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A New Word For Reading (On Screens)

Could scholars and neuroscientists (and bloggers!) benefit from a new word for “reading on screens” and what might that word be, in your opinion?

A guest blog by Danny Bloom in Taiwan. [Thanks Dan and sorry for the delay in running this! Eoin]

I’m on a crusade of sorts to try to find a new word for “reading” on computer screens and Kindle and other e-reader device screens — other than “reading”, that is! — and I wonder if you’d join me in my quixotic quest.

I’m pushing forward with my little crusade, step by step, despite the many naysayers, who keep telling me:

“No, Danny, you’re wrong. There’s no need for a new for reading on screens. Reading is reading.”

Sometimes I feel this word search campaign is like pushing a heavy stone up a steep hill, only to have it roll back a few feet every time we advance a few inches. But along the way, I have met some experts in the education and technology fields who have told me this is a good question to ask, and to keep pushing on, gently, quietly. So I soldier on.

Although few people in the education and technology fields agree with me on this novel idea, but I remain determined. In fact, a few experts and forecasters around the world have told me privately that this crusade is worth it, if only to start a global discussion on the future of reading and the future of E-readers.

Reading on screens is a whole new ballgame, I feel, and I believe Western culture needs a new word for this new human activity. It is more than just “reading”. On a screen, you scroll, you link, you see photos and videos, you use a mouse or buttons on a Kindle, and then of course, you read. This is reading-plus-one.

So I feel we might need a new word for this, although I have no idea what that word will be in the end, because as many people have told me in the past year during the course of my crusade, new words happen organically and naturally, when the time is right, and when the need becomes more than apparent. So this is all just to jumpstart a good discussion, pro and con.

I read, of course, on both paper surfaces and screens every day, and I love both. I am not a Luddite. I love technology as much as you do. One is not a priori better or worse than the other, just different, and we need to study these differences more with brain scan tests and other scholarly research. A new word might help us “see” the differences better. That’s my hunch.

Some people online have suggested such words as “screening” and “screading”. Who knows which words we will adopt for this or when? I have no idea. I just like thinking about it now, and when the time is right, the new words or terms will come. One blogger told me we might even need two words for this, one for reading on computer screens, which are back-lit, and another for reading on e-readers like the Kindle, which uses E-Ink for the screens.

I am open to all suggestions for the new words, and I am very patient about this crusade, while at the same time steadfast and committed to this seemingly impossible word search. Patience is my middle name: Danny
“Patience” Bloom (1949 – 2032).

Do you, dear reader, have any suggestions on this? All ideas are welcome, and all comments are welcome, too, both pro and con. Let the discussion begin!

Links of Interest (At Least to Me) 11/12/2009

Editor & Publisher and Kirkus Reviews to close. Frankly I find this a little strange. Even spinning them off might have been better, though survival on their own would have been pretty unlikely without serious reorganization and a fundamental rethinking of the business models.
Here

Canongate is profiled in the Wall Street Journal, that Jamie Byng has an eye for a book that can be packaged. It’d almost make ya jealous.
Here

Frankly, I don’t buy this Apple Tablet nonsense much. Apple cannot single-handedly change the industry, though they may try. In any case when Steve Jobs announces this on a stage somewhere, I’m sure I’ll want it, but until then, I shall waste no energy waiting or wanting.
Here

On the other hand, both Mike Shatzkin and Michael Hyatt have articles about new display systems for content that they claim will change the book world as we know it. I think both are right that change is coming but I have more sympathy with the Sports Illustrated demo video on Michael Hyatt’s post. After all that looks like a faster webpage with some extra features rather than something new. Webpages are the answer and so putting the web in every hand you can is the way forward for publishers and makes more sense than creating new, confusing and unnecessary formats. The trick is to make the customer pay for access to your content, not find a fancy way to display it.

Links of Interest (At Least to Me) 03/10/2009

In retrospect, this revised talk by Michael Tamblyn from Shortcovers at TOC Frankfurt was one of the most positive and enjoyable! Thankfully following some pressure on Twitter and such like, he put it up on Blip.tv! You should watch it!

This is a very clever post on building a channel (read niche if you will):
Here

Mike Cane on Apple’s long term strategy for ebooks! You’ll like it:
Here

Guest Post: An Author’s View of Electronic Publishing

Peadar Ó Guilín agreed to write a post for me on, well it does what it says on the tin. I was inspired to ask him by the contribution he made to the forum on the future of publishing that CBI ran.

Paper Chase
There is a goose that lays golden eggs. Yet, its flesh is so tasty that sooner or later, people who aren’t getting their share of the gold, will say to one another — “why don’t we take that bird to the chopping block and have ourselves a feast?” It’s not their goose and they didn’t spend money feeding it. They have nothing at all to lose.

Good morning, or maybe, good afternoon. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but newspapers all around the world are going out of business right about now. The Rocky Mountain News has bitten the dust, The Boston Globe is slashing wages and even the world-famous New York Times, the “grey lady” herself, is predicted to phase out its print edition a few short years down the line. Journalists by the score are losing their jobs because they can’t compete with the lower quality, but free information that lives less than a click away. Nor, as Rupert Murdoch is learning, can online revenues make up for eyeballs lost in the real world.

“But books are different,” I hear you say.* “It’s all very well for gentlefolk to read a few headlines off the screen, but War and Peace would burn the eyes right out of their sockets…

A few years ago, you’d have been right about that, but these days the arrival of e-ink devices, such as the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle, mean that electronic reading causes no more eye-strain than paper. Indeed, if your peepers are beginning to age a little, the fact that you can increase the print size at will, might allow you to leave your glasses in their case all the way to Napoleon’s defeat at Moscow.

There are other advantages that make a compelling argument for the imminent rise of ebooks. Here are just a few:

    1) some of these devices can hold thousands of books at once. This is handy if you want to carry around a whole law library, or take 17 novels away with you on holiday
    2) some of them access the internet directly so that the user can buy a book while on the train, or sitting up in bed, or out for a walk
    3) the title you want is never out of print or out of stock
    4) some devices allow you to take notes
    5) all of them will let you upload your own documents from work
    6) school books weigh nothing and never go out of date

If none of the points above represent a compelling reason as to why you would want an ebook reader, then rest assured, there are thousands willing to take your place in the queue. Once they become the majority,** the publishing game will have changed forever and woe betide the writers, publishers, editors and book-sellers who don’t find an online berth for themselves before that day comes.

A Rising Tide of Tosh
We’ve all had the experience of spending our own sweet, sweet money on awful books. Books that we’ve flung at the wall, or abandoned in train stations, or given as gifts to our enemies. But even terrible books have to meet certain standards before they can be published. Somebody loved them enough to purchase the rights. And that same person only did so after a process that weeded out a thousand books that were even worse. Imagine that! Just close your eyes and think about how bad some of those rejected books must be. Try to picture them in a pile next to the one book that was chosen. This is important, because, that column of purest tosh,*** is the future of fiction.

You see, when electronic books take over, printed novels will become a bit of a rarity. I don’t believe they will ever die out completely. There are still specialist shops, for example, where you can buy the tiny number of vinyl records that the music corporations still produce. However, in the same way that most people these days listen to songs on CDs or mp3s, most readers will find their thrills on e-ink devices and a large amount of fiction will only ever appear in that format. After all, cut out the book shops and the printers, distributors, buyers, returns, warehouses etc. etc. and it will be cheaper to produce an ebook than a pbook by orders of magnitude.

Indeed, in many cases, the production of an ebook will cost precisely nothing. After all, anything you write on a word processor is already a document capable of being read on an electronic reader.

Rejectee’s Revenge
Once upon a time, the public would never have come across a writer’s work without the intercession of a publisher. A rejected author might shake his fist at the gods or smash a bit of furniture, but in the end, the manuscript would be retired to the sock drawer for the nourishment of mice and beetles.***

These days, however, the rejectees have another outlet for their frustrations. They can sell the book through their own website or even on Amazon, where it will compete with, and distract from, more professionally produced work. The authors can also give their novels away for free, and a great many do.**** That is, of course, their right and none of my business. But I can’t help thinking about what is happening to journalism right now as it tries, and fails, to compete with free sources of news

The Death of Reading?
This is dangerous territory for everybody involved in publishing, from the authors right on down the line to the person who stacks our books at Easons. It’s not just that we might all lose our jobs. There’s a very real possibility that the hobby known as “reading for pleasure” could become a thing of the past. A reader’s investment of effort in a book, is far greater than the three minutes it takes to sample a pop song. In a world chock-full of free, but pitiful fiction, the average novel will be a waste of time, an insult to the intelligence and an advert for every other form of entertainment out there.

Except…

Except, of course, there’s rarely such a thing as a completely random read. Most of our books come recommended from friends or reviewers we’ve grown to trust, or they’ve been written by a favoured author. We’ll still have such voices to listen to in future: the modern internet is already well-populated with heroic bloggers who sacrifice their own sanity wading through dung so that we don’t have to.

Instead of agents and publishers, we authors might end up submitting our work directly to the famous taste-makers of the day. Indeed, many of our current industry professionals, in particular, editors, might well find that their opinions are still be in high demand.

But what I can’t yet see, is where the money is to come from in this scenario. And I do believe, that the very best fiction, like great journalism, needs to be funded. Professional writers have more time to dedicate to their art; editors add enormous value by taming a manuscript and so on. Yet, in the end, none of us will keep our jobs unless we can find a way to succeed where the newspapers have failed: we must convince the public that our services are worth paying for.

For now, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed. Hope to see you on the other side :-)

*I have remarkably large ears.
**Which they will when schools start to make use of eReaders.
***This is not to say that all rejected books deserve such a fate, and we are all familiar with stories of spurned genius, but please understand that I’m speaking in generalities here. Also, some novels fail to find a publisher, not because of low quality, but because the potential audience might not be large enough to justify production costs. However, it is also true that the vast majority of what lands on a slush pile is pretty much unreadable.
****But since the ebook market is still so small, the effect is negligible for the moment.

All your base are belong to AMAZON

Eoin Purcell

Sometimes you get tired of being outmaneuvered
In some senses, what Amazon launched yesterday with Amazon Encore is neither that amazing a project, after all there have been several small-press or self-published titles taken on board by large publishers as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, nor is it even that innovative, Authonomy is at its core a way to tap the self published and slush-piled manuscripts out there in the wild.

But the key point is that this moves Amazon directly into the role of publisher as James Bridle makes clear on his post on the topic:

It’s been a while coming, but some of us have been predicting this move for some time: Amazon have finally made it to the penultimate step on the publishing chain. I say penultimate, because although they are now, by any definition, a publisher, they still appear to be cherry-picking from existing books rather than seeking out their own authors.

I think this move suggests a couple of key questions:

    1) Who benefits most from this (and conversely who hurts the most because of it)?
    2) Can it be extended?
    3) Will there be a reaction?

First, Cui bono
On the face of it, this seems like an amazing opportunity for the author, reading her Amazon blog she certainly seems happy. Amazon’s platform (and as Personanondata point out platform is pretty key) allows for so many things that the average (or small press) publisher cannot. View for instance the neat homemade (and windy) video that amazon have on the main product page. The extra push that Amazon can give a product is really impressive. It will certainly be interesting to see how this works. I think it is fair to say then that the author gets a fair shake of this tail, though it would be interesting to see how the royalties split out.

As for the publisher who backed the book in the first place (always assuming that this encore element remains true) the deal is a win-win. So long, that is as rights for the project were acquired to begin with. A smart author would try and retain the rights for any potential Amazon Encore deal if that was even remotely possible. but allowing for the rights being with the publisher, they will surely gain something from the deal, though if the split of revenue is as one sided as in the case of the new amazon blogs-on-kindle deal (70-30 in favour of amazon) it’ll not be a huge amount. So there is a sense that the publishers who are “chosen” will benefit. But a note of caution from two sources Personanondata & James:

Amazon as producer is a subtle but important change in the operations of the largest retailer. I often mull what would happen to some of the largest publishers if they lost their top two or three authors to Google or Amazon. It may be that the Amazon Encore program sets the stage for a much larger program by Amazon to establish their own publishing and media production operation – their content supply – that feeds their retail presence. There may be further ramifications from this seemingly innocuous press release.

Those who suggest they’ll just keep picking stuff up from the little guys hasn’t been paying attention. In the last five years Amazon have, in addition to dominating online bookselling, bought a book social network, a major print-on-demand supplier, a complete end-to-end self-publishing system, pretty much the entire used books marketplace, the biggest audiobook distributor, the best iPhone ereader, and designed, built and delivered the only truly mass-market dedicated ereading device, with a proprietary format that sets them up to be the iTunes of eBooks.*
It’s big, it’s scary, it’s Amazon. But the publishing industry is under so many different pressures at the moment, this is unlikely to be as big as it could be: Amazon don’t want to annoy their major suppliers, not too much, and not yet. They will though, and by that point, they’ll be past caring. Like Google with their ebooks programme, they’ve been given so much leeway for so long, they think they can do whatever they like, and chances are, they’re right.

So, there is a benefit but they might just eat publishers lunch next week, next month, next year or next decade!

Second, Extension
Sure this can be extended and it is clearly being set up to do so. Amazon is in a great place to carry out their program to almost any conceivable scale. That in itself should indicate that they intend to extend. If you don’t believe it look at what Barnes & Noble have done in Classics and Rediscovered titles and you will get the idea.

But add to it the previously mentioned POD set up, they wouldn’t even need to expend extra capital on print runs, they’d be able to deliver books on demand so even if a huge proportion of the titles failed, their costs would be lower than the major publishers and the bookstore publishers too. That competitive advantage would be added to the fact that they wouldn’t have to pay a retailers discount unless they were selling to the retailers themselves. In effect, aside from what the author and their agents can grab from the chain, Amazon with Encore has successfully placed itself in control of the entire value chain of which I wrote some more about last week but didn’t quite count this in.

And third, reaction
In many ways, there is nothing publishers can do. Amazon is a major customer and now (or for some time quietly) a competitor. No action that publisher can take in the short term will change that. In order to really reaction, publishers will need to change the came with a much longer term and strategic move. So far most of the discussion seems to centre on the idea of community building and niche curating. I think this is certainly a useful suggestion though as I have mentioned before, the other arm of Amazon’s tool shed (self-publishing & POD( suggest that even that niche strategy may not be a feasible bolt hole.

Conclusion
The long and the short of it is the best reaction is to wait-and-see, to plan and to strategize and quietly (or nosily if you wish) put in place the blocks that will move your position away from an over dependence on Amazon. To that end I am pleased that Ireland is as yet somewhat immune to the Amazon leviathan. Despite our proximity to the UK market, sales through Amazon remain somewhat restrained, firstly by postage and secondly I think, by the more conservative nature of the Irish consumer who seem to be a bit slower in embracing internet retailers (not that some people aren’t taking advantage of the bargains available online).

Still tired of being outmaneuvered but thinking through how best to react in the long term.
Eoin

PS: For those who don’t get the title reference see here