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[Originally posted as  a response on the Read 2.0 discussion list]

It’s fair to say that ebooks are here to stay, but it’s also pretty obvious there’s a lot of hot air floating around.

A provocative article from Wired I saw today points out the remaining painful flaws with ebooks. It got some backlash among fans.

The way I read it, the second time through, was not that the basic premise is ebooks should replicate the print world, but they should evolve from the best traits of the print world, and then add some new ones of their own.

I think all of his points are extremely valid criticisms of nagging problems with ebooks as a medium.

1.) They still feel ephemeral. E-ink does something to alleviate this. I place my Kindle on top of my stack of unfinished paperbacks. That’s my reminder there are 5 more unfinished e-books there. Placing my iPad there wouldn’t make as much sense.

2.) The first point leads nicely into the second one, which is why can’t all the lovely Epubs I read in iBooks be available on my Kindle? You have to admit, the selfish segmentation of content according to hardware and/or retailer is one of the stupidest and most annoying problems that the industry is perpetuating.

3.) The margin note problem is in turn related to device segmentation as well. Currently, even in the new Epub 3 spec, the industry is resisting the ability to connect a book to the wider universe of the social web. The ideal container is designed to restrict what we can do with the content and what other data we can bring into it.

4.) Pricing is still a valid concern, and an industry problem. I don’t think anyone on this [Read 2.0] list would dispute that.

5.) On this point, I agree with a fundamental assumption, which is that books, unlike other media, are inherently physical. And I don’t just mean covers and spines and paper. E-ink, remember, has physicality to it. It’s not just light emitted from a screen, it’s light reflecting off of particles. It’s the most natural successor to the printed page. It’s a testament that we can’t discount the value of jackets, spines, and form factors in figuring out where the ebook is headed. The question of whether consumers will continue to want pretty packages for their ebooks has not yet been resolved.

Rather than being superfluous, I think this article raises important concerns in layman’s terms, and it’s refreshing to have it as a backdrop to all the hype. We have a long way to go…

Aaron

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Amazon just announced it would finally begin accepting epubs from publishers, and might, someday soon, make reading them a feature of the Kindle.

I just got a Kindle for the first time, because I sort of had to. I’m not finding myself cuddling it, or having separation anxiety, or developing the kind of co-dependent relationship it seems to engender in most people. I think the pages of the books I read are horrendously ugly on it; I’ll credit it for the crispness of the type, the lack of glare, and the reduced e-ink latency they’ve achieved with the latest model. And it feels good to hold. It’s light and comfortable. Too bad it perpetuates the impression most people have had of ebooks since people started trying to sell them: they’re the ugliest way to read. Way uglier than the Web, even uglier than the Web used to be. And Kindle, unfortunately, does nothing to fix that, except provide the crispest ugly fonts and typography you’ve ever seen (yes, the resolution and ease on the eye exceeds paperbacks, but don’t expect to see Jensen, or Bembo, or Garamond, here. You’re stuck with some poor stepchild font that is undoubtedly the result of Amazon’s notorious over-analytical approach to user-interaction, not the choice of anyone remotely trained in creating something visually appealing on an aesthetic level).

But my biggest gripe is my recent discovery that after dumping most of my DRM-free epub collection onto the device, NONE of them work!

I don’t know why I thought they would. I guess I know too much about Epub — it’s reflowable, it’s not too unlike .mobi, which is the format Amazon uses inside its little DRMed packages, and it’s based on HTML, and I can tell the Kindle reading system is rendering HTML, because I’ve seen tag artifacts occasionally while reading. There’s no good technical reason they couldn’t support epub. But here’s what Bezos has said about it (in a USA today interview last year):

“Q: Why doesn’t Amazon support the popular ‘e-pub’ standard used by your competitors and many libraries?

A: We are innovating so rapidly that having our own standard allows us to incorporate new things at a very rapid rate. For example: Whispersync (which uses wireless connections to sync your place in a book across devices) and changing font sizes.

Other standards over time may incorporate some of these things. But we’re moving very quickly to improve the state of the art. It’s very helpful not to have to wait for some third-party standard to catch up.”

There are so many things wrong and annoying with that answer, that I don’t even want to begin. Epub is reflowable, geared toward systems that let you change the font size, and it’s web-based, the only ebook format to take a step in the direction of connecting itself to the massive database of human activity we call the Web. But because Bezos is so intent on making Amazon so innovative that they can’t support epub, I’m stuck reading my PDFs in a severely reduced page size, or I’m resigned to just buying more books from Amazon.

Which is exactly what he wants me to do.

Damn.

I’ve been using the iBooks app quite a bit on my iPad, and I’ve long hoped for an update which will wipe out that annoying faux-book border around the pages. So I investigated it, and was thrilled to find an easy way to modify iBooks to use a clean white (or sepia) page with no pseudo book border around it. I’m calling this the “clean” theme, although it really just cleans up the two existing themes in iBooks – “default” and “sepia.”

Download it here:

https://github.com/Vaporbook/iBooks-Theme-Clean-Up

You’ll need the OS X desktop application called iPhone Explorer to do this. It’s very much like a Finder window that you can use on your iPad/iPhone — so you can see and change the full filesystem, and not just the media files like iTunes lets you do. Once you have it installed, hook up your iPad and follow the instructions in the README.txt file.

Note: I do include the files to modify the iPhone version as well, but I haven’t tested those. Reports are welcome.

~Aaron

BookGlutton has slowly been moving over to using the ReadSocial API, and to-date stands as its first and only official tester. All of the live chat in the book rooms is now being served up via a service from ReadSocial, which is hosted separately on Amazon’s EC2 service. Eventually that and other services will be available to ReadSocial’s other partners.

But for now, ReadSocial has itself launched another proof-of-concept regarding the many interesting connections they’re making between readers of digital books, and the books themselves. It’s called Readum, and it launched this week. It ties together the largest (and most controversial) cloud-based publishing and reading system, Google Editions, with the largest (and most active) social network, Facebook.

Why couldn’t this be done before? One reason is that Google disables the web browser’s normal ability to select short snippets of text in their web-based e-books, so you couldn’t even copy a passage and share it manually if you wanted to. Secondly, Facebook treats books in a very generic way, which is to say they lump them in with your “Entertainment” interests, making it hard for users to recommend their “liked” books to each other. Now you can jump into the Google edition of any of your “liked” books on Facebook, and share a comment from it back to your feed.

For those who don’t have time or inclination to try it out, here’s a brief video overview:
http://vimeo.com/user6312450/readum

 

And here’s where you can get it (Firefox and Chrome only at the moment):
http://www.readum.com

Enjoy!

Insight on web publishing can be found in the oddest places. Take for example, this fascinating bit of early scientific observation, lucidly and meticulously related:

“Observe what happens when sunbeams are admitted into a building and shed light on its shadowy places. You will see a multitude of tiny particles mingling in a multitude of ways… their dancing is an actual indication of underlying movements of matter that are hidden from our sight… It originates with the atoms which move of themselves [i.e. spontaneously]. Then those small compound bodies that are least removed from the impetus of the atoms are set in motion by the impact of their invisible blows and in turn cannon against slightly larger bodies. So the movement mounts up from the atoms and gradually emerges to the level of our senses, so that those bodies are in motion that we see in sunbeams, moved by blows that remain invisible.”

(from Lucretius‘s  “On the Nature of Things“)

After pondering this passage for some time in the context of digital publishing, I came up with a new project idea. Not that I need any new ideas right now, seeing as how my current projects haven’t been able to repair my shoes yet, or replace my aging laptop. But still, a great idea is a great idea. This passage had me thinking of shedding light on unknowns, and the curation and filtering that we now need in place on the Web. The overarching truth that powers the observation here is that light only penetrates enclosed spaces when the source is properly aligned with an opening.

So what is the opening?

In my answer to that question, it’s a window on a world of literature outside the realm of what’s available in your standard outlets. It’s a community of editors, in short, who are taking unusual, unpublished works and presenting them for the first time to the world, with a twist: they are all linked, and illuminate each other. In other words, they are not admitted unless they somehow enhance or speak to each other, and the links between them and other media are just as important as the content within each volume. This outlet brings illumination to titles that are otherwise shadowed by disconnected, monochrome systems. Each editor may use it to build community, market a single book, or sell online access to many books. It belongs to all editors, is the publisher for each, and brings all their books into one web of books, accessible through any mobile browser.

That’s the next thing, when I get a chance.

 

Aaron

In the foggy avenues of outer San Francisco, where the strange musky odor of the towering Eucalyptus trees along Park Presidio permeates the air, Brewster Kahle hosted a conference for a small number of people deeply interested in the convergence of books and the Web. The conference, called Books in Browsers, was heavy with talk of “social reading.”

Not once did anyone mention “social publishing.” But I’ve come to believe that we need to think about this concept before we turn so much attention to “social reading.”

So what does “social publishing” mean? I did a quick search and found no formal definition, but I did find this:

http://billboardsandcavedrawings.wordpress.com/2009/10/28/what-the-hell-is-social-publishing/

That includes, if you scroll down the page, a definition from one person I would consider authoritative on the topic, Richard Nash. From Loudpoet’s (Guy LeCharles Gonzales) interview:

“‘Social (publishing)’ is taking the book and making it much easier to have a conversation with the book and its writer, and have conversations around the book and its writer.”

This is a decent definition that gets at certain key activities in the business of social publishing. The problem is I don’t think Richard’s intent was to define social publishing, but to define the term “social” as it applies to publishing. That’s different than the concept I’m trying to define.

Put simply, social publishing is concerned with everything that happens around a book after it has been sold.

To most people, this just doesn’t sound radical. But to those familiar with the publishing industry as it stands represented today by the largest American publishing houses, it should sound revolutionary. Because, you see, most publishers, especially those bound up most by the business of printing, packaging and shipping books, don’t care what happens to a book after it’s sold. Other people in publishing care — authors, editors, agents, publicists, etc. But when we say “publisher” we really mean the entity which is in the business of publishing things. Whether it’s one guy or one large company, the fact of the business is that the end goal of each book is to be sold. That’s as far as the process goes. And that’s the big problem today.

Social publishing is the natural evolution of publishing as a business. It encompasses the Web and all new digital distribution platforms, including the way people read and discover on them. It includes social reading, which is really just reading, an act that has always been social. Social publishing requires a deep interest and study of what happens to a text after it is disseminated — how readers interact with it, how they share it, how they copy it, how they talk about it — and it requires action arising from that deep study.

Since I’m still working out my definition of cloud publishing, I will also add that cloud publishing is most definitely a form of social publishing, and perhaps the best example of it. Cloud publishing is social publishing that dates its birth in 1993. If you think about this, and think about the digital-only production, distribution and consumption chain of the Web and the different motivations for publishing there and the interesting things that happen to content after it’s published there, then you’ll see everything that traditional publishers need to learn.

Those who date their enterprise earlier than that would do well to realize that what happens in, around and on the pages of a book after it’s sold are definitely matters of concern for future business.

Rueda Bench

Sitting in Union Square Park this morning, watching as drops from yesterday’s deluge were made into rain again by breezes in the canopy, catching the sunlight as they fell, I tried to resist the urge to look to the bench at my left, where some guy seemed to want everyone to know how much fun he was having with his music. “Oh yeah!” he kept exclaiming, “CCR! Creedence Clearwater. Born on the Bayou.” And started bobbing and making guttural noises which sounded not quite like the bass line and rhythm of that song.

I really just wanted to watch the shining drops that kept falling in the center of the park whenever a breeze came up, but he kept exclaiming louder, and soon all I could focus on was his aggressive enthusiasm for music I couldn’t hear.

I thought, if I shift to the far end of my bench to give him some distance, he might calm down. But this action seemed to encourage him.

Whenever you encounter someone like this in New York, you run through a threat assessment first. Might they stab you? Are their hands empty? Do they look capable of strangling someone? I ran through the possibilities in my head, medicalizing his behavior, coming to all kinds of rational conclusions as to what might ail him, leaning toward something typically harmless like Asperger’s, and finally, as he burst out with an even louder “CCR! Oh yeah, I can’t believe I’m listening to Rock N Roll Music,” and as I looked across at a man in commando garb, doing boxing routines, and another man, mostly toothless, pouring a beer into a plastic cup he’d pulled from the recycling, I thought, “Oh yeah. Oh yeah is right. They’re all just maniacs.”

It’s never wrong when you find yourself surrounded by maniacs to ask yourself what exactly you’re doing in the same place at the same time. The truth is, I was sitting there obsessing, in my own way, on the idea that has consumed us for four-and-a-half years now, that the act of picking up a book to read is an important event that implicitly connects you to the other readers of that book AT THAT MOMENT. At its most far out, the notion that no matter how obscure the book, that finally we might have an efficient way to know that we’re not alone in sitting down to read it, that the connection may now be made explicit, whether we take action through it, or simply become aware of it via, say, the arrival ding of another reader. At the very least, we should be able to ANNOUNCE it in some way, if we want. Don’t call it a “check-in,” or you’ll get immediate backlash from people, at least in this city. Whatever we decide to call it — paragraph ping, book ack, page status — it’s that moment when you let your circle of trusted connections know that you’re engaging with something permanent. After all, books have the same kind of permanence that locations do, even though their actual locations move around. Their interiors are worlds in themselves, full of solid reference points that change either very little or not at all. If you check into the third paragraph of a chapter of Faulkner, it’s as likely to change as a particular piece of bedrock in Central Park. Conversely, twenty years from now, what good is it to know that you checked into your local Starbucks?

Maniacs exaggerate simple truths about human nature. There’s a part of us, when we engage with something we like — whether it’s queueing up CCR or Kanye, or opening a copy of Go Tell It On The Mountain or Song of Myself or the Bible — that rejoices in the idea of having other people know. No one can say that they have never, when listening to music or looking at art or reading a great story, thought to themselves “Oh yeah! I can’t believe I’m experiencing this! I want people to understand that this experience is worth having!”

This is normal. Otherwise, these things wouldn’t move us in the first place.

I don’t know why I’ve become so intent on this idea, but I’m probably going to keep struggling with it until I get it right. And I’m well aware that in the last three years, everyone else has become interested in it, and there are plenty of implementations of things that attempt to make this idea reality. But I haven’t yet seen one that gets it right. Even my own. I wish I could convey it better with words, but I think the only expression of this that will open people’s eyes is actual execution and delivery.