Friday, August 27, 2010

Wylie Update

I have a follow-up post to my Wylie article up at the RE:Print Blog at The Wylie Agency and Random House have reached an agreement and 13 of Odyssey Edition's titles have been removed from Amazon's online store. They are apparently going to be re-released non-exclusively through RH shortly.

While the agreement could be interpreted as proof that Wylie didn't have a legal leg to stand on if the dispute was brought to court, it would be an overreach to declare Random House the winner. There was a lot of speculation in the publishing world that Wylie's plans were more of a publicity stunt then a serious move into the direct market. From that perspective Wylie was able to bring a lot of attention on the issue of author's digital royalties in a world where e-publishing is taking over traditional print. Furthermore, he set a precedent for other authors and agents whose deals may have similar ambiguities concerning e-rights to follow if they feel that they are being mistreated. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lots of New Updates: Commentary, Reviews, and News about Barnes and Noble.

- Peta Jinnath Andersen has an interesting article at popmatters, "Will Ads in Books Destroy the Industry or Save it?". Curious to know what you think of this one; would you read an e-book if it had a banner or a footer with an advertisement on it?

E-Reader Reviews:
- A rave review of the Kindle 3 from the folks over at Publisher's Weekly.
- The New York Times has a comprehensive review of the Kindle 3.
- Techland has a good piece on the Pandigital Novel, highlighting the device's potential strengths and numerous weaknesses.  They also have a very even breakdown of the Kindle versus Nook discussion.
- Dan Nosowitz has an article over at Fast Company discussing why we shouldn't dismiss the Nook as viable alternative to the Kindle and the Ipad.

Barnes and Noble:
- Daily Finance discusses Barnes and Noble's quarter loss of 63 million, and the letter to investors from the Board of Directors asking them to support founder Leonard Riggio and avoid a drawn out proxy war with Ron Burkle.

Digital Comics:
- Image Comics has launched it's own application for the Ipad and Iphone.
- American and Japanese Manga publishers try to find a digital solution to fighting scanalation.

- PWxyz on the Ipad mini: will it be announced on September 1?

Friday, August 20, 2010

News and Updates: E-reader's, Barnes and Noble, etc.

I hope you enjoyed the excellent essay written by our guest blogger a few days ago - a wonderful articulation of the joys of reading off the printed page. Check out my review of Joe Hill's Locke and Key at Irene's blog, Girl on Book Action, here.  

ZDNet has an excellent piece, sent to me by one of my students, on the problems with the Kindle's closed format and its inability to read books from the epub format. 

- PWxyz discusses Wired's article on how e-books are priced

- Publisher's Weekly reports the June's e-book sales are up 119%.

 - Engadget reports that CVS pharmacies is going to be selling a $179 e-reader - the Look Book. I haven't been able to find out much about this device so if anyone knows anything about it please let me know.

 - Daily Finance reports on the ongoing proxy fight between Ron Burkle and Leonard Riggio. It looks like the future of the superstore chain remains unclear as stock prices fall after a brief rise in value after the company announced it was putting itself up for sale. In an ironic twist however, some are speculating that if the B&N and Borders were to go out of business, it would open the door for a return of the independent book store to fill in the gap.

- The Huffington Post had an interesting article on the evolution of e-ink technology and the future of ebooks. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Vindication of the Rights of Paper Book Lovers - by Irene Peinhopf

           Right now, I’m reading a book about gender in Romantic literature – Romanticism and Gender by Anna K. Mellor - which has exposed me to a number of women authors of the Romantic period whose names I have not found in my previous studies.  They wrote novels with titles that are unfamiliar to me and told stories that I have not had the pleasure to read.  According to this discussion, part of the reason that women were actively publishing their works at this time, both anonymously and under their own names, is the “establishment of the lending library, which spread rapidly throughout England in this era [which] meant that books were widely accessible to a new and ever-growing readership, a readership composed in large part of upper- and middle-class women who preferred to read literature, and especially novels, written by women” (Mellor 1-2).    The lending library, an institution that helped to shape countless lives over the centuries - an institution based on the printed book.  All of that is a long-winded way to say that books, physical paper books are a part of our cultural heritage and you may call me a sad sentimentalist and a Luddite, but I believe – strongly – that paper books should not be relegated to the past in light of the new e-reader craze.
            Before I tell you more about why you should cherish your printed books, let me make a concession to this e-reader business.   First, let me admit freely and openly that I have not used an e-reader, and have not spent any time investigating their features.  I have looked at a friends’ Kindle and pondered its uses and whether or not I would hate reading on a digital screen (I hate reading anything longer than a medium length essay on the computer – oh the glare!).  However, I can see some uses for them.   For instance, if I were inclined to travel it would be simpler to bring an e-reader than to lug a suitcase of paperbacks with me.  Not only would it be lighter (paper sure is heavy) but it would also take up less room so I could take less luggage.  Also, having my library with me wherever I went would likely have some advantages, such as being able to access quotes and sections at need, which could be useful for school and you never know when you’ll need to prove that you remember the ending of Perfume correctly and all of your friends are wrong.  Yes, I can see how an e-reader could be useful and perhaps one day I will purchase one, but it would never replace my love and need for printed books.  It would only be an accessory to my library.
            Now that I’ve served you an anecdote and some disclaimers, let me tell you about why paper books are amazing and why you should want them to stick around.  Books are sensual.  Hear me out.  They engage the senses, not just sight and imagination, but smell and touch and they are wonderful ways to evoke memories – sensory and otherwise.  When my eyes roam over my shelves and I pick out Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar I remember the times I’ve read this novel and how I felt then – oppressed by the future, suffocating in my own mental glass dome and wanting nothing more than to escape and live without the pressure I was putting on myself; or perhaps my eyes rest on my copy of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (which at the moment they can’t because I’ve loaned it to a friend) and I recall the weekend I spent closeted away, barely talking to my friends and family because I was having a love-affair with a dead Russian author and his book.  They are visual cues for my memory bank.  As Anne Fadiman writes:

“Our books, however – even the ones printed long before we were born – remained ageless.  They recorded the passage of real time, and because they reminded us of all the occasions on which they had been read and reread, they also reflected the passage of the preceding decades. / Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator); they became chapters in it themselves.  How could it be otherwise?” (xi Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader). 

Books become a part of our lives much more so than our computers and iPods and gaming consoles, our cell phones or laptops.  But I was telling you about the senses, so let us return to that with one more visual appeal: I’m a sucker for a beautiful typeset.  There is just something about a gorgeously lettered book that makes my heart beat a little faster and makes my eyes dance over the page with added pleasure.  Another thing you gain from the printed book is the lush evocativeness of its smell – whether you love the new-book smell or the scent of a well-loved used book, or a book you’ve owned for so long that it smells of your own particular past.  And last but not least is the feel of a book in your hands, the friction of the paper, the thickness and density of the pages, the smooth or matte or leather or cloth of the covers, the different weights of paperbacks and trades and hardcovers.  These sensory impressions are important to me and I don’t know that I could replace all of these experiences with the cold feeling of an electronic device – I don’t go into raptures thinking about picking up and opening my laptop.
Let me backtrack to what I mentioned in passing above: I lent a book to a friend.  Are you following my train of thought here?  How would I lend a friend a book if I was reading on an e-reader?  The lending and borrowing of books is a treasured activity between my friends.  If I’m honest, I have to admit that it gives me some pains to send my treasures off into the world, but ultimately I know that I’ll see them again soon enough and that in the meantime someone is also enjoying a story I’ve loved.  By the same token, I’ve been exposed to and have come to love many authors and novels that I would never have thought to seek out on my own because a friend lent me a book.  I suppose if I really wanted to I could lend an e-reader to a friend, but with that I would give them my whole library and a fairly expensive piece of technology compared to a $10 paperback.  Which brings us to issues of cost: in this type of economy lending and borrowing books makes sense (also, the library which lends books), although I suppose if you’re paying $100+ for a fancy e-reader you’re not worried about your bank account.  P.S.: Don’t forget about used books, which fortunately will still be around even if the printed tome goes out of fashion, at least for a time so that bibliophiles like me can still get our required fix of paper and ink.
            In closing, let me say that you may label me as a Luddite and a sentimental old lady clinging with desperation to the world she feels comfortable with rather than accepting and welcoming the winds of change, but that doesn’t change the fact that printed books are important.  Picturing a world with only fancy gadgets and no one sitting in a coffee shop with a beat up paperback makes my heart ache with a loss we haven’t even experienced.  I cannot picture my life without books.  They are my silent, soothing companions, always ready to welcome me back with open pages and their ever-yielding words.  Those are just my two-cents and I’ll likely lose this particular battle.  As a society we love technology and I’m not an exception – I like having my iPod and writing blog entries and am a Twitter-addict, but I also think that with the rise of technology we might lose more than we gain.  I’m not sure I want to trade the sensory experience of reading a book for the convenience of carrying my whole library with me wherever I go.  I’m not saying you should frenziedly burn your e-reader in an attempt to escape the shackles of modern technology, but that the next time you pick it up you ask yourself this one simple question: what would it be like to read this in a print book?
             I’m not saying you should frenziedly burn your e-reader in an attempt to escape the shackles of modern technology, but that the next time you pick it up you ask yourself this one simple question: what would it be like to read this in a print book?


If you like what you’ve read and want to read some more of my thoughts you can read my weekly contributions  at where I (you guessed it) review books along with my cohorts Wren (predominantly movie reviews) and Tdro (the mistress of telling us about cute men).

Bio of our Guest Blogger: Irene (a.k.a. Doomwench) is, no kidding, getting her Masters degree in Vampire Studies (okay, she’s actually getting a degree in Germanic Studies, but she’s bent it to her will and is writing aboutNosferatu). She lives in Canada (but is originally from Austria) and enjoys reading about draculas. She also hates it when you call them draculas.  Needing somewhere to vent her thoughts on all of the books she reads, she began the Girl On Book Action blog with longtime friend and bibliophile Wren. Irene likes long walks on....wait, no she doesn't, she likes staying indoors reading, blogging, playing videogames and generally ignoring the sun.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Great Blogger Crossover a Other News and Updates

In a few days this blog will be doing a crossover with one of the fine writers over at Girl on Book Action - an excellent site for book reviews that I highly recommend. Irene a.k.a Doomwench, one of the blog's founders, is a bibliophile and print lover who has agreed to write a spirited essay in defense of paper. In exchange they have graciously relaxed their site's gender prohibitions and will be publishing my review of Joe Hill's terrifying comic book series, Locke and Key.


Brent Arends predicts the closing of bookstores and takes a look at the sad state of Barnes and Nobles, and Border's stock over at the Wall Street Journal's Digital Dashboard.      

The Huffington Post takes a look at 17 journals that may endure the digital onslaught.

PWxyz has a post speculating that the rumored mini-Ipad will be released by the holidays.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Odyssey of Andrew Wylie - Expanded.

I recently wrote an article for Popmatters on Andrew Wylie for the website's RE:print blog. Sadly, none of the hyperlinks made it through the upload process (I screwed up the HTML stuff.) Here is the complete article with all the links included. Enjoy.

The Odyssey of Andrew Wylie

Andrew Wylie, agent and head of the prestigious Wylie Agency, has been no stranger to controversy during his long career in the world of books. Lauded by some as a champion of writers and criticized by others as a "jackal" and "provocateur," Wylie has developed a reputation that just begs for comparisons with the character Arie Gold from HBO’s Entourage. Although dogged by charges of client stealing and other unethical practices, Wylie has come to represent over 700 hundred writers, including Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth, Dave Eggers, and the estates of Jorge Luis Borges, John Updike, and Norman Mailer.     
Last month, Wylie caused an upheaval in the publishing world with his announcement that he had given the exclusive digital distribution rights for 20 books whose writers he represents to for release on their Kindle. The books, which will be released through a new company established by Wylie, Odyssey Editions, are reflective of his reputation as a advocate of authors who have made substantive impacts to the world of literature as opposed to just being commercially popular. Included in the list of newly available e-books, priced at just $9.99, are Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Invisible Man, and Updike’s Rabbit series. Although not a fan of the kindle originally (Wylie once stated in an interview, “I have a Kindle. I used it for an hour and a half and put it in the closet.”), this move shows the Wylie is not the type to let his personal hangups get in the way of his objectives.  
While the full ramifications of this action remain unclear, Wylie’s decision, which has gained the support of the Author’s Guild, has reverberated through the community of publishers who see this action as tantamount to an act of war. Random House immediately issued a statement, quoted from an article on the Huffington Post,  declaring that the, “...decision to sell e-books exclusively to Amazon for titles which are subject to active Random House agreements undermines our longstanding commitments to and investments in our authors, and it establishes this Agency as our direct competitor.” The statement continued, "Therefore, regrettably, Random House on a worldwide basis will not be entering into any new English-language business agreements with the Wylie Agency until this situation is resolved."  
This type of drama seems a natural byproduct of the type of personality necessary to have accumulated such a stable of talent under one roof and who has in some ways become the story itself.  A piece from writes:
Wylie grew up as the son of a respected book editor in an old-money Boston family, studied                     
French literature at Harvard, and entered the publishing game relatively late in life, when he was     
already in his 30s, after a misspent youth of Bohemian excess, which included hanging out with
Andy Warhol, writing dirty poetry, and partaking of all manner of dangerous drugs.”
Three decades later Wylie is now one of the most powerful people in publishing, whose resulting infamy, and iconoclastic background, seems to have created an image that has polarized around two distinct narratives. The first is of a hard-bargaining, shrewd businessman who fights for the rights and interests of his client; a type of maverick who takes on the powerful publishers for the artists he represents and the integrity of what they do. They other narrative invokes images of a shrewd opportunist who steals other agencies clients, and demands exorbitant contracts so that it can pad his own agent’s fee. Whichever narrative one chooses to subscribe to, Odyssey Editions seems completely consistent with both versions of the man.
Critics of Wylie have three primary complaints about his plans. The first and most important is that some argue that he doesn’t actually have the rights to distribute these titles. The July 23 podcast for the New York Times Book Review explains that Wylie is taking advantage of ambiguities in the contracts between the writers he represents and the publishing companies. Since these deals were drawn up at a time when ebooks and digital distribution rights weren’t an issue, they aren’t covered. Consequently, Wylie contends that his actions are completely legal and well within the rights of the author’s, and executors of various deceased writer’s estates, that he represents. Despite this, some publishers like Random House are claiming that Odyssey Editions is in violation of their contracts and rumors of legal consequences are pervasive.
Another attack is on the exclusivity of the deal of the deal with Amazon. Some wonder at the wisdom of allowing access only through one e-reader, when there are currently a multitude of online bookstores available. Intuitively, the more digital retailers have access to Odyssey Editions wares, the more money the imprint, and its authors stand to make. John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, wrote in his blog that the move, “is an extraordinarily bad deal for writers, illustrators, publishers, other booksellers, and for anyone who believes that books should be as widely available as possible." Peter Osnos continues on this theme in his article on Wylie in The Atlantic, stating that, “limiting accessibility of backlist classics showed a clumsiness that seems to undermine Wiley's previous reputation for shrewdness.”
The final major criticism made against Wylie and Odyssey Editions is that this move will ultimately mean the death of publishing as the industry currently exists today. Some contend that if publishers are edged out of the market and agencies like Wylie’s take advantage of the more direct line to consumers provided by digital media that longstanding and primarily paper-based institutions will fall. Penguin publishing chief, John Makinson, was quick to stifle these rumors according to which reported that the publishing executive doesn't see a lot of substantive commercial value in the Odyssey imprint. He contends that all the responsibilities inherent in book publishing will make the possibility of a wide-spread direct market revolt by agencies highly unlikely.
While publishers may debate the true economic impact of Wylie’s move, the benefits for however are abundantly clear, particularly with the so-called e-reader wars currently heating up. The online superstore, which recently announced that digital books were outselling hardcovers, has been able to maintain the lion’s share of the e-book market with its ground-breaking kindle, but stiff opposition is approaching. Barnes and Noble, which entered the e-reader market last November, is making its e-reader, the Nook, a central part of it’s business plan, and with with hundreds of storefronts allowing it access to customers that might be beyond Amazon’s reach, it may become a growing threat. Apple’s Ipad, which some labeled the “Kindle-killer” also represents a growing threat to Amazon’s market dominance; particularly with rumors a smaller, cheaper version of the device specifically intended as a an e-reader making the rounds. With an exclusive list of titles representing some of the finest works of contemporary fiction available, the company is working to maintain its hegemony over the new digital market and Odyssey Editions represents at the very least a perceptual, if not out right commercial, victory in achieving that goal.
Some however look at all the sturm and drang caused by Wylie’s move and see nothing more then an epic escalation in the ongoing negotiations over digital rights. As has noted by both fans and critics, Wylie’s decision has forced the issue of author’s rights in an increasingly digital world to the forefront. As traditional print media is being slowly but irresistibly subsumed by electronic competitors, Wylie has long been arguing that writer’s should get a larger cut of ebook sales. The agent, according to an article in the Financial Times, spent nine months trying to negotiate better deals for writers before deciding to move on his own. Wylie, the article continues is threatening to up the ante even further, stating,
“if we do not reach an accord, Odyssey will grow. It will not publish 20 books, it will publish 2,000 and have outside investors and make itself available to other agents.”
These comments, coupled with the fact that the deal between Odyssey and Amazon expire in two years, can be interpreted not as a serious attempt by Wylie to destroy traditional publishing, but as a warning to companies like Random House to raise the royalties for authors on books sold in a digital format or else. Currently the position of publishers has been that writers should receive around 25% for digital sales, as noted by the Economist, while advocates of the authors say that 50% is more equitable, particularly when the paper-related overhead is removed from the equation. While some in the industry have argued that the pricing models that see digital publishing as significantly cheaper are flawed, it seems clear that Wylie is a position to either force a compromise from the publishers, or be in a position to punish their recalcitrance with greater expansion into the digital market.       
The end of this showdown between Wylie and the publishers does not look to an immediate end in sight. For the future it seems that both sides will use their respective positions to try jockey for position and gather support - there is even a mock twitter war going on between unofficial advocates of both sides of the issue. Whether for good or ill Wylie, who in many ways has become the story, has made his mark on the world of digital publishing the same way both critics and fans agree he made his mark on paper publishing world: aggressively. It remains to be seen if his tenacity will pay off or be labeled a blunder.

Friday, August 13, 2010

News from the Front Lines of "E-reader Wars" and other exciting news!

I was recently interviewed by a writer from for a piece he was working on about the future of comics in the digital era. The article, iPad Boosts Appeal of Digital Comics by Henry Hanks, was just posted yesterday. Check it out!

Ron Adner predicts, "Kindle's Days are Numbered," over at the Huffington Post. While I think his declaration is a little premature, especially if the Kindle and other e-readers can incorporate color and touch-screens into their devices (which engagdet says might be coming soon). The piece does make a good point that whatever the future may hold for the device, Amazon is in an excellent marketing position for selling books as a application on other companies platforms.

Here's another article comparing various e-readers currently for sale: eReader War: iPad, Kindle, Nook, Which Will Win? It has an interesting breakdown of similarities and differences of all the major devices on the market. However, I think it's funny that it includes the Sony and the Kobo in the piece, but as the titles suggests, doesn't consider them a major contender. As I stated before, I don't have a degree in business or any formal training in market analysis, but I think that the concept of "winning the war" is less a commercial reality and more a byproduct of the martial lexicon being used by analysts and people reporting on it. While I think the various invested companies will contend for market share, I wonder if any will come to truly dominate the market in the near future. The three major players, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple, are in such different places that, while there may be overlap, none or currently positioned for complete control. The Ipad is cool but comparatively expensive, the nook has access to customers the neither Apple nor Amazon can reach, and the Kindle has the name and has in some ways become a type of commercial icon.  

Slate's Farhad Manjoo has an article predicting that the price of kindles might be lowered to $99 shortly. I think Manjoo might be proven right soon since, as he points out in the article, another company, Copia, is planning to release an e-reader for $100. Furthermore, since Nook and Kindle have been competing with each other so heavily, I wouldn't be surprised if Barnes and Noble's Nook 2 will be released with a price in that range. 

For those who are still in the market for an e-reader, the website, Best E-Readers, has some good reviews. 

In other news, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. is planning to release an online newspaper for tablets and cell phones.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

News and Updates: Barnes and Noble, Borders, Kobo, QUE Reader, and more!

Just completed a new article for popmatters on Andrew Wylie; will post when its up. Got interviewed a few days ago by a writer for on the impact of digital comics on the medium and industry. Will post a link when it comes up. All sorts of good links today:

New York Times reports that Pete Hamill, a writer who built his career in print, is releasing his next book exclusively as an e-book.

G-Online, a magazine about green tech, has a really important analysis of the environmental impact of digital books. The article's final analysis is that purchase of an e-reader, that uses electronic ink which requires less power, used consistently for over a year can reduce green house gases.

Wired takes a look at the new Toshiba Libretto

Retail Traffic has an interesting article on the commercial ramifications of Barnes and Noble potentially closing some of its stores, and some solid analysis on the company's decision to put itself up for sale.

Publisher's Weekly:
               - The Kobo and Random House have reached a deal with Fairmont Hotels to allow guests to borrow e-readers.
              - News of more layoff's at Border's corporate headquarters.
              - Comments about the now dead, QUE e-reader, that may have been big addition to the market if delays had not, and the release of the Ipad, hadn't stolen it's thunder.
              - Some news on Dorchester Publishing's announcement that will be going all-digital - apparently it is only for six months.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Great website for Digital Comics

Occasional Superheroine
Valierie D'Orazio, comic book writer, author, blogger, and media analyst, has an excellent blog for those interested in the digital comics. The site, Val's Digital Comics Page, is an great source of news and commentary, keeping readers up to date on releases from various platforms and applications. This site is on the list of blogs I check out regularly to keep up on new events. For comic book fans in general, I also recommend her blog, Occasional Superheroine.   

Saturday, August 7, 2010

News and Updates: Barnes and Noble for Sale, Mini Ipads, and Andrew Wylie

Interesting Book News: Barnes and Noble put itself up for sale last Tuesday according to the Wall Street Journal. The article states that in response to decreased sales the company's founder, Leonard Riggio, is attempting to purchase the company. What this news might mean for the company's future is still unclear, but it seems that Riggio is fighting to keep the company going in face of growing competition and market changes. Publisher's Weekly speculates on what the upcoming annual meeting for the company might be like.
      If the sale goes through this might be the time that B&N implements the major changes that have been discussed. As noted in previous posts, the superstore chain is opening large nook station boutiques in all their stores, and the Nook is becoming central to their business model. Some are speculating that should the company survive in the future, it will be smaller and less reliant on a large back stock of titles. I wonder if the company has been investigating the print-on-demand technology as an option.

PW's Blog, PWxyz, has a story about a possible mini-Ipad designed specifically for the e-reader market. If this comes out and is competitively priced, it might be a significant contender against the Nook and Kindle. While I am hesitant to use the terms "killer," I do think it changes the nature of the market significantly if it is true. The way Amazon and Barnes and Noble's devices compete with the ipad is by highlighting their roles as dedicated e-readers that are cheaper and use the e-ink display. If a cheaper ipad, with color and a back-lit screen, were to come out, the only remaining strong argument in favor of the Kindle or the Nook would be the display. The electronic ink is designed to emulate a piece of paper, and, unlike, LCD screens, doesn't cause the same eye fatigue - so the argument foes. However, as an Ipad owner, I haven't experienced this as a problem. If the Ipad does indeed come to dominate the e-reader market, Amazon and B&N might be relegated to the same position as SEGA was in the gaming world. They lost their platform and became game designers exclusively. It's possible that Amazon and B&N's digital bookstores might one day be relegated to simply being apps on another company's devices.

It's been hard to read about anything  in publishing - particularly e-publishing - recently without stumbling across the name Andrew Wylie. Wylie, a book agent and head of The Wylie Agency, made news when he announced that he had signed exclusive digital distribution rights with Amazon for 20 books from his high profile clients. Taking advantage of ambiguities in contracts - which decades ago didn't include digital rights - Wylie, whose lists of clients includes Phillip Roth, and the estates of John Updike and Norman Mailer, has caused an upheaval in the publishing world and a backlash from many publishers. I'm going to be following this story closely and posting an more in-depth analysis but for now here are some interesting links about Wylie and his plans:
- The Day of the Jackal, from The Economist
- Andrew Wylie, Agent Provocateur from Peter Osnos at The Atlantic
and podcast for the New York Times Book Review has an interesting discussion of Wylie that can be listened to here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Comic Con Recap 2: Digital Piracy

The second panel on I went to at Comic Con was a surprisingly fascinating discussion on digital piracy and its impact on the industry. It was hosted by Techland and moderated by Douglas Wolk, author of the excellent book Reading Comics. The panel had David Steinberger, CEO of Comixology, Cartoonist and writter Deb Aoki, and Manga editor Jake Forbes. Erik Larsen, creator of Savage Dragon and one of the founders of Image Comics, was listed on the program but was unable to attend.  

Wolk's opening statement was telling; he remarked that he had watched the music industry alienate some of its most loyal consumers trying desperately to combat piracy with a multitude of ineffectual strategies that ultimately cost them millions and he hoped comics wouldn't follow a similar path. He then stated that currently torrents and other sites are offering digital scans of new and old comics for free, and that the process has become so developed that the sites are posting new comics on the same day they are released at comic book stores.

Steinberger discussed his goals for Comixology, which is a website/application that allows readers to download and read comics from their computer or other digital devices (I have it on my Ipad). He explained that those who are using these sites are not doing it just because the comics are free, but because they are posted in a digital format. He explained that in music industry the album hyper-inflated the cost of CD's and so people went to torrents and places like Napster to get the songs they couldn't necessarily afford. He stated the the rise of Itunes provided a legal and cheap option for consumers and consequently piracy decreased. He believes that once there are stable and legitimate platforms with a wide library of comics like Comixology, there will be a parallel decrease in the amount of people who visit these illicit sites.

The discussion then shifted to manga where the situation is slightly different then with the domestic comic market. For manga, there are literally hundreds of thousands of books in Japan that are not yet available in English. As a result, fans have been scanning and translating these titles and offering them for free on various websites all across the world. The panel acknowledged that this was a genuine labor of love by dedicated fans, but there were problems.
Aoki, while sympathetic with the fans, identified the following areas of concern:
 1. That even though the fans weren't profiting off their efforts, there were aggregation sites that had inserted themselves as middlemen between fans and those posting the comics, and they were making money off the searches. Forbes mentioned at this point that currently the top ten hits when someone searches the word "Naruto" in google are actually pirate scans.
2. Several Manga companies and, most importantly, creators have suffered financially from digital piracy, and recorded a boost in sales when a major pirating site was taken down.

Forbes, an editor who has worked on manga, stated that he felt that it was a type of arrogance amongst the fans that they assumed that they knew better then the publishers, creators, or editors. While he makes an interesting point, I don't think that is the fan's goal, but that the situation is a byproduct of the slow process of Manga Publishers who have thousands of titles in the back catalog awaiting the slow process of licensing, translation, and distribution. The fans are merely filling the void. While I get that digital piracy is  fundamentally stealing, I don't see how arrogance enters the situation - although I freely admit that there might have been some nuance to his comment that I could have missed.

There were two key questions that dominated the panel: Who is doing this, and how do you combat it? The problem seems split down the line between Japanese comic fans and fans of American comic companies. For Manga readers, the people are fans whose desire for a product is greater then the speed in which the publishers can provide it and so they have taken matters into their own hands. While the panel didn't know how exactly to fight it - Aoki mentioned that even though specific sites have been shut down others just pop up to replace them - perhaps someone at the large Manga companies should be finding these loyal fans and hiring them to do legally what they are currently doing illegally for free. 

On the American side, the situation is different. While they weren't 100% on the subject, the overall consensus from the panel was that the people pirating and reading digital comics were not your typical comic book fans - as one person put it, "These are not Wednesday comic people." The question remaining ultimately then is how big an impact is digital piracy having on the industry in America? Wolk noted that for digital readers there is a value to be had owning a digital comic that is different from that found in collecting a paper comic and that these readers go to digital comics because they like the format. If this is true, then hopefully as digital comics become more available through legitimate platforms like Comixology and, then these readers will go there as opposed to the torrents as Steinberger contends.

This panel, particualrly the discussion on manga, was fascinating. I recently read the book Cognitive Surplus (which I will discuss in a future piece), and it seems that these fans are following the same patterns that Shirky discusses in his book: they are doing this for love, not money, they are organized, and they have their own social rules and mores. I find myself torn on this issue. I am sympathetic to the fans who are trying to access more of something they love, especially since there are often no viable alternatives - unless they learn Japanese as one of the panel recommended. I also wonder about the actual impact on the industry. When I managed a comic store I had plenty of readers who purchased the single issues of comics when they came out, but then bought the collected trade so that they could easily reread the series. I wonder if manga readers might not be the same; they read the free scans online  of unavailable but as soon as the publisher releases the actual title in English they'll buy it so that they can have an actual copy.

However, even if the actual degree is hard to establish I am against anything that actually hurts the creators or siphons away actual readers. I'm going to follow up on this topic and see if maybe I can get a few interviews with some of the panelists and others who are fluent on the subject.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Some Cool Links and Pandigitial Novel Reviewed by my Mom!

Links: A really important article from The Scholarly Kitchen, the blog of The Society for Scholarly Publishing, about the, "true costs of digital publishing". The piece debunks some of the misconceptions on how digital publishing works and shows that the models for evaluating cost are often inaccurate.

Writer and comic creator Warren Ellis recently posted a link on his twitter account to a blog that focuses on the future of publishing that's been going since 2006. The blog itself is very interesting as is the specific article Ellis posted concerning the future of book covers. Check 'em out!

Pandigital Novel: I first heard about the Pandigital Novel a few weeks ago. This blog being relatively new, and a labor of love, I'm still trying to get connected to all the relevant news and so this one snuck up on me. My Mom, a recent convert to digital reading and a new owner of the nook, loved the idea of the new e-reader when she saw it a Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and was the one who brought it to my attention. The device itself sounds pretty interesting on paper. It has full-color, backlit, touch screen and access to the Barnes and Noble online store - which struck me as a smart move; if the nook has to have a competing device at least they can ensure that they are the ones who provide the e-books. At between 169.99 and 179.99 depending on where you go, it's like a Nook and an Ipad had a baby.
Shortly after the devices release there were multiple articles online talking about how owners had already hacked the operating system. PC World reports that some users have put the kindle application onto the device and Engagdet even has a video that has instructions on how to do it yourself.

While some of the reviews have been positive there was a recall of the device in June as reported by Slashgear, which labeled the device "half-baked." It looks like the relaunch hasn't done much better. There have been complaints of buggy devices and lackluster customer service. Here's what my Mom - a Branch Review specialist at West America Bank with over 30 years customer service experience -  wrote shortly after purchasing the device:
"I returned the Pandigital Novel. The color was nice but I don't know all that it can do partly because I couldn't get pass page 40 of the owners manual. When I would page forward it just kept repeating page 40. I emailed the company (which is in the valley here and I could have driven there knocked on their door and gotten an answer faster) but have still not heard back from them. I couldn't register my purchase because their web site was not working properly. When I tried to look up accessories for the Novel, when in the owners manual said I could purchase on their web site, when I went there it gave me a list of store I could buy things from but I never did find the cute covers it showed in the manual.
All this added up to too much trouble. And this was all in the 24 hours I had  it!  I shouldn't have to spend that much time trying to make something work as it should.
The web site for Pandigital is not very informative either. Doesn't really show a very good anything about the ereader.
I'm not sorry I returned it. If I really ever want the color and all the extras I will purchase an IPad. For now I'm sticking with the Nook and I'm very happy with it."

Pandigital Customer Service finally replied to my Mom's e-mails after several days stating, "We at Pandigital apologize for the delay responding to your e-mail. We have had unexpectedly heavy traffic of both calls and e-mails. We hope that our response to your e-mail is helpful."

While this is naturally just one experience, I think it is emblematic of an overall problem with this e-reader and its company. There appear to be problems on every level - from functionality, customer service and support, and the availability of accessories on the website. While the Pandigital Novel appears to have potential, I would definitely wait for them to solve some of these issues before buying one.