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2011-12, 371, 372, Bruce Preston, Evolution of the Book

From clay tablets to Apple Tablet: part II

Print-on-demand, e-books and publishing in the electronic age (concluded)

Bruce Preston

(A talk to BCSA meeting in Sydney on Saturday 5 June 2010)


THE TALK I DELIVERED IN March 2010 (reproduced in the June 2011 Biblionews) presented a brief history of ‘the book’ and of printing culminating in today’s electronic methods. I discussed digital files and the concept of the e-book looking at various types of e-reader such as the Rocket eBook, the Hiebook (from Korea), the Kindle and the iPad. In also examining the comparatively new phenomenon of print-on-demand, I assessed the pros and cons of these devices and their implications for the future of publishing and reading.

I have more to say about the various devices available in the world of electronic reading including an update from my previous talk. In particular I would like to focus on the iPad and the Kobo.

The iPad

Due to production delays, the iPad was only released in Australia on 28 May 2010. However, by the same date some two million had already been sold in the USA, after only two months of availability there. Despite millions of people being out of work in America, obviously quite a few of the population there still have ample money to throw around. Such huge sales mean that either the iPad is actually very good, or it has become fashionable. We can each make our own judgement about that.

Now, do we know much more about it than at the time of my previous talk? Yes we do and here are some of the facts. There is not just one iPad, but six different models available, which (at the time of writing) range in price in Australia from $629 to $1,049. These are the recommended retail prices, although JB Hi-Fi has one at $923, which is a good purchase if you can afford it.

What are the differences in these models? Only two things. Firstly, there are three different amounts of storage memory available: 16, 32 and 64 gigabytes. The 64 gigabytes is only of significance to people who want to store movies or other memory-guzzling items. For the purposes of reading and storing books, 16 gigabytes are perfectly adequate. You could store thousands of text-only novels, or many hundreds of elaborately illustrated books, on even the cheapest iPad.

The three cheaper models, however, only have what’s called Wi-Fi access to the Internet. You can get that for free in places like airports, some shopping centres, Gloria Jeans coffee shops and so on. You can also have it permanently at home if you set up what is called a wireless network, which links in with your own home Internet access. Setting up a wireless network is not straightforward, and is best left to either computer professionals or 16-year-old whizzkids.

The second, more expensive group of these six models is the same three versions just mentioned, but with, in addition, direct roaming wireless access to the Internet. That’s called 3G access, and means that wherever you are, you can connect to the World Wide Web without going anywhere near a computer or a power point.




Now for the bad news. If, having lashed out on one of the more expensive 3G models you think you could then put your wallet away, think again. These people have seen you coming. There’s a protective case so your iPad doesn’t get damaged, $48; a keyboard dock, $89; a device dock, $39; and so on. There are lots of extras that you might want or feel you need, but none of them are thrown in. The worst thing, though, is that after you’ve forked out extra for a 3G, connect-anywhere, model, you then have to pay per use for that Internet access as well, usually by the month. You cannot connect a 3G iPad into your existing Internet plan. You have to take out separate coverage; unlike, say, in the case of the Kindle where it’s thrown in free.

Can we, on the other hand, say some nice things about the iPad that are of interest to readers and book lovers?  Yes, we can. If you want a portable device to look at gorgeous illustrated manuscripts on, yes, the iPad is the one at present. The iPad is in fact superior to any current e Ink (electrophoretic) device, or standard e-readers, for presenting a large variety of writing forms (I will have more to say about e Ink later). These include colour magazines, newspapers, comics, graphic novels and animé, plus what are currently referred to as ‘enhanced’ e-books, particularly illustrated and interactive children’s books. Equally important, the iPad is better for textbooks too.


Users of iPad do also get more ‘book’ acreage to look at than with say a standard Kindle, Nook or Sony Reader. If using landscape mode, they get a full open book experience, i.e. two pages worth of screen. In addition, the iPad caters better to traditional readers by presenting more ‘book-like’ aspects to the eye than its competitors currently do. Whether that feature will find favour over the long, generational term is uncertain, but in the short term it’s likely to appeal, especially to fiction buffs, and it may drive changes in other future e-reader models.


There’s also Free Audio on the iPad. This is a read-aloud or ‘text to speech’ feature called VoiceOver. However, note that this is synthesised computer-speak, not a real human voice. Moreover it will only work with the free and usually out-of-copyright ePub format books available on Project Gutenberg and Google Books. The VoiceOver function will however also read any HTML Web pages aloud, too. You will, though, be able to buy real audiobooks and listen to them, by which I mean a book being read aloud, with feeling, by a real person.


Books for the iPad can come in two forms. Firstly as ePub format titles, which are text-only or text plus grayscale illustrations. ePub format books are the closest thing to a common standard format in the e-book world so far. Secondly, there are books as ‘apps’. This mysterious word ‘apps’ just stands for applications, which are really just small computer programs intended for a single purpose. Books as ‘apps’ can include colour, audio, video, interactivity, and other multimedia effects, in addition to text. Such volumes are commonly known as ‘enhanced e-books’. By late March 2010, there were already more than 27,000 book apps in Apple’s App Store.


Where do you get books for the iPad from? There are three main places:


a) Apple’s own iBookstore, which contains ePub format books for sale. You can also get access there to free, copyright-expired titles from Project Gutenberg. How much do books cost in the iBookstore? In an early estimate, the Top 50 e-book titles there were reported to be priced from seven to 15 US dollars for American buyers, with cookbooks priced the highest. Offerings come in a score or so top level categories or genres, with over 150 subcategories. There are even a few sub-subcategories for highly specialised readers.

b) Apple’s iTunes App Store, where you can buy, for example, enhanced e-books, such as illustrated children’s books in colour, books that may be animated and interactive too. You can also buy apps for magazines and some newspapers there. Local iPad apps already available include: The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian, the ABC, APC Magazine, GQ Australia, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Australian Macworld and Sport & Style.

c) Surprisingly, from rival e-bookstores on the Web. Major rivals like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders are being allowed to offer their own bookselling apps for the iPad via the iTunes Apps Store. This is apparently on the basis that the more open the iPad is to content, the more popular it will become. There’s probably some truth in that. You can use the iPad to buy books from Amazon.com, which makes the rival Kindle device; from Barnes & Noble, which has the Nook device; and Borders, which offers the Kobo device, of which more later.¹

But Apple is not simply promoting the iPad willy-nilly, at the expense of selling books. It is using an agency model, in which Apple takes a simple 30% cut on the sale price for books in its iBookstore. By doing so, Apple hopes to attract maximum content there, and thus healthy e-book sales too. And there may yet be some iBookstore bargains – in negotiations with five major publishers, Apple has reportedly insisted on rights to discount some bestsellers to Amazon’s prices or even lower, by slicing into its own profit cut.

The number of e-books available in the US iBookstore is in fact growing very fast, thanks to deals Apple is signing in a blur of activity. Nevertheless, direct deals with five of the six largest international publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon & Schuster) are the centrepiece of the rapidly expanding iBookstore. The bad news is that because publishers haven’t adapted to the global reality of e-books yet, they’re still insisting on territorial divisions that make no sense for digital books. Most of these titles won’t be available in the Australian version of the iBookstore for months and months yet. The same old ‘wait down under’.

Not everything has yet swung Apple’s way. The biggest of ‘the Gang of Six’ publishers, Random House, remains a holdout so far. And Apple still has a very long way to go to compete with Amazon’s vast offerings. Also, library buyers may be deterred by the present lack of metadata – a set of data that describes and gives information about other data – for Apple’s books. Librarians love their metadata, and won’t touch new books without it.

Overall, the iPad is intended for many functions besides reading books, but if it becomes popular as a general device, it will almost certainly encourage the digital reading habit amongst a broader audience than at present. If you’re wondering when the iPad will become inexpensive, you’d better be pretty good at holding your breath. However, cheaper and in some respects better rival devices, made by companies like Acer, Samsung, Dell and others, should be available in time for Christmas 2010. I’d also expect an iPad Mark Two version to come out about then, as a sales counter to those, because there are quite a few deficiencies in this first model that will make the second one significantly better.²




The Kobo

Unlike the LCD screen on the iPad, the existing major e-reader devices such as Amazon’s Kindle, use e Ink. E Ink or e-paper has no glare, so will not give you eye strain from a long read, unlike an LCD screen. It can also be read in full daylight without a problem. You probably know that LCD screens refresh the image constantly, a flicker faster than your conscious mind can see, but which nevertheless can annoy your brain eventually, causing sore eyes and tiredness. E Ink is different. Technically, it’s called a bi-stable electrophoretic display, meaning that the display only refreshes when you turn the page. It also only uses power when you change the page, so one charge of the battery will typically last through about 8,000 pages or quite a few books. That’s much better than what you get with the iPad or any other LCD screen. Unfortunately, you don’t get colour with e-paper, but that is coming, hopefully by the end of this year or soon after. There will be a colour Kindle in time, but it’s not imminent.

The news here is that Borders Australia pipped Apple at the orchard gate by releasing the Kobo e-reader on 19 May 2010. It’s a monochrome e Ink device, retailing at Borders or Angus & Robertson, or online, at what is for Australia a stunning price – only $A199. That includes 100 free, pre-loaded classic books, although they’re not exactly the 100 books I would choose. This Australian release of the Kobo is ahead of a USA launch scheduled for 17 June 2010. That’s a very rare reversal of the usual ‘wait down under’ for anything from overseas. It’s happened because Kobo is a Canadian company, not an American one, and it was decided to use Australia as a test launch site.

In brief, this Kobo is a lightweight device at only 221 grams and a scant 10 mm thick. There’s 1 GB of onboard memory, with an SD (Secure Digital) slot for adding more if desired, and the battery life per charge is given as 8,000 page turns. The Kobo will support any ePub or PDF format e-books that don’t have copyright protection on them, or any books purchased from the Borders e-bookstore.



A bit more about the Kobo: you get five print size options and two font styles (serif and non-serif) to choose from, and it’s available in black or white models only. Kobo is not just an e-reader. It’s also a book purchase service with access to Borders books and some other books. There’s also a Kobo app for the iPad, so you can buy Borders and Kobo e-books on the iPad as well. There are further Kobo apps enabling you to read Kobo books on the iPhone, the BlackBerry, Palm devices and Google Android platforms, as well as on Macintosh and Windows desk computers.

The Kobo e-reader is a fairly basic model, however, although very keenly priced.³ Other higher-end versions of the gadget are expected later, to broaden its appeal.

What’s my opinion of the Kobo, having used it?  It’s not that great, not as good as the Kindle. I’ll give it a six out of ten. The Sony Reader, which will come to Australia later this year, is also better than this one. However, if you want an inexpensive device to experiment in e-reading with, or give to as a present to a child or teenager to encourage their reading, the price of the Kobo is unbeatable at present.

In the not too distant future, we will have dedicated e-readers with e Ink that are just as capable as the iPad is of both colour and video. Then, the argument becomes much narrower. Do consumers want a cheaper, much lighter and more portable device like the Kindle or this Kobo, something that’s dedicated just to e-reading; something with the advantages of non-glare e-paper and ultra-long battery life? Or, do they want a more expensive and heavier tablet-style device like the iPad that is, however, also capable of effective Web browsing, email and much more besides? There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers here. It’s just a matter of what people individually want, and their personal decisions in toto will determine which devices become more popular over time.



Two questions about the future of reading and publishing

As indicated in my previous talk, clearly, a new era has begun in the history of reading.

Do e-reading and print-on-demand mean the imminent end of the traditional long-run printed book?

No, or not for a long time anyway. Remember that clay tablets lasted another 500 years after papyrus rolls appeared, and the paper book – the codex – has many advantages over both of those. Perhaps in 50 years time, given the modern pace of things, people will mostly buy paper books just as treasured items, either to give for presents, or to keep for themselves in the case of particularly valued books. Meanwhile the rest of their more common or garden reading will be bought less expensively as e-books – or even obtained for nothing, in the case of books whose copyright has expired.

Future colour e-readers will be especially useful for the reading you do that you promptly or eventually throw out, such as: daily and weekly newspapers; general junk mail and store catalogues; phone books and other annual directories; and all magazines, except collectible copies and specialist hobby ones that you might want to archive; and, in the field of literature, cheap, read-once paperbacks.

What are the implications of the new e-reader and print-on-demand concepts for the reading and book-buying public?

As can be seen, there are surprising angles to the evolution of publishing and reading in the electronic age. In particular, e-books and print-on-demand are the two new and striking innovations that will transform literacy, I’d like to say, by way of conclusion, that the book is one of humanity’s most enduring cultural artefacts and treasures. It is not static but has always been evolving, although the pace of its evolution has been so slow overall that most people in most generations were little aware of such changes.

As the book evolves, the greatest threat to its future is not from technical advances in the ways books are presented; the greatest threat is from the danger of new generations losing the inclination to read. The ability to read and write is not only our greatest tool in education, it is, apart from the family, the single most important medium existing for the transmission of ideas and the continuation of human culture. I therefore urge you all, by example and in your gift-giving, to encourage your children, your nephews and nieces, your grandchildren, and the offspring of your friends, never to lose the habit of reading.


1 Whilst Borders still has an online presence in Australia & the UK, the US parent Borders sought bankruptcy protection in February 2011, and has sold off most assets, including the name rights. The last US Borders bookstores closed on 18 September 2011. Borders stores in Australasia and Singapore, earlier sold to the REDgroup that owned Angus & Robertson locally, also disappeared when REDgroup collapsed around the same time.

2 The iPad 2 was released in Australia on 25 March 2011, and the iPad 3 is likely to be available before Easter 2012.

3 The Kobo e-reader has survived independently of Borders. In fact, there have been newer versions of the device.

4 Since mid-2010, Amazon’s Kindle device has dropped substantially in price. The cheapest Kindle model of the six versions available at end of 2011 costs less than $A100 plus shipping charges. That makes it the least expensive quality e-reader available as at the end of 2011. Note, however, that this $79 Kindle is Wi-Fi only, and includes advertising known as ‘special offers’.

Postscript:   See Notes & Queries (p. 173 [this double-issue #371, 372] ) for related NYT article




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