Tag Archives: ebooks

Products: success and failure

We’re surrounded by products, day in and day out. The world is full of things to buy – not all of which are books. Personally, I’m a sucker for high-end tech. Some people buy designer jeans or expensive cars; I wear army surplus combats, drive a car that’s so small and fuel-efficient that I don’t have to pay road tax, and spend my hard-earned cash on personal tech with specs higher than I will ever need.

I’m not an IT professional – or even a particularly skilled amateur – but I love finding a new bit of tech that makes my life easier or more fun. Some women buy new clothes; I buy new apps.

Product Failures

So I find it interesting to look at what products succeed, and which ones fail. This article describes four products that failed:

  • The Ford Edsel – the only other time I’ve heard of this is in one of the Herbie films where an Edsel gets cut up and made into sculpture. A classic example of trying to be all things to all men and ending up not pleasing anybody. Plus, if you add all those knobs and whistles, they’d better work. Plus, not look weird.
  • The Microsoft Zune – Microsoft’s answer to the iPod, which I vaguely remember. Failed because it didn’t do anything new, or better than the iPod, and additionally had the square, clunky Microsoft design aesthetic. Might appeal to today’s hipsters, but back in the day, it was just uncool.
  • McDonald’s Arch Deluxe – ‘grown-up’ burger. The thing is, you don’t go to Macky-D’s for grown-up culture. You go for food that is fast and cheap.
  • The Google Glass. Apparently, released onto the market (and to journalists) before it was an entirely finished product. Prototypes are often less-than-stunning – and that was the Google Glass.

The last is the most interesting for me. It reminded me a lot of this article about care robots in Japan – and how Japan’s interest in robotics in the care industry has met with an unenthusiastic response from prospective users. At least in 2011, Japanese people wanted to be cared for by human beings, not robots – no matter how good the robot was.

Part of the failure of the Google Glass seemed to be an emotional adverse reaction from potential customers – just as elderly people in Japan didn’t want a humanoid robot caring for them (although non-humanoid robotic tools appear to be less of a problem), people found the Google Glass creepy, scary, and threatening – even to the level of assaulting the wearer, or ejecting him from shops simply for wearing a set. I wonder how much of this has a parallel with the Western fear of Muslim women wearing the face-covering niqab – culturally, we place great importance on being able to see people’s faces. We’re used to spectacles – since they’ve been around for about 750 years – but any other face-covering is weird and scary.

Another part of the failure of the Google Glass, I think, is that it was a cool bit of tech that did a job that very few people needed done. While having instant access to email and weather reports sounds cool – it’s actually not what most people either need or want. For the majority of the population, having your mail on your phone is quite enough. Apparently, Google Glass hasn’t gone away – but I predict that when it returns, it will be directed towards the sector of the population that really does have a need for it: e.g. police and security personnel, surgeons, on-location reporters. It seems unlikely that, culturally, society at large will be willing to accept Google Glass as personal tech for some time to come.

Apple: Product Success

Our household is a Mac household: Macs, iPads, iPhones, Apple Watches. My husband and I both like the Apple ecosystem – it’s reliable, efficient, and viruses are less of a problem (though my husband’s Mac still managed to catch one).

But one thing I notice about Apple is that they are very careful about what new products and features they introduce:

  • iPod/iPhone: kicked off serious changes to the music industry. Then – with the introduction of the app store – the rise of customisation of personal tech by enabling the consumer to buy little tiny programs that did a limited set of things, rather than a one-size-fits all big-program approach.
  • NFC technology: much whining about how Apple was falling behind because Android phones had NFC before the iPhone – but when Apple put NFC into the iPhone, it was coupled with the launch of Apple Pay, which revolutionised the way we pay for things. Either that, or they timed their market entry perfectly to catch a significant uptick in contactless technology adoption.
  • Apple Watch: latecomer to the smartwatch market, but I see Apple’s market share is now about half of the smartwatch market.

And this summer, we’re hearing much sneering about how Apple is missing a trick on the home automation market, with Google Home and Amazon Echo busily carving up the market between them. Personally, I think we’ll see – as predicted – the Apple entrant into the market next month, and I’ll be surprised if it isn’t something special. Apple’s strategy seems to be to wait until the technology available enables the manufacture of a product really worth having, rather than just a tech toy, before they enter that market themselves. More cynically, one might say that they wait for other people to make the mistakes, then swoop in with a beautiful, finished product that doesn’t have any embarrassing gaffes attached to it.

The Apple product philosophy seems to be, “Forget what’s cool, or what we can do – what can we make that is useful?” Then, of course, they make the useful product cool.

Back to Books

And, to relate this back to books and publishing…

Firstly, many of the same rules apply to books as to other products:

  • Don’t try to be all things to all men: figure out who your target demographic is, and write the book they want to read. Even if the target demographic is people exactly like the author, the market might be small, but they’ll be really happy. The more different people you try to please, the less chance you’ll please anybody.
  • Steer away from just mashing together as many genre conventions as you can, in the hope that this will increase popularity. It won’t: it’s more likely to look like parody. Or just silly.
  • If you’re going to offer something similar to what is already out there, you’ll have your best success if you add something new and interesting, something that is uniquely you. Otherwise, people will just stick with the market leaders, or at best you’ll have to fight everyone else for your share of the pie.
  • Know what people want from your kind of book. And give them that thing. You might give them other things as well, but you need to give them what they came for. People read romances for the happily-ever-after; they don’t read it for the hero and heroine to die tragically in the last chapter.

And when it comes to the book, the item itself? People want to read. E-books have taken off because they give people what they want – the author’s words – in a format that is convenient and fits into today’s busy lifestyles. Likewise, audiobooks are on the rise because they’re downloadable now, and they enable people to ‘read’ while they’re doing activities that otherwise make reading dangerous (like driving, or ironing).

Will electronic books ever include ‘expanded content’ like video, or background tracks? Well, maybe. But I wonder if those things come under the heading of ‘cool but ultimately useless’ because even though they’re possible (and people are already doing it) they’re just not what people come to (fiction) books for. I expect sound and video will become very much a part of textbooks, where they can be truly useful – but fiction is a different landscape, and like Google Glass as personal tech, I don’t think they’re what readers really want.

Of course… I might be wrong!

What do you think?

Review: Raw Power

Raw Power
Raw Power by Ambrose Ibsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ordinary bloke gets demon heart-transplant and finds it does more than just pump blood. Plus, he now has a new job, and life has got more complicated.

What I Liked
Lucian. Lucian (who doesn’t like being called ‘Lucy’, but had probably better get used to it) rang true for me. He’s bright but lazy, making a reasonable living prodding buttock and collecting debts – and, later on, art. He’s allowed himself to drift to where he is, without thinking about any of the morality involved – and he’s so overconfident you just know he’s in for a shock. Shocks. In short, he comes off as a realistic twenty-something lad with more testosterone than brains (and since he’s a bright lad, that’s a lot of testosterone). However, he has enough self-awareness to make him someone I would actually like to spend time with.

The whole demon-heart business. This is a new idea, or at least a sufficiently new spin on an old idea that it looks new. There’s some interesting hints that we’ll see more ramifications later on in the series.

Lucian again. Lucian doesn’t go from ordinary ass-kicker to supernatural hero overnight; he does what most twenty-something lads would do in that position: he screws up. Repeatedly. It’s the testosterone thing again. It can be irritating to watch, but Ibsen made the right decision, I think. Lucian is a more interesting character for being just a bit morally ambiguous, just a bit too laddish for his own good. It’s just not realistic for an ordinary person to be given some kind of supernatural power and then to immediately think “With great power comes great responsibility; I must be sensible and mature from now on.”

The magic system. We don’t actually get much information on the magic system, but Ibsen seems to have some interesting ideas.

What could have been improved
Pacing. Apart from a few blips, everything seemed to go a bit too much according to plan. There wasn’t that sense of imminent failure and risk that heightens the tension late on in most books.

Character interactions. I’ve observed before that the best urban fantasy (at least, for me) tends to be where the main character has a team he can bounce off. Where the character is isolated, either because he has no friends, or because his colleagues aren’t sharing, it makes the story a bit two-dimensional. I’m hoping that in further books, Ibsen will lighten up and let the other characters have a bit more page time (come on, Ibsen, you’ve set up some really good stuff and I want to know!).

Conclusion
This is a solid three-star read for me; I can’t quite justify giving it four stars, not when I compare it to such authors as Kim Harrison, Faith Hunter, Jim Butcher et al. However, I think Ibsen definitely has the potential to get there. Technical things like pacing can always be sorted out with practice; what Ibsen has is the ability to write an engaging character whom you’re actually interested in reading about – and I think that’s more difficult to learn.

So, Ibsen is a new author I’m going to read more of. I love it when that happens. 🙂

I’ve already bought Book 2, Roaring Blood, which has zombies.

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Review: Guns of the Dawn

Guns of the Dawn
Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was nothing like the book I expected from the blurb. I had expected a fast-moving adventure, featuring a young woman who discovers that she isn’t fighting the war she thought she was, and then having to do something about it. Although that description technically fits, it really doesn’t convey the right impression.

Emily Marshwic is a young woman of a slightly-impoverished gentry family. She does the usual young-women things, including keeping alive a long-running feud with her father’s enemy, who is unfortunately now the mayor of the local town. When neighbouring Denland kills its king and invades, the usual thing happens. First the volunteers go to the war, then the conscripts – first, male, and, finally, one woman from each household is required to go to war.

And so Emily ends up in the first tranche of female recruits, is given fairly minimal training, promoted to ensign, and arrives on the front equipped with musket, sabre, and her father’s pistol.

It takes quite a long time for the book to get this far. Even more time is spent on Emily learning her business as a soldier and a junior officer. I found myself thinking that the story wasn’t really about Emily – she was just the focus for it. The story is about the war, its progress, and what war does to those left at home and those involved in the fighting.

It also has much in common with a coming-of-age tale – Emily starts out as a fairly typical (though rather outspoken) young woman of good family; she ends up as a competent soldier and officer in the army. We get to watch the change in slow-time, as she grows into a new person with a different place in society.

So far, so good. However, nothing special. If you want to read about war from the soldier’s perspective, try All Quiet on the Western Front. If you want to read about a woman soldier, read The Cavalry Maiden: Journals of a Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars.

For me, what took this book from a solid four-star tale – competent, entertaining, well-written and so on, but without that special something – to five stars, was the very end. I saw the events of the final scene coming, but that did not make them any more satisfying, or any less what the book needed to acquire that special something.

And I wonder how much the author has read of the English Civil War – King Luthrian reminded me very much of Charles I, particularly at the end.

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Technology: Winners and Losers

A Dodo

History is full of winners and losers, and it’s particularly obvious when dealing with technology. Take video recording, for example. Does anybody remember Betamax? I remember borrowing video cassettes when I was a kid – the shop had lots and lots of VHS tapes, and tiny little section for Betamax. Pretty  soon you couldn’t get Betamax at all (although if you really tried, apparently you could – as Sony only stopped making them this year). I did hear that Betamax was actually better technology – it just didn’t take off. Now, of course, the VHS has been replaced by DVD, and the last manufacturer of VHS tape players stopped making them.

E-books are an example of a technology that was somewhat slow to take off until Amazon brought out the first Kindle device. As a person who started reading e-books on a PDA with a battery life about an hour and a half, I desperately wanted a Kindle when they first went on the market – but unfortunately, I couldn’t have one because they were only on sale in the USA. Now, they are everywhere – and I’ve said before that I think they will eventually completely replace mass-market paperbacks. The market for paper books will probably continue, but only for presentation and collectors’ editions.

But the advent of e-books also brought with it additional sub- technologies. When e-books first became available, there was an assumption that the time of a book as being simply words on a page – whether that page was electronic or paper – were drawing to a close. Books would be enriched with audio, and video, and probably a bunch of other enrichments too.  And that is what the company Booktrack thought too: they develop soundtracks for books that include background music and sound effects, just like a film. The technology never really took off, and possibly one reason was because the only way to listen to the soundtrack with via their app.  Another reason may have been that in the early days, most people were reading on dedicated e-Ink book reading devices, which may not have had audio capability. Now that more people are reading on smartphones, this raises the possibility that Booktrack were simply ahead of their time – were they to start up now, would they do better?  Since they are still going, will they manage to popularise their technology? Or will it die, a technology that simply did not fill a need? It happens: look at the Google Glass. While in the abstract, it’s kind of cool to think of having your own heads up display, in reality it probably makes you feel a bit silly, not to mention getting you thrown out of restaurants. I expect the Google Glass will make a reappearance, but probably aimed at security services rather than the general consumer.

At the other end of the scale, you have Pokémon Go. A game that involves people walking around in the real world, looking for imaginary monsters. Most people stop doing that at about the age of five. Yet, it’s become a global craze. People are getting mugged, falling over cliffs, and crashing their cars because they are paying more attention to hunting Pokémon than to the real world around them. Who would have guessed that the game would take off to such an extent?

It makes me glad that I’m a writer.  No matter what the technology – whether audio or visual, dead tree or electronic – people will always want stories. The way in which they consume those stories might change, but the story’s the thing.

Shelf Love Challenge: Why do I read the books I do?

IMG_0877

My TBR pile!

This month’s question is: Why do you read the books you read? Why do you gravitate towards certain genres and/or authors. How do you pick the next book you will read?

So, why do I read the books I do?

Good question. It’s something I’ve never really thought about – my favourite genres are fantasy, science fiction, and detective stories. My least favourite is literary fiction. Or poetry. The only poetry I really like is limericks.

I suppose I graduate towards genre fiction because I tend to prioritise plot and characterisation over beautiful writing; I can see why other people go all gooey over a well turned phrase, but it’s not my thing. Plus, I like magic, and as soon as you add a wizard it’s fantasy regardless of what else is going on.

When it comes to detective stories, a line from one of Dorothy Sayers‘ Lord Peter Wimsey books comes to mind: Lord Peter says to Harriet Vane, who is his wife and a detective story writer, that detective stories are “the purest form of literature we have”. He goes on to explain that in detective stories, good (almost) always triumphs over evil. Detective stories provide a vision of justice that we all hope is true, even if we fear that it isn’t. For the duration of reading the book, we can pretend that good always triumphs, the bad guys always get caught, and karma bites.

Science fiction and fantasy, even though they might seem very different, are actually very similar: both deal with worlds that don’t exist. The difference is that science fiction often explains very carefully how the handwavium works, and fantasy just says, “it’s magic; live with it”.

Sci-fi and fantasy therefore get an undeserved bad press because it’s all made up stuff, therefore not real, therefore not relevant. This ignores the significant problem that the characters in oh-so-respectable literary fiction aren’t real either. Sci-fi and fantasy deal with exactly the same problems as any other form of fiction, just with more dragons (or spaceships). Furthermore, because the setting isn’t constrained by reality, the author can set up the world to showcase a particular problem or situation. JK Rowling did this very well with the Harry Potter books. She set up a wizarding world full of unfairness and inequality, and then made Harry and his friends face up to all of it – bullying and the realisation that you can’t always trust adults in the first book; war, sacrifice, larger issues of inequality and the power of a corrupt government in the final books. Would it even have been possible to have dealt with these themes in a non-fantasy book? Even if it were possible, what kind of book would that turn out to be?

I suppose, then, what I also love about Science Fiction and fantasy, is that they usually end with hope. Even if the good guys don’t have it all their own way, even if the outcome is decidedly ambivalent, there is still hope for the future. There is still hope that, in the end, good really will triumph.

So, how do I pick the next book I will read?

The first thing is, Is there a book by one of my favourite authors that I haven’t read yet? I do have a few authors whose books I’ll pretty much always get as soon as they’re published.  Jim Butcher, Barbara Hambly, Lois McMaster Bujold, Kim Harrison, Kelley Armstrong, to name a few. For these authors, I’ll drop everything and read their latest offering.

Beyond that? It depends. Sometimes it depends on how I’m feeling: after a hard day, I can’t cope with anything emotionally demanding. So I’ll go straight for the mind-candy – those books that are just fun to read. Otherwise, I tend to read in phases. I’ll read a run of fantasy, then a run of detective fiction. Right now, of course, I’ve joined the #ShelfLoveChallenge so another factor is When did I get this?

One thing that doesn’t factor in, or hasn’t until recently, is recommendations. Until now, the only person I know who is really into reading is my husband. Although we both read voraciously, and we both read science fiction, our taste in books doesn’t actually cross over all that much. But I’ve recently started interacting more on Goodreads and Twitter, and it’s nice to make contact with other readers.  Not only is it nice to discuss books in general, but I’ve had some good recommendations – long may it continue.

So, if you’d like to link up and talk books, I’m, on Goodreads, and on Twitter. Drop me a line and say hello!

And here’s a link to my #ShelfLoveChallenge page.

In which I lament my lack of self-control – Kindle Oasis vs Kobo Glo HD

Kindle-and-KoboIt’s official. I have no self-control. Breaking strain of a KitKat.

I have bought a Kindle. Not just any Kindle. The most expensive Kindle on the market. The Kindle I said I would definitely never, not ever, buy. Because it was far too expensive to justify. And stuff.

In my defence, it was my birthday, and the far-too-expensive Kindle was partially paid for by birthday money from my husband and my parents, and birthday money – should you be lucky enough to be financially stable – is meant for buying frivolous things that you can’t otherwise justify (like Kindles), not ordinary stuff like socks.

I always said, I would never have a Kindle. I was a Kobo girl. I don’t have anything against Amazon (how could I, when Amazon made it viable to be an indie author?) but Kindles never tempted me – they were too big, too clunky, especially compared to my three Kobos. The big Kobo is waterproof; the little Kobo has a 5″ screen; and the Kobo that is just right is a 6″-screened piece of elegance, far nicer than any Kindle I’d seen. And half the price.

Up until now.

Up until Amazon brought out a Kindle that is more than 30g lighter than my late, lamented Sony PRS-T1.

I’m a gadget girl. Other women, or so I read, love buying clothes and shoes. I can be in and out of a clothes shop in under 30 seconds, trailing my poor husband like the tail of a kite: “Do keep up!” On the other hand, when he sneaked off to PC World without me, the cad, we had Words. Not that I wanted anything there in particular; I just wanted to look. So I completely understand the desire to spend half the morning looking at clothes and then not buying any. I just do it with electronics.

But… Kindle.

First Impressions

I bought the WiFi only version; not only am I unlikely to be so desperate for reading matter that I will need to buy a book where there is no WiFi, but in the unlikely event that that happens, I can use the personal hotspot function on my iPhone to provide WiFi. So, no need to pay the extra £80 or however much it is to get the 3G version.

It is slightly shorter than my Kobo Glo HD, and slightly wider, so it’s kind of square. There’s a wider non-screen part on one side, for holding, and that’s where the buttons are.

The case, which also contains half the battery, is a nice bit of kit. It just clicks into place, guided by magnets. There’s no fiddling around trying to get bits lined up – it just finds its own way. There is also no audible “click”. Very nice. There are also magnets in the flippy part of the case, so that when you fold it back underneath the Kindle for one-handed reading with the case on, it sticks there.

Setting Up

Setting up was very easy. It arrived already knowing who I was, so it connected to my Amazon account straight out of the box, as soon as I input the house WiFi password. It automatically connected to Goodreads too, but you can disconnect it, or change the account to which it connects, in the Settings (settings>reading options>social networks).

You can also connect your Kindle to your Twitter and/or Facebook accounts, which I have not done.

The Reading Experience

The on-off button is at the top, with the micro-USB port, if you hold it in your right hand. If you hold it in your left, they’re at the bottom. A nice touch is that the Kindle detects which way around it is, and flips the screen so that you can use it right-handed or left-handed. The buttons also flip, so the top button is always page-forward, and the bottom is always page-back. However, if you prefer, you can go into “settings” and swap them over so that the top button is “back” and the bottom one is “forward”. I’ve done that, because I have small hands and I had to stretch slightly for my thumb to hit the top button.

Comparison to my Kobo Glo HD

Neutral

  • The first thing I noticed is that the Kindle doesn’t have a traditional bezel – the reading screen is not recessed. It’s flat, with a sort of “bumper” around the very edge of the device. So, on the one hand, crumbs won’t get stuck on the edge of the reading screen… on the other, they’ll get stuck against the bumper instead. I do like the flat screen of the Kindle – it looks so much smarter and more modern – but there is still that crumb-trapping potential, so I’ll mark it as “neutral”.
  • The Kindle has two buttons for page turns; I never missed page turn buttons on my Kobo – but these buttons are nicely placed for one-handed reading.  I think I might mostly use the buttons, but, again, I was always perfectly happy with my no-button-touch-screen Kobo.
  • Strangely, without the light on, the white screen background on the Kobo is slightly whiter than than on the Kindle. But with the light on full brightness, the Kindle’s contrast is better than the Kobo’s. So, the Kindle screen appears to go from “not as good as the Kobo” to “better than the Kobo” depending on screen brightness. I always set my Kobo’s light at 9%, but the Kindle’s light needs to be set higher.

Kindle Wins

  • The Kindle Oasis is a pretty, pretty thing. It makes my poor Kobo Glo HD look thick and clunky in comparison.
  • Speed and responsiveness. I think the Kindle wins here. Mind you, I never felt that my Kobo was slow – but the Kindle just seems to be that bit snappier.
  • The Kindle is lighter when held without the case, and I can feel the difference. I can imagine that long periods of reading will be far more comfortable with the Kindle. This is possibly not just to do with the absolute weight – because the Kindle is only about 50g lighter than the Kobo (although that does, admittedly, work out at the Kindle being only 72% of the weight of the Kobo) – but also the distribution of the weight. As most of the weight of the Kindle is in the side closest to the hand, it feels even lighter than it is (law of levers, principle of moments, etc).
  • Integration with Goodreads. This is probably not an issue unless you actually use Goodreads. I do. So I’m thinking that this might be a major advantage for me. Let’s face it – we’re all a little bit lazy (some of us are a lot lazy). If you have to change to a different device to post that really great quote, you just don’t bother.
  • Amazon store. We all know that Amazon has more choice, at lower prices, than Kobo. Plus, I like Amazon’s store better.
  • Kindle app integration. This is one of those little luxuries that I never missed, reading on a Kindle, but I’m probably going to kind of like. There are those moments when you don’t have your primary reader – and if you read a book you bought from Amazon, it will sync across your devices. Not like my life is ruined if I have to go and find the page – but it’s nice not to have to.

Kobo Wins

  • The Kobo has many more fonts, and much more choice when it comes to setting up your font size and line spacing exactly how you want them. Compared to the Kobo, the Kindle is very limited indeed.
  • Kobo allows you to customise your homepage much more: it has a series of tiles which you can dismiss or move around. You get tiles for the last couple of books you’ve been reading, the last few books you added, and so forth. This is a better layout, I think, than Kindle, which uses a third of the screen real estate for recommendations. Kindle gives you an option to disable the home screen completely, so you just get your list of books. However, I quite like having the book I’m currently reading front-and-centre, and a link to my Goodreads want-t0-read list. But if I don’t want recommendations, I have to go without the other features of  the home page.
  • Kindle does not have a dedicated space for your currently-reading book: the big slot that looks as if it ought to be actually changes to whatever book you did something to last – whether that is reading it, or adding it, or whatever. Unlike Kobo, which does have a dedicated space for the last two or three books you were reading.
  • Kobo seems to be better at side-loading books. I have a lot of non-Amazon books, which I side-load with Calibre. When loading hundreds of books onto my Kobo (as I do every time I get a new device), the Kobo has taken several minutes to digest them, but not as long as the Kindle. The Kindle looks like everything is fine, but when you try to search for the new books shows “not yet indexed”. Looking on the internet, indexing sometimes takes hours or even days. 

Verdict

I am going to keep the Kindle, and it will become my primary reading device (and so I should hope, at that price).

For me, this was my first Kindle, so I get the “Kindle experience” for the first time, and I would not have bought the older Kindles: they are all bigger and heavier than my Kobo. The lightness of the Oasis was a major factor for me.

However, many of the things that push me in that direction are not completely related to the Kindle Oasis itself – more to its essential Kindleness: the integration with Goodreads, the link with the Kindle apps. I do really like the lightness of the Oasis, and its flat screen, but my Kobo was perfectly good. More than good – the Kobo is a very nice piece of kit in its own right.

Moreover, the Kobo has a nicer and more useful homepage, as it always shows the book you last opened, and you can rearrange it pretty much how you want.

So I’d say… unless you want an Oasis just because you really want the best Kindle out there, it’s a lovely piece of kit but ultimately not worth the price as a reader. But something that many reviewers seem to forget is that practical utility is only part of the reason why people buy a product. It’s like cars: a Toyota Aygo and a Porsche Boxer are both relatively small cars that will get you from A to B. But people still buy Porsches, because they don’t just want sensible transport – they want a luxury experience. The Oasis is like the Porsche of readers: expensive and luxurious, but if all you want is something to allow you to read ebooks, not the one to go for. If you’re a serious reader, and you want the luxury, and you’re more concerned about the physical form factor than having the ability to set up your text exactly how you want it, then the Oasis will give you what you want.

Ebooks on the way down? I don’t think so.

The Bookworm, a painting by Carl Spitzweg

The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg

The Guardian has published yet another article prophesying the demise of ebooks:

…Now the official Publishers’ Association confirms the trend. Last year digital content sales fell last year from £563m to £554m. After years on a plateau, physical book sales turned up, from £2.74bn to £2.76bn.
They have been boosted by the marketing of colouring and lifestyle titles, but there is always a reason. The truth is that digital readers were never remotely in the same ballpark. The PA regards the evidence as unmistakable, “Readers take a pleasure in a physical book that does not translate well on to digital.” Virtual books, like virtual holidays or virtual relationships, are not real. People want a break from another damned screen…

Well, speak for yourself.

I can only speak for myself, too, but my experience is exactly the opposite.

Firstly, to me, a book is not a physical object: it is the author’s words. If I bought a paper book and all the pages were blank, I wouldn’t say “Well, it’s the feel of it in my hands that’s important, isn’t it?” – I’d demand a refund.

I’m not the first person to think this way: Ray Bradbury said it before me, in Fahrenheit 451At the very end, Guy Montag is introduced to the people who, by memorising a book, take on the identity of that book, with the aim of preserving the author’s words for future generations. These people are not hoarding paper copies: they’re hoarding the actual words, to be set down in physical form later, when it’s safe.

Further back, the Indian sacred texts, the Vedas, were transmitted via oral tradition for centuries before they were written down. In the Guardian‘s view, then, these books are not “real books” because they are not set down on paper.

I was an early adopter of ebooks, on the grounds that was cheaper to re-buy my paper novel collection in ebook format than to buy a new house, and that was the choice with which I was faced (either that or go and live in a tent in the garden, because getting rid of some books was clearly not a viable option). My first “ereader” was a PDA with a battery life of about an hour. Any serious reading had to be done with the device in the charging cradle, and even a technophile such as I had to admit that this method of reading was never going to challenge paper books.

Then e-Ink came on the scene, and I bought my first ebook reader, which was a very expensive (by today’s standards) iRex iLiad. It was wonderful: it was light, it was portable, and I could have as many books on it as I wanted. And its battery lasted more than an hour, goodbye PDA.

And so I bought books. My dealer of choice was BooksOnBoard, and I bought so many books that they made my account a “trusted account” so there were no daily limits – I was spending over £100 at a time, replacing my thousands of novels with electronic books. Of course, I could have scanned the paper books and converted them that way (and for those I couldn’t get digitally, I did), but scanning a paper book is only the beginning of the process. Even with good OCR, you have to go back and fix the mistakes. It takes hours, and even if you “pay” yourself a stupidly low hourly wage, it’s still massively cheaper to buy a new, retail e-copy.

Nearly ten years later, my ebook conversion project isn’t finished – but there are only a handful of books left to do.

So, in my little n=1 study, purchases of ebooks have dropped dramatically from the early days – but this is not because I’m less interested in ebooks, or because I’ve returned to paper. My initial ebook-buying frenzy was the result of conversion of my existing library to digital; I’m now on the plateau, buying digital to add to my library. So of course my purchasing has slowed down.

I still buy a lot of books – more than I ever did before digital. I don’t have to think “where will I put this?” because my book reader has a capacity of thousands. I can buy, download, and be reading in seconds or minutes: buying a book doesn’t take hours or days. Plus, many books are cheaper now, so I can afford more of them. Digital is the high-volume reader’s dream come true: infinite bookshelf space, low prices, and a massive choice.

I don’t think that I’m unique amongst readers. I would bet that a good proportion of the initial sales figures of ebooks was readers like me, re-buying books they already had on paper, in a format that they could read on their new reading devices. Now that initial phase is over, we’re back to “normal service has been resumed” in ebook-buying land – or, more accurately, “normal service has begun”.

Likewise for reading devices: in the beginning, everyone who wanted to read digitally had to buy a book reader. The only alternative was desktop/laptop, and that’s not really viable. Now, the initial distribution phase is over: everyone who wanted a book reader has got one, and new sales are increasingly often going to be existing customers replacing their old readers (and not everyone will do that every year) or new customers (children/young people getting their first reader). Additionally, there are new ways of reading ebooks: affordable tablet computers have arrived. The first iPad was released in 2010, and it was as expensive as a top-flight bit of kit might be expected to be. Nowadays, the price of an entry-level tablet computer has dropped: you can buy a Kindle Fire for under £50 – which is cheaper than the entry-level Kindle, at £59.99. Of course eInk book reader sales have dropped – not only has the initial rush subsided, but there are now options that just weren’t available in 2007 when I bought my iLiad.

People considering the difference between ebooks and paper should also consider those people who can’t read ordinary paper books. The obvious population are partially-sighted people. My husband is a teacher, and one of his students (years ago now) was partially sighted. She couldn’t read ordinary-sized text, and the only large-print books available were those aimed at older people: Barbara Cartland, Agatha Christie, and so on – hardly calculated to appeal to a fourteen-year-old girl. My husband showed her his iLiad, and she was instantly entranced. Here was a way for her to read the same books her friends were reading: every book could be large print. Her parents bought her a reader, and later thanked my husband.

Then there are the people for whom manipulating a paper book is difficult. What if you only have one hand, or no hands? What if you can’t manage the weight? Book readers are light, and they can be held and the pages turned with only one hand. Or they can be propped up and the pages turned with only a touch.

On the other hand, Amazon has now opened two physical bookshops. Why would they do that if paper books are dying? I would suggest several reasons:

  • I think paper books are dying, but they are doing so very slowly. Paper will be around for a number of years yet, and Amazon is not the sort of company to let any business opportunity slip through its corporate fingers (and let’s not forget, Amazon sell paper books too).
  • Physical browsing is different from internet browsing. Cookies and algorithms show you the books the system things you’ll like, and that’s often a good thing; I’ve made some great discoveries that way. But browsing the shelves of a bookshop can introduce you to things you would never have encountered otherwise. Plus, just browsing a bookshop is fun.
  • Amazon also sells its electronics – Kindle, TV, Echo, etc – in its physical stores. Being able to inspect these gadgets in person before buying is much more important than with books. Despite what the Guardian says, if you’re buying a novel, you’re buying it for the story (which you can still check out online with the free sample), not the great typesetting and the cream-tinted heavy paper pages. (Or maybe that’s what Guardian journalists do buy books for. Miaow!)
  • Amazon is the biggest bookseller in the world: it can afford to open, and if necessary subsidise, a few physical bookshops.
  • If I were a paranoid person who thought that Amazon was really out to destroy the bookselling industry, then I would think that this was the next stage in Amazon’s campaign. After all, people who buy books from an Amazon physical bookshop are still buying from Amazon. And if they’re buying from Amazon, they’re not buying from Barnes & Noble, or Waterstones, or whatever the alternative is. Guess who wins?

So what are my predictions for the ebook market, if I think the Guardian is wrong?

  1. Paper will be the format-of-choice for non-fiction for the foreseeable future. The ease of flipping back and forth, and the indexing, make paper a good choice for non-fiction. Unless, of course, e-textbooks become more like mini downloadable websites, to be used mostly on tablets. I don’t think (at present) eInk is the best choice for books that one typically does not read start-to-finish as the page turns are just a fraction too slow.
  2. Paper novels will be around for the next few years – at least 5-10, and probably more. Moving from paper to digital is a big change, bigger than moving from vinyl to downloads (via cassettes and CDs) was for music. Books have always been physical objects, unlike music. It’s much easier, psychologically, to move from buying a music CD to downloading, because the experience of music doesn’t change; you put your music-format-of-choice in the player, and away you go – it still comes through your headphones or speakers in the same old way. Books are different: it’s a big culture change to move from rows of paper objects with pretty covers on your shelves, to electronic files on your computer/reading device. So the change will be slow, but I think it will happen. Eventually, the many practical advantages of digital will win out over sentiment and habit.
  3. The mass-market paperback is going to be the first victim. The combination of bigger profit margins on ebooks and the rise of indie publishing will result in smaller print runs of mass-market paperbacks, and then a move to print-on-demand as print runs become too small to be viable. This will be seen first in indie publishing (where print-on-demand is the norm already) and small presses. Eventually, the larger publishers will go print-on-demand too.
  4. The hardback will stick around for a lot longer. The hardback is the format of choice for occasions when appearance counts: gifts; presentations and prizes; and reading posh literary fiction on the train.
  5. Paper novels are unlikely to die completely for the foreseeable future, if only because there will be the die-hards (like those who swear vinyl is better than digital for music) who want paper and will provide a market for it, even if at the print-on-demand level.
  6. The dedicated book reader is here to stay. Occasional readers will probably read on their smartphones or tablets, but high-volume readers are more likely to want a dedicated device that is light, has excellent battery life, and doesn’t make their eyes ache.

Time will tell which of us is right!

Review: Revenant

Revenant
Revenant by Kat Richardson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this – thus, four stars out of five (but a strong four).

The action happens mostly in and around Lisbon (Portugal), where Carlos is from. Carlos is a major character in this book as the plot is mainly based on necromancy, and his old enemies – now working with Quinton’s father.

I’ve always liked the way Richardson portrayed the vampires in this series – they are reliable allies as well as enemies, and not always enmeshed in the kind of petty, pointless point-scoring that vampires are in many books. Here, Harper is working with Carlos directly, instead of just going to him for advice when she needs it, and we get to see a bit of more him. I have to admit, I do like ambiguous characters – I find those who are wholly good or wholly evil to be dull. So Carlos is one of my favourites: the man who makes his own choices, good or evil, and lives by the results. He doesn’t make excuses for himself, and he doesn’t repent. I like that.

Quinton and Harper work together well and without silly pissing-contests – though not without disagreement. Quinton is also a pleasant change from the usual fare. He’s not some gorgeous alpha-male hunk (or, worse, he’s not two of them). He and Harper have a relationship that’s based on love and friendship, not just sex and lust.

But the one thing I liked best about this book was the end. This is the last of the Greywalker books – as I suspected it might be, because there’s only so long that the situation with Quinton’s father could be made to last. While we could be pretty sure that Good Would Triumph in the end, as it does in the majority of fantasy series, in this case, the end was not without cost. Often, the reader gets the impression that having Saved The World, the heroes go home for tea and medals, and back to ordinary life. No muss, no fuss. In this book, Good might well Triumph, but not without cost. Harper will have to live with the consequences for the rest of her life.

The book ends suddenly, and without all the loose ends tied up. But I like that. The heroes have to go home, but now they have a life to build. Their own life, free to make of it what they will, with gains having been made as well as losses suffered.

We don’t know what Harper, Quinton, et al will make of it, but whatever it is, they will probably be doing it off-page. I hope they will, because if there is anything worthy of writing a book about, it won’t be the happy life they deserve!

I shall certain look out for what Richardson writes next.

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My new book reader finally arrived… Hooray!

Kobo Aura H2O

Kobo Aura H2O

A couple of weeks ago, I managed to break my primary ebook reader. It is (was) a lovely Kobo Aura HD. It went everywhere with me, which may have been the problem because everywhere includes to work in a rucksack and into the shower.

This was, of course, an opportunity to order the new Kobo Aura H2O, which wouldn’t mind if I took it in the shower.

A waterproof book reader – it’s amazing nobody has thought of it before. I knew there were places you could send your reader off to, and they would waterproof it (for a price, obviously), or you could do it the low-tech way, which is to put your reader in a freezer bag, but a real waterproof reader is amazing.

It’s lovely to be able to take it in the shower – and I’ve started having baths again, just so I can relax in the bath with my Aura. Plus, the screen is an improvement over my old Aura HD – the white is whiter, the black is blacker. There isn’t a hard button for turning off the light any more, but I’ve got used to doing it with the on-screen slider.

I was an early adopter of ebooks – I like gadgets! Since getting my first ereader – an Irex ILiad, which cost over £400 – I’ve become a firm believer in ebooks, for fiction at least. I love being able to carry multiple books around with me, and never having to worry about running out of things to read (especially since I also carry my emergency reading on iPhone and iPad, just in case). I love being able to read while eating without having to work out some way to keep the book from closing or flipping over pages. I love being able to read in bed by the soft glow of the reader screen, rather than having to keep the main light on. It’s also easier to get to sleep after reading in a mostly-dark room.

Aside from my love affair with my book reader, I always love to see more authors’ backlists being published as ebooks – for me, it’s one more step towards every book being available electronically. Being a long-time ebook fan, I’ve watched as more and more prominent authors moved towards having ebook editions, and rejoiced every time I found a new one, whether I intended to buy any of that author’s work or not. Ebooks have also allowed the revival of the novella – uneconomical to publish in paper format – and for authors to publish short stories as singles for the first time. Thanks to ebooks, authors have more freedom than they have ever had before, incuding the freedom to publish without involving a commercial publishing house.

Yet, even with the evidence of ever-increasing ebook sales, there are still people who swear that ebooks are a passing fad, or that ebooks aren’t as good as paper.

For some uses, yes – at least at the moment – paper wins. I still prefer paper for textbooks (until I have to copy out any quotes, of course, at which point I prefer electronic), and in schools it’s probably logistically easier to use paper for class reading books. And yes, paper books look pretty on a bookshelf, and downloading an epub file doesn’t have the same feel as buying a book and taking it home…

It’s noticeable, though, that most critics of ebooks do not concentrate on what paper books do well (easier to keep a class of kids on the same page, easier to flip back and forth, no colour diagrams on an ereader); nor do they concentrate on what ebooks do badly (colour pictures, browsing bookshelves, being able to see at a glance what books you own). Instead, they concentrate on emotional responses that are nothing to do with the author’s words. When I read of someone criticising ebooks because they “like the smell of a paper book” or they “like to turn the pages by hand”, I find myself thinking, “well, if that turns you on, buy yourself a blank notebook from WHSmiths; clearly, the author’s words aren’t important to you.” It’s also interesting how many of these ebook detractors admit that they’ve never even tried reading an ebook.

As for being able to pass on old copies of paper books – well, good luck with that. It’s getting increasingly difficult to find a charity shop that will take books, and second-hand bookshops are getting picky too. Selling on Amazon will get rid of the books, but since many paperbacks are selling for 1p each, it’s often more (or nearly as) expensive to sell the book than to just stick it in the recycling box.

These people seem to forget that books are for reading. Books are not for home decor, nor are they fashion accessories. They are a mechanism for making the words of the author available to the reader, and an ebook does that supremely well – far better than a paper book, because it’s faster and cheaper, and doesn’t snap shut if you don’t weight it down with the edge of your dinner plate.

After all, paper or eInk is only the delivery system: the real magic of reading happens in your own head, as the story unfolds in glorious technicolour behind your eyes – regardless of whether you have a paper page or a black-and-white eInk display.

Alchemystic, by Anton Strout

Alchemystic

Alchemystic, by Anton Strout

This book had such potential; the idea is original and the sketch of the characters in the blurb seemed to indicate the possibility of something really interesting.

Unfortunately, when I attempted to read it, I loathed this book so much I couldn’t bear to finish it.

Usually, I will finish a book just so I can say I gave it every possible chance, just in case it improves drastically in the last four pages. Unfortunately, with Alchemystic, I decided that not only could it not possibly dig itself out of the depths in order to be even marginally tolerable without heavy engineering equipment, but I wasn’t willing to waste precious minutes of my life on a book that had absolutely no good points whatsoever.

Firstly, Lexi, the ‘heroine’. She’s twenty-two, and according to the blurb, she’s a ‘struggling artist’. According to the book itself, she’s a spoiled little rich girl who has a studio in her parents’ vast mansion and has been allowed to play at being an artist. There is no indication in the book that she has ever sold any artwork. She doesn’t even seem to know what medium she favours – everything from sculpture to pottery to charcoal drawing, apparently. She also thinks she’s far too good to accept advice from art teachers. And she fusses over getting clay on her clothes; tip: real people who work with clay do not throw clothes out just because they’ve got clay on them. They keep using the same clothes because who cares what you look like in the workshop, and why ruin more clothes?

When Lexi’s brother dies, Lexi’s parents finally insist that she does something useful (i.e., takes some notice of the family business) upon which she throws a tantrum but gives in with exceptionally poor grace. Throughout the novel, Lexi does not act like a twenty-two-year-old woman. She acts like a spoilt brat; if I had to put an age on her, I’d say sixteen – and needs a slap. When Stanis the gargoyle turns up, the way she treats him is appalling – she clearly thinks he is a mere thing, yet he has some measure of free will. But she doesn’t seem to see this, or think of the implications, and treats him as simply one more thing to which her position as heiress-of-loads-of-money entitles her.

Lexi’s friends are equally annoying. There’s the dance student who somehow has the time and inclination to skip classes and follow Lexi around. Then there’s the computer-geek type who has no visible means of support. Both of these characters, again, come across as about sixteen years old, rather than the adults in their early twenties that they are supposed to be. None of them seem to have any responsibilities or outside commitments.

OK, now let’s move on to plot.

Firstly, Lexi’s brother (who is apparently horrible, so we don’t have to feel any sympathy) gets buried by a collapsing building. Yet his hand – still clutching his mobile phone – is found outside the building. OK, so I didn’t read all the way through the book, but I still find it difficult to believe how this could happen.

Secondly, at one point Lexi is attacked, and, held from behind with a knife to her throat, manages to kick backwards with her Doc Martens, niftily getting her attacker in the jewels, and thereby managing to get away. Now, I challenge anyone to try this. I did, with my long-suffering husband. And unless Lexi is abnormally tall (or deformed), or her attacker is abnormally short (or deformed) this doesn’t work. The distance from knee-joint to groin is longer than the distance from knee-joint to foot. Plus, a certain amount of wriggling is necessary to get into position. In reality, Lexi would have had her throat slit. Pity she didn’t in the book.

On to the magic. Lexi’s grandfather was apparently a magic-user, and left his books etc cleverly hidden in his studio (which Lexi is now using) so that… well, I don’t know. It wasn’t really explained (as far as I read) why Lexi’s grandfather never handed down his skills to his descendants. However, it doesn’t matter because Lexi manages to figure out where he hid his stuff in about five minutes. Another five minutes, and she’s managed to make a spell work. His security spells are easily circumvented by Lexi, and by Marshall (the geek) because of his immense dungeons-and-dragons experience. Obviously Grandfather was a D&D fan, because he seems to have based all of his magic on it.

Note: can you prick your finger on an earring post? All the earrings I’ve ever seen have had blunt ends, presumably so that you don’t prick your finger on them.

Later on in the book, Rory (the dance student) apparently turns into some kind of ninja-fighter, because her training in dance means that she’s good at fighting. WTF? Believe me, dance training is not the same as fight training. Being good at one does not mean you are good at the other. The crucial difference being, your partner in the dance is working with you, and your opponent in a fight is working against you.

Then there’s the occasion when Lexi finds that some building contractors have been murdered in a building her family is renovating. Instead of calling the police, she directs the gargoyle to collapse the ceiling on them to make it look like an accident. OK, I’m British, so maybe I just don’t understand. Over here in the UK, we have this thing called ‘Health and Safety at Work’ which means that your boss is not allowed to put you in avoidable danger at work, and if, for example, a ceiling collapses and you get killed, your employer is going to have a lot of difficult questions to answer and maybe even get charged with corporate manslaughter. Obviously in America (or at least Strout’s America) it’s perfectly acceptable for innocent builders to get killed at work.

And there’s the jewels that seem to contain Stanis’ soul, that Lexi’s grandfather apparently removed from Stanis, for reasons Lexi doesn’t know. Yet, immediately she discovers this, she becomes determined to find them and put them back so that Stanis can ‘protect her’ better. She does not appear to consider that maybe her grandfather, by all accounts a powerful alchemyst, might have had a good reason for doing this, and if she’s going to reverse his decision, she really ought to find out the details of what might happen if she does. No thought of caution crosses her spoiled-me-me-me juvenile mind.

Other reviewers have also commented that, this being being written in the first person, and since some chapters are written from Lexi’s point of view and some from Stanis’, they found it difficult to remember who was ‘speaking’ at any point. I agree; both characters seem to have the same ‘voice’. Possibly it’s because all of the characters are kind of flat. Yes, I loathe Lexi to the point that I wanted an invisible demon to eat her face, but she’s still… flat. None of the characters seem to have any depth to them, or any real connections to other characters. Lexi didn’t like her brother, doesn’t seem to have any feelings of love or respect for her parents, and uses her friends shamelessly for her own ends. If she wasn’t so spoiled and childish, I’d call her a sociopath (although we are clearly supposed to like her; can’t imagine how or why). Except she just doesn’t have enough depth to be a sociopath; she’s just a generic spoilt rich brat. If she had a bit more depth, it would be easier to like her, or at least understand her. She doesn’t seem to have any deep feelings – she doesn’t get on with her parents, but doesn’t seem to feel anything deeper than annoyance with them. There’s no hint of hurt, or longing, or anything.

Likewise, Marshall and Rory: they don’t seem to have any concerns other than doing what Lexi wants. Even their ‘talents’ seem to fit the plot so well that they simply seem to be cardboard cut-outs introduced for Lexi’s benefit. They accept the existence of magic rather too easily, too; even people who play D&D generally recognise that magic is not real. Yet Rory and Marshall accept it with barely a murmur…

Thinking about it, this book lacks struggle. Everything comes rather too easily. Lexi doesn’t like her parents, but she doesn’t struggle against them or seem overly bothered by this. Her brother is killed, but she didn’t like him anyway, so she doesn’t really feel any grief. She finds her grandfather’s spell books almost as soon as she starts to search, and the magic works for her after only one or two false starts. There is no struggle to accept the existence of magic. There is no sense of overcoming challenges. There is no sense of personal growth.

All in all, this is the worst book I have read in ages. Flat, insipid, unattractive characters. Ininspiring plot, in places demonstrating that the author has not even bothered to do the most basic of research.

I have finally discovered a disadvantage to electronic books: you can’t burn them. Deleting isn’t nearly as satisfying.