Saturday, July 07, 2007

New Audiobook Survey

The Audiobook Publishing Association recently surveyed the British public on what they think of audiobooks and just issued a press release on the results.

The traditional method of interacting with books is visual, by reading a printed copy. Audiobooks represent a new way because they are an auditory experience--one typically listens to a CD of a person speaking the words written in a book. How does the general public typically react to the idea of doing something in a different way?

The British public feel audiobooks are designed not for them but for people who are either physically or mentally defective. Audiobooks are "talking books for the blind," for the elderly, for small children, and probably for people who are too insane to turn pages--not for the average normal person.

It's a common reaction to interacting with something by a non-traditional method. I've seen similar responses from people when the topic of ebooks is discussed. The immediate reaction is that they would be good for people with some type of infirmity, and the second reaction is a strong concern for the social implications of participating in the new method of book interaction: "I've never seen anyone reading an ebook," is a standard objection, implying that the dissenter will not participate if the activity isn't already approved and used by a significant majority of society at large.

I'm not here to advocate for audiobooks because I've never listened to one myself, although I can see they would come in handy during long car trips when I'm the one driving. So under certain situations audiobooks could be the right answer. Apparently one person speaks the words of the entire book--either the author or someone touted as a great speaker. The attraction of listening to a favorite author is obvious, but one speaker for the entire book? I would think I would want to hear different voices when the dialog of several people is presented in the book. One person doesn't handle that well. But then, that would be more mouths to feed and the price would skyrocket.

Price was mentioned as a problem in the survey. And price is also considered a problem with ebooks, not coincidentally. Publishers seem reluctant to grow these markets by dropping prices to encourage more people to become consumers of audio- and e-books. The reasoning I suppose is that if publishers charge less for these types of books, they lose a print sale that would have been at a higher price.

Last year, the US-based Audio Publishers Association surveyed for industry sales data and found a 5% increase in sales from 2004 to 2005, with total audiobook sales reaching $871 million. 58% of books purchased were fiction. 32% were nonfiction. Other: 10%. What could be "other" than fiction or nonfiction? Perhaps the respondents were thinking of those "nonfiction novels" that combine aspects of both.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

World Ebook Fair Begins

The World Ebook Fair begins today with free downloads of over 500,000 full-text ebooks from July 4 to August 4.

Most of the books appear to be in the public domain and could be downloaded off the internet for free anyway. Project Gutenberg is an affiliate. You won't find Tom Clancy or Stephen King here. Some recent fiction titles are available from the Baen Science Fiction collection. Those novels are sci-fi and fantasy and some of them seem to be well-regarded by fans of the genres.

It would be a nice touch for giant publishers like Random House or HarperCollins to join a promotion like this and find an out-of-print backlist title to make available, then promote and market their participation while patting themselves on the back for giving away something "for free." Just an idea.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Ebooks: Amazon Joins Google, Microsoft

It finally happened. Amazon will provide online access to the full-text of hundreds of thousands of ebooks with a library program similar to Google Books and Microsoft's Live Search Books.

According to the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Amazon will partner with several libraries and supply only books that are in the public domain or those that their partners own the copyrights to.

I'll note here that Microsoft started with just public domain books, but recently made deals with a number of publishers to provide access to newer in-copyright books as well. I wouldn't be surprised if Amazon eventually did this as well. Although Amazon will digitize books with just its library partners for now, Amazon's stated goal, the article says, is to digitize as many books as possible. This sounds strikingly like Google's statement.

This news, coming at this time, is especially exciting since Amazon is rumored to be releasing their own dedicated ebook reader, "Kindle," sometime this year. This new digital initiative would work well with that.

Amazon's library partners include Emory University, the University of Maine at Orono, Toronto Public Library, and the Public Library of Cincinnati. Apparently the libraries will do the scanning themselves with equipment from Kirtas Technologies. The libraries will decide which books will be digitized and will share the profits for any hard copies of the books purchased through Amazon.

Ebook activities seem to be accelerating despite much ink spilled in the press that the industry has so far been "disappointing." Significant changes in the way people read books seem on the way soon, especially considering that younger people are much more willing to use ebooks than older folks. The future in this regard seems rather clear.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Stephen King's "The Gingerbread Girl"

No one reads magazine fiction anymore. I know that because Esquire Editor-in-Chief David Granger said he has been trying to “breathe life” back into this formerly spry but now moribund literary outlet.

How to accomplish that? By publishing nothing other than “event fiction.” A good yarn written by an unknown writer isn’t enough. Nobody buys that these days. Some additional attractive ingredient must be present to call attention to the tale. An extremely famous author, for example, like Stephen King. Other ways to lure modern readers to short fiction? Presumably Esquire has more ideas up its sleeve. I hesitate to give suggestions.

“The Gingerbread Girl” (July 2007 issue of Esquire) begins with the death of Emily Owensby’s baby. It was “defective.” So Emily takes up running. She runs so much she pukes. Henry, her husband, argues with her about her new obsession. She hurls a book at him and flees the house, and her marriage.

Emily relocates to a shack owned by her father on the southern Florida coast near Naples. She runs along the beach and encounters a dead body in the trunk of a Mercedes. Soon thereafter, she unexpectedly meets the owner of the car. Jim Pickering can boast possession of a yacht, a Mercedes, and a winter home in Florida he inhabits when Chicago gets too cold, yet when Emily looks into his eyes, she “saw nothing in them she recognized as sanity.” In addition, he “looked crazy. In fact, there was no doubt about his state of mind.” Perhaps several Constant Readers are scratching their heads at this rather implausible creature.

Pickering laboriously binds Emily to a chair with duct tape so she can hardly move, even though his intent is apparently to rape and murder her. How to rape a person fastened securely to a chair? Pickering would need to kill her or at least knock her out, then undo all the tape, then rape her. But then, why the tape job in the first place? Just to ask who might know she was at his house? Why would such a madman even think about that?

Pickering improbably decides to exit the house to kill someone Emily said knew she was there. While he’s gone, she manages—after herculean effort—to free herself just as he returns. They fight. She wins. She runs through the house but can’t get to the main door to leave. Pickering runs after her. She’s trapped! She barricades the door to the room. Just as Pickering breaks down the door, Emily crashes through a window. Freedom! She runs along the beach with Pickering not far behind—and he’s carrying a big pair of kitchen scissors.

Is Pickering what he seems or is he perhaps a physical manifestation conjured up by someone’s subconscious, a la the monster in Forbidden Planet? Emily needs to “explore the limits of her endurance”—Pickering obliges. She wishes there were a pill to get over the death of a child—she later calls his house “the Pillbox.” Overcoming Pickering is a necessary catharsis that would enable her to move forward with her life.

How does it end? Poorly. I mean from a literary point of view. There is no “wow” ending here. This world ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

Looking back on it, the story seems hardly worth the effort to tell it. A woman encounters a crazed maniac who ties her up, she escapes, he runs after her, one of them perishes and the story is fini. That’s pretty much it. It’s all too familiar and there is nothing remarkable to recommend the story.

“The Gingerbread Girl” is a somewhat shaky launch of the new “event fiction” craft, but that’s judging only the fiction, not the “event”—which is Stephen King the famous author writing something short (that’s an event right there) for a magazine. And it worked on me—I bought my first copy of Esquire magazine ever. It’ll take a doozy for me to buy my second.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Social Book Catalogs

Social book catalogs are growing in popularity and I'm curious to know which are the most popular and compare their features. I'm primarily interested here in finding out which are discussed the most on blogs by checking their numbers on Blogsearch and Technorati.

First a few random notes on some of these sites:

Easily the biggest of them all. It claims 228,000 members and 15 million books. What struck me when sifting though the blog posts was the number of people trashing the design and usability of the site, usually by people recommending Shelfari. I keep looking back and forth at both sites and still an unclear what they mean. They both have a similar appearance to my eyes.

LT is one of the few that charges for its service: it's free if you have only 200 books; a life membership can be had for $25. 40% is owned by AbeBooks. Random House is a partner for an early book review program.

A relatively new site that has attracted a lot of attention. It's unclear to me how many members or books it has. I'm assuming those numbers aren't prominently placed because as a new site they are still building up their membership.

I imported my library from LibraryThing with some problems. I have a number of books in foreign languages (Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese) that I manually loaded into LT because they couldn't be found in places like Amazon and I had to look them up in online library catalogs in China and Japan. The titles include Chinese characters and Japanese kanji. Shelfari couldn't load any of these.

Shelfari doesn't allow for manually adding books, and to me, that is a serious weakness. I'm sure it's a problem for serious collectors who have unusual items that can't be found in the standard online catalogs.

This site has been lauded for its many features. It claims over 1 million books. Based in Hong Kong, it's not surprising to see a lot of Chinese members here. Would aNobii easily import my LT library with Chinese language books? I can't answer that yet. I tried to import my library several hours ago and it sent back a message: "Got your order! You will receive an email from us once your data is ready." Every other site took only a few minutes to import.

I see only 32 groups, far fewer than the other large sites. Like Shelfari, aNobii doesn't allow for manually entering a book. You have to either import or find it, otherwise you're out of luck. Not good news for bibliophiles! I can't take aNobii or Shelfari seriously until they include this option.

I'm not a fan of the graphic of books across the top of the page. It looks unkempt and unsightly, but like the debate over the design of Shelfari and LibraryThing, I suspect beauty is in the eye of the beholder. GR imported my LT xls file, but not the cvs--and of course it couldn't handle the foreign-language books. Thankfully, GR allows for manually adding books.

BookTribes claims 1,500 members and 2.5 million books. That's 1,666 books per member. I think there is a credibility problem here, unless there is some bizarre explanation of why so many books could possibly be in the database with so few members. Are there importing or exporting options I'm not seeing? Or manually entering a book? I can't see the attraction of this site.

Some numbers (Blogsearch numbers are the total claimed number; not the actual number of viewable entries):

Social Library Catalog Blog Numbers

Delicious Library6,6251,465

aNobii has been coming on strong the previous month (June 2007), with triple the numbers of Shelfari and double the numbers of Goodreads. But LibraryThing is still far ahead of all the others.

I know there are a lot more sites, but I'm not including them yet. Stay tuned.