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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. []

Is the Audiobook Industry Broken?

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

Evo Terra over at Podiobooks.com feels that the audiobook industry is broken. It’s not the first time I’ve seen him mention it, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

NOTE: Before going on I feel I should mention that I am an affiliate for Audible.com as well as a long time customer. That is in no way my motivation for posting this1 , but I figured I should mention it. The opinions are mine, as always.

Overdrive and the MP3 Audiobook Bait and Switch

Evo starts off pointing to points to Borders offering downloadable DRM2 free MP3 audiobooks. The problem is they aren’t offering downloadable MP3s at all. All Borders is doing is putting yet another new front on Overdrive3 . Overdrive is everywhere4 . If your library offers free audiobook downloads, chances are they’re Overdrive.

Overdrive very carefully words things to say their product works with most MP3 players. Until recently they didn’t technically work with any MP3 players. They were all DRM protected WMA, and if your device doesn’t play WMA 5 then you are out of luck.

What really left a bad taste in my mouth was the slimy marketing they used to defend this. They used to have literature all over their sites decrying Apple for only supporting DRM on proprietary formats, all the while using Microsoft’s DRM laden proprietary format, which cut non-Windows users out of the loop all together. This lead to my local library posting information that was practically correct, but technically bogus as to why you couldn’t use your iPod to hear the MP3 audiobooks they offered. In reality they didn’t offer MP3s at all.

More recently they’ve started offering files in MP3, or so they claim. They still package the files in some container format, and you need to use their software to get the “DRM free” MP3s out. The software only runs on Windows, so Mac users are out in the cold. I can not comprehend how an action that seems to have been taken primarily to support the Apple iPod doesn’t support users of Apple computers.

Evo’s Four Reasons

Evo offered four reasons for why he thinks the audibook industry is broken, and I’m going to respond point by point.

Availability

Publishers aren’t willing to make the additional investment required to turn every book into an audiobook.

This is generally true. Not every book receives an audiobook release. How I wish this weren’t so. Audible.com , at least in the realms of Science Fiction and Fantasy, is doing their best to rectify this6 .

[Podiobooks.com’s] goal is to leverage something the other audio houses haven’t thought of or are only experimenting with — letting the authors do much of the heavy lifting.

Author’s reading their own books was common practice for some time. I have many audiobooks on cassette read by the authors. These are more rare today, because audiobook consumers voted with their wallets and pro-narration won out.

I realize Evo is referring to authors recording and editing their own readings their own works for the publisher if the publisher would just take and release the files, but I’m almost certain it’s not that simple7 . I’m sure many authors would have no problems, but just as many wouldn’t bother because they wouldn’t know where to begin. Also some authors are openly hostile to the idea of audiobooks, and don’t think people who have listened to them have “read” their books8 .

Usability

The act of listening to an audiobook is, well, difficult.

No huge argument there from me. In fact Random House’s recent split with Audible.com is a great example. To listen to Scott Sigler’s Infected on my iPod I had to rip the CDs and merge them into an audiobook file. It’s not something I’m willing to do again. I don’t really care who is at fault in this one. The fact that the parties involved can’t suck it up and come to some agreement is childish. It’s costing them both money (Audible.com because they can’t sell me the books I want, and Random House because they don’t offer a viable alternative).

DRM is a huge part of the inconvenience, but not all of it. Audible.com uses DRM, and I wish they didn’t, but the way they deliver their books, and how the work on devices is damn close to my idea of audiobook nirvana. I only have one or two files to stick on my device, and it’s broken up into chapters for navigation, has cover art9 , bookmarks where I left off 10 , and just generally works for me. Basically the other conveniences, for me, outweigh the DRM issue (for now) 11 .

Most of the DRM free options are not so convenient a listening experience. I have to jump through hoops to make the books work for me. It’s a pain.

Low bit rates are the norm in the download space, and it’s really unnecessary in a world where bandwidth and storage space are anything but scarce

I couldn’t more strongly disagree on this one. You can ask anyone who knows me, I’m very picky about audio quality, but I cringe when I see audiobook files at high bitrates. Last time I checked my audible library was about 25GB for just under 11 weeks of audio, all of which sounds better than my cassette based audiobooks ever did12 .

Accessibility

It’s not uncommon for audiobooks to cost more than twice their hardcover counterparts and be an order of magnitude higher in price than the paperback version. […] Things are different for disc-distribution. It may cost more to stamp out 20 discs than it does to print 400 pages. But when looking at a digital download, the cost to distribute approaches zero.

I was used to audiobooks costing a lot, but you have to look at the length of the content. I have audiobooks that are 24+ hours and cost less than a DVD Season Box Set from HBO. I value books higher than I value TV, so I pay for it13 . My understanding is that CDs are cheap as dirt, so if you think you’re paying for the physical medium you’re being ripped off just the same.

Profitability14

It seems downloadable audiobook companies apparently don’t pay out great royalties. I assume this comes down to the fact that most non-casual purchasers buy books with membership credits, so while the cover price may be $80+, the customer only ended up paying around $1015 . I believe it was Orson Scott Card who mentioned that by recording some extra audio content for all his books he gets paid twice (book royalty and performance royalty). I don’t know how solvable this is for traditional publishing.

So Is it Broken?

All the numbers I’ve seen point to the audibook industry booming like it never has before. Sales were estimated at $923 million in 2006. While all the issues mentioned above are real, they don’t seem to be slowing things down enough that I expect any big changes any time soon. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, or I’m living in a bubble.

From where I’m sitting this is the Audiobook Golden Age. Most pro-audiobooks are unabridged, and there are more audibooks available than ever before. There are some really great places like Podiobooks.com and Librivox offering free content.

Do I wish things were different? Sure. I wish Audible would drop DRM, at least at the publisher’s request. I wish Overdrive would go jump in a lake and get out of my library, or change their tactics to be less slimy. I wish Podiobooks.com offered convenient audiobook-listener friendly formatted files16 . So, from where I sit it’s a bit broken, but it’s better than it’s ever been before.

  1. In the years I’ve been an affiliate I don’t think I’ve hit three digits yet, total, so honestly the money doesn’t enter into it here []
  2. What’s DRM? TIME magazine’s The Battle Over Music Piracy may help you understand. []
  3. aka SimplyAudiobooks. []
  4. Like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, but without any hot beverages. []
  5. like that iPod thing []
  6. As are folks like Scott Brick who is independently producing Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Books []
  7. Although Scott Sigler’s Infected shows that it is at least allowable. []
  8. more on this lunacy here []
  9. although it really needs a resolution face lift []
  10. some devices offer a way to drop in your own bookmarks as well, but the iPod does not []
  11. Audible’s management software has CD burning support so if you can get DRM free access to your purchases, it’s just a bit of a pain. []
  12. Audible.com does offer BBC Radio Dramas, which I will not buy because of the bitrate, and lack of stereo support []
  13. Truth is I end up paying ~$10 per audiobook currently, but I used to pay the cover price. []
  14. Couldn’t find a good pullquote, you should have read Evo’s article anyhow. []
  15. actual transaction []
  16. which I would be happy to pay for []

Links of Interest (November 27th 2007 Through January 3rd 2008)

Thursday, January 3rd, 2008
How to rewrite
A detailed post on rewriting, and how to do it.
Podiobooks.com Community
Online community based around Podiobooks.com. A place for listeners, authors, producers, etc. to communicate and help improve Podiobooks.com
Issue #1 of Sci Phi is available
The first issue of Sci Phi (The Journal of Science Fiction and Philosophy) is now available. The download version ($7) contains all stories and articles in various ebook formats as well as MP3.
GTD: Free Bundle of GTD Articles Written By David Allen
Lifehacker has a link to a collection of 17 articles available for free download from the David Allen Company.
Infamous IE hasLayout is toast
This “feature” of the IE rendering engine has caused me more headaches than I care to remember. I’m not at all sorry to see it go.
Kindles in libraries – the importance of ebook standards
DRM, lack of e-book standards, and related issues are even bigger issues for libraries.
AICN: 12th Episode will air!
SaveJourneman.net brings word that episode 12 of Journeyman will air. Journeyman is my favorite show of the new season, and I hope it comes back, but at least it will get to finish it’s run.
Tags: , ,
Doug Morris, Old Person
Jonathan Coulton posted this summary of the New York Magazine blog’s summary or Wired’s profile of Doug Morris, CEO of Universal Music Group. I’m not going to further summarize, just read and be enlightened.

“How to Beat Writers Block” Audio Course

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

I haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, but Holly Lisle has released her first audio course (MP3 and PDF): How to Beat Writers’ Block (and Have FUN Writing From Now On) (which includes a copy of 21 Ways to Get Yourself Writing When Your Life Has Just Exploded).

Hopefully when things quite down for me I’ll post a review.

Links of Interest (April 27th 2007 Through April 28th 2007)

Sunday, April 29th, 2007
The Dragon Page » Contest: Crystal Rain Giveaway
In honor of the May 2007 paperback release of Crystal Rain, author Tobias Buckell has graciously consigned us 3 signed hardcover copies to give away to Dragon Page listeners
Ninjawords – a really fast dictionary
Finally a dictionary where you don’t have to know how to spell the word before looking up how to spell the word. Pulls from Wiktionary and Princeton WordNet. I especially like that you can lookup multiple words at once (use commas to separate). Oh and
MythShow 07
Interview with Mur Lafferty
Transcription of the Panel at Lunacon 2007
A transcription of the ‘Ask The Editors’ panel at the 2007 Lunacon, recorded by John Joseph Adams, and featuring Douglas Cohen, Marvin Kaye, Hildy Silverman, and Wendy S. Delmater. Contains link to mp3.
User-Generated Content Is Top Threat to Media and Entertainment Industry, Accenture Survey Finds
Media and entertainment executives see the growing ability and eagerness of individuals to create their own content as one of the biggest threats to their business, according to results of a survey released today by Accenture.
First look: Downey forges a bond with ‘Iron Man’ role – USATODAY.com
Look like this could be good (please let it be good).

Read to Me

Friday, May 27th, 2005

I found this article from the New York Times (hint: bugmenot.com) over at Neil Gaiman’s blog. It was a pretty good read, consisting of the differing opinions on audiobooks vs. reading.

I found some of the quotes irksome enough to comment on.

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