Free Markets, Free People
I love stories like this because the demonstrate the momentous changes that have been introduced by technology which has democratized publishing and not just opened the gates to everyone, but flat torn the gates down:
John Locke, 60, who publishes and promotes his own work, enjoys sales figures close to such literary luminaries as Stieg Larsson, James Patterson and Michael Connelly.
But unlike these heavyweights of the writing world, he has achieved it without the help of an agent or publicist – and with virtually no marketing budget.
Instead the DIY novelist has relied on word of mouth and a growing army of fans of his crime and western novellas that he has built up online thanks to a website and twitter account.
His remarkable achievement is being hailed as a milestone of the internet age and the beginning of a revolution in the way that books are sold.
His achievement is doubly impressive because of the way he accomplished this:
He saw that many successful authors were charging almost $10 (£6) for a book and decided that he would undercut them – selling his own efforts for 99 cents (60 pence).
"I’ve been in commission sales all my life, and when I learned Kindle and the other e-book platforms offered a royalty of 35 per cent on books priced at 99 cents, I couldn’t believe it," he said.
"To most people, 35 cents doesn’t sound like much. To me, it seemed like a license to print money.
"With the most famous authors in the world charging $9.95 for e-books, I saw an opportunity to compete, and so I put them in the position of having to prove their books were 10 times better than mine.
"Figuring that was a battle I could win, I decided right then and there to become the bestselling author in the world, a buck at a time."
Or, he figured that the opportunity of self-publishing allowed him the freedom to decide how much to charge and take advantage of the royalty being paid a lower price. Obviously you have to have something worth selling, but he’s figured out that formula as well – what most of us would consider “pulp fiction” with mass appeal:
His books – which centre around characters such as Donovan Creed, a former CIA assassin "with a weakness for easy women" and Emmett Love, a former gunslinger – are unlikely to trouble the Booker Prize judges.
But nevertheless they are immensely popular among the new e-Book fraternity, selling a copy every seven seconds and making him only the eighth author in history to sell a million copies on Amazon’s Kindle – a milestone he passed this week.
Phenomenal. Kudos to Locke … John Locke, that is. Great name.
The gate no longer exists and that has to make publishers as nervous as the news media is anymore. Anyone can publish just about anything and, unlike before, the market gets to decide what is or isn’t worth the money and reward – directly – those who manage to give it what it wants.
What’s not to like (our own Martin McPhillips may be able to give us a little insight into this phenomenon – and it will give him a chance to plug his book)?
As with most good intentions, the American’s With Disabilities Act has grown into something which in some cases obviously violates that initial intent. Designed to provide equal access to Americans with both physical and mental disabilities, the common sense side of such an endeavor has begun to fall to the more absurd and, frankly, selfish interpretations of the law.
The benign intent – equal access – has become a more authoritarian application and is resulting in penalizing the able.
The latest illustration of that comes to us from the world of academia. And the result is a bureaucratic ruling which delayed, if not destroyed, a great idea.
As we all know, college is an expensive proposition. So anything which helps reduce that cost is something which should be at least explored to see if its viable. A few schools were engaged in just such a project involving the Amazon Kindle – an e-book reader that users can download books onto. In this case the books were text books:
Last year, the schools — among them Princeton, Arizona State and Case Western Reserve — wanted to know if e-book readers would be more convenient and less costly than traditional textbooks. The environmentally conscious educators also wanted to reduce the huge amount of paper students use to print files from their laptops.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? Reduced cost for text books. Reduced paper usage. It would seem a perfectly sensible project for schools to undertake. Well, it did until the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division stepped in based on a complaint from the National Federation of the Blind:
The Civil Rights Division informed the schools they were under investigation. In subsequent talks, the Justice Department demanded the universities stop distributing the Kindle; if blind students couldn’t use the device, then nobody could. The Federation made the same demand in a separate lawsuit against Arizona State.
In short the Federation is saying, “if we can’t use the Kindle, no one can”. Interestingly, there wasn’t a single blind student in any of the project courses.
The Kindle, of course, is speech capable. It will read to you. However, as it was configured then, it required a sighted person to get to that part of the menu. So while one can understand the complaint to a point, I don’t understand the reaction. Why must everyone be banned from this common sense approach to saving money and resources because a very small segment of the population couldn’t yet avail themselves of the technology? Key word – ‘yet’.
It goes to a premise that we see constantly espoused on the left – only government is capable of adjudicating and enforcing “fairness”, even when such an adjudication is absurd and, as it turns out, an over reaction.
School officials were a bit baffled by the ruling:
Given the speed of technological development and the reality of competition among technology companies — Apple products were already fully text-to-speech capable — wasn’t this a problem the market would solve?
Of course it would. And competition would drive it – such as Apple. But the Justice Department decided if the blind can’t have it, neither can the sighted.
In early 2010, after most of the courses were over, the Justice Department reached agreement with the schools, and the federation settled with Arizona State. The schools denied violating the ADA but agreed that until the Kindle was fully accessible, nobody would use it.
Kindle knew the idea for saving money through using e-text books was a good one. They also knew, given Apple’s entry, that they would lose out if it wasn’t accessible to the blind. So they developed a Kindle – the latest version – that is fully accessible to the blind. And, it was a project which had already been in the works prior to the intrusion of the government.
That, however, didn’t stop the Civil Rights Division from again warning educators:
But as Amazon was unveiling the new Kindle last week, Perez was sending a letter to educators warning them they must use technology "in a manner that is permissible under federal law."
So here we have a problem that was in the process of being solved by the market when the need was identified. In the mean time, as that problem was being solved, the project could have moved forward and eventually benefitted any number of students with lower cost text books and less paper usage. Instead, no one was able to use the technological tool, and now that the problem has been solved, the federal government is still warning schools about the use of such devices.
There are those who will claim, some in our comment section, that this would have never happened had it not been for government. That is simply not true. As noted, the revised Kindle that would accommodate the blind was already on the drawing board for the next revision. Instead what we saw is unnecessary government intervention. Instead of warning the schools off of the project, had the government checked with Amazon, they’d have discovered that the desired product was under development.
They didn’t. They instead decided to use the authoritarian approach and threaten the schools with the law. As one person said:
"As a blind person, I would never want to be associated with any movement that punished sighted students, particularly for nothing they had ever done," says Russell Redenbaugh, a California investor who lost his sight in a childhood accident and later served for 15 years on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "It’s a gross injustice to disadvantage one group, and it’s bad policy that breeds resentment, not compassion."
It is bad policy, and as it was used in this case, bad law. Anyone who has made it into adulthood knows that life is not fair, never has been and will never be. We each, to some degree or another and in varying degrees of severity, have disabilities for which we have to compensate. Most of us have no problem with reasonable and common sense accommodations which enable those among us with more severe disabilities the chance to participate more fully. However, when you begin to penalize the able because the disabled don’t have the same opportunity to participate for whatever reason, then it is a level of intrusion that is both unwelcome and unwarranted. Unfortunately, though, it is all too common.
I am a reader. I am, in fact, a serious reader. For most of my life, this was a bit of a financial burden, and over time, an even greater physical burden, since I acquired a library of hundreds of books. A couple of years ago, I was liberated from much of this by the acquisition of a Sony PRS-500 eBook Reader. As of this last Tuesday afternoon, my Sony Reader had 400 books stored on it that I had acquired over the last three years.
On Tuesday night, my PRS-500 went Tango Uniform.
A dilemma immediately arose about how best to replace it. With the Kindle 2 now out, I had the following choice. Buy a new PRS-700 from Sony, or get a Kindle. With the new PRS-700, I could transfer all my old books. But I was stuck with Sony’s horrendously inconvenient book-buying process. Or I could get a new Kindle 2, which was a bit cheaper, far easier to obtain books for, but would require a massively inconvenient re-acquisition or conversion of my old books to the Kindle.
I made my choice, and bought the Kindle.
It arrived on Thursday, and I have to say that it’s not only signifigacantly better than the Sony, it’s a fantastic book reader in its own right.
The Form Factor
The Kindle is a bit larger than the Sony due to the QWERTY keyboard in the lower portion of the machine. It’s still small enough, though to be conveniently sized, and easy to handle. It’s quite thin, and light. In fact, the deluxe leather cover I purchased with it is almost as heavy as the Kindle itself.
The one downside to the device’s form factor is the QWERTY keyboard–but that’s pretty much an unavoidable downside. The buttons are small, and set very close together. This makes typing a bit slow a laborious. Of course, it’s physically impossible to get a decent keyboard on a small device, so you know going in that typing isn’t going to be convenient. It’s no different from a Blackberry or palm device. The surprise isn’t that the keyboard doesn’t allow convenient typing, but rather that there’s a usable keyboard at all. The Kindle’s keyboard is usable, and that is probably the best that anyone can reasonably expect.
That having been said, the buttons are designed in such a way as to minimize accidental pressing unless you intend to press them, which is a plus.
The controls are well-positioned on the device. As you can see from the picture, there are six main navigation buttons along the sides.
|Left Buttons||Right Buttons|
|Next Page||Next page|
In addition to the buttons, there is a joystick control placed between the menu and back buttons for navigating the cursor through the menus.
The nice thing about the design of the buttons is that the depress to the center of the device, not to the edge. This does a great job of preventing you from inadvertantly changing pages, or going to the home screen by accident while you handle the device. it’s a small, but very convenient detail. It’s also nice that there are Next page buttons on both sides of the device. This is the button you’re going to hit most often, after all, so they are conveniently accessible at all times, no matter how you hold the device. That’s helped out by the fact that they are significantly larger than the other buttons.
The image to the right gives a good real-world size comparison. As you can see, the Kindle is conveniently small.
One final note on the form factor. With the keyboard on the bottom, the screen is raised to the top of the device. This means that when you read in bed, you can rest the bottom of the device on the covers, and the whole screen is visible. On my Sony, the covers would obscure the bottom of the screen. Since I read before sleeping every night, this is a noticeable improvement.
The E-Ink Screen
I was a fan of the eInk technology on the Sony, but there were a few drawbacks. The contrast beteen the gray background and black text could have been better. The refresh rate of the screen was also noticeably–sometimes distractingly–slow. With only 4 grayscale colors, book covers and other images were nearly illegible.
That was a first-generation eInk screen, of course, and with the Kindle 2, there have been obvious improvements to the technology. The gray background is a bit lighter, increasing the contrast. The page refresh rate is also much, much faster, which makes “turning” the pages far less noticeable. It certainly takes less time than turning a page in a physical book.
The biggest improvement is in the fact that the screen displays 16 grayscale colors now. This makes the pictures far more legible and photograph-like. In fact, every time you turn the Kindle off, a picture of a some author or literary scene is displayed, and they all look good on the screen.
The most convenient of the feastures has to be the different font sizes. The Kindle not only uses a pleasant and easy to read serif font, it offers a choice of 6 different font sizes. There’s enough variation in font size to make easy reading for practically anyone.
Navigating through the device is very easy. No matter where you are, you can get to the main menu screen by pushing the Home key. The back key gets you out of any menus or secondary screens with one click.
Having to navigate through menus with the joystick control is slightly inconvenient compared to the Sony, however. The Sony provides ten physical buttons that correspond to the menu items, so instead of navigating, you simply push the appropriate button. On the Kindle, you have to nudge the joystick to move from item to item.
The menu system is faily intuitive, providing you with slightly different menus, depending on what screen you’re looking at on the device. At all times, you are presented with menus that are relevant to what you’re doing with the device at the time.
If you find you’re doing something where you can’t actually read your book, the Kindle offers a voice-to-text feature that is surprisingly good. You get the choice between a male or female voice, and can vary the speed at which the voice reads between three different settings. The voice is obviously computer-generated, but it sounds closer to a human voice than any device I’ve previously worked with. It still has trouble pronouncing certain words, but for listening while you drive–or ride your motorcycle–it’s a pretty neat feature. It’s also neat that the Kindle has a built-in speaker, as well as a 3.5mm mini jack for headphones.
In addition, the Kindle will also play MP3 files.
Unfortunately, some publishers threatened to sue Amazon, saying that the voice to text feature was a copyright violation–which it clearly is not. Amazon, however, rather than getting involved in a legal battle, allows publishers to disable the text to speech feature, so not every book will be hearable.
The Kindle does not take any external storage media, like an SD card. It does, however, come with 2GB of onboard memory. That’s enough memory to store about 1500 books, which seems like more than enough to get by. Any book you buy at Amazon is perpetually available for download, too so, you can always swap out books if you find that 1,500 books isn’t enough.
The Kindle contains an EVDO modem that operates off the Sprint 3G network. When you buy a book from the Amazon store, the book is delivered directly to the device via the network. In addition, the Kindle is assigned an email address, so you can take your text or RTF documents, and email them to that address, and Amazon will, for ten cents, convert the document to the Kindle format, and deliver it straight to the device as well.
eBook prices at the Amazon store are surprisingly good. The cost of an eBook is significantly less than the paper versions. I was able to buy Amity Schlaes’ newest book, The Forgotten Man, for $9.57, as opposed to the $25 hardback price. In addition to that, I was able to pick up modern translations of some classics, such as Livy’s History of Rome, the collected works of Tacitus in one eBook, Xenophon’s Anabasis, The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Julius Ceasar’s Commentaries on the Wars, and The Histories of Herodotus for about $3.50 each.
In addition to wireless book delivery from the Amazon store, you can also transfer books from your computer to the device via the included USB cable. So, if you don’t want to shell out the dime for wireless delivery to your device when you convert a document, you can have Amazon convert the document and send it to your email address for free, then use the USB cable to transfer it to the device.
I buy a lot of sci-fi at the Baen Books Webscriptions web site, which offers books in the Kindle format. In addition, nearly all of the books from the Gutenberg Project, as well as many other titles, are all available for free in several eBook formats, including the Kindle, from ManyBooks. Having the USB connection allows the Kindle to be seen as a hard drive on your computer, and you can transfer those eBooks from your computer to the Kindle.
In addition to going online at Amazon, the Kindle is also a web browser, and you can simply go to a web site and read it. I’m not sure if this is going to be a permanent feature of the Kindle, because I’m sure Sprint wants money for the use of its EVDO network, so this may or may not be a feature that goes away. On the other hand, it’s a pretty pretty primitive browser. It takes forever for a web page to load, and you have to use the joystick to navigate from link to link. It’s not very convenient, so I can’t see someone wanting to use it on a regular basis.
You can, by the way, turn the wireless on and off as necessary, for lots of battery life extension.
I have been extremely impressed by the Kindle. The speed at which it works, the ease of obtaining books, and the though that has gone into its design make this a definite winner in my book. (Pun. Deal with it.) It has been a pleasure to use for the last couple of days, and from my experience, it is vastly superior to the Sony Reader in nearly every way. It’s been an absolute joy to use. Now, all I need is a new Palm Pre, and I’ll be set.
My only problem with it has been how easy and seductive it is to get new books for it. I just purchased Winston Churchill’s 6-volume memoir of World War II for $36.69. Clearly, I’m going to have to figure out how to reign those impulse purchases in.