Reading in the 21st Century
by Lucy A. Snyder

If you've been following my column here at Horror World -- heck, if you've taken a look at any of my fiction and nonfiction -- you know that I have a deep and abiding gadget lust. I love playing with new computers and peripherals. Other women may get excited over shoe bargains, but my heart goes pitter-pat when MicroCenter has a sale.

Likewise, any casual observer should realize that I love books: big books, little books, hardbound and softcover.  I love the look of them, the feel of them. Having a house full of books makes me feel rich in a way that having a full bank account never did. Consequently, my husband and I buy a lot of books, and it's an ongoing challenge to find new shelf space in our house for our treasures.

So, my owning an ebook reader would seem like a no-brainer, wouldn't it? I've bought a lot of titles from Amazon ever since their site launched, so surely I'd have been all over the Kindle like syrup on pancakes, right? My husband and I love our Macintosh computers and iPods, so surely we'd have gotten iPhones or at least upgraded to iPod Touches and would be happily reading digital books on those at night and on trips, right?

But you'd be wrong.  My love for books and gadgets failed to mesh. Aside from my laptop, the closest thing I have to an ebook reader is my PSP, which can be grudgingly made to read books in HTML format and frankly I haven't used it for that much because of the effort involved.  It's a lot easier to stick a book in my purse or backpack and go.

Part of it may be psychological. Way back in 2001, my very first collection came out as an ebook, and although it got good reviews, to say that sales were miserable would be a vast understatement. It was a combination of the publisher not having a good distribution system, me being naïve about promotion, and the technology not being in place to provide a satisfying reading experience to encourage many readers to want to spend money on a PDF. My gut reaction to the whole thing was essentially "ebooks suck!"

I like to think that my head rules my emotional innards, though, particularly when it comes to business. Nine years have passed, and now we do have the shiny Kindles and iPods and Nooks and everything else to tempt readers who previously went cross-eyed trying to read books off a regular computer screen. And I've had other books that have been released in both hardcopy and digital copy ... and the ebook sales have not sucked.  

Some people are breathlessly claiming that digital sales are outpacing hardcopy sales. It certainly appears that this is the case with my new novel Spellbent, if the sales rankings on the B&N and Amazon sites are to be believed. But I don't have any hard data to support that assertion.  I do have hard data on the sales for my collection Installing Linux on a Dead Badger: although the Kindle version is priced considerably lower than the paperback version, digital sales are only about 33% of the total number of books sold. Admittedly, digital sales would probably be greater if the book were available in other digital formats, but Kindle seems to have the biggest piece of the ebook pie right now. And either way you slice it, although 33% is not a majority, it's still a considerable number of sales. The publisher feels that the Kindle version has nicely supported sales of the hardcopy version.

So, the take-home message here, based on my experiences? You need both hard copies and digital copies to meet your book's market. Despite the claims made by epublishers, I just don't think digital alone will cut it right now if your goal is to get your book into as many paying readers' hands as possible.  But not having a digital version will cost you a considerable number of sales.

Abstract sales numbers aside, the real people I've polled seem to be split on how they prefer to read in the 21st Century. 

Some just aren't ready to give up the joy of reading and owning physical books.

"I love the feel and look of books," says avid reader Christine Jaegli Ehrler. "I don't own an ebook device, have never actually held or looked at one, so maybe it's unfair to dislike something I have no experience with, but I just cannot imagine liking ebooks."

But other avid readers faced with the limited space to store hardbacks and paperbacks have embraced ebook technology.

"I've put a moratorium on getting new physical books," says Eric Haddock, who now uses Kindle on his iPhone as his main method of reading. "I'm enjoying it quite a bit. If it's not available on Kindle -- or PDF -- I don't read it."

"I've had a Sony PRS-500 since the month it was released," says author Mehitobel Wilson. "I love it. I won't discard books, which means that my poor house is piled with the kind of paperbacks that you read once, and that's the kind of thing I now read on the Reader. I still buy normal paper books, and if I fall in love with an e-edition I'll buy the tangible sort too."

So, the technology is entirely embraceable, and I've gotten over my bitterness over my first foray as an ebook author (I think). Why haven't I bought an ebook reader?

Lately, it's been more a financial concern rather than a psychological one.  My husband and I have laptops and iPods and shelves filled with paperbacks we haven't got around to reading yet. Could we really justify the expense of a new gadget that would only provide us with digital books when we're surrounded by the real thing? I admit the iPod Touch and iPhones were tempting, but the extra cost and duplication of gadget function made me hold off.

And my gut told me that Something Better was just down the road. Others have shared my wait-and-see attitude.

"I was about to buy the new Kindle when the Apple iTablet rumors started," says novelist/screenwriter Diana Botsford. "Now I'm holding off. Part of what I've learned from my research (on ebook readers) is that you need to see which device best supports your preferred genre. For me, it seems that Kindle has better offerings for (genre fiction) -- particularly recent releases."

And lo and behold, last Wednesday, Apple unveiled their brand new gadget, named the iPad instead of the iTablet.  As is typical for new releases from that company, the new product's lack of Flash support, size, even its name has been met with derision around the Internet ("iPad sounds like a feminine hygiene product" chortles a librarian friend.) And many hardcore Apple users are upset that the iPad runs iPhone-style apps (140,000 of them and counting) instead of the full-blown version of MacOSX.

But you know what? For me, the iPad is exactly what I was waiting for. I've been eyeing netbooks but didn't want to have to deal with the constant whack-a-virus that comes with owning a Windows computer or with the extra time involved in integrating a Linux version into my work style. And of course I was tempted by the functionality of the iPhone, but I hated the expense of the cell plan that inevitably came along with it.

The iPad would integrate right into our Mac-based household. The screen is big enough for decent movie viewing and novel writing. I could actually see myself replacing my 7-year-old iBook with it (the fact that my laptop has remained useable for so long is testament to why I like Apple hardware). There are already apps available to enable me to do the things I typically do with my laptop -- I don't need the full version of OSX to get work done. And there's a nifty full-keyboard dock for the thing, so I could carry the light, portable pad around with me during the day for quick notes and then dock it at night for more serious writing.

But this column isn't about laptops or netbooks, is it? We're talking about ebook readers.  And although thus far Apple hasn't yet been pitching the iPad hard at bibliophiles -- the first promo video does spend a few seconds on the new iBooks bookstore app, but the video mainly features movies, games, email, business productivity apps and easy navigation of the New York Times site -- the iPad could be a Kindle killer.

Provided you view the Kindle as a piece of hardware, of course.  The iPad is roughly the same size as a Kindle and can perform all the accessory functions of a Kindle -- MP3s, web surfing, and note-taking -- far better than Amazon's product. The iPad makes the Kindle look positively dowdy. The Kindle does offer limited free worldwide wireless (it allows you to get books and look things up on Wikipedia), but in a world of free wifi at the library, hotel, and neighborhood coffee shop, the main advantage of a Kindle is the E Ink technology.

"E Ink is hot shit," says Mehitobel Wilson. "It's neither backlit nor reflective, and is great in full sunlight. It so very closely emulates the printed page that people seeing my Reader have thought it had a display overlay on it. No eyestrain."

Some have speculated that the iPad's backlit screen can't possibly compete with the eye comfort of the Kindle.  However, I've heard some believable rumors that in the near future there will be an app for emulating the E Ink reading experience in the iPad. We'll see. There's already an app for reading Kindle books on your iPod or iPhone, and an E Ink emulator might come bundled in with future releases for the iPad.

Which brings me to this: if Apple mainly views itself as a tech manufacturer and not as an upstart book distributor, and if you view the Kindle not as a piece of hardware but as Amazon's whole digital book delivery system, the iPad is not a destroyer but a right-hand ally pulling in more market share for Amazon from people like me who don't mind backlit screens.

It will be interesting to see how (and if) the Kindle evolves in response to the iPad. It's hard to imagine book-centric Amazon trying to have a hardware showdown with a company that's been making excellent hardware for years. It's also hard to imagine the Kindle disappearing overnight. It's possible Apple will use iBooks to try to stage an iTunes-style coup over the digital text market and shut the Kindle app down as unwanted competition, which to me would be a stupid move. But strange things have happened in the tech world.

But the upshot is that ebook technology has clearly matured, and interested readers have their choice of good devices.  Add that in with other book-related technologies -- Project Gutenberg, printing on demand, and a cornucopia of Internet bookstores -- the 21st Century is a great time to be a reader.

 

Order a copy of Lucy's fiction collection - Sparks and Shadows
Order a copy of Lucy's humor collection - Installing Linux on a Dead Badger
Order a copy of Lucy's new collection Chimeric Machines


Lucy A. Snyder has a degree in biology, which she mainly uses to help people cut down on their snack consumption at parties. She's the author of Sparks and Shadows, a collection of her short stories and poems. Her work has appeared in publications such as Strange Horizons, Chiaroscuro, Masques V, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. You can learn more about her at her website.

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