Monday, December 26, 2011

Guest Review on the Kindle Fire

Hi, my name is Jeff and I am a readingaholic. I have been one as long as I can remember, and always will be. At any given time I am reading 3-4 books. I usually have a book at my bedside table, one on my desk, one in my car, and one that kinda floats around wherever I go. Bookshelves line my living room, overflowing with mine and my wife's collection. We are readers.

A few years ago my wife wanted a Nook for her birthday. While I thought that nothing could replace the experience of having an actual book in your hand, I relented and got her one. It seemed fine enough for what it was, but I never saw myself going that route, it just didn't seem the same to me. Earlier this year that all changed as I was offered the chance of getting a Kindle at a discounted price, and I have not bought a paper book since. I much prefer the Kindle to the Nook, it doesn't seem as bulky, it's easier to organize, and Amazon has a great system set up to support it.
Three months ago I started looking into getting an iPad. On my budget it's a pretty big investment so I wanted to be sure. I had a hard time justifying the expense for what I wanted to do with it (access the internet, read books, play some games). What I needed was a turbo-charged Kindle. And the Kindle Fire was announced! It was a no-brainer to pre-order, it seemed like it was just what I was looking for, at more than half the price of the cheapest iPad. And I was right.

Let me be clear, I am not anti-iPad. I have gotten to play around with them quite a bit, and I love them. But for me, it's just too much to spend for what I want. I do not think the Fire is the iPad killer it was first touted to be. It's just, for me, the Fire is a better fit.

So let's get down to it. If you order it from Amazon (which I did), it comes pre-configured for your account. Out of the box all I had to do was type in the password for my wifi home network, skip thru a few introductory screens, and I was off and running. Since it was pre-configured, all the books I had bought for my original Kindle were instantly available for me to download, displayed as front cover icons you can scroll thru. I wanted to try out the purchasing process of the Fire, so I bought the new Stephen King book 11/22/63. Accessing the Amazon store is a one-tap process, and a few taps and a quick download later it was on my Fire. Amazon has abandoned the e-ink technology for the Fire, which is too bad as it was easier on the eyes. But in exchange I get a back-lit presentation, which is good for late night reading in bed while my wife is trying to sleep (the original Kindle was not back-lit).

The Fire runs a version of the Android OS. Amazon has a nicely stocked app store (not the full selection of the actual Android store, but it has over 8000 currently available with more on the way). The Fire comes with a bunch of apps pre-loaded. I fired up the Facebook app, and was very happy with the results. Quick and easy to use. I downloaded the Twitter app and had the same results. The apps seemed to run just the way they should, so no complaints there. Web surfing is quick and easy with the Amazon Silk browser, which supports Flash. I have read some reports that said web browsing was slow, but I did not encounter that. The sites I went to loaded fairly quickly. Amazon offers one free selected app every day. Kinda cool if you want to try out something but weren't sure if it was worth the money.

One of the big features the Fire has been touting has been video streaming. With the Fire you get one month of Amazon Prime free, which gives you access to their vast movie and TV collection. From Amazon I looked up Dr Who, and they had every season of the new series to include the recently finished 6th season. I watched some of the last season 6 episode, and was happy to find a crisp picture, good sound, with zero lag/buffering issues. I downloaded the Netflix app and watched a bit of Torchwood with the same results. Again, some online reviews found the streaming to be a bit laggy, but I did not see that at all.

Amazon, like Apple, has introduced a cloud storage system. You get 5Gb (which they will probably increase in the near future) of free online storage to store anything you want, and you can access it from anywhere. This combines very nicely with the Fire. I can upload a playlist to it and listen to it on my home computer, then when I get to work the Fire can access it and pick it up where I left off (as long as you have access to a wifi hotspot). Any songs you get from Amazon Mp3 are automatically stored on the Cloud and don't contribute to the 5Gb storage space. You can expand the storage for $1 per extra gb per year).

So let's talk comics. Amazon has a fairly decent collection of comic books available for the Fire, including an exclusive deal with DC to publish many of their books. In addition to a proprietary comic reader that comes on the Fire, Amazon also pre-loaded the ComiXology app, where you can purchase issues and subscriptions. I bought Brightest Day #0 and was pleasantly surprised. While I really don't see myself reading comics on the Fire too often, the images were crisp and clear, and had no trouble reading it on the 7" screen. You can either read it by the page, or frame-by-frame. Decent enough for what it is.

Amazon has kept in the sync ability from the Kindle. This means I can be reading a book on the Fire, then switch to my Kindle iPhone app, tap a button, and I can pick up right where I left off. LOVE that!

Of course the kindle Fire is not perfect. So far my main grumbling point is the poor placement on the on/off button, which they put at the bottom of the device. If you use a cover (I bought the Microshell Folio cover by Marware, which works just fine), the placement shouldn't be much of a problem since the cover creates a kind of buffer for the button. But if you go coverless it most likely will result in you hitting the button more often than you would like. Also, if you want to transfer anything to your Fire, I hope you kept your USB cable from your old Kindle, because the Fire does not come with one (they switched to a wall charger). Also the Fire is wifi only, no 3G support. While that doesn't bug me too much, I did like the fact the Kindle had free 3G support. Oh well, I will learn to live without it.

In closing, I can honestly say I LOVE the Kindle Fire. It's light weight, easy to use, does everything I want it to, and it didn't cost a whole lot. Highly recommended!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The DC Relaunch and The Digital Future of Comics: Will It Work?

The comic book world was stunned last May when DC, home of some of the medium's most recognizable and iconic characters, announced that it was stopping publication of all its titles and relaunching the entire DC Universe with 52 new series all starting at issue 1. The announcement, which was posted on the company's blog, sparked myriad reactions among fans, retailers, and creators, some of whom expressed interest and excitement about the plan, while others reacted with doubt and frustration. Many fans were dismayed at the idea that long-running series such as Action Comics and Detective Comics, which have spanned decades and several hundred issues, would now be starting over. Others wondered if such a massive creative overhaul would, like so many other epic world-changing storylines that have saturated superhero comics over the last decade, fail to live up to the hype. Regardless of the reaction, one unifying comment from supporters and skeptical critics was that the company was taking a significant risk. As noted by the New York Times in an article written by David Itzkoff: 
"The success or failure of this plan will have far-reaching implications: it could alienate longtime fans for the sake of new readers. And it could portend a more widespread exhaustion with film and television projects that are adapted from comic books and that are constantly starting over from scratch."
Two weeks ago the relaunch began with the release of Justice League #1, written by Geoff Johns with art by Jim Lee, with some comic stores having midnight launch parties to celebrate the event. Since then DC has added over a dozen other titles with more to be released throughout the month. Fans and critics have received the books with mixed reviews (so far I've enjoyed a lot of what I read) but one thing is for certain, DC is generating a lot of buzz and many comic stores are reporting selling out of titles hours after they are released. 
While the ultimate success or failure of the relaunch will take a long time to completely gauge, it is clear from the multiple interviews and press releases that the company has provided that this more than a typical 5th week event, designed to excite fans and get them to add a couple of more titles to their Wednesday buy-pile. Instead, this is a concerted effort to grab new readers and increase the emphasis on DC's digital publishing platform. 
The plan seems to have two principle means of achieving these goals, supported of course with a massive marketing campaign. 
The first means is naturally the relaunch itself. As a former comic book store manager, I can attest that the medium can seem a little daunting for new readers. One of the characteristics of the culture, a result of its decades as a marginalized and niche group, is that casual readers often feel overwhelmed at the amount of titles, the requisite knowledge of continuity, and the recurring trips to the comic store that keeping up with everything requires. I remember talking to customers who looked at the back stock of trades and the fact that Batman was in the 600's and decided that it simply wasn't worth the energy and commitment to start reading comics or to get back into them.
The second part of DC's plan is the increased focus on their digital comics which are available to download on your computer or onto a smartphone or iPad/iPod through comiXology or directly through the publishers own app. Prior to the relaunch, DC had always waited a week after the titles were released in comic book stores, before making them available in a digital format. Now, the comics are accessible for immediate download the same day as their paper release. This has caused some concern from comic store owners who already contend with multiple other issues threatening their businesses, including online sites and chain stores able to offer large discounts on trades, declining readership, digital piracy, and multiple other issues. 
Two things must be considered though when trying to gauge the impact the synchronized release dates will have on brick-and-mortar stores. First, both comiXology and Diamond Comics Distribution have both been working on programs to allow comic book stores to sell digital comics and receive a portion of the proceeds, similar to the program Google has created to allow independent bookstores to sell e-books. These programs are still in their infancy, but might create a way for the stores - which are useful for upselling and cultivating a customer base - and the publishers to both benefit. 
The second issue to be considered when determining if digital comics will hurt comic book stores is the question of reader demographics. Who is actually buying digital comics? While there is still no exact certainty in this issue yet, some have argued that there is no overlap in customers. Many people who read digital comics are not the type to go to their local comic store every Wednesday, buy a stack of books, and then preserve them with bags, boards, and long boxes. Many have claimed that the people who will read digital comics constitute an untapped market that will not take business away from retailers since these are people who would never commit that much energy to comics. However, they will download books onto their iPad from the comfort of their homes. 

One important criteria that is will be necessarily when evaluating the success of the Relaunch comes from the concern Itzkoff raises in the quotation above. In order to achieve their goals DC must appeal to new readers, while simultaneously avoiding alienating their notoriously fickle fans. New readers can't feel lost in a backstory they know nothing about, yet fans likewise, can't be made to feel like their knowledge of the history of their favorite characters is now null and void.
So far this issue, like the relaunch itself, has been met with mixed reviews. Historian Julian Chambliss, who I interviewed here at the blog last month, argued that he didn't think it would attract new readers, contending that, "To create new readers they need to continue to innovate, but I'm not sure innovation is the goal here." Comic Book Resources created a "New Reader Litmus Test" in which they concluded that, "there were only two titles the new readers both understood and said they would voluntarily buy the second issue of: "Detective Comics," and "Action Comics." Certainly not the results DC were hoping for. 
I do think that there is a chance for DC to be successful even if they are not able to find an exact equilibrium between old and new readers. First, in many of the books I read, such as Swamp Thing (which I reviewed for popmatters, check it out here), it appeared the creators had taken a layered-approach to their story. I enjoyed the book because it linked back to the Alan Moore run from the 80's that I loved so much, but I think it did it in such a way that new readers wouldn't have even noticed that there was something they were missing. There were subtle cues that fans would pick up on, but simultaneously nothing that would necessarily have a new reader scratching their head. 
Additionally I think DC might be successful simply because they have generated enough enthusiasm - particularly with the success and ubiquity of superhero movies - that might carry new readers over any continuity learning-curves they might encounter. I have spoke to retailers who said they have a lot of customers new to comics who are excited about the prospect of getting into the medium, and today while waiting for my local comic store to open I spoke to a couple of people who said they were coming here for the first time to pick up the new books. Hopefully, that enthusiasm will keep them reading long enough to hook 'em.
But will it work? And will it breathe new life into the paper side of the industry or is it ushering a new era of digital comics? What do you think?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Comic Con On MP3

For those who didn't get a chance to go to Comic Con this year and are interested in hearing some of the panels on the digital impact on the comic book world check out these MP3's brought to you by the folks at

Friday, July 29, 2011

Post Comic Con Report and An Interview With Comic Scholar Julian Chambliss!

Digital comics and the future of the medium were very much on the minds of people within the comic book world at this year's San Diego Comic Con. There were multiple panels dedicated to the changing marketplace with  publishers, retailers, creators, and fans expressing their hopes and concerns about the coming years. The collapse of the Borders book chain - with one of the now-closed book stores less than a mile from the convention center - seemed an ominous start to the week. Sadly, I was only able to visit the con for a day and a half so the only discussion I went to was, "Are Comic Books Doomed," - a panel hosted by critic Douglas Wolk. The panel, which included Mark Waid, reps from Comics Pro and the Comic Alliance, as well as an independent publisher, was interesting but an hour isn't really enough time to go to in-depth. Most of the discussion was centered around Waid expressing concern that it is now harder for independent creators to break into the medium and the rep from the Comics Alliance arguing that concerns about the industry's future were a little overstated.  

So with little to report from the con I thought now would be the perfect time to publish a recent interview I did with a colleague of mine, Dr. Julian Chambliss. There is a brief bio at the bottom of this post, but just to provide a little background: I first met Julian when he organized a section on Comic Book History for the Florida Conference of Historians where I presented a paper at a panel he moderated. Since then Julian has joined the staff at Popmatters where he has contributed several excellent articles, and is currently editing an anthology of essays - including one by me - on comic history. As both a scholar and a giant fanboy, I thought his perspective on the future of the industry would be an invaluable addition to this blog. Enjoy and please feel free to comment!

What first got you into comics? When did you decide to dedicate a portion of your academic career to the study of this often neglected medium? 

I have been a comics fan since childhood.  I wrote my first academic paper about comic books as an undergraduate.  I didn't seriously think about doing more substantive work centered on comics until I began looking for ways to engage my students in urban history. From my perspective, superhero comics in the United States are an urban topic, so they are way to hook students.

As a comic book fan and collector what are your thoughts on the digital direction the medium appears to be heading in? Is there something about comics that is inextricably linked to paper? Do you read comics in a digital format?

I think comics are in the forefront of a digital conversion in print. As such, I believe that it almost inescapable that comics will move to digital publication in greater numbers.  The benefits are obvious, easier to distribute and greater opportunity for creators and publishers to push and develop product.  I think the natural instinct is to believe that paper has a unique place in our reading experience.  Yet, for many young readers, I think paper is a secondary experience. I think print will survive, but that print version will be a high end product and digital will be the common place format.  I don't know that we will "lose" anything, but I understand the reaction that the new way is not as good as the old. From a historical standpoint, it is a common reaction.  I read comics in print, 90% of the time, but I also read them in digital format.  I have taken advantage of Marvel's deal with Starbucks to read back issues and I look forward to reading comics on the iPad.

Do you think that the medium influences the message? For example do you think that DC's recent decision to relaunch their titles is connected to the new customers being wooed through their digital platform? Would they be doing this if they were only trying to maintain their current Wednesday readership?
There is no question in my mind that the move toward digital is about expanding the readership for superhero comics.  It is important to be specific. Superhero comics have increased their profits in recent years, but that profitability is built on event driven stories, superstar writer and/or artist, and license properties.  In many ways, the "old" model of kids loving comics is not strong enough to sustain the comic industry in an era of multimedia digital entertainment. With superhero comic readers getting older, publishers need to find ways to entice customers to try comics.  Moving to digital model put the products in front of more customers. For better or worst, the established comic customer is not driving this conversion. Superhero comics are, by definition, a destination purchase. The buyer goes out of his or her way to acquire the newest releases.  They often do this by traveling out of their way.  They go to a place that is socially and culturally marginalized.  They are doing this because they know all of this, and they don't care.  The comic book shop is a retail space catering to established customers and the person, driven by interest to seek it out.  If the average comic fan's shop closes, they will go to another shop.  It is unlikely they will stop buying comics.  They are dependable consumer of the product.  Digital is not about those readers or retailers. It is about the new customer, the marginal customer, and the curious customer.  If Captain America's Essentials were a digital download for 9.99 on July 22nd to mark the opening of Captain America in theaters, how many people would download it?  I don't know, but if every trailer mentioned that the deal was available for everyone with iPhone or iPad, I can't imagine it hurting business.  This is the fundamental truth driving digital convergence.  If you lose one diehard customer converting to digital, the odds are you will pick up one diehard digital subscriber, plus a few quarterly customers, someone interested in the back catalog, and who knows how many one time purchasers.  If you don't convert to digital, you will keep one person, but loose the opportunity at many more.  I think this is the logic that drives digital. The fact that DC announced the same price for digital and print is understandable. They don't want to alienate the established retail system. Still, the nature of the digital distribution makes the future look bleak for the 
established model.
Do you think that there a long-term roll for comic book stores now that people can download comics from home onto their digital devices? 

I do think there is a future for the comic shop. Comic shops can strive if they look upon themselves as curatorial service. There are more to comics than meets the eye, having someplace where you can go and immerse yourself in the culture is welcomed opportunity for many people. Superhero comics are the iconic face of sequential art, but far from the only example.  Comics shops defined by "geek" as outsider need to evolve to see themselves as nexus of a global pop culture.  Comics are the kaleidoscopic point in modern culture. Referential and innovative, we recognize comics as an art form, but we are still embarrassed by the superhero. If comic shops are to survive, they need to "open up" embrace all aspect represented in the form. 
The joy of comics is sometimes the joy of cataloging
What happens to collecting in a digital world?

Do you think that these changes to the medium can be good for comics? While some fans and collectors might be "left behind," do you think that this represents a necessarily step towards greater societal acceptance and decreased marginalization that will ultimately help legitimize comics and bring in more money? If not, why? If so, do you think that this is a type of betrayal of the fans who kept the medium alive during it's decades on the periphery of popular culture? 

I think this is great time for comic fans. For all the uncertainty associated with changes in the distribution system, the content found on comic pages is fantastic. No matter the genre, you can find a standout example in comics.  The emergence of transmedia means that creative minds can (and do) rely on the comic form to engage with the audience as part of a larger business model. Often seen as exploitative, comics are at the center of search for product to feed global entertainment market.  This process allows relatively small comics to become the source material for films (WANTED, RED) and television (Walking Dead),  At the same time, independent creators can and do find an audience with passion projects.  I think more people find comics everyday through the films and television with comic roots.  Indeed, people are always asking me about comics to read. They don't want to read superheroes, but I can direct them to FABLES, NORTHLANDERS, and MORNING GLORIES and they do enjoy those books.  While superheroes struggle with an identity defined by adolescence anxiety, comics as a genre are caught in a space where elite knowledge give you assess to a diverse landscape unknown to the masses.  At some level, the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC's turn toward the same effort will heighten this disconnect.   As a result, the marginalization associated with comics will persist as long a superhero garner so much media attention. Superheroes are linked to a regressive outlook. If you are reading comics at 35, you are trying to recapture your childhood. No other literature you discover in youth and return to faces the same kind of scrutiny. If you read Catcher in the Rye when you were 15 and came back to it at 35, no one would question you. If you read Green Arrow/Green Lantern in 1973 and went looking for it now because you saw the trailer for Green Lantern, people would ask you why...that is a problem of perception, not content.

For comic fans, the coming years will be difficult. I don' think we need  to worry about the death of comics, but a new model of distribution is going to take hold and this model will wipe away comic shops unable to adapt.  Is this a betrayal?  No, it is no different than the man who made buggy whips when the Model A arrived.  He was out of business because the technology made his product useless.  The comic shop as we know it is under stress, but a new shop will emerge that give people the support for products related to comics.  Indeed, I suspect limited editions print will become a new high end product in an era of digital distribution.  The ABSOLUTE JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee will fetch a considerable, especially if the number of print copies is limited. This will actually heighten the value of print, sparking a new age of collectibles (perhaps).


Julian C. Chambliss is associate professor of history at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. His teaching and research focus on urban history and culture in the United States.  His recent publications have appeared in Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Specs: A Journal of Arts & Culture, Studies in American Culture, Georgia Historical Quarterly, Journal of Urban History, and Florida Historical Quarterly. Check out his website here.

(Incompetent Editor's Note: Sorry about all the weird boxes around some of the interivew. Not quite sure how to get rid of it.)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Comic Con

Just arrived in San Diego for Comic Con! There are several panels about digital comics, and the future of the medium going on this weekend. I'll be live tweeting the various panels under the hashtag "@futureofprint" and doing a full write up of what I see next week. Any readers have any questions you want me to ask please comment on this post.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:E Harbor Dr,San Diego,United States

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Our Wednesdays are numbered." - The Digital Future of Comics and Comic Book Stores

*****Note: The link to the article discussed below is no longer active. The author explained on his twitter feed that the piece has been temporarily removed from Wired.

Douglas Wolk, author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, has written an excellent article for Wired on the potential impact of the iPad on the future of comics and of retailers. As someone who used to manage a comic store and whose brother-in-law is the owner of Waterfront Comics is Suisun, CA, this is a subject that is close to me. As Wolk notes in his article, the comic store has been crucial to the success of the medium over the years, citing the publisher's attempts to maintain the relevance of retailers in the face of changing demographics. He writes: 

Local stores—and their devotees—drive not just the industry’s steadiest profits but its development of new material. If more than the tiniest fraction of that fragile market gets cannibalized by digital sales, then those stores will start folding. If that happens, the majority of print readers who don’t have fancy tablets will have nothing to buy on Wednesdays anymore. And if digital sales alone aren’t enough to cover writers’ and artists’ fees and publication costs and underpin a marketing apparatus, the entire structure will blow up like Krypton."   

Not Even the Daily Planet is Immune. (Image respectfully
borrowed from Superman 706 which can be purchased here.)
Wolk does conclude however that this relationship is not sustainable, ending his piece with, "Our Wednesdays are numbered.". As traditional print readers decline and digital alternatives become more appealing to the new generations of readers, the comic book industry as it currently exists is no longer feasible in the long-term. 

Wolk noted on his twitter feed that the article was, "slightly overtaken-by-events." The events he is most likely referring to is DC's recent announcement that starting with its forthcoming relaunch digital comics will now be released day-to-date, i.e., at the same time as their paper iterations. Previously, in order to maintain the relationship Wolk discusses in the article, digital comics were typically released after the print version in order to maintain an incentive forreaders to keep going into stores. DC's new move is definitely a step away from this mindset.

This news comes at a time when distributors are likewise trying new ways to adapt to the digital market. comiXology, for example, has created a program where people can purchase digital comics from their local comic book stores through comiXologiy's platform (Check out the blog post I wrote about this for popmatters). This announcement was followed by the news that Diamond Comics - the hegemon of comic book distribution - has started a similar program where comic stores will be given digital codes that they can sell to customers who will then use the codes to download the books onto their computer or mobile device. 

Comic book retailers seem unsure as to the future of their beloved stores; the feelings seeming to range from the extremes of enthusiastic optimism, to head-in-the-sand-denial, all the way to doom and gloom. One owner I spoke with stated that they believe that digital comics and print comics are not necessarily in conflict since the readers of both are uniquely different. He argued that there are enough readers to go around and that Wednesday comic readers, the digital down loaders, and those that buy graphic novels from bookstores, will ultimately strengthen the industry as a whole. I hope he is right, but looking at the way the digital revolution has decimated bookstores and record stores its hard not to be pessimistic. What do you think? 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Kindle Singles: Potential Savior of Long Form Journalism?

On April 20, 2011, Jon Krakauer,  author of the wildly popular Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, released “Three Cups of Deceit,” a damning expose of writer Greg Mortensen and the alleged abuses that took place at his charity. The next month Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein released “The Wall Street Money Machine”, a 46 page treatise that examined a crucial but relatively unexplored aspect of the recent financial crisis. Shortly after the death of Osama bin Laden, noted polemicist Christopher Hitchens wrote an essay examining the terrorist leader called “The Enemy.”
These works were not released in the pages of noted periodicals like The New Yorker or Vanity Fair, nor were they published for online magazines like Slate or Salon. Instead they were released directly to readers via Amazon’s program Kindle Singles. The platform, whose tagline is “Compelling Ideas Expressed at Their Natural Length,” was started at the beginning of 2011 with the goal of providing a forum for a variety of long-form journalism, essays, and similar types of work.
The opening list of of titles (included in Amazon’s press release here) included works by Evan Ratcliff, Brendan I. Koerner, and Sebastian Rotella. In addition to the essays and articles of journalists, there was also a weight loss manual by a Yale Professor Ian Ayres and a short story by acclaimed author Jodi Picoult, included in the list of nine titles. The prices range between one and five dollars and average about forty pages. Since the launch of Kindle Singles in January 2011, it has come to include the works of William T. Bullman, Susan Orlean, David Baldacci, Tim Gunn, and as mentioned, Krakauer and Hitchens.
Long-form journalism has long held a crucial place in the history of American letters. Literary journalists, or New Journalists, like Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, and Tom Wolf - to name but a few - have been considered some of the greatest writers of the past century; their works are mandatory reading in Journalism and English departments across the country. The pages of The New Yorker and numerous other literary and news magazines and journals were once replete with these types of long essays ranging from satire, personal narratives, and interviews. Yet over the past decades there was a decline in this type of writing. Although numerous publications and periodicals still were home to the long in-depth works that typified long-form journalism in its various iterations, the decline of traditional media helped relegate the formerly entrenched and secure style to a more peripheral position.
The Internet, along with changes in reading habits, were the primary causes of the decline of long-form journalism from the mainstream of American culture. Magazines and traditional newspapers have been on the decline for years, and while there are some notable exceptions, this has had drastic impact on journalism and journalists. However, even as the digital upheaval slowly eroded the former institutions in which long-form journalism thrived, it also provided new avenues for this style to reach readers. Apparently, as has often been noted, just as the Internet can taketh away it can also giveth, as various websites and platforms began providing interested readers with easy access to longer works.
Wired reports, “long-form journalism has seen a surprising revival in recent years, with services like Instapaper and Read it Later allowing you to push longer articles off to mobile devices – like the iPad – to read later. Disproving the typical thinking that web users want their information in small, easy chunks, sites like – which curates more in-depth stories – are flourishing.” Kindle Singles is one such attempt to bring an old tradition to readers via a new avenue.
While the works currently being offered from Amazon are not limited to nonfiction, its potential to provide a new platform for journalists is what immediately grabbed the attention of reporters and news organizations. Wired noted that, “This model, curated for quality but with pick-n-mix sales, may be the real future of magazines.” The New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan wrote, “For readers used to greasing many more palms than Amazon’s just to get their word fix, the introduction of Kindle Singles should come as exciting news. It also should delight readers who cherish the twisted and spellbinding journalism of the 1960s and 1970s...” 
The Kindle Owner’s Blog offered this glowing review, “Amazon has managed to resurrect an area of writing that the Internet had almost done away with. Literary segments on the Internet have been shortened to meet the demand of efficiency, but Amazon realized that some people still enjoy reading and exploring a topic further than through the limited scope of a top ten list. Long-form journalism has benefited from a second chance and the production of enough quality work will ensure the continued prevalence of the mid-range literary genre for years to come.”
Some publishers are even getting on board with Kindle Singles. Boutique publishing house, The Atavist, which focuses on nonfiction and long-form works, offers readers access to some of their titles on Amazon’s online store, including "Before the Swarm," a profile of photographer Mark Moffet by Nicholas Griffin. Another publisher, ProPublica, which is a non-profit news organization with an emphasis on investigative journalism with a social conscience are also offering some of their catalogue on Kindle Singles including the aforementioned "Wall Street Money Machine" and Sebastion Rotella’s "Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story." ProPublica wrote in their statement announcing the deal with Amazon:

“We also think Amazon is on to an important insight here: In the old world of print publishing, narratives longer than about 10,000 words (a long magazine piece) and shorter than about 30,000 words (a relatively short book) were difficult to publish at all. This is another one of those “rules” that digital technology seems to be repealing, and, as frequent publishers of compelling long-form content, we think that’s a step forward.”

Not all the reviews and articles for Kindle Singles have been raves however. In the piece, “Can Kindle Singles Revolutionize Reading,” The Christian Science Monitor’s Husna Haq expressed interest in the new platform but reminded enthusiasts that, “the only way that Kindle Singles can achieve such a goal as lofty as saving long-form journalism – much less revolutionizing reading – is if readers embrace the new product. Right now, that’s still a big if.” Others noted that by edging out the publishers, writers who are not as well-known as Hitchens or Krakuer may have difficulty finding an audience without the publicity that has traditionally been the purview of the large publishing houses. One writer concluded, “Everybody wins in this new model except the book publishers who are cut out of the game.”
These arguments, while valid, do however hit the wall of the status quo where traditional print media has in the eyes of many experts been circling the drain for the past decade. Kindle Singles may not be a catch-all solution, but it is still a preferable option for writers who currently are facing an even bleaker outlook in the world of declining readership and revenues. As many of the commentators noted, with people used to receiving their information via the internet for a low cost it has became harder and harder for writers to publish work that was longer than an article but shorter than a book.
In addition to providing this much needed platform, it also has the potential to change the marketing and consumption of this type of writing. Kindle Singles allows readers to browse and purchase specific titles by subject, author, or any other discriminating factor that is relevant to them. Rather than paying for a subscription to a magazine, or buying a magazine that may only have a few sections one is interested in reading, a reader can follow Amazon’s pay-by-the-article approach. Additionally, many writers stand to gain from the favorable share of the proceeds which is generally split 70 - 30 in the author’s favor. It is not a perfect solution and it might be difficult for writers to promote their works without the help of publishers, but then again, the alternatives are not necessarily promising and getting your work published and read has never been an easy goal even in the best of times.  

Sunday, May 22, 2011

It's Official: Amazon is Now Selling More E-Books than Print Books

Last week announced that e-books were outselling hardcovers and paperbacks combined. More to come on this next week when I am done grading papers.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

New Kindle Commercial and My New Favorite Word: Bibilionecrophilia

What do you think of Kindle's new commercial? I think Amazon's feeling pretty secure with their sales so they've taken a slightly more (passive) aggressive look at bibliophiles and their criticism of the Kindle.

I read an interesting article about the future of print in the Los Angeles Review of Books the other day. Writer, Ben Ehrenreich, coins my new favorite word: bibilionecrophilia. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Kindle's Popular Highlights: Intertextual Communication or Pain in the Ass Distraction?

It seems that ever since Amazon released its Kindle and breathed new life into the languishing e-book market, every innovation and addition to its now iconic e-reader is received with the same polarized reaction that ushered in the original device. Angry bibliophiles will lambast it as another assault on the sacred position of the printed word while loyal techies and futurists will hail the newest augmentation as another step towards a bright digital utopia. While many readers, both of digital and printed content, tend to fall somewhere in the middle of these impassioned extremes, it none the less makes for interesting reading to see how elements of either side of the spectrum are reacting to one of Amazon's latest additions to its Kindle platform: Popular Highlights.
This new attempt at augmenting the act of reading, first introduced last year, allows readers to see passages that have been highlighted by others who have purchased the book. Once a few poignant or evocative sentences gets at least three people to note it, it will appear in all Kindle books sold with a little dotted line under relevant portion. You can even click on the highlighted section to see exactly how many people found this passage notable. Kindle owners can then log on to Amazon and keep track of their various highlighted sections and see what other people have noted. Currently the most popular passage, which has been marked by approximately 3,500 readers as of this writing, comes from Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone:

           "The key to happiness is to own your own slippers, own who
           you are, own who you are, own your family, own the talents
           you have, and own the ones you don't. If you keep
           saying your slippers aren't yours, then you'll die searching,
           you'll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more.
           Not only our actions, but also our omissions, becomes
           our destiny."

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outlier takes second place with the following excised bit of wisdom: “Those three things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.” Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray Love, dominates the Popular Highlights section with 6 of the top 25 coming from the popular memoir.

Reaction to Popular Highlights over the preceding months has been mixed. The New York Time’s Virginia Heffernan noted that the experience was “odd” and found it a reminder that even when reading, “you are still connected.” An article on wondered at the privacy risks of Amazon monitoring your reading habits and the status of books after purchase, while a post at Tomorrow’s Book described the new feature as, “a little jarring, to say the least, as well as an awkward attempt at social networking.”

Perhaps the most acerbic condemnation of popular highlights came in early March during an NPR segment in which writer, scholar, and critic, Andrei Codrescu, discussed how seeing other people’s annotations compromised both his reading and the integrity of his purchase. He stated that, “When somebody offers perception of what's important, something moronic, usually, which is why I always prefer buying books new so I could make my own moronic marks.” He continued by stating that the Kindle’s new feature, “which will tell you how many morons have underlined before so that not only you do not own the new book you paid for, the entire experience of reading is shattered by the presence of a mob that agitates inside your text like strangers in a train station.”

Defenders of the Kindle have been quick to point out to the various critics that Popular Highlights can be turned off with little hassle – something it appears the many angry Kindle users may not have noticed based on some of the comments found online. However, as Heffernan concludes in her article when discussing feature’s off-switch:

            “[T]here’s a genie-in-the-bottle problem here. As with
            many things on the Web, once you’ve glimpsed popular
            highlights, it’s hard to unglimpse them. You get curious
            about what other readers think, especially with a book
            like “Freedom,” which bookstore windows and airplane
            waiting lounges would have you believe everyone is thinking
            about. Reading, after all, is only superficially solitary; in
            fact, it’s a form of intensive particpation in language
            and the building of common culture."

Fans of the new feature on the other hand argue that the ability to read and share highlights offers a new dimension to reading. Many of the message boards and forums speak positively of the ability to see what others have found fascinating. For some, it offers a type of intertextual communication where readers are able to communicate with each other, connecting both with the text and the like-minded consumers.

In his essay collection, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, scholar and Director of Harvard University Library Robert Darnton discusses the history of commonplace books in an essay called “The Mysteries of Reading.” He explains that, “Whenever they [the reader] came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life.” He goes on to discuss that the commonplace books have been of inestimable value to researchers and scholars interested in the reading habits of important historical figures and the works that influenced their ideas. Kindle’s Popular Highlights serves a similar and more immediate function for readers today. For those interested, this feature allows us to see not only what the population is reading, but specifically what passages they find profound and interesting.

Additionally this feature may hopefully lead to a renewed interest for some readers in the actual act of highlighting and noting favored passages. A recent episode of the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast discussed the future of marginalia in the digital era and mourned the loss of annotating books with underlined passages that could be read and appreciated by future readers. While it is unlikely that Popular Highlights is suddenly going to instill a desire to begin underlining every significant sentence or passage in readers, it is possible that some might react to the open invitation. I for one freely admit that while reading Spike Jonze’s The Wild Things – the first book I purchased after Amazon added Popular Highlights, I found myself intrigued by what others readers had decided to note. As I read, I began to underline sections that I found significant as a type of reply to the other people I was connecting. Although I know that the other people I was “communicating” with may never get my message unless they decided to re-read, and the my contributions to the dialogue would never be shared unless two other people also decided they were of sufficient interest, it still added a new dimension to the reading experience. It wasn’t revelatory, it wasn’t life-changing, but it also wasn't a vicious unwanted intrusion into solitary pursuit.

Like the majority of American students I was assigned to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in high school. I had a used copy and many important sections were underlined and annotated; fingerprints in ink and pencil of the dozens of other students who throughout the years had temporarily been responsible for the same book I was assigned. One passage in particular was underlined, starred, and highlighted by several of the people who had that particular copy before me; “For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.”

While I like to think that I was astute enough to have caught the significance of this particular passage without the aid of the multiple students who had noted it before me, I can’t be sure that had it not been for their efforts this short sentence, which I find even more poignant then the oft-quoted closing lines of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, might have been lost to me. It is with this in mind that I think that perhaps someone might find resonance with some “pithy passage” that I find notable. Furthermore, after checking out the book’s page on Amazon’s website and seeing that of the hundreds of people who have highlighted sections from The Great Gatsby no one has yet marked this particular line, I might have to buy the book and share it with my fellow readers.

Whether you love the Kindle or despise it as an assault on everything you love about reading, it is clear the Popular Highlights is not worth getting overly riled up about. In the era of websites like Good Reads and Library Thing where readers can share their favorite books with friends, write reviews the anyone can read, and see what writers like Neil Gaiman are reading, this only seems like another logical step in the direction reading seems to be going. It has a few interesting virtues that might intrigue readers, and for others who want to preserve the solitary nature of reading they don’t have to participate. In fact, they can always just turn it off.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Daily: The Future of Media or Just Repackaged Old Media?

Two weeks ago Rupert Murdoch's News Corp released what they hailed as the future of news in the digital era with the release of its iPad exclusive news application, The Daily. The newspaper/magazine hybrid represents an attempt to bridge the gap between old and new media by offering a modern looking news platform combined with affordable prices. In an age of aggregators and free online content companies are looking for a way to make money from people who are used to get getting everything for free. The Daily currently offers a two week free trial and is then 99 cents a month or 40 dollars for a full year.

I waited a little bit for the reviews to come in before posting and so far they've been mixed. Wired - which has a pretty comprehensive review here - breaks The Daily down this way:

WIRED: This a serious effort to figure out how to create a for-profit news experience on an very new medium from a publisher with deep pockets who sees magazines as the future of newspapers. Who can argue with that?
TIRED: Long download, lots of crashes, somewhat clunky animation. Articles tend to the short side — neither brief, nor long form. Shades of USA Today?
The Huffington Post - which some may argue may not be a reliable source for evaluating a Murdoch product but I felt was balanced in their reporting - notes in an article that... "looking at The Daily in a browser — here's an article — the organizational or navigational structure one finds on other news sites is here absent. The Daily is not only unwilling to compromise, it's also simply unavailable online.
That might have been sufficient in the days of the newsmagazine, when value was created and retained between the covers. But on the social web, the currency of a successful site is the portability of its content. The Daily's is just the opposite, moored to a single and static platform, with only the smallest concession to social sharing."

Slate had a pretty good breakdown of The Daily's strengths and weaknesses in an article by Jack Shafer and as a segment in their Culture Gabfest podcast. The overarching critique, coming from a news organization that was itself largely experimental when it first came out, is that the current iteration of the magazine is still a prototype and its ultimately too early to tell. 

Finally for those really interested Salon has already compiled a fairly comprehensive list of reactions from various news organizations here.  

My thoughts:
I downloaded The Daily and read through it for a few days. Although some people haven't fallen in love with the display, I thought it worked with the iPad. Overall all though, there was nothing about it that was so wonderful that I felt obliged to add it to the various apps I read regularly. While 99 cents a week is a totally fair price,  with Pulse, Flipboard, and the news organization specific apps I currently read there just wasn't much of an incentive. What are 
your thoughts?  

Saturday, January 29, 2011

News and Updates: Digital Book World 2011, E-Books Outsell Paperbacks at Amazon and More!

Digital Book World:
Last month was the 2011 Digital Book World conference and by all accounts it was a success. The event brought together writers, publishers, booksellers, and agents and focused primarily on how publishing can adapt to the changing market. For a comprehensive breakdown check out the DBW's site here. Here are some highlights:
- LA Time's book blog, Jacket Copy, has a concise overview of the conference.
- Publisher's Weekly has a piece on DBW's panel on digital books and libraries.
- PW also had a breakdown on DBW's panel on digital royalties.

Book Stuff:
- The New York Time has a great article by Julie Bosman on the various ways independent bookstores are trying to maintain profitably in the digital era.
- The Guardian discusses Philip Pullman's passionate defense of libraries.

Publishing/Business News:
- Amazon has a ten billion dollar quarter and sells millions of kindles reports Ebooknewser.
- Future Book asks how to judge an e-book without a cover.
- The Big Picture discusses Amazon's new Singles Imprint and the New York Times ' first e-book.

Tablet News:
- Wiredreports that the former president of Newsweekly is setting up an app that will sell digital periodicals. Sounds a lot like the app Zinio.
- engadget is not impressed with the new MSI tablet.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Kobo on The Office

Last week's episode of The Office featured a fun piece of product placement. While visiting an unnamed bookstore - clearly Borders - Darryl, played by Craig Robinson, is convinced to buy a Kobo even though he fears devices like that will put Dunder Mifflin out of business.

As part the promotion following the cameo of the e-reader, the folks over at theKobo's official blog announced that they were having a contest for office workers who use their e-readers during work time to share their stories. Check out the details here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Back From Vacation - Border's Circling the Drain and Do E-reader's Make You Lazy?

Hey Folks,

         Back from a wonderful vacation visiting family in Northern California and I am catching up on some work before school starts at the end of the month. Short post but more to follow soon:

 - The Vancouver Sun's Shelly Fralic has a fun article about the angst of a newly converted e-reader fan.
- The Times of India reports on studies that suggest that the clarity of e-reader displays decreases reader's retention and contributes to "lazy brain."

Borders Possibly Closing
- LA Times book blog, Jacket Copy, has an article outlining the current serious financial problems facing Borders.  
- The Washington City Paper has another piece analyzing this situation. Writer Lydia DePillis makes this excellent point on why Barnes and Noble is doing better then its rival:
"Why has Barnes and Noble fared comparatively better than Borders? Mostly, it has to do with e-strategy. According to publishing industry analyst Michael Norris, Borders blundered by partnering with for its book sales, and the online superstore had no incentive to help encourage brick-and-mortar sales, which Barnes and Noble's integrated site did much better. Then there was the rewards card mistake: Borders started with a free membership program, which customers didn't really value. Barnes and Noble went with a paid rewards card with deep discounts, which brought in more in membership fees and paid itself back in increased sales."