Re: Cover to Cover #319B: Electronic Formats Revisisted

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

Dragon Page: Cover to Cover has been discussing ebooks at length lately, especially since Mike Stackpole is selling his stuff in the iTunes App Store. In the latest episode they spend the opening section lampooning the idea of e-book standards. The conversation that ensued contained a good deal of misinformation1 .

So I’m posting this in response here, hoping to keep the conversation going (I could post it as a comment on the site, but it’s a bit long for that, and it’s way to long to leave as a voicemail without sounding like even more of a crank).

Stand Alone Readers in the iTunes Store

The discussion gives an impression about the stand alone readers (specifically Stanza and eReader) having access to a bunch of old public domain content nobody actually wants to read. No mention is made of putting content you purchased outside iTunes or creative commons works into these readers, which seems to be their primary purpose.

Stanza

The Stanza iPod Touch/iPhone app is an offshoot of the Stanza desktop reader (Mac Only). Any file you can read on the desktop reader2) can be transferred to the mobile Stanza app. This covers a lot of commercially available content.

Also the mobile Stanza app is pre-configured to pull ePub files from Feedbooks. Feedbooks has 2500+ titles available for free. While many works are those you avoided reading in high school, it also includes titles from authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lester Del Rey, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, H. P. Lovecraft, Andre Norton, H. Beam Piper, Robert Silverberg and E.E. “Doc” Smith. Those too old school for you? How about Steven Brust, Tobias Buckell, Cory Doctorow, James Patrick Kelly, and Charles Stross, to name a few.

eReader

Although it’s stated that the eReader can be used to download free content (I admit I don’t even know if can download free content), no mention is made that it is actually designed to download your purchases from eReader. Also, any multi-format purchase from Fictionwise is also supported.

Since I personally avoid books that come locked in one format, the vast majority of my Fictionwise purchases are instantly downloadable to my iPod touch. That’s a big win for me, because it means when I’m home I can read on my dedicated e-book reader, with it’s larger screen, but when I’m stuck in the waiting room I can keep reading the same book off my iPod Touch without buying it twice.

ePub and Tower of eBabel

There is a group of […] e-book enthusiasts who are deaf on anything that is not the one true ring, the one true way. They want everything to be available in one universal format, which doesn’t happen to exist yet. […] and they want it to then be cross-platform available because they’re very resentful if seven years ago they bought a book for their palm pilot and now they can’t play it on their iPod.

Yeah, those people. Me.

Mike and Mike then then proceed to talk down to “those people” as if we all just fell off the esparanto truck by giving the same arguments all the digital music players that didn’t play MP3s used to give and why music would always have DRM. Making a buck will always trump the demands of the consumer. Format wars will always go on forever and ever and there will be no standard delivery mechanism3 .

More importantly, the format does exist in the form of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF)‘s ePub, and it does have vendor support. Adobe, Amazon4 , eBook Technologies, OSoft, VitalSource and LibreDigital (among others) all support ePub in their current products. Sony just added ePub support to it’s line of readers, and Bookeen is currently working on adding it to their Cybook readers. You can get any of Feedbooks 2500+ titles in .epub. Heck, even the last of the freebie releases from TOR was released in .epub rather than .mobi.

Maybe I’m Crazy

I like e-books. I prefer them to print. I like being able to increase the font to rest my eyes. I like being able to read them on multiple devices. I don’t want this to happen to my books. I feel that e-books have to be more convenient that print to really take off5 . So either I’m a nut-job, or I’m who the people trying to sell these things should be targeting. I’m the one going to go out and extolling the virtues of these things to the people I know who are hanging by the sidelines waiting to see if they want to jump in. Feel free to tell me which one you think I am in the comments6

  1. I honestly don’t believe this was intentional. []
  2. Stanza supports HTML, PDF, Microsoft Word, RTF, Amazon Kindle, Mobipocket, Microsoft LIT, Palm doc, and EPUB (at least the DRM free variations of the above []
  3. Yeah, that’s why we don’t have a way to deliver audio programming in mp3 files over HTTP using RSS to any number of devices. []
  4. Amazon supports ePub in it’s Mobipocket products, but there’s no mention of the Kindle yet []
  5. It’s very likely publishers don’t what them to take off. Record companies still want you to buy CDs too. []
  6. If I don’t get any I’ll know I’m a crazy person talking to myself. []

Michael A. Stackpole Selling New Fiction Online

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

It looks like Michael A. Stackpole is experimenting with direct e-book sales on his site. I’m very interested to see how it works out (and I hope it does).

Jed and the Titanium Turtle is a short story “about America and how it deals with a bunch of alien visitors who are ‘here to help.'” Sounds like it could be worth the $2 he’s asking.

Also available are the first two chapters of The Grand History, a fictional non-fiction history of the DragonCrown War. This is going for $1 a chapter, and may be the more interesting experiment. You’re only going to sell this to the subset of people who read the DragonCrown War books liked them enough to want to read meta-fiction in that universe. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy this type of work. I just think it has less commercial appeal, which makes it perfect for this type of sales model. I hope it works out because I’d love to see more of this type of thing.

The setup seems similar the one Holly Lisle uses in her shop. On the other hand, Mr. Stackpole is focusing on fiction, and short works. This immediately brought thoughts of micropayments to mind. iTunes has shown that the $1 granularity works for online sales (at least in huge quantities), but last time I looked into it (which was a few years back, and I was focusing on comics at the time) a decent micropayments systems for sub-dollar amount sales still hasn’t emerged.

All the works are currently only available as PDFs (just like Holly Lisle’s). This is a bummer (for me) because I can’t easily read them on my eBookwise 1150, which I’d prefer. I already work and write at the computer (although I’ve been doing more longhand writing lately). Extra on-screen reading is too much for my eyes. Since PDFs don’t let you resize the text and have it re-flow that means I’ll have to print them out. which is what I do with his excellent writing newsletter The Secrets. I don’t mind printing those out since I keep them indexed in binders to make it easy to refer back to them.

None of these are really issues I expect anyone to just solve, let alone authors selling their own stories for a couple of bucks. I do wish reasonable tools and standards were in place so that a more flexible solution would be the obvious choice.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to giving Jed and the Titanium Turtle a read later.

Go Listen: Michael A. Stackpole Interview

Monday, June 18th, 2007

Another great author interview. This time J.C. Hutchins interviews Michael A. Stackpole. It covers writing, podcasting, Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, and more.

DragonPage: Cover to Cover 2.0

Monday, January 15th, 2007
My first, and still one of my favorite podcasts, The Dragon Page Cover to Cover changed their format last week, and added Michael A. Stackpole to the mix. So far, so good. I haven’t heard this week’s episode yet, but it looks like they want some feedback on expanding book coverage beyond Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.