Wake up, citation styles!

Everyone, including the New York Times, seems to be hailing Amazon’s decision to add page numbers to the Kindle.

The lack of page numbers (when you can change font size in a book, the number of ‘pages’ in the title grows or shrinks) has been a long-time critique of the Kindle, at least back to Princeton’s 2009 pilot program. The critique often specifically centers on one question: How do I cite a Kindle text in established styles without page numbers?

This always rings hollow to me. The problem isn’t with the Kindle, it’s with the citation styles themselves. Kindles already provide ‘location’ numbers, an identifier linked to each bit of text regardless of font size or subjective page number. Why can’t that just be used instead of a page number? It’s more exact than a mere page number could ever hope to be. And isn’t that the whole purpose of citations? Being able to pinpoint the original source? The APA Style blog seems hell-bent on taking an alternate, overly complicated route instead.

I suppose this is a moot argument. The styles won, Amazon is adding page numbers. And I understand that it’s hard to use a location identifier if you don’t have access to a Kindle. But why should digital text have to constrain itself to the way things have always been? Why are citation styles so inflexible?

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Kindle

I’ve ranted before on multiple occasions about my issues with the current state of the commercial ebook setup.

Then I got a Kindle for Christmas.

I haven’t quite done a 180, but after truly giving the Amazon ebook ecosystem a fair chance I’m more willing to highlight the positives of the experience.

Like Sarah, I feel like a bit of a library traitor in admitting all this. But, things I really like about my Kindle:

  • Portability. A Kindle is much lighter than most hardcover novels. It’s also much easier to read on the bus, where I often have to stand. I can read the Kindle with one hand, and keep myself upright with the other.
  • Cross-device sync. if I have a few minutes to kill while waiting in line, I read a few pages of a book on my phone. When I get back to the Kindle, it knows where I left off. if I need to do serious work with a book, I move to my PC. It all just works, pretty seamlessly. I wish the sync feature was more robust than a simple ‘furthest page read’ notion, and that I could sync non-Amazon content across devices in the same way. But it’s still very handy.
  • Note-taking & highlighting. For reading non-fiction, a Kindle is invaluable. I’ve never been one to scribble margin notes as I read, mostly because I know I’ll never go back and find them all later. But the Kindle puts all notes & highlights in a centralized, web-accessible location. For serious non-fiction this adds real utility to a book that paper copies simply can’t provide. It helps in fiction too. I find myself highlighting the quotes I really like, and now they’ll be much easier to track down in the future.

These are all things that move a book beyond paper. I think I may have been too hung up on the things that Amazon’s ebooks take away from a purchased print title – loanability to friends (Amazon’s new title loan feature is so crippled that it’s useless), library use (nonexistent), resale (nonexistent), etc. While those are still issues (in some cases major ones), I haven’t previously focused enough on the extra features Amazon adds to a purchased title.

I still adamantly refuse to pay more for an ebook title than the print version, and I’ll keep that stance until the issues I listed above are addressed. But I’m now ok with paying a price equal to the print title’s. I’m giving some features up, but also gaining others in exchange. Features which greatly enhance the way I consume text.

The issue of ebooks and libraries is a larger one, which I’m more and more pessimistic about, and a topic for another time (libraryrenewal.org did recently restore a bit of my hope). But as a reader, if not a librarian, I’ve learned to love the experience the Kindle provides. I guess the title of this post is a bit of a lie – I didn’t really stop worrying, but I now worry a little less.

The ubiquitous book – anytime, anywhere

I recently finished reading Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, For The Win. I’m not crazy about the book itself (a topic for another time), but the reading experience was different, more fluid, and ultimately better than what I’m used to.

Thanks to publisher Tor’s generosity at ALA 2010 last month I have a copy of the book in hardcover. And thanks to Doctorow’s business model of giving away free ebook versions of his works I had the text in e format too. This is the first time I’ve read a book while having access to both e and print versions at the same time.

As much as I enjoy my Sony Reader, a print book is still my personal ideal for most of the novel reading I do. I use the Sony primarily for convenience, like when I don’t want to carry a large hardcover on the bus. But if I’m sitting on the couch I still prefer a standard print book experience. With access to both print and e versions I was able to jump back and forth between the two, using whichever provided a superior experience at the moment.

And actually I had 3 options – Hardcover, Sony Reader, and the Aldiko ebook reader app on my phone. (Doctorow provides his ebooks in a variety of DRM-free formats compatible with a large number of devices.) I read the hardcover on the couch, the Sony on the bus, and a few pages here and there on the phone whenever I had some waiting in line time. It was convenient, easy, and I got through the book much faster than I would have otherwise.

But now I’m spoiled! Doctorow’s ebook give-away model is pretty unique, not many other authors do it. I’m not going to buy a book in both print and e, and library ebook options are pretty anemic. The only way this would happen again is if I pull titles from Project Gutenberg. But I’m not much of a classics reader, and Gutenberg doesn’t have a lot from my to-read list.

While I don’t think it’ll ever happen, I’d love for a purchase of a print copy to come with a free ebook counterpart. I’d even pay a little extra for the option, and the bonus to researchers of having a searchable text to supplement the print could be a considerable advantage.

eBooks – Who’s doing it right?

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking (and writing) about eBooks, usually taking a pretty negative slant toward existing eBook publishers and vendors. DRM, distribution models, even publication timelines – much of it is a huge mess.

But I don’t want to seem too negative – I still think eBooks as a concept hold massive promise. It’s just many of the current implementations that’re flawed. So who’s doing it right? Here’s a handful of companies and products which I think are on the right track:

1. SpringerLink
Much of my thinking centers on the consumer publishing eBook panopoly – the Kindles, Nooks, and similar devices of the world. But there’s of course an academic side to things too. I have major beefs with a lot of the vendors and publishers who provide eBook packages to universities & colleges. Most of these are a topic for another post. But one thing I want to cover here: Many of them commit one of my pet peeve sins by making the books non-downloadable. They can’t be used on any kind of personal eReader device, or even viewed on a PC without an internet connection. But the SpringerLink collection that we subscribe to at UNC provides simple, clean, downloadable PDFs. There’s no password protection on the files, no DRM, no clunky web client we’re forced to use. They trust users to download a chapter and use it responsibly. As a result they’re the first eBook collection I search and show to students.

Sure, I wish SpringerLink had a more flexible format than PDF, but this is a step in the right direction. While other vendors like eBrary are rushing to finish off what will no doubt be limiting device-specific apps for their content, Springer lets readers choose how to consume their text.

2. Fictionwise
Fictionwise.com isn’t perfect, but they’re still my favorite eBook retailer. They sell a large portion of their titles DRM-free, which means they can be read on virtually any device or computer in perpetuity. There’s no license keys to maintain, no chance of a distributor retroactively taking back a sale. They also provide an archive of my purchases – I first bought a title from them in 2003, and I can re-download that book as much as I want today. I can even still get to the titles I purchased which they no longer sell. I wish their catalog of non-DRMed books would grow, especially among current bestsellers, but Fictionwise is still the only place I buy my eBooks from today.

(One caveat – Barnes & Noble bought Fictionwise last year. I hope B&N lets FW keep its independence.)

3. Calibre
eBook file formats are far from standardized. There’s .epub, .lrf, .html, .mobi, .pdf… the alphabet soup goes on forever. And of course no one device or program supports them all. The situation is a head-scratcher, and that confusion costs consumers & students time and money. Once upon a time it was a nightmare trying to convert from one format to another. Then along came Calibre.

Think of it like itunes for eBooks. It converts from almost any format to any other format, provides sophisticated yet user-friendly metadata management, and even syncs files with eReader devices. As a bonus, it’s open source & free to download!
Calibre single-handedly increased my ability to read eBooks by roughly 100% (my very scientific measurement, yes), and decreased my frustration even more. It doesn’t work with files locked down via DRM, but that’s a fault of vendors and not Calibre.

4. Comics by Comixology
Technically this is about comics, not simple text, but either way it’s still eBooks of a different sort. Comics by Comixology (henceforth referred to as simply ‘Comixology’) is an iPhone app which sells downloadable comic books. Many of them are adapted from print versions, but optimized very well for the iPhone & iPod Touch’s smaller screen. Panels zoom in and out and flow together. And in a first for digital comics, Comixology even sells issues from many major print publishers like Marvel and Image.

The comics only function on the iDevices, of course, which is something that would usually bug me. But the user experience is so good that I’m willing to overlook it for now. And then comes what I like best about Comixology – the price. Most issues are either $.99 or $1.99, which frankly is what a comic book should cost in any form. Many print comics now cost $3.99, and then after that ripoff I have to find somewhere to store them. As a result, my comic buying in the last couple years has dropped way off.

So $.99 for something I don’t have to find storage space for is a very attractive alternative to me. Example: I recently wanted to read the newest Atomic Robo collection. Amazon charges $12.89 for the print version, down from an $18.95 list price. I picked up the whole thing on Comixology for $4.95, and had a great digital reading experience without taking up space on my living room shelves. Cost effectiveness trumps a lot for me. Many times publishers charge resellers like Amazon the same wholesale price for both print copies and eBooks. This baffles me to no end. Comixology and their content providers recognize how much cheaper digital distribution is, and adjusted their prices accordingly.

I consume comics differently than I consume books. Comics by Comixology (despite their awkward name) is smart enough to realize that I’m not alone in this, and found a way to make the restrictions I usually foam at the mouth over become a palatable choice.

(note: Comixology has multiple apps for the iPhone, and I’m talking about the one specifically called ‘Comics by Comixology’ here.)

Publishers don’t understand e-books

This Wall Street Journal article touched many nerves for me: Publishers hold back e-books.

So hold on, I’m going to get a bit ranty and this’ll probably be a long post 🙂

Summary: Two major publishers have decided that they’re going to hold back e-book versions of their titles for months after the hardback release.

From the article, here’s their justification:

“The right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback,” said Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS Corp. “We believe some people will be disappointed. But with new [electronic] readers coming and sales booming, we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.”

A much better (and more profitable) course of action would be to simply embrace the e-book world and figure out how to adapt to this new ecosystem. Change is coming, and burying their heads in the sand isn’t how publishers will survive.

Some publishers try to make the argument that people have had the choice to buy a hardback immediately or wait for the cheap paperback for decades. And surely placing an e-book release between those two options just extends this model, right? They have this nonsensical vision that people with e-book readers will run out and buy hardbacks instead when their e-books are taken away. This could not be more wrong. Here’s what’s going to happen instead:

Meet Consumer Bob. Consumer Bob invested a lot of money in a Kindle. He obviously bought the device because he wants to read books on it, right? So Bob hears about a new book on TV and thinks he’d like to read it. Bob can’t find that book for his Kindle. At this point, Bob will do one of two things:

A)If Bob’s tech-savvy he’ll pirate the e-book he wants. Publisher gets no money.
B)If Bob isn’t tech-savvy he’ll buy another e-book to read, and probably forget the first book ever existed. Possibly a different publisher gets money.

Bob spent $250+ on his Kindle, and you better believe he wants to get use out of it. After plunking down that chunk of change, buying a paper book can feel a bit like wasting money. As a Sony Reader owner, I feel this sometimes myself. But Bob is also used to instant gratification and instant delivery of e-books, and doesn’t want to wait for the print version to arrive by mail or a trip to the store. Bob likely isn’t going to change his habits.

But let’s go back and look at part of that article quote again:

“…we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.”

What? Consumers are finding something new they want, and your response is to deny it to them? How does that make any kind of business sense? With that attitude you deserve to hemorrhage money.

Another article quote:

“Even as the retail price of many new hardcover novels creeps above $27, Amazon and Barnes & Noble boast many new best sellers for only $9.99 in the e-book format.

Increasingly, publishers have come to fear that the bargain prices will lead consumers to conclude that books are worth only $10, or less, upsetting the pricing model that has survived for decades.”

You know what? They’re right. A DRM-locked e-book simply isn’t worth $27. It’s barely even worth $10. I’m not going to pay the same amount for an e-book that a paper copy would cost me, when I can actually do LESS with that e-copy than the print: I can’t loan it, resell it, or donate it. So I will never ever pay full price, or near full price, for a DRM-locked e-book. Ever. And anybody who does hasn’t thought things through. I’d only consider buying DRM books with a massive (something like 75% or more) discount over the print version, unless the e-version has some other equally massive advantage.

But publishers even shoot themselves in the foot when they stumble on an e-gold mine. Stephen King’s new book, Under The Dome, is over 1000 pages. I don’t want to lug that back-breaking monster around with me, especially on the bus. I want to have it on my phone or e-book reader. This is a case where an e-book has clear convenience advantages over a print version, maybe even enough to overlook DRM issues. I was planning on buying it.

But King’s publisher, Scribner, has decided to shoot the e-book in the head. And not once, but twice. First the e-version won’t be available until 12/24, a full six weeks after the print version was released. Second, they’re charging wholesale prices for the e-book to distributors (like Amazon and B&N) of $35.

My moral outrage from their pricing issues aside (there’s no way they’ll ever convince me that it costs the same to print and ship an e-book as a print book), I REALLY don’t want the massive print version. No matter how discounted it is. So I’m left with just one option to acquire the book legally: Buy Under The Dome as an e-book on 12/24. This is the exact same end result as if the book was released the same day as the print version, 11/10. All Scribner has done is provided me with 6 weeks to forget that I want the book. 6 weeks to find something else to read, or maybe run across negative reviews and decide I don’t want the book after all. A thousand things could make me change my mind about buying the book. Forcing me to wait gains them nothing, and only introduces unnecessary risks into the question of whether or not they’ll get money from me.

And meanwhile I hate to break it to them, but despite Scribner’s best efforts Under The Dome is available as an eBook right now. It’s been pirated, of course. A quick search of the web shows a pirated version, likely scanned in by a large cooperative group, freely available all over the web (and with no DRM!). So Scribner has created an ecosystem where piracy is literally the only option for potential customers who would otherwise line up to give them money, AND that piracy delivers what’s actually a superior product with no DRM. King is a high profile writer with die-hard fans who want his book immediately, not six weeks from now. What are they going to do?

The sad thing is that Scribner will likely use this piracy situation as supposed evidence of how the e-book system doesn’t work and is killing the publishing industry. And they’ll never even see through their own fear, uncertainty, and doubt to realize that the root causes live in their own backyard.

Indispensable Android Apps

About a month ago I finally joined the smartphone world. Verizon released the Motorola Droid phone, which runs on Google’s Android software platform. I’m 95% satisfied with the phone, with only a few minor quibbles. I’ll get into those in another post. But first, here’s some of the 3rd party Android apps I’ve used most often:

Aldiko: An e-book reader, every bit as good as Stanza is on the iPhone. And that’s high praise.

Android Scripting Environment: This one’s just a bit of nerdy programming fun, you can write quick python scripts to do things on the phone – speak words, read your text messages, scan & process barcodes, etc.

Astro: A great file browser & manager, a category which Android oddly doesn’t have a default app for.

CardioTrainer: Keeps track of your workouts via GPS. I use it on my bike with great results. Kind of like Nike+, but free!

DockRunner: Kicks the Droid into its alarm clock nightstand type mode, which usually can only be accessed by placing the phone in its official Motorola docking cradle (and that cradle costs $30).

Listen: Google’s podcast downloader & organizer.

Mototorch LED: Turns on the Droid’s camera flash LED for use as a (surprisingly powerful) flashlight. Plus as a bonus, you can use the LED as a strobe or to send morse code flashes – always handy.

Pixelpipe Lite: For some reason the Droid’s built in photo uploaders strip all EXIF data out of the photo while uploading – including date stamp and rotation info. Pixelpipe is the only Flickr & Twitter photo uploading app I’ve found that preserves this data.

Twidroid: This app’s latest update took it from a good Twitter client to a great one.

That’s it for now! Look for a more in-depth Droid review at some time in the semi-near future.

Sony Reader PRS-505 vs the Kindle 2


Back in June I picked up a Sony e-book reader when Borders had a sale too good to pass up. It ended up being about half the price of a Kindle (at the time – the Kindle is a bit cheaper now). I don’t regret the purchase one bit! I’ve had a bunch of hands-on experience with a Kindle 2 at work lately, and in many ways I think the PRS-505 outdoes the Kindle.

Screen contrast is comparable to the Kindle, if not slightly better. The 505 supports many more formats than the Kindle, including the one most popular to me – epub. Epub has been growing in popularity lately for authors who like to give away their work (or samples of their work) online. So there’s plenty of free content out there for me to read! It’s an open standard too, which is a nice bonus. The Kindle 2 can read epub files after a conversion, but in my experience that conversion is imperfect and introduces a number of formatting errors to the text. The 505 also reads PDFs without any conversion, which is a MAJOR boon for any researcher who finds themself awash in a pile of journal articles from library databases.

Of course, the 505 lacks one major feature of the Kindle: wireless web and book store access. The 505 requires a USB connection to a computer or memory card to add new books. I don’t miss the wireless connection though – if anything the lack of distraction helps me focus on actually reading! And considering that I saved so much money over a Kindle, I don’t mind the absence one bit.

The 505 is missing one feature that I dearly wish it had – built-in search. I can’t search through the text of a book on the 505 for some reason, which to me is a primary advantage of having text in electronic format to begin with. I can search in a book via Sony’s desktop software, then bookmark a location to load up on the reader, but that doesn’t help me when I don’t have access to a desktop PC. However, this lack bugs me less than I thought it would. In 6 weeks of frequent use, only once have I wished I could search for something. I guess the lack of this feature is because the 505 lacks the keyboard of the Kindle 2. But I still think some sort of text entry via a toggle button would have been better than none at all. Incidently Sony’s newer model, the PRS-700, adds search via a touch-screen keyboard. But I saw a 700 in a store recently, and wasn’t impressed at all. Adding a touchscreen overlay to the display makes it appear muddled and blurry.

And both readers are hobbled by official book stores which only sell books locked down with DRM. I say this a lot, but: I won’t buy any books from Amazon or Sony’s stores until I know that I can at the very least loan them to friends or donate them to a good cause when I’m done reading. Both stores’ prices are currently far too high, often equivalent to or nonsensically more than the print version, to justify the tradeoff of losing those ‘features’ of a book.

And there’s one final, less concrete reason I prefer the 505 over a Kindle 2 – the 505 doesn’t feel like it’ll fall apart in my hands. It’s made of metal, and feels much more solidly built than the plasticy Kindle. I actually dropped the 505 once, pretty severely. I had to snap the power button back on, but otherwise there was absolutely no sign of injury. I’m very confident that a similar fall would have killed off a Kindle 2.

Incidentally, check out Calibre! It’s a great piece of software designed to manage eBook collections on a reader. http://calibre.kovidgoyal.net/

B&N enters the eBook arena. With more e-Babel.

Today Barnes & Noble entered the eBook selling fray. For now they’re not launching a dedicated hardware device like the Kindle. Instead, they’re focusing on providing content for devices (some) people already own – iPhone/iPods, Blackberries, PC and Mac. Sometime later their books will be compatible with the forthcoming Plastic Logic reader too, but for now they’re piggybacking on existing hardware.

At first I was glad to see some competition at B&N’s level enter the eBook sphere. Amazon’s been throwing their weight around to the point that other players like Sony’s eBook store have been almost entirely forgotten. I recently picked up a Sony Reader PRS-505 at discount (review forthcoming, mostly positive!); I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been asked while reading on the bus how I like my Kindle. Amazon has mindshare with the Kindle, just like the iPod brand does among portable audio players, and B&N seemed like the most likely realistic competitor with their considerable clout as an established bookseller. And I don’t like seeing something so fundamental as the (potential) future of reading get locked up by a lone corporation like Amazon. So hooray, we’re saved, right?

Not quite. I’m dismayed and annoyed to see yet another DRM scheme come into play. B&N’s books won’t work on the Kindle or Sony Reader, nor will their competitors’ books work on the Plastic Logic reader. Readers who want to purchase an eBook from any major e-bookstore will be locked into the silo of their device’s manufacturer. So we have an alternative, but not an answer.

I’ll give Barnes & Noble credit where its due – their books will at least be readable on a PC or Mac. If I buy a Kindle book and then lose my Kindle, I’m completely cut off from my texts. If I lose a Plastic Logic reader I can at least still access my books on a computer. Reading on a desktop or laptop screen is less than ideal, but I’ll take that over no access at all any day. That’s a step in the right direction.

But B&N’s scheme still isn’t the answer! All purchased e-books need to be readable on any and all devices before I’ll even consider purchasing my books that way.

What’s next: eBook readers

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about eBook readers and their place in a learning environment. We’re at an interesting point in their adoption right now, with the technology not quite mature. Libraries (and educators in general) need to be taking a look at currently available devices and thinking about what’s coming next.

I’ll be the first to admit that students aren’t using eBook readers en masse yet. In fact I can count the number of eReader devices I’ve seen used in public on one hand. And while I definitely don’t think the printed paper page will ever disappear completely, I do believe that someday eReaders will play a substantial role in students’ lives.

Today’s students are the so-called ‘digital natives’, those who grew up with computers and related technology embedded throughout their lives. As a result they have very different expectations and competencies than previous generations. When it comes to eReaders, today’s students are that previous generation. Tomorrow’s students will be the eReader literate crowd. Ideally we’d take an active role in creating publishing standards and devices while that generation comes of age, but I’m not sure that’s realistically possible. At the very least we need to keep a sharp eye on what’s coming and make our concerns and best practices known.

Meanwhile I’m deeply concerned by a lot of what I see happening in the arena of DRM and eBook readers. But that’s a topic for another post.