. Take a rake of £1 per book and the author gets to keep the rest and you have a potential winner. Do for books what the iPod did for music.


Rick, I hesitate to say so on an author's site, but if you want copies of books you already have, just go grab them off bit-torrent.


Co-incidentally looked at the Sony reader in Waterstones today. Too late though, last week I bought and Eee PC that only cost a little more (but it is top of the range).

The Eee does the same job on the same size screen - PDFs can be rotated so you can read the thing like a book. But, of course, the Eee also does so much more.

My wife keeps stealing my Eee. She takes it in to work and uses it for teaching (she's a classroom assistant). She's also started transferring textbooks onto it and references further texts on it over the college network. The college just bought 5 Eee's and has put in an order for more.

OK - why all the raving about the Eee? Well it does the same job as the Sony/Kindle/etc at the same price and a bunch more besides. It's only marginally heavier and the latest slimline version (forthcoming) is the same size as the ebook. Add a touch/epaper screen and the ebook is dead.

And this has given me an idea for a killer Linux app, so if you will excuse me..................

Dammit! She's nicked it again!


I bought a Bookeen Cybook Gen 3 last spring and I VERY happy. I don't trust Sony: they make "closed" technology. Cybook is based on Linux, does not require drivers (is seen as a standard storage by any OS) nor power supply (a simple USB connection recharges its battery). Cybook is ePaper only, that is you cannot write. With iLiad you get eInk, a wireless connection, an A4 display, and many other features, always based on Linux. But it costs twice the Cybook.

I am waiting tha day I pay Charlie (or any other author) a fair amount of money and I get my eBook without moving dead trees around Europe.


Ian Smith: alas for your business model, publishers do in fact serve a valuable role in the market -- as anyone who's seen a slushpile can testify. 98% of the stuff that folks want to publish is, frankly, grossly sub-standard, and by acting as gatekeepers -- and providing valuable editing services -- publishers are ensuring that what gets through to the market is the cream skimmed from the top of the pile.

And before you continue along the publishers-are-parasites-like-the-RIAA rap: from the cover price of a hardback, I get 10-15% as my royalty cut. Another 10-15% goes in production, manufacturing and marketing costs -- the publisher trousers the marketing, unlike in music -- and about 60-70% is gobbled up by the retail supply chain. The publisher ultimately gets 10-15% in profit -- about as much as I do, in return for doing a lot of tedious but useful stuff that I'd rather not busy myself with because it's a distraction from the business of writing.

Andy W: I have an Eee 1000. It weighs (I just checked this) six times as much as the Sony Reader, and about the same as a 1000-page hardcover. It has a battery life (with wifi off and the screen dimmed) that tends towards six hours. The Sony Reader's battery life I have been unable to establish -- last time I tried, it was still showing three out of four battery bars after I'd read two and a half books. The Eee and its netbook kin have some way to go before they encroach on that niche.

Luigi: all the points you make in the Cybook's favour also go for the Sony. It's their third-generation ebook reader and they ditched most of the silly proprietary shit after discovering that it didn't work. (For example, it charges over USB, shows up as a regular USB mass storage device, reads a couple of open file formats, and can take SD cards as well as Memory Stick if you want to add more storage.)

The Iliad is crippled in so many ways that it's not even funny. (Hint: I won my saving throw vs. shiny. That doesn't happen very often ...)


I just took a look at the PRS-700 just out over this side of the pond and it looks like I might be getting myself a Christmas present after all. I thank you for the lead...


Today I saw a 7 inch LCD digi frame for pictures. It cost 44 Euro or so. Dunno if it has a battery, but I'd say 50 Euro is my price limit for a dedicated ebook reader. This can't be any harder to make and no more expensive either and you could also use the display of the OLPC instead of the traditional LCD.

Until I get one of those, I'll happily keep reading books on the Eee 701 I'm typing on. (I have a 3 hour train ride every week or so, it's just about perfect for this purpose.)


As a student I'd love to be able to purchase, or better yet have my university give me (as some do with laptops), an eBook reader capable of downloading and displaying my textbooks. The problem is, once I have that capability, I'll want to be able to look up related information. What good is flat text these days? Then, once I can link out to additional references, I'll want to be able to check my grades, and my email, and on and on. So, I'm stuck wanting a full-powered laptop anyway. Too bad I can't stand bulk reading on a standard laptop screen.


I'm definitely in the market for a Kindle.

I'm an avid reader, but I'm not especially fond of the amount of space books take up. My library is, quite literally, a pain in the spine every time I have to move and I'm loath to donate my surplus to the library because I never know when I'll either want to re-read an old book and look up something from one of them.

The cheap readers do me no good because anything short of digital ink causes me eye-strain, and the high-end readers give me functionality that I neither need nor want. So that leaves me with mid-range readers such as the Kindle which, in my case, perfectly fit my needs.


I stand corrected about Sony eBook, thank you for pointing it out. Maybe they are starting to learn that "closed" platforms do not sell, at least with eBooks.

In my opinion, 60-70 percent over the cover price is a huge amount of money. I published a book in Italy with a small publisher, and the figures are more or less the same, but I thought that the problem was me (not a professional writer like you) and the small publisher vs. a large one.


If anyone has any familiarity with the beBook and would like to either save me from disaster or prod me towards it, you'd have my undying gratitude. (I like the idea of them -- the guiding principle seems to be that they're open to as many formats as possible.)


I've been using my iPod touch to read free SF PDFs that I get online. I mostly do it on the Tube or if I'm waiting in a pub or something, but I find it's quite acceptable in those situations. To make it useful you need to buy one or other of the apps that allow use of the touch as a storage device - eg Datacase turns the touch into a wifi-accessible drive to which you can upload PDFs and then read them without needing a network conection. The screen is small but good, so it doesn't hurt too much, but I don't really know what it would be like to spend hours at a time with it.


Adam (@28), you're falling victim to feature creep. I don't know what you're studying, but it's hard to imagine a field of study where flat text has no value whatsoever.

Most students are required by their teachers to use textbooks, many of which are printed on heavy, high-clay paper for durability. There's many a day when I had to lug three textbooks across town, to classes, to the library, to work, and so on, when I would have gladly traded the bag with those texts plus laptop for a bag with a small e-book reader plus my laptop.

The choice is not between a laptop and an e-book reader. It's between a laptop plus as many dead tree books as required, and a laptop plus a single, relatively small device.


Another niche - foreigners. For those who live in countries with limited ranges of expensive books, being able to buy an ebook in minutes at a reasonable price over the internet instead of paying US$17+ for a paperback (if it is ever sold here) or buying via amazon (then more than doubling the price for shipping) and hoping they actually arrive ... it's not a hard choice. My Cybook paid for itself very quickly.

I looked at an Eee, and other netbooks. No thanks. I want my machine for reading. If I get one of them, I get bad battery life, a screen that sucks, and it can do a bunch of other things I don't care about. Swiss army knives have been around for decades, but who actually keeps one in the kitchen drawer to cook with, or on the bar to open bottles, or in the toolbox to use as a screwdriver? An Eee is like a swiss army knife - the big selling point is that it's portable, but everything else suffers for that.


A bunch of folks here keep mentioning the Eee, but I do have first-hand experience that the OLPC is much better for these purposes. The ePaper screen is still legible as black-and-white with no backlight, and the screen can be rotated a full 180 so you can even hold it like a book. Oh, and with no backlight on, you're talking like 6 hours of battery life (again, thanks to the low-power ePaper display).

I have successfully read Accelerando on it while traveling (thank you Charlie), although I found Three Men in a Boat to be far more useful under the circumstances.

Also, unlike the Kindle, et alia, a laptop styled in the bright green and rounded edges of, well, a child's toy is not easily ignored by one's seatmates (show and tell does cut into the reading time).


I need to improve my self-expression (which is why I keep posting places like here I suppose!).

What I was trying to get across I suppose is that there is quite a bit of convergence here. At the moment we have readers, which are perfect if you just want to read, and netbooks which do a bunch of other stuff and can be used to read, but not as well as a reader.

It's not going to take long before a netbook comes out with a touch/epaper screen (like the OLPC, thanks George!) and that can support a longer charge time with a lighter battery.

(I'm also not convinced a longer battery life beyond 8 hours or so is necessarily a selling point - my kids latest generation phones with mp3 players, cameras, etc have a battery life considerably lower than the last generation phones; and they don't seem to care!)

At the moment I can see the netbooks outselling the readers, even amoungst people who aren't geeks like me.

For me it replaces both the books AND the laptop. For my wife it replaces the textbooks and means she can get stuff off the internet/college network which she would otherwise have to print.

Unless something radical happens to the reader price (and that could well happen) I'm not confident they'll take off in a big way. With netbooks converging in usability and portability the poor old "dumb" readers could be dead very quickly.


And what, as they say, are the civilian applications?

Porn. The civilian applications are always porn. And stealing stuff...


I was in London for the 1st time in March. I actually had 2 days of business meetings canceled and so got to spend those days sightseeing. I did not find London grimy or crowded. I felt very comfortable there. I was staying at the Hotel Russell and from there walked to the National Library, the British Museum, the theater district, and Trafalgar Square. I had excellent chinese, italian, and pub food (and a mystery meat/plastic lambburger :-() So, be thankful, London is at least much nicer than, say, Newark.

I have a Kindle on order for my 94-year-old father-in-law, because he can no longer read the print version of The Wall Street Journal. I am looking fwd to playing with it some before I hand it over.

I am still waiting on the device that I can sit anywhere in my house/yard (recliner or hammock) and read or surf the web. Kindles and Sonys won't do the latter. I may try the 2g Apple air, and I also want to look at the HP touchscreens (disclaimer -- the company where I work was acquired by HP in March).

On a long weekend to Mexico a couple of weeks ago, my wife actually downloaded a couple of (classic) books to her iPhone and read from it (she really loves her iPhone). She has a 12 hour battery extender, it actually kind of seemed to work ?!?!?


Well, a quick check reveals that MP3 decoder chips are about 7 bucks in quantities of 500+ retail. So, that's a big chunk of the roughly $20 the 13-pound preset mp3 player in the airport costs. We know ROM chips are intensely cheap, especially if you don't care too much about the packaging or being able to repair whatever they're in. (And at 20 bucks for a disposable mp3 player, I bet you don't.) You don't need high-quality audio, so yeah, call it 32 meg of some kind of ROM for under 2 bucks. Enough microcontroller to give you a stop and start and chapter buttons is another couple of bucks... Or even less. Here's one that costs $8.50 and can play from SD cards:


This stuff is absurdly cheap these days... It's reaching the point where I bet we seem greeting cards with multi-song mp3 playback devices embedded within...


When I bought an iPod Touch it was in part to use as an ereader. The screen is good enough, and there's plenty of memory. Just in case no one developed a decent reader application I spent some time looking at the programming tools and libraries; it would be pretty easy to build a completely stand alone reader that could download HTML, PDF, and RTF from anywhere and store it on the iPod.

Interestingly enough, that's exactly what no-one has done, in any of the available apps. Stanza is the closest, but doesn't support PDF, which isn't good enough for me: I read a lot of papers I download from places like xarchiv and PubMed. And reference docs are probably going to be PDFs.

The non-free readers don't even have a general download capability: they're tethered to the app vendors site. You'd think someone was trying to sell the reader as a razor and get rich on the blades, er, books.

So maybe I'll have to get back to work and actually write the reader app of my dreams ...


The Sony Reader is great for History students like me with a nasty habit of misplacing or forgetting textbooks the night before I need them read. Or, on one horrible day, leaving a book at home and not realizing it until I was in class. Space between purchase, download, and installation on the reader is about two minutes, even without being able to connect directly to Amazon through Whispernet. It's also a lifesaver for lit classes with all those free Gutenberg titles.

Unfortunately for scanning and those times when you have to get the whole idea of a book in an hour E-ink is totally useless because of the slow refresh rate, which is why I'm a little skeptical about e-ink really catching on with most students, that's aside from the fact that undergrads very rarely even pick up their $200 textbooks in the first place.

Another great application is for reading blogs, magazine sites, and newspapers. Feedbooks is nice, but I usually just end up converting websites straight from Firefox. E-ink is great for people like me, who stare at an LCD for 6-10 hours a day and tend to get headaches.


"70% of the population don't ever buy books,"

THAT is the problem, apart from the fact that the (English) education-system, so-called, is terminally broken.
I'll certainly believe that 30% of books are bought by 1% of the population. I THINK we've got about 6300 titles, not counting magazines and Maps .....

Incidentally, you forgot Tax and Accounting professionals, who will take to things like the Eee, as soon as they get a little more user-friendly and longer-battery-life, like ducks to water.
My wife is a TAx professional, and her new employers have just handed out "Blackberry's" to all the more senior people, so e-mails can be read on the go, and all the trash deleted ...
The E-readers are "just" more of the same.


The real bibliophiles are probably going to stick to their first edition hardbacks
Alas, us real bibliophiles grow up and have families :(
Once upon a time, when I bought more books, I put up more shelves... now I have two small kids and I'm trying to squeeze my books back down to just the one room. Since I can't bear to part with most of them, I have been ditching my dead trees in favour of eBooks. The ereaders (PRS500, CyBook, Iliad) all feel enough like a book to satisfy my needs, and are in many ways more pleasant than a big, heavy hardback.


I had a play with the Sony reader in my local bookstore. As someone who toyed with reading e-books from a HP palmtop a few years back (originally as part of my job, being a web architect I'm expected to delve into a lot of subject areas, and don't always have easy access to that information online at client sites) I can see definite improvements, but I also see how far there is still to go based on my own experiences.

I was impressed with the e-ink, it looks great on a static page and very easy to stare at for lengthy periods without eye-strain. I was less impressed with the way the screen flickers black as I page around - fine I guess for a non-fiction work text, but if I was hoping to invest some leisure time with this it would drive me mad three pages in, but still much better than my palm-top experience.

I don't know what the annotation abilities are in this (if any), but this was a key failing of the palm-top. Even where I could annotate, the pretty poor resolution of the touch screen made the experience horrible, this would have to be vastly improved to appeal to the working/student markets, for whom scribbling in the margins is a key benefit of books.

I wasn't so impressed with the feel of the device. Sure the weight is good and the brushed aluminium looks really nice, but it's so cold and impersonal - great for a toaster, not so great to hold and read through for lengthy periods (although the leather wallet helps here of course, but I can't help feeling if they can make these out of a material that at least goes some way to simulating the feel of a real book it would help).

The other issue is, of course, what makes books so great - being able to flick back and forth through them quickly. Skipping between two or three different sections of the book which are all relevant to the code you're writing, or reading in bed at night and checking how close you are to the next chapter/end of the book and deciding to carry on reading even though you know you'll pay for it in the morning.

There's no easy way to solve these issues, but I can see areas that would at least be a start - some touch screen interactivity that would allow us to quickly skip forward and backward, coupled with storing more pages in memory so there's not such a jarring transition coupled with a really good search engine to help you pinpoint key areas of the text without the need to skim would certainly help.


I absolutely adore my Kindle; for all its flaws, it allows me to lug thousands of books around with me (I've only a couple of hundred in it, at the moment) all over the planet, buy many books the nanosecond they're available (as I did with _Saturn's Children_), and I find the reading experience to be in every way superior to reading a text-only novel on dead-tree.

The only thing the Kindle lacks is color illustration capabilities, and that will come.

Bookshelf on my iPhone 3G and content from Baen keeps me reading when I don't have my Kindle around.

I buy and read a couple of hundred books a year, and I'm all for getting rid of the dead-tree ones and doing it all electronically. Yes, I'll keep a few autographed hardcopy books by my very favorite authors, but I can hardly wait for the day *everything* is available by default on the Kindle and/or its descendants, so that I can finally kiss the wasted space and poor portability of paper books goodbye forever.


I've been living and working in Europe for the past 3 1/2 years and the book stack was becoming a problem; I manage to go through a book every 2 days or so, even with my game development schedule. And I travel to China, South Korea and within Europe quite often, so carrying books has become a chore.

However, I bought a Kindle when I was home in the US in September and I love it. With the wireless delivery system off (doesn't yet work in Europe), I'm getting a battery life of 20+ hours. I can purchase books from the US Amazon site and download them to my computer and then transfer to the Kindle via USB cable. Even without expanding the memory, I carry 30+ books on it at all times. The long flights to Shanghai are much less boring now and I gave away most of my hardcover and paperbacks to English speakers at work.

By the way, I just started Saturn's Children on the Kindle and my initial impression: We could sell tickets to your nightly REM state and get filthy rich, even with the inevitable lawsuit settlements for intentional infliction of creative psychosis. Don't say yes or no yet, just think about it. When you're ready, I know some guys...


Charlie -

Your post is very timely. I recently bought a Kindle, and I was planning on writing you with some questions.

How are books selected to be ebooks? For example, the latest book in your Merchant Princes series is not available as an ebook, although Saturn's Children is. How come?

What are the incremental costs to a publisher to publish an ebook. Since the galleys are all electronic, I would think that they would be very low. If this is the case, why aren't there more ebooks?

Do you think established authors will negotiate to retain the ebook rights to their works, and then disintermediate the publishing industry?

I purchased a Kindle for several reasons. First, I commute 45 minutes each way every day. I also regularly fly. The Kindle allows me to store several books, magazines and newspapers in a very small form factor. It has a very long battery life, and is easier to read than my Blackberry. Finally, I plan on purchasing both the electronic and the hard cover version of books when both are available simultaneously. I will save the hard cover and read the electronic version.


Charlie@25 'and about 60-70% is gobbled up by the retail supply chain'

So why is it that eBooks still retail for more than their paper counterparts given that 50%+ of the cost is not there? Who's being greedy? Far more eBooks would be sold if the price dropped to something reasonable.

On the Sony reader - I've had one for a year and a half and would not be without it. Ever. For those who say you can't convert your paper library; that would depend on whether you think you should have to pay for a digital copy if you already own the paper; if you don't, your not looking in the right places.

The plastic logic reader looks quite interesting; what the iRex promised but never delivered. If it manages half of its hype I'll be buying one to complement the Sony.

I think the niche you are missing is the every day one; the cost of any gadget is high, but people still buy them. Readers are no different, and to anyone that reads regularly they are a real boon. No, they are not perfect, but in a few more years they will be pretty close.

It's paper books that are going to end up as the niche, which is why you lot (authors and publishers) need to sort out a viable digital business model asap, preferably one without DRM or where the customer gets shafted on price.


Lee @ 48 - you probablty answered a bit of your own question in your following statement.

"Who's being greedy?"

I'd spout off and say it all went to the DRM licencing - probably not true. But I can guess something 'needs' to go there.

Then you have to pay the virtual warehouse staff to strip the virtual covers off all the virtual books that haven't been sold...


Honestly, I think mobipocket has entered the only ebook market with longterm viability- For portable reading, I use my cellphone and while a cell with a good enough screen and battery life to make that enjoyable isnt currently cheap, it will be nigh-impossible to buy a phone that doesnt double as a good reading device in a couple of years, and noone is going to want to clutter their pockets with a seperate device for a job the phone they already have does perfectly well.


Why I love my Kindle:
Biggest selection of books including Saturn's Children, which is so far my favorite Stross novel. Built in Oxford English Dictionary for the odd unusual word. For obscure references I can search the internet via the built-in internet connection. My blogs and newspaper are delivered wireless daily with no adverts. All the manuals for my job (PDFs) can be converted, stored and searched on the Kindle. You can easily read the screen in direct sunlight. When I read at a restaurant, I don't have to set the napkin holder on the spine of my book to hold it open. You can even do email (only gmail works). You can make notes in the margin and save pages to your scrapbook, both of which functions are backed up on the Amazon server in case your Kindle fails. I am disappointed when I have to actually buy a book with the exception of art books with large pictures or how-to manuals with lots of screen shots which show up poorly on the kindle.


You know, when I see that kind of statistical distribution, it's usually attached to wealth rather than book buying, and often leads up to an argument about the evils of capitalism and the need to redistribute wealth. Now I'm trying to imagine a government policy aiming at the redistribution of readership. . . .


I bought a Kindle a few months ago. And while I won't say that I won't buy paper books again, if I can get them on a Kindle I'll buy them that way. (And there are lots of ways to get DRM-free books for Kindle if you want to.)

It took a while to get used to the Kindle. But with a battery life of more than one week (and I read a lot) and a screen that doesn't hurt my eyes, it's definitely better than a computer or cell phone. Yes, it does only one thing, but it does it really well.

Now what I wish is someone would put the Lexix-Nexis codes/cases into Kindle-accessible format, so I could do my legal research without staring at a computer screen...


Peter @47: How are books selected to be ebooks? For example, the latest book in your Merchant Princes series is not available as an ebook, although Saturn's Children is. How come?

Because Saturn's Children is published by Ace, and the Merchant Princes are published by Tor. Different companies, different ebook policies.

What are the incremental costs to a publisher to publish an ebook. Since the galleys are all electronic, I would think that they would be very low. If this is the case, why aren't there more ebooks?

Because it's not as simple as you think. Firstly, they need to update their sales and accounting systems to handle sales, royalties, discount rates, user licenses for DRM'd sales, and a host of other options. (I gather Hachette's ebook repository system set them back a double-digit millions of euros in programming and development costs: this isn't unusual for the larger publishers.) Then they need to run the galleys through a converter to produce ebook output -- in some formats (e.g. Mobipocket) this is an external for-pay piece of software, in others (Adobe epub) it's a bolt-on output formatter for InDesign. They need serialization software to brand DRMd copies (yes, I know this is stupid and adds to the cost) and they need to check the ebook edition for errata and rendering glitches before they start selling it. Finally, publishers don't sell direct to the public, any more than you buy CDs direct from Warner or Sony: they sell into ebook storefronts like eReader or Fictionwise or the Kindle store, all of whom demand a gigantic cut of the cover price.

The only respects in which an ebook edition is cheaper than a paper one -- to a big publisher who is not willing to junk their entire fulfilment side and start from scratch -- is the saving in paper and ink, which amount to about 5-10% of the cover price.

Do you think established authors will negotiate to retain the ebook rights to their works, and then disintermediate the publishing industry?

Can't. (Tried.) Was told that selling ebook rights along with dead tree rights was non-negotiable. I can try harder to retain those rights, but only if I'm willing to call my publishers' bluff -- to walk away from them if they say "no". And right now, ebook sales are worth about 10-20% of paperback sales, never mind combined paperback/hardback sales. Walking away from my day job over an issue that's worth at most 5-10% of my income Does Not Compute.

This policy ("grab the electronic rights") is set at a corporate level way above my editors' heads, by panicky MBAs in a boardroom who are terrified of losing their grubstake on the electronic frontier -- if they said "yes", they could be fired. It's not necessarily going to last forever, but it's a real obstacle at present.

Lee @48: the publishers have looked at ebooks and decided that this is simply another supply chain, and they need to sell virtual books to virtual wholesalers who sell to virtual retailers (like Fictionwise). At each step along the way, the intermediaries are grabbing a share of the cake. It's so bad that I've heard of one arrangement where the ebook vendor were left scratching their heads when a publisher's legal department sent them a contract that included arrangements for returning stripped covers to the publisher for credit -- stripped ebook covers!

(I am not making this stuff up.)

Incidentally, the profit on a 1000 copy print run of a $35 limited edition hardcover is probably equal to or better than the profit on a 30,000 copy print run of a $7 mass market paperback. (Especially as the limited edition will have 95-100% sell through while the MMPB can expect to make 60-70%.)


Ayse@33 "The choice is not between a laptop and an e-book reader. It's between a laptop plus as many dead tree books as required, and a laptop plus a single, relatively small device."

I agree. My kids are at school and the weight of textbooks that they lug back and forth is extraordinary - no wonder back injuries are rising. Then add to that that textbooks in my local schools cost ~$100 for a home copy (double that for divorced parents) and you have a lot of cost and a lot of heavy book schlepping. An eBook reader that could substitute for all those textbooks would be very useful. University textbooks just continue the "bigger is better" trend of US textbooks.

I would have thought there could be a large market for readers if the state school systems mandated their availability and that textbooks were available in eBook form.

At some point I expect the laptop to replace the eBook reader as it becomes even thinner and with a much longer duration - perhaps because power requirements are so low that solar PV cells could power the device.


As (depressingly) a tax professional, I use a mixture of hard copy/Lexis Nexis. As a useful tool for discussing with other tax geeks and quickly looking up, for example, what exactly the conditions set out in s88 VATA 1994 are, and the ability to flick back and forth to the innumerable (well, 20 or so) cross-references to other sections of the act, assorted statements of practice, statutory instruments, etc. therein, the 19,000-odd onion skin pages of the Yellow and Orange Tax handbooks are invaluable. If, however, I want to do general research on a topic, etc., then Lexis-Nexis and the HMRC manuals (easily googled) are your best bet.


We have three kindles are work, they all slave to the same master account and share books. It allows anyone to have a departmental library. And you can download anything you need in about 30 seconds.

For home use, for myself, eventually I will see having two kinds of books. Display books (first editions, leather bounds, etc) and eBooks. Simply is not physical space for my library at this point, paperbacks looks like crap, why bother?

Current eBook readers are first generation technology and give up a lot for the 12+ hours of battery life. Give them another couple iterations. Price will fall by 2/3rds and functionality will greatly improve. Laptops are not a good substitute, they are too bulky. smart phones are too small. Eventually they will completely kill paperbacks.

my two cents


Sort of a reverse of this - as an Eng Lit PhD student I feel obligated (and enjoy) reading all the time, whenever I get the tube I take along a thin paperback as in addition to my laptop I can't hack carrying anything bigger. Would I use an ereader to help me get through a bigger text? Probably not - where is the sexyness of reading a gritty James Ellroy or the sophistication of Richard Yates on an ereader - how will the perfect girl spot my amazing taste in literature? ;)


Charlie: "publishers do in fact serve a valuable role in the market -- as anyone who's seen a slushpile can testify"

Unless (until?) someone comes up with some model that gives us quality filtering for free. I don't know what it would be, since it hasn't been invented yet, but it wouldn't be the first thing the Internet mysteriously produces that previously required fairly significant coordination - large-scale software (Linux) and reference works (Wikipedia) come to mind.

"The fight doesn't always go to the strong, nor the race to the fleet, but that's the way to bet." Maybe there is no way to do user-directed Internet-mediated slushpile filtering (or whatever it would be), but I wouldn't want to bet my business on that.


Charlie wrote: "The only respects in which an ebook edition is cheaper than a paper one -- to a big publisher who is not willing to junk their entire fulfilment side and start from scratch -- is the saving in paper and ink, which amount to about 5-10% of the cover price."

And the physical aspects of shipping that stuff around, warehouses for storage, bricks'n'mortar sales fronts, handling returns for credit, pulping of unsold editions...

When Baen released their first CD of eBooks inside the hardcover of one of Weber's "Honor" books I went out and bought it, despite rarely buying hardcovers. If publishers started to include a mini-CD (or similar) _with_ the deadtree paperback editions which had the (DRM-free) contents of the book available then I'd be willing to pay an extra couple of bucks for that edition.


Mass transit commuters in general are a market for the Kindle in the US. Subscribe to the New York Times, and it's automagically on your reader before you leave to catch the train/bus in the morning, and you don't have to deal with those large sheets of paper. Sounds similar to your editors. I can see any mass transit commuter who reads as a market for similar devices.


All you need to do to see the future of publishing is to look at the music industry or the newspaper industry.

Not because publishers are ever RIAA scum but because there are huge advantages to producers and consumers both to not shipping physical products all around the world. The cost savings would be immense.

I think there are some important differences, mostly around physical books-as-ornamentation but the principal is the same.


A general-purpose "lots of storage", multiple-audo-file-format player can be had for 40 quid (don't recall the exact storage amount, would have to ask the mrs and she's currently on a different continent) and I suspect that those 40 quid have a noticeable profit to the vendor and supply chain.

For a special-purpose player, you can skip chunks of the user interface ("play", "pause", "rewind" and "stop" should be enough) and possibly cut down on displayed screen.

Come to think of it, the previous MP3 player the mrs had cost about 7 quid, so "13 quid" is probably over the manufacturing price. I wouldn't be surprised if the largest chunk of cost is the content.


One of the things I like about (the idea of) ebooks that hasn't been mentioned here is that they can be format/presentation independent. For a non-DRMed ebook file, it can not only be read on a screen, but converted to electronic speech, which makes it accessible to people like me who are blind or print-impaired. I presently have a specialized device (about the size of a classic ipod) that supports the reading of most text formats (except pdf, but they can be converted to text), and many audio formats (including some proprietary ones), so I presently have access to more books, in an easily portable form (don't get me started about lugging around braille or cassettes!) than I have ever had in my life. Unfortunately, not everything I want or need to read is available in a format I can use.

What makes me most frustrated is there are still books that could be accessible (like all the books produced for the Kindle) that aren't. (That, and that I have to use a specialized device -- I wouldn't actually be averse to a more standard Ereader that had audio functionality built in, just so I could show my sighted friends what I'm reading.)


I realize this is not a huge niche in population terms, but it might be fairly large in sales: business travelers.

I used to go on business trips with 2-3 paperbacks, run out of reading material, buy a few more before coming back (usually not my first choice and at premium prices, particularly if in a non-english-speaking country) and lug that bulk and mass with me. Neither good for me nor for the environment.

I got a Sony PRS-505 and haven't looked back since. Last time I checked, it saves me 2-5 liters of volume and 1-3 kg of mass in my luggage each trip, and it only contains the stuff I want to read, not the local best-seller list. It charges and loads via USB, so no extra cables/chargers. It doesn't need a charge even for those 19 hour flights to Asia...

Each flight I take, one or more flight attendants ask to handle it for a minute and many vow to get one asap. Last professional event I attended, four colleagues did the same, and one told me just today their order is in.

For business travel, it's a no-brainer. You feel it's heft, think of the dead trees in your carry-on, and the sale is made.


since getting my sony my book consumption has increased exponentialy. Its also introduced me to several authors I'd not considered before. And on the long transatlantic flight to the USA this week its been a god-send.

Sure, annotation would be useful especialy for some of my more technical books but we can't have everything in one go. How else would Sony get me to buy the next version as well if they give me everything i want in one go.


Bruce Cohen @ 40 - as I mentioned above, Datacase is an iPhone app that allows you to upload PDFs (and doc files, and various) to your iPod touch, then read them there. It doesn't download, mind you, so you need to get the file on your computer first. It costs a few quid from the app store.


The LA Times is available for Kindle now.
(Now if I could get some of my older books as e-books, it might be worth the cost of the reader. 40 years worth of library.)


"70% of the population don't ever buy books"

Do you actually have a source for this?

It sounds awfully like one of those doom and gloom factoids that turn out to be totally untrue. Like the claim that the average number of books sold is about one per person per year, it is actually about seven in the consumer market this excludes school and academic sales. This is based on this data.


Charlie, can you please expand on how the Iliad is crippled? I was thinking about buying one because it lets you annotate documents. I don't know any more about it than the fluffy info on their web page though. Cripple or not though, the price is currently scaring me off. If it's expensive *and* crippled... *sigh*



John: the Iliad has no software suspend -- it's either running or it's switched off. (I'm told the hardware keeps polling its buttons, and they couldn't implement a sleep mode at all.) Result is it takes 30 seconds to come up from cold, and runs for 12-14 hours until it needs a recharge.

And if you want to recharge it? You plug the wall wart into the dock, then plug the Iliad into the dock. Which, with the wall wart, weighs as much as the ebook reader itself.

In usability terms, I call that a LOSE.


Brett: median != mean. In book purchasing, some of us buy 50-200 titles a year -- we have a disproportionate effect.



My Iliad doesn't have a dock. The power cord is not that heavy.

I haven't yet run it out of a charge, but that hasn't been much of an issue because I usually only read it while on planes (where there is usually a power source for the longer trips, though I rarely travel anywhere more than 12 hours away) or while commuting (not long enough to worry) or in my office (where it can be plugged in).

The long boot-up time is not optimal, but in the larger scheme of things 30 seconds doesn't bother me as much as a smaller screen.


Those dedicated single novel MP3 units have actually been around in the US for about three years, running around US$40. The hardware side is well within the cost envelope to make this viable. We have 2 GB MP3/WMA players with minimal displays selling here for $20. (The biggest caveat is they eat AAA batteries.) Right now, the Office Depot chain has a 2 GB unit with a fairly nice 1.8" screen and rechargeable battery for $15 as a promotion.

2 GB can store a LOT of spoken word content. I'm currently listening to Peter Hamilton's 'The Dreaming Void' encoded at a decent bit-rate but occupying under a third of the available storage.

So this sort of thing is really, really cheap. So cheap some companies think a unit dedicated to a single piece of content is worth doing. What surprises me is that I haven't heard any environmentalist screaming over it. But it may be too obscure as yet. I also expected the more militant feminists to go ballistic over the Axe Body Spray ads but no big noise.

Another interesting development for e-book awareness is this: http://www.amazon.co.uk/100-Classic-Book-Collection-Nintendo/dp/B001LK6XKE

A collection of 100 classic (AKA public domain) works in a reader package for the Nintendo DS handheld game system. The upper limit for ROM sizes on the DS is currently 1 gigabit, with those games selling for US$40 typically. So even a doorstop (take 'Anathem,' please) of a novel could could easily be put out as a Nintendo DS cartridge very profitably at typical hardback pricing.

The DS is likely a fairly painful e-book reader but the installed base is immense. Given the right pricing and feature set, I cannot see any barrier to a really decent e-book reader (along with other apps) being so low in price virtually every kid and young adult has one.

If a solid reader appeared for US$100 tomorrow, the installed base would soon make every existing unit scarcely worth measuring. This would still be a small slice of the population but a big slice of the market for selling books.

Give this thing a display that is both good for reading and efective for gaming, have it low-priced (Nintendo DS is $129) and you could have an e-book reader in the hands of large base without them regarding it primarily as a book reading device. Notably, Nintendo just rolled out a new model in Japan, which has already sold close to its first million units, that has an SD card slot in addition to the ROM cart slot. (They eliminated the slot for old GameBoy carts.) This enables them to pursue a downlaod sales channel more effectively. The new model also has improved screens that are a bit larger, making it that much more usable as a reader.


As an illustrator (and compulsive doodler) an e-book reader which could be used as a sketchpad would be ideal. It wouldnt even have to Wacom-grade, just be able to reproduce biro-on-paper and save off images. If the images could be linked into the text, that'd be perfect.


Nice post. I've been using the Sony PRS for ages now. Before that I experimented with cellphones and palm PDAs. I find that for anyone who 'needs' to read, nothing's as good as a dedicated e-reader device. In the end I need my PDA for notes and cellphone for texting/call making, and I find that I cannot devote the battery life of those devices for reading time as much as I need to. I'm not really much of a gadgethead, and I usually prefer paper books when reading for leisure at home, with hot chocolate and cookies.

Interesting thing about e-readers though, and I'm surprised that you didn't mention this in your post, is that e-readers definitely change the way you read, and what you read. The pure text based content might be the same as a paper book, but the more I use e-reader the more I think that it is an entirely different beast from conventional books, just like how cellphones are becoming this entirely different machines compared to conventional home phones despite them sharing a same primary purpose. I don't yet know how to describe that difference in words though...


My wife just got the iRex iLiad. The screen is gorgeous, as easy to read as any book in good light, no worse than a standard paperback in bad light, with the exception that you can jack up the font size to compensate.

She's a scientist, and one of the things she's done is found the Feedbooks LaTeX conversion tempates to create iLiad-optimized PDFs. She can create and preview her papers, etc. I prefer the ebook formatted stuff (for the ease in changing font size) but I will give Feedbooks their due: their iLiad-optimized PDFs for Shakespeare's plays are gorgeous.

I've also been grabbing stuff from Feedbooks and Baen and dumping it into Stanza on my iPhone. Extremely portable for fiction on the go.

My main beef with the iLiad is software support. The company appears to be moving away from the iLiad form factor to a newer (bigger, better) A4-sized display. They've at least done a lot of open-sourcing of the iLiad, but I'm somewhat worried that they'll wind up leaving it behind. Support for the iPhone/iPod touch, by contrast, has only gotten better.


I read Halting State on the Kindle, and was overjoyed when I found out I can get Asimon's on it via Amazon.

What I find interesting, Charlie, is whether or not that trend would fully enable writers to bypass publishers, if not editors :) somewhat analogous to the various indie music and video efforts that the web is producing.


I would still like to know where those figures came from; they still sound rather like a factoid.

If you have an overall average of one book per capita every two months which is approximately correct. Then for 70% to buy no books at all each year the remaining 30% must be on average, buying about one book per fortnight. I was actually contrasting the figures with an oft-repeated factoid and asking if you could source the figures you gave. There is a long history of Marching Morons style jeremiads about the public being illiterate, which bear little relation to reality. The facts often seem to point more to James Nicoll's nightmarish future.


For $4 (US), you can get an MP3 player with a 256MB capacity (less memory will actually cost you more these days, as the memory chips are not in much demand anymore). Order in quantities of 500 or more, and you could get them logoed and pre-loaded for little or nothing extra. A set of earbuds will run you an extra 30 cents per unit.

Was there any time limit, or was it just a non-rechargeable unit with no way to reload it? Because I'd be willing to bet that under the shell, it's a completely standard unit.

Want the next growth opportunity in convenience media? An MP4 video player with a 2-inch screen and enough memory to hold a movie at that resolution will only run you about twice as much. In a year, it will probably be cut in half.


Brett: Here's a source for you on book sales in the USA.

On the figures: trade sales of around $12Bn may sound like a lot, but that's hardcovers. Assuming they're sold at discount of $16 rather than the full $24 SRP, and approximating the US population to 300M people, that works out at 2.5 trade sales per person per year on average (mean). Mass market sales of around $3Bn, with a cover price of $6, works out at 500M books sold, or 1.7 books per person per year on average. Professional books -- at $6Bn, I'm assuming the same figures go as for trade, so we're looking at fewer than one book per person per year.

(I'm not going to go into educational sales as those are non-discretionary; if you want to finish college or university, you buy the books on your reading list.)

The point here is that your average reader buys 2.5 hardbacks and 1.7 mass market paperbacks per year -- but a lot of readers are non-average, and buy several dozen hardbacks and/or over a hundred MMPBs annually. Reading isn't evenly distributed.

Per-capita book consumption appears to be highly variable according to this paper, but it notes that 67% of the Portuguese population and 28% of the Swedish population polled said "no" when asked if they had read a book for any reason other than work or study in the preceding 12 months.

Again, some figures from Finland (Word document), a high literacy society -- "70% of respondents had read at least one book in the preceding six months".

There's more out there if you go digging.


# 69 / 72 / 79 Brett / Charlie

Mean != Median != Mode

It MUST be a very skewed distribution, anyway.
The more literate and intelligent a person is, the more books they will have, and the more they will read and buy - ALMOST irrespective of income ....

So the distribution will be:
Median >> Median > Mode, or even, quite possibly:
Median >> Median >> Mode

With the value of "Mode" in the latter case being One or less-than-One - but not zero.
(Because they buy a book every two or five years, say.)

IS it possible that the 70% don't EVER buy books is true?
It may depend on how you slice the population.
Children's books are bought by their parents, for instance, and people with an "IQ" (I'm using the reference as a "handle") lower than 90 are extremely unlikely to buy books,..
I wonder what the figures would be if split up per-household?

There is also a factoid doing the rounds about the number of books IN any house, on average .. for whatever value of "average" you want to pick.


I've got the lBook v3 (rebranded HanLin v3) reader, and I've been pretty happy with it. Excellent for that commute, indeed; it can read practically any file format I throw at it, and I can carry my whole library with me.
Pity it can't take the rain and cold as well as the deatree books do! :)

There's a pretty good comparison matrix at


Great read. Your thoughts about the use of the Kindle sparked a few thoughts about why it won't save the publishing industry after all.

They're up on my blog now: http://www.ferrogate.com/2008/12/few-thoughts-about-why-kindle-wont-save.html


Speaking of annotation and Shiny!, is there any device out there that is good for scribbling? On a good day I'll sometimes go through well over a hundred pages of paper for figuring. My low-tech solution is to get all of my scratch out of the recycle bins. And it works okay . . . but what if I'm looking for one particular piece of paper out of hundreds? I'm reduced to rummaging through the bins again and hoping that I'm in the right layer of detritus. Now, if I had, say, a nice 9"x14" tablet I could scrawl on, with some sort of tracking functionality (even time- and date-stamping) . . . Maybe also a tool that would recognize and redraw certain symbols, like arrows or paranthesis.

Anything like that on the market?


As an illustrator (and compulsive doodler) an e-book reader which could be used as a sketchpad would be ideal. It wouldnt even have to Wacom-grade, just be able to reproduce biro-on-paper and save off images. If the images could be linked into the text, that'd be perfect.
Posted by: Phill Evans | December 9, 2008 11:24 PM

I have _exactly_ the same desire.


As the "current state of technology" I think that most e-book readers are "dead ends". Why? The biggest reason is that they're plagued by stupid DRM software.

When I purchase a paper book, I know for sure that the chance of it being "accidentally erased" is nil. Besides, if I loose the book the worst thing that happens is that I'll have to dispose of let's say, $20 to $50 to purchase a new copy. If I have one e-book reader stolen or lost or something I'll be loosing the $150 from the equipment AND all the books inside... Not to mention ALL annotations in those books...

Besides, most e-books are just not ergonomic enough. As a reader I just like to be able to go to a random page or to go back and forth at will. These are easy things to do with a paper book, but most readers make your life miserable if you try to do so frequently.


Casimiro: the ebook readers are fine -- they'll all play non-DRM content.

The publishers who only put stuff out using DRM are another matter.

See also.

And more.


Phil @75: Ah, I did not see your comment, else I would not have posted what I did. I do a lot of math of the ext, tor, and cohomology sort, and there tends to be a lot of what are called 'commuting diagrams' - groups of symbols with arrows pointing every which way between them - in the formalism. I point this out because of the resolution issue; I suspect I could get by with a cheaper, lower-resolution screen than you would.


Mt father is retired and the sort who reads steadily, often collecting a small herd of books he has gotten to yet. A reader would make that collection portable for him, especially when he is out of the house taking my grandfather to medical appointments.


Charlie: "publishers do in fact serve a valuable role in the market -- as anyone who's seen a slushpile can testify"

sabik: "Unless (until?) someone comes up with some model that gives us quality filtering for free."

There's WAY more to it than that. Stuff that looks like junk in the slushpile but has good ideas can be beaten into rather good shape by an editor, given good grammar and spelling by a copyeditor, made pretty by designers and typesetters, and so on. Stuff that wouldn't make it far in a crowdsourced slushpile may have merit to an experienced (professional) reader or editor. Not to mention that the slushpile is a fairly small part of the process in terms of total amount of time and effort across the publication process.

An open-source/crowdsourced publishing process is completely possible, but it's not going to kill the industry.


That doesn't give figures about what the distribution of purchases were, which is what I was really interested in.

UK consumer market sales in 2007 were 256 million adult and 86 million children's books a total of 342 million books sold. The consumer market is worth about £2.5 billion, this excludes both school and academic books, which between them total about another £1 billion. This is rather different to the oft-repeated factoid.


According to this report from the BML(PDF) about 33% of the UK public are non-buyers (less than 1 per annum) about 27% light buyers (1-5 books per annum) about 16% medium (6-10 per annum) and about 22% heavy (11+ per annum) with an overall average of 8 per annum. These figures are for new books only, about 15% of those who didn't buy new books reported buying second hand books. So actually less than 30% are non-buyers.


Nintendo are apparently about to sell ebooks for the DS in the UK only - http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/gadgets_and_gaming/article5303730.ece . Can't be any worse than reading from a phone screen, but still terrible compared to a proper reader.

Though why anyone would pay £20 for 100 books you can get for free from gutenberg...


6 years ago, I dropped $30 on a 32 meg jump drive the size of two zippo lighters on end. When I started my new job this year I (along with about a hundred other new faculty members) was given a 2 gig jump drive the size of pink pearl eraser. This wasn't an outrageous gift but one of those "welcome to the university, here's a mug and a T-shirt" kind of gifts. That is, it cost something but not enough that it couldn't be absorbed by the welcoming committee's gewgaw budget. So yeah, I imagine a 128 meg jump drive with an MP3 program and album preloaded could easily retail for the price of a CD, with enough profit margin to keep someone happy.

Happily, we're reaching the point where mass amounts of storage is dirt cheep. I've been eyeballing a Terrabite drive that costs under $300. Ten years ago, such a thing would have required a bank loan and needed wheels to get from here to there (and would have alerted the feds that I was a mad scientist). Today, it's cheep enough and small enough I could buy one without thinking twice about it, carry it to work in my bag and be thought of only as that weird guy in the library who travels with his own server. But then, I'm an IT librarian, so nothing out of the ordinary.


One of the niches you missed is bibliophiles who like to read a lot. While our first edition hard backs are very nice, and are great for reading curled up on the sofa with some Brahms on in the background and a glass of Lagavulin in hand, they're terrible for reading on the tube, or while waiting for someone in a pub. And it's on the journey to/from work and over my lunch break that I do most of my reading. Because I'm a cheapskate, I read on my phone instead of buying a dedicated ebook reader. It doesn't have a particularly big screen, but a rollocking old story doesn't need one. It's just next page, next page, next page, next page. I wouldn't want to read Gibbon on it (I've tried, it didn't work) but Accelerando worked well. I'm now ploughing through Project Gutenberg, in between the freebies that Tor post on their site. Those freebies are great, by the way - they've introduced me to so many authors, at least some of whose books I've gone on to buy. Come to think of it, I think it was reading Accelerando for free that turned me on to your fiction too, and there's now a small but growing Stross section on my bookshelves.


I was pointed to this post by booktwo.org and I am delighted to see the discussion. I've been collecting ebook sites (not just google, gutenburg and baen) and it is amazing how much material is out there. I've read books on my phone, my laptop and my desktop...a netbook and/or a sony ebook reader are both on my list of Real Soon Now(tm).

I love living in the future!

I haven't progressed to linux yet, but I don't go to Walmart any more (per your suggestion at worldcon!)


@Patrick #91 - well, yes. Crowdsourcing can do most of that too, in the same way that it does quality in Linux and on the Wikipedia. Which is not to say that everything in Linux or on the Wikipedia is perfect, but there is, in fact, a lot of high-quality stuff in both, which mostly got that way through the interaction of multiple contributors.

The technical underpinnings are mostly there; all that's missing is the right social structure. Once someone gets that right (and perhaps codifies it in a license or a small program), we'll start getting novels co-written by hundreds of people, precipitating and congealing out of the collective consciousness...

That, of course, cuts out not only the publisher but also our host, though open source does have its own stars.


After a lot of people praised it here i looked at some articles about the Sony PRS-505. Verdict: not gonna buy. Reason: much too big, i.e. doesn't fit in my trouser-pocket (by trouser I mean those black ones with the big leg-mounted pockets ..). I've got my palm tungsten T in there and pull it out whenever there is more than a minute of time in which I don't have anything else to do and read a bit. This way, my reading has increased by orders of magnitude from before, when I only got to reading during dedicated reading-time (which shrinks and shrinks, what with phd-thesis and 1.5-year old kid ..)

I'd totally love a reader with e-ink display, as long as it had approximately the form factor of my tungsten T (and maybe enough cpu/ram power to display pdfs, which my palm apparently is too weak for).


Michael: I've got a PRS-505. Size: comparable to a C-format paperback of 100 pages (150 pages, if you include the cover). Weight: at 300 grams, with cover, it's substantially more than a Palm, but comparable to a standard 300-400 page paperback and less than half a hardcover. Take off the cover and it weighs around 200 grams, or as much as a slim paperback.

My eyes are ageing (I think I'm going to need bifocals any year now) and the bigger screen on the ebook reader suits me better these days than a PDA. Obviously your milage differs (and I was happy for years using a Palm or similar), but don't rule out the importance of a screen that elderly eyes can cope with. After all, the over-40s are getting on for half the population ...


Hello there, I'm new to this blog but found this entry intersting and wanted to put a comment up.

I think the call for unfound niche applications may perhaps miss the point here. I see you have illustrated in other posts the lengths and iterations to which you go to get your work published. From a consumer's point of view, this is a good thing, both for fiction and non-fiction, as it ensures a level of quality, a level of integrity in the finished work. In short, it provides traditionally published work with 'Authority'.

The interwebs, in it's current form, cannot do this. In our mad rush down the Information Superhighway (remember that?) we seem to have parked up for now in the service station of 'Concensus Management'. This has eroded much of the trust and authority I noted.

Of course there are sites of concience and quality on the web, but if I'm looking for hard facts in a hurry, the internet is not my first port of call. Books are. I'll go on-line for expanded research later.

The thought that I could carry round a digital resource with the capacity of my branch library, with the low signal-to-noise ratio of hardcopy and the referencing agility of an on-line system, now that does have appeal. That's not niche. That will get me to re-evaluate what did initially look like something of a transitional technology.


I ought to be the target market for an ebook reader: I read about six to eight books a month, I travel a fair amount (hello long distance relationship), I have disposable income and a tropism for shiny gadgets. Also, I'm a scientist and keep up with my field by reading journal articles in pdf format, often not bothering to print them out. After much deliberation I went for an Eee instead of an ebook reader.

The only thing I regret about that decision is the battery life. I get four hours, which isn't quite enough for a long journey. But I deliberately chose one of the earlier, smaller Eee models, a 701 which is little bigger or heavier than an ebook reader, and which cost considerably less. The screen quality is good enough for me, and I like being able to switch back and forth between portable library and portable internet terminal. As an additional bonus, I use the Eee for taking notes in seminars, and for giving my own without the worry about presentations getting corrupted when they move between different computers.

What it would take for me to buy a dedicated ebook reader instead or as well is primarily price. I object to paying more for a gadget than the cost of an entire computer. And availability; there's too little choice available in the various ebook formats and I am squeamish about DRM anyway. Since the primary content I want to read is plain text or pdf, I don't want to have to jump through hoops to get those.


Thomas Jørgensen says at #50: "I think mobipocket has entered the only ebook market with longterm viability- For portable reading, I use my cellphone."

The issue there is that Mobipocket has continued to neither release nor even give any indication of releasing an iPhone version of their reader, except for one multiply-blogged comment about one being "in the works" and due "later this year"...from June or so.

This shoots their DRMed content in the foot quite handily, since the iPhone and iPod touch are becoming one of the largest smartphone app markets around. Non-DRMed Mobi-format stuff can be read in several third-party apps, and DRMed eReader is now supported in both the iPhone eReader app and Stanza.


Re the cheapness of the gadgets... some current examples, with hyperlinks; there's no knowing how long these hyperlinks will stay valid, though.

I routinely see obscure brands of MP3 players with 1GB of storage being sold in quantity 1 for $10-$13 at the more adventurous mail-order outlets. Usually these have a display; deleting the USB interface and the display would reduce the bill of materials even more.

Example: http://www.tigerdirect.com/applications/category/category_slc.asp?Nav=|c:2475|
Example: http://www.dealextreme.com/products.dx/category.318

Sansa is promoting its new "SlotMusic" format. It's all the MP3 files of an album, encoded at a high bit-rate, stored in an ordinary 1GB Micro SD / TransFlash card. Sansa's SlotMusic player is currently retailing at Best Buy for $20. It has a Micro SD slot, and no display. SlotMusic albums sell for about the same price as ordinary CD's.

example player: http://www.bestbuy.com/site/olspage.jsp?skuId=9068581&st=SlotMusic&type=product&id=1218018718515

example album: http://www.bestbuy.com/site/olspage.jsp?skuId=9082182&st=SlotMusic&lp=5&type=product&cp=2&id=1929517

As mentioned elsewhere, custom-imprinted MP3 players with 512MB of memory can be bought for about $10-$15 in quantity 500.

example: http://www.ipromo.com/?fuseaction=product.list_products&categoryid=122

Best Buy is currently retailing a 1TB external hard disk for $150, and an internal one for $160. The more adventurous mail-order outlets are sometimes cheaper, e.g. internal for $120.

external: http://www.bestbuy.com/site/olspage.jsp?skuId=8908612&type=product&id=1216424110118
internal: http://www.bestbuy.com/site/olspage.jsp?skuId=8492026&type=product&id=1186003685416
internal: http://www.tigerdirect.com/applications/SearchTools/item-details.asp?EdpNo=4319596


Hmmm, the IReader? I recently had a phone interview to go to work for Apple Inc. If I land the gig, I'll suggest it, so can everyone compile a list of wanted features aside from those listed in the above comments.

Desired Battery life? (Personally this has irked me for a long time, there is a lot of wasted space on the back side of the screen that could be used for an in chassis solar cell array that trickle charges your on-board battery.

Markup of documents with a stylus? Or some other note taking capability? Ability to print documents (wirelessly?) with one's personal notes added?


Thorne: they won't go for it. Steve Jobs has already dismissed reading books on screen as a minority pursuit -- and I'm afraid he's right.

(Oh, and he hates styli, with a passion.)

Having said that, the iPhone itself is a reasonable ebook reader, and if the much-rumoured Apple internet tablet shows up as something like a 5" screen, 800x480 res version of the iPod Touch -- think Nokia N800, only Apple-designed with OS/X on board -- it'd be a killer ebook reader.


I'm sure the engineering team that Apple bought up(PA Semi - the group that designed the PA6T-1682M processor) are busy cooking up yet another low power design that will eventually makes it's way into any new Apple products that are introduced over the next couple of years.

It's hard to say where the consumer electronics industry is headed these days, and whether it will be hardware or software than pulls it out of it's current slump. Personally I see a big push for BluRay being advertised these days. Having lived long enough to see so many "media" forms and formats come and go, I personally can state I am finished upgrading.


Thorne: I think Bill Gates called it right when he said that Blu-Ray was the last removable media format -- storage capacity isn't going up fast enough to keep out in front of bandwidth in the long term.

I'm not going to switch to Blu-Ray; I can't be arsed replacing all my DVDs (which were, admittedly, an improvement over analog VHS) and the level of DRM is repugnant.


Coming in late as usual...

I have a somewhat biased view, since I'm published by an epublisher. I also have a somewhat biased view because I'm published by a *romance* publisher, not an sf publisher -- and romance as a genre has got far more into ebooks as a book format than sf has. So some random observations from hanging around in the relevant corners of the net:

as noted in Charlie's original post, a mob of editors and agents who use an ebook reader to read the manuscripts passed up from the slush

a mob of readers who want something with a long battery life, and a large screen that is easy on the eyes in a device small enough to fit in a handbag. For many readers the dedicated epaper devices hit the sweet spot on the trade-off between screen size and weight/portability, and most of them don't need to be recharged every night.

The Kindle is instant gratification, at least in the US within range of their connectivity service. Browse Amazon, see something you fancy, click and buy. This is why it is referred to as drinking the Kindle-Aid...

As to why ebooks rather than dead tree:

if you get through several books a week, storage space issues (and yes, a lot of romance readers do get through books at that rate)

not having to deal with people on the subway/tube who feel the need to share their opinion of your intelligence when they see the cover of your book

being able to keep certain books out of the hands of the anklebiters

instant gratification without having to wait for a small town bookstore to get a copy in or shipping from Amazon

instant gratification without having to pay overseas shipping, or worry about customs stealing or confiscating the books

access to the backlist (category romance in particular suffers from "buy it this month or not at all")


I am a reader of science fiction, fantasy, and romance. I have been reading ebooks on my Palm Treo for a few years now. I love being able to pull it out of my pocket whenever I have to wait in line somewhere and read a few pages so that the wait time is not 'wasted'. I think I read about 8 books a week on average. I loved getting the Tor freebies. :) Most of my purchases are from eReader and Baen. I tend to spend about $30 US a week on ebooks. Portability is the biggest factor for me. I have looked at the Kindle and it is on my Amazon wishlist, but it would be one more item to carry around and I need it to be considerably cheaper before I buy one. Right now I can read books on my phone which I usually have with me. I agree with all the points made by Jules Jones in #109 on the desirability of ebooks vs dead tree format.


... And I'm not arguing with Jules or Naleta, because I've been reading ebooks since about 1997 myself. And, yes: portability matters, as does the ability to move everything onto one gadget.

I suppose the real ebook question is whether smartphones running ebook reader software, or pure dedicated hardware ebook readers, will win out. But I suspect there's a niche for both ...


I only started reading ebooks in a serious way a few months ago, when I bought a second-hand Cybook. I don't really want to read anything longer than a few pages on my computer, and PDAs (and presumably smartphones) are problematic for my RSI. But the Cybook simply doesn't have some of the issues that make ebooks difficult for me. I suspect that there'd be a fairly decent market for epaper devices amongst people who want something that looks a lot like ink on cellulose and offers mmp-equivalent words per page turn -- *if* the things didn't cost the price of 10 hardbacks.

The comments I've seen in the romance blogosphere over the last year or so suggest that there's a potential niche market for both smartphones and dedicated hardware, with some people even being interested in owning both for different situations if the prices were right. There's a lot of variation in whether people find epaper or TFT more comfortable for extended reading, and there's also the convenience versus screen size issue.

I have pretty much zero interest in the iPhone as a phone/ebook devbice, because my phobile is a disposable PAYG Nokia that cost me 25 quid to buy and has used about that much in credit in the 15 months I've owned it. A Jesusphone on a monthly contract is not an attractive option compared to buying dedicated hardware outright. But if I didn't already have a Cybook, I might have been sorely tempted when I saw my first Eee in the flesh last month...


Take a look on Alibaba for wholesale procing for MP3 players. Eg http://www.alibaba.com/product-gs/203347505/MP3_Player_TH_301_.html (US$1 in quantity). Interestingly, there are also devices like http://www.alibaba.com/product-gs/206923580/Bolang_Ebook_reader_EV980_Christmas_gift.html ($55, eBook reader, with a voice synthesizer. Looks like it would be crap, though)


Charlie @54: What about the costs of shipping, storing, return-shipping, and pulping the paper books? I wouldn't think those would exactly be chickenfeed, especially given where fuel prices were this last year.


Charlie @OP: In re the "disposable" audiobook players (technically, I don't think they're really "disposable"—the ones I've seen, you can change the battery and keep it for as long as you want to hear it), the niche as I understand it is for travelers who want to get an audiobook "now" but don't have any way to load it into their iPod-or-whatever, or don't even have one of those to begin with.

I expect they also take the place of books-on-tape now that cassette tape Walkmen have been replaced by them newfangled super-expensive mp3-whatsits. To someone who doesn't know how to load an iPod, buying a stand-alone device where all you have to know is "earphones. buttons. listen" might seem rather attractive.

I gather that you can also find huge racks of them in long-haul truck stops, for the benefit of truck drivers on the road. (I think some truck stops have audiobook "libraries" where you can check them out and then check them back in again at another truck stop.)


Charlie @OP also:

But I confess, I wasn't expecting the editors to jump in with both feet, especially for a low-end reader that doesn't let them, er, edit. The publishing industry is small and the population of professional editors too tiny to support the likes of Sony. But if I missed one niche, I probably missed others. So where are they?
Funny thing: at least some editors were doing this ten years ago. From an article on the Palm Pilot circa 1998:
An editor of science-fiction books that I know fell in love with the Pilot when he realized that he could put an entire manuscript into a box that weighs 4.7 ounces and fits into his jacket pocket. “You really have to have spent a decade of your life schlepping 600-page manuscripts around to understand how attractive this is,” he says. He admits that he wouldn’t use the Pilot’s tiny screen — it’s smaller than an index card — for major editing. But, he says, “An enormous amount of what an editor has to do day in and day out is just reading. These days, if I can get an e-text version of a big document I have to read, the first thing I do is hot-sync it onto my Pilot.”
I expect you've probably also seen the NY Times article about how more and more people are picking up e-books these days, including members of demographics you wouldn't generally expect to be reading them. It may not be any particular special niche you don't know of, but just that more people who like to read are discovering that the devices are good enough and have enough of a selection that they are finally getting to what they consider usable.

Chris @103: A highly-placed source in the e-book industry told me that he had certain knowledge that Mobipocket was ready to launch their iPhone client in August—but Amazon, who owns Mobipocket lock, stock, and barrel (they bought them so they could use their e-book format in the Kindle) shut them down. Apparently they don't want the added competition to the Kindle. So, anyone with a DRM locked Mobi book who wants to read it on the iPhone will have to break the DRM—a violation of local law in many places.

Jules @112: One thing to remember is that, anywhere someone talks about using an iPhone for book reading, you can mentally substitute "iPod Touch". The iPod Touch has most of the features of an iPhone, lacking only the camera and the ability to make calls—and you can get them in twice the capacity of the largest iPhone (I'm very happy with my 32 gig model), and they don't jack your phone bill up to outrageous amounts.


[qouote on]
I bought a Bookeen Cybook Gen 3 last spring and I VERY happy. I don't trust Sony: they make "closed" technology. Cybook is based on Linux, does not require drivers (is seen as a standard storage by any OS) nor power supply (a simple USB connection recharges its battery). Cybook is ePaper only, that is you cannot write. With iLiad you get eInk, a wireless connection, an A4 display, and many other features, always based on Linux. But it costs twice the Cybook.
[quote off]

The 505 is based on Linux, does not require drivers (is seen as a standard storage by an OS) no power supply (a simple USB connection recharges its battery). The 700 does have the ability to annotate so it would be the best one at the price point for manuscripts.

If you purchase a PSP AC adapter then the 505 & the 700 can be charged in less time then it would be via the USB also, using the AC adapter, you can use the 505 & 700 while they are plugged in and charging.

Please do not spread misinformation. You make it sound like the 505 is closed. It's as closed or open as the Gen3 is. Plus with collections, it can better organize content.


Chris @113: paperbacks aren't returned -- the covers are stripped and returned as proof of non-sale, and the books themselves go to the nearest paper recycler. It's all because the mass-market paperback life cycle uses the magazine distribution system. Not ideal, no, but that's how it evolved.

Jon @116: I don't trust Sony either. However, my information is that they've finally figured out that the "closed" thing is bad in the long term, and there's a corporate U-turn in progress. Alas, multi-billion dollar multinationals don't turn on a dime, and product family development cycles are measured in years, so it's taking years (and there's internal pushback). Which is part of the reason I have a PRS 505. Aside from being best of breed at the time when I bought it, I figure rewarding correct behaviour (with a price signal) is just as important as punishing bad behaviour.


Charlie @118: Paperbacks still have to be shipped outward and stored, and hardcovers still have to be pulped (or resold and shipped to surplus-lot sellers). I find it hard to believe that these shipping costs are so small as not to make a dent in the pricing difference.

(P.S.: Could you please approve and perhaps comment on the post I submitted last night that had a couple of URLs in it? Thanks.)


(Oh, I see you did approve it. I was looking for it to show up at the end instead of way back where it was posted. :P)