Hello, this is a new site written by me, Alex Ingram to hold my writings and thoughts about books and their relationship to technology. I’ve brought over some of the things I’ve written earlier this year about eBooks and also gone through my own personal archives to present a bit of British eBook history. I hope you find the site interesting and a valuable contribution to the past, present and future of books.
Winamp.com is to close down and the Winamp music player will cease being distributed (full story here). So ends the long 15 year journey of what was once the first and most popular mp3 player. I was musing on twitter that this reminded me of my early experiences of digital music so here’s my anecdotal history.
The first piece of digital music I downloaded was in 1996, in a web cafe in Edinburgh. Sat in Web 13 as I was spending an afternoon on a school half day exploring the web (£3.50/hr) using my pocket money, and having a pain au chocolat (65p). I was browsing Aminet for software for my home computer, a firmly unconnected Amiga. There just wasn’t much on the internet back then, but I recall searching on Altavista for Suzanne Vega and finding her website. I scrolled down the list of sound clips, chose carefully and picked a song that would fit onto the disk I had, Caramel at a mere 665Kb. You see, it had to fit onto a single density floppy disk in PC DOS format which held 720Kb to reach my Amiga (via CrossDOS), every other song from her new album was too big. I took it home and put it into my Amiga 500 (plus, no less). I had also found a strange programme which played 16 bit (CD quality) sounds in 14 bit fidelity (despite the Amiga only being capable of 8 bit audio). Suzanne Vega’s voice hauntingly played from my computer for thirty seconds in near CD quality. I had neither a full song, nor the quality of a CD but the possibilities seemed quite surprising. I remember staring at the floppy disk marvelling at how it could hold this. A CD after all was 650MB of data, a floppy not even 1MB.
In 1997 things got better, and my mum bought herself a PC. Naturally I elbowed my way onto it when she wasn’t using it for writing or emails. There were speakers and a CD drive, so naturally I listened to music on it. Like anyone who got a copy of Windows 95 at the time, I found myself watching Weezer’s Buddy Holly video once I’d found it on the install disc. There in glorious sound and video via MPEG-1 you got the whole of a Spike Jonze music video. You hadn’t paid for it, and it was rather baffling to know that somewhere in amongst 650MB of potential operating system, 46MB or so could be used just to entertain.
Later that year, I was frustrated. Mum’s computer was downstairs. My bedroom was upstairs. Writing essays was a late night activity, and I needed to avoid needing to dash up and down stairs so much. I decided I should try to copy the CDs onto my computer, and whilst scrabbling over a few ideas of how to do this (and furtive attempts using tools within Windows) found some comments about mp3. Now, what I didn’t find was a website of music or anywhere to download music. No, what I found was details of the combination of tools needed to make a “digital jukebox”. It all felt frightfully high-tech and it was not straightforward. There was one application to extract the audio, this was done in real time. Another application then compressed that audio down into MPEG-1 Layer 3. These were ugly and ungainly pieces of software, but then Winamp was there as the last piece. It was glorious, and beautiful by comparison. There was a graphical interface, you could pick any track with a few clicks and you could even tweak the sound using all manner of plugins.
Now inevitably I started to trade music with my friends. I had spent HOURS encoding the music I owned in mp3 and was a teenager. I had to show off. I had almost no music. In a good hour you might be able to download around 12MB, which was barely three songs but you wouldn’t be able to browse the web. Why bother? Therefore I did the natural thing a teenager did since tapes, and shared music with the few people I considered my friends. Winzip had a feature for spanning archives.
You could choose as many as 2 or even 3 files to share and then span over half a dozen or more disks. It took ages. I think in all the time at school that I swapped files by spanned archives I wound up with a few dozen tracks. Swapping software was far more attractive as it was often smaller. My glimpse of a higher speed future came when I did work experience in an ISP in early 1998. edNET was then a local Edinburgh success story, and I badgered them to let me get some experience there. Mostly I was left to review some web pages, find cool pages (oh wow, look at this shockwave game!) and um… download whatever I wanted. Which turned out ultimately to be two Zip disks (100MB each) of music. It was also at this point that I invented the corned beef and brie sandwich whilst bored in a nearby deli. Heady times. A couple of the employees at the back of the offices had some music collections on their computers but they seemed about as random and odd as what I downloaded. You looked for something good, but you were happy with what you found, even if it was Kool & The Gang.
Did it seem wrong? Hard to say. There was no place where I could buy what I was after. As a teenager music was a frustrating experience. I remember well the day I went into town to buy Suggs second album only to discover it was £13.99 rather than £11.99. I got the bus home defeated and album-less (it’s not a classic, I’ll admit). Meanwhile odd moments of cheap purchases would fuel my music collection. I was listening to a tape of The Prodigy’s Fat Of The Land often the week I worked at the ISP and that was just a CD that was in the house, I think my sister’s. The linkage between ownership and music and portability just was not clear. It is arguable that a system where you buy a file that you play on your device or convert from physical has made that clear for the first time.
Looking back it is intriguing to remember just how cumbersome and complicated it was for a long time to use digital music. Which makes me think that maybe, in some ways, that won’t always be true of books as well. Books that are digitised for you are reasonably straightforward if you ignore formats, DRM and platforms. For books you need to digitise yourself it is currently a rare enthusiast that is digitising their own books. Lurking in the background are questions of digitisation and orphan works too of course, especially now Google has won a case for a change but really Kindle Matchbook is the only answer floating out there for the average Joe.
Until 2004 and the launch of Bleep my own music collection was always mostly just CDs I’d bought and digitised myself. I refused to buy music secured by DRM (but by 2008 I was helping sell DRM secured eBooks). Terrifyingly I remember enough to have a graph of how my music collection grew (versus mp3 player size from a grumpy rant when Apple downsized the iPod Classic). The rate of growth increased when I got an emusic subscription in 2005, but also even more in years I haven’t graphed as second hand CDs have collapsed in value. It’s all a very long journey from just searching an artist and downloading the one song that would fit on a disk.
p.s. also in the folder of “fun stuff” on Windows 95 was Hover!, which you can now just play in your browser. The future is a weird place.
For reasons that frankly can’t have been particularly clear at the time, Toby Young was employed by Sony to help evangelise the Reader. His comment in 2008 before the Reader launch, as publishers worked hard to convert books and gain rights?
A rise in the popularity of electronic books will spell the end for publishers, according to Toby Young, author of the bestselling How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.
Young claimed that the change will come about because the electronic format allows established authors to publish the books themselves.
“They can upload them onto their websites and charge people to download them onto their e-book readers,” he said.
“And instead of taking 10 to 15 per cent of the purchase price, which is the position authors are in at the moment, they will be able to take 100 per cent of the retail price and cut publishers and agents out of the equation completely.”
Young, who was speaking as an official ambassador for the Sony Reader, said that the only remaining costs would be to type up handwritten manuscripts, convert the text into downloadable form and marketing.
However, the author described these as “negligible” compared with the fees taken by other parties today.
His first book remains aptly named. And, um, that’ll be the Toby Young whose latest book was a Penguin Special on How To Set Up A Free School.
His forthcoming book is a full length book on education for Penguin. Next!
A friend of mine mad a snarky comment on twitter the other day. Having had an iPad for a few years, he’d finally got a modern up to date Mac to go with it. Yes, that meant he had to use iTunes.
Now, as a regular reviewer and keen reader he’d acquired EPUB files legitimately from a number of sources that were not the iBookstore but had read them in iBooks. He’d paid for them, they had no DRM to restrict them and he’d legitimately downloaded them. In some cases on one time download links. He expected that we would simply be able to copy the files off his iPad when he synced it again, or just right clicking on the iPad and Transfering Purchases.
Alas, that is not how iTunes and iBooks behave. Only purchased EPUB files sync back off an iPad. Were the files PDF they would actually have been copied by iTunes on a sync, and even if not it’s possible to email a PDF to any email account directly from iBooks.
There are of course, solutions to this problem. If you’re smart enough and able to you can probably find the EPUB files you need to backup with a free trial of the right software. And so you can take your chances with packages like Phoneview, Aiseesoft iPad to Computer Transfer or the hilariously expensive iSkysoft iPhone Data Recovery for Mac.
I’m sure many of those who dislike the walled garden approach of Apple would decry it as an intentional plan. I doubt that it is fully intentional, and I’d bet that there are similarly applications in all operating systems that happily open a file then fail to provide a clear method for taking it out again for backup or further use.
It strikes me that this problem is something of a ticking time-bomb for the normal user of an iPad. A simple design choice presumably made to make piracy harder is preventing fair and reasonable use. Being able to email on an EPUB seems like a less useful feature, but being able to correctly backup files a user has paid for seems vital. In the meantime a few enterprising software authors are earning money to permit iBooks to do something it should let users do anyway.
I’m left with two questions:
- Is a user who illegally downloads content they had bought but software won’t let them backup actually a bad person?
- Is this behaviour actually more of a problem for open retailing of digital content on the iPad than the in-app purchase rules?
What is the retail perspective?
Well, in a number of ways the one that matters is the retailer looking at their shelves, looking at their range. This is universal, but obviously the quality of that experience varies – amazon leaning on search results, apple leaning on big visuals
Changes to the market
It seems obvious, but it is important to consider how we’re treating digital in design terms (and budgets)
Here’s Bring Up The Bodies – hardback, paperback and audiobook
But look at Wolf Hall in eBook, on a truly global eBook store that jacket competes with those of other languages. However the anchor is the print jacket. I fully understand why this is so, but it does mean we’re using a print design as a thumbnail
On a good jacket there is plenty of surface detail, and here’s a good example of a detail packed jacket.
That detail has disappeared in digital, indeed the description here is nowhere on that print book jacket – audience for copy is vital to consider. Perhaps digital descriptions should be used far more playfully. But this jacket has three hooks. No digital store represents this well
Of course we can download the sample, but this places us straight into the first chapter, whilst there are forewords and introductions they aren’t accessible
Clearly custom samples can work around this but this is an area where books need a much richer preview experience
The problem is that we’re jamming your designs into a template
It’s tight, prescriptive
Here’s a book page on a kindle, we have the jacket, length, price, discount, rating, / description / reviews / more descriptive content, some extras, and finally right at the end the publisher!
Publisher identity is clearly being challenged.
Publisher identity is one key descriptive piece, genre is another.
Here’s fiction on the iBookstore – note the attempts to think of deigns that epitomise genres, these are all about finding the essence of the designs the books have,
In a physical store this would be done with a header and a selection of books. Digital retailers are inflexible and poorly resourced, so they are taking cheaper approaches.
This approach does lend some variance between genres but it also means that genres themselves are somewhat misrepresented.
Arse covering in action
Of course, representing romance is an interesting problem. Here’s perhaps the first hunk on a paperback, and a more recent one. Raunch is for some retailers an issue, leading to what is literally arse covering here on the right.
There is a problem for the digital retailer. When every book can appear front and center, how do you handle the more racy or otherwise objectionable covers. Boundaries are however being pushed thanks to the success of fifty shades.
But this is all at the covers level, what is going on inside the books?
Now, I meant to read Wolf Hall on a recent reading break. So I downloaded a sample and was met with this (far left). I’m a scot, who never learnt his English regal history. So I tried to read this family tree. I actually couldn’t, this comes out better in the kindle screenshot than on the device. Is this the treatment we should be making for a double booker winning author? Is this suitable design for such a revered book?
Now, you may recall the other language editions of this I referred to earlier, and they lay this out differently (far right)!
That’s better! Quite gorgeous in fact.
Take a moment to consider this fact: translations of English books are getting better design than those in English. This is madness. Economic and timeframe driven madness but madness nonetheless.
Obviously design is not just about retailers and plain text eBooks
There is great design work afoot in apps such as Nosy Crow’s Little Red Riding Hood and in apps there is much creative freedom and book publishers are often seizing it well. Notice the light navigation here
And here’s the recent Winnie the Pooh app, again with a very much custom and in brand navigation piece
But we must not lose sight of the fact that straight fixed format EPUB and perhaps restrictive containers like apple’s iBooks Author are letting some rich design work flourish.
Here’s a few notes on what I expect we’ll soon deal with
A) improvements to digital purchase, not clear how, but it’s not good enough now
B) better illustrations and other design pieces in plain text books
C) rich design is developing and we are seeing standards to support and standards of work develop
D) but, we aren’t really marketing eBooks as eBooks. It is unclear if this is the long term. Perhaps display advertising will stay as it is but would images on advert banners and images on stores be changeable enough to do something smart?
The history of eBooks at Waterstones does not begin in 2008. Indeed, if you were to count CD-ROMs then the history of selling electronic texts goes back into the mid 90s. Before the original Waterstone’s website was handed over to Amazon to run in 2001 Waterstone’s even briefly sold eBooks from their own site.
The effort in those days utilised Adobe’s early eBook software, and was promoted around Stephen King’s Riding The Bullet experiment. An experiment that it would seem was largely an expensive failure, though was at least widely supported by the book industry both in the US and UK. Tragically the original Waterstone’s site was not archived from this time (though a homepage earlier in the year survives in the Internet Archive) meaning the best idea of the experience comes from a posting on a usenet group.
At this point, and having a catalogue largely of academic and reference works, Waterstone’s naturally went looking for another content partner to help out.
Waterstone’s is committed to providing its customers with the most enjoyable and rewarding reading experience available and we recognize the unique value of electronic books. Versaware’s e-Book is an excellent format and we are delighted to be working with them.
So spoke Ian Newman, then IT director at Waterstone’s. Versaware? Well, they became a victim of the 2001 dot-com crash. Listen back to the scale of ambition that sounded groundbreaking at the time as espoused by Sol Rosenberg of Versaware.
The combination of the Waterstone’s brand with Versaware e-Book technologies will enable thousands of users to build their own libraries of electronic books.
What Waterstone’s was doing was adding a new, incompatible file format for eBooks that wouldn’t work on devices and would only work on desktop and laptop PCs. In that context perhaps the ambition of several thousand users was optimistic. Customers of Waterstone’s were to be directed to eBookCity.com a site maintained by Versaware.
When eBooks finally did get going properly, thousands of users were acquired in the first days the devices went on sale. Sol Rosenberg didn’t disappear from the eBook scene entirely, and now works as VP at Copia, a modern eBook startup.
The partnership started with a price offer, with Sams Teach Yourself Windows 98 in 24 Hours £8.10, Sam’s Teach Yourself to Create Web Pages in 24 Hours £10.16 and Sams Teach Yourself Microsoft Office 2000 in Ten Minutes £5.39 – not exactly prices to make you rush out and embrace digital. Though this was the year 2000 and discounts on computing books were not yet common practice.
Looking at this early history of Waterstone’s eBooks programme it is easy to see why worries about formats and devices were so high in people’s minds when the Sony Reader came to play…