Oct 28, 2009

Kindle Version Out

I was at the St. Bride Library last night where a group gathered to admire and hear about the work of Desmond Jeffery, a typesetter and designer who worked in hot metal and letterpress until his death in 1974.

Under the guidance of several of Jeffery's contemporaries, we saw how Jeffery worked. James Mosley, one of Jeffery's contemporaries, ended his speech with a simple example of an address being set in type. You could see an artist's instinct in typesetting.

This morning I awoke to the news that my first novel, A Particular Obedience, is now available for the Kindle. Apparently Kindle owners buy three times as many books as those who buy the printed word. In some ways this is good news. On the other hand, how can you look at the work of letterpress books and the exceptional work of new book designers and not think that e-ink is a step backwards?

Oct 24, 2009

Black Thursday

Happy Black Thursday, which was the official kickoff for The Great Depression, a time when everyone could play the stock market with ten percent down. You have a dollar, the brokerage gives you nine with an invitation to invest.

A mere 69 years later, Long Term Capital Management took a spiral into insolvency having been given 25 dollars for every dollar they invested. The Mighty Bear (Sterns) went down with 33 dollars lent to them for every dollar invested. Lehman would borrow as much as 60 dollars for every dollar invested.

History repeats itself, just never exactly and precisely.

I was looking around for literary notes about The Great Depression. P. G. Wodehouse moved to Hollywood in 1930 and cheerfully pocketed $1700 a week from a studio. Faulkner was able to buy Rowan Oak for a discount because of the bad times. Hal Smith, Faulkner's publisher, originally refused to publish Sanctuary, which included a rape by corncob. Smith thought the novel would land them in jail. But with the onset of The Great Depression, Smith re-evaluated his position and decided the novel was just the thing to help them out of their financial trouble.

How times have changed, sort of.

Oct 23, 2009

Those Polite British

British roads appear to be laid out in quarter mile strips connected by roundabouts, also known in Americanese as Traffic Circles. The roundabout is surely a hangover from the days when a horse-drawn carriages could not make a perfect 90 degree right turn. Or left turn. The British change slowly, very slowly. No need to simplify things for the motor car, not just yet.

Cannonballing down quarter mile stretches of road forces quick decisions. Your two lanes suddenly become three. Three lanes squeeze into the roundabout, where traffic is whizzing around it. The roundabout has No Lanes. Technically most roundabouts have two lanes, but no one draws lines and most drivers in a roundabout move through them in single file. Sometimes there is guidance. The signs tell you which lane you should be in. Sometimes not. But you can sure as hell bet that most of the locals are either complacent or as equally confused as you are. We all take the safe way out and stay in the left lane.

How could traffic be so fucked up in a modern country? How could two lanes become a swerving single lane on a modern road?

My only explanation is that there are not nearly enough guns nor litigation in the United Kingdom. (Here's a quote from Justin Webb's BBC piece: "A British man I met in Colorado recently told me he used to live in Kent but he moved to the American state of New Jersey and will not go home because it is, as he put it, 'a gentler environment for bringing the kids up.'" Thank you Howard Walker.)

In the United States there would be no such thing as the colossally fucked up roundabout known as Sadlers Farm on the A13, pictured below. Look closely at the satellite photo. That would be one giant roundabout which contains five, yes, five smaller roundabouts on it.

In the U.S., someone would have sued the governing body responsible for building that roundabout or there would have been so many shootings out of frustration and anger that the locals would have changed it.

Oct 11, 2009

Guardian Introduces Kindle

Yesterday The Guardian ran a piece by Nicholas Baker. He introduces the UK to the Kindle. Here's a slice of his excellent writing:

"This was what they were calling e-paper? This four-by-five window on to an overcast afternoon? Where was paper white, or paper cream? Where were sharp black letters laid out like lacquered chopsticks on a clean tablecloth?"

A longer version was originally printed in The New Yorker on 3 August 2009. He ultimately moves beyond the compromise of technology to lose himself to The Lincoln Lawyer, but how can you not look at e-readers and remember the days when you waited and waited for web pages to load or video took a step back into jerky and murky? This is the real conundrum of advancing technology. Hope carries us to the imperfect machines and buggy code. I'm still a fan of letterpress and believe that a well designed book is like a window onto the writing. If the window is clean, you do not notice it.

Oct 9, 2009

ePub vs. Kindle

The latest religious technology war is over format.

There are so many memorable technology wars, especially around format, that you have to wonder if the publishing industry has paid attention to history. There was VHS against Betamax and a very similar Blu-Ray versus HD-DVD. (While these people were duking it out, streaming video sneaked right by with a guerilla attack, slow but effective).

Publishing is looking at the abyss of another format war: ePub versus Kindle’s proprietary AZW format.

I spent many painful years in Information Technology and can give you a geek’s view of ePub and Kindle from the trench. Here are the basics.

ePub is an open standard and has the ability to present well designed books. That means an ePub book can be transferred to any device that reads ePub and there are a growing number, including the iPhone. The ability to format a book well is supported by ePub, which uses nearly complete CSS and XML functionality, but reflowable text – the very engine of eBooks – is no competition for a well designed book.

The Kindle format is roughly at the level of Netscape Navigator, that browser we all used to use. I’m talking about the 1.1 version. The Kindle only supports very rough HTML. They might say XML, but everything you can do with the Kindle format, you could do with HTML in 1995. And only a Kindle can read it.

The crux for publishers is that right now Amazon is completely dominate in this space and to not follow (actually bow to) the leader is to leave money on the table.

And Sony and the other ePub (hardware) supporters do not make it easy for small publishers and interested authors to publish to their platforms. Disregard the recent Smashwords and Author Solutions agreement with Sony. Smashwords uses a “grinder” to create ePub, which is not very attractive if you’ve invested in a carefully crafted ePub document. Author Solutions appears not to be returning emails.

Amazon on the other hand makes it very easy for small publishers to offer books on the Kindle.

The great unknown is Google, which supports ePub. They will soon be offering to sell ePub books.

The ePub vs. Kindle fight really comes down to who you think will win, Amazon or Google. It is a tough fight to handicap because Amazon is naturally dominate in books, but those Google people are very smart and competitive. Discount the hardware makers. These battles will never be about hardware, which will soon enough be cheap and readily available and in some cases irrelevant (back to the iPhone and whatever tablet Apple will offer). If you are in publishing, you know the fighters already, because in one way or another, Google and Amazon dominate you.