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Behind the Kindle, under the iPad: an unholy alliance

E-book software and services vs. literature

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Frankfurt Book Fair If some of the speakers at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair are to be believed, your life — or at least the part of it that involves snuggling up in bed with a good book and mug of hot cocoa — is about to be turned upside down.

Sure, we've heard plenty on books going electronic, but the coverage mostly focuses on the devices — Kindles, iPads, et al. — rather than the books themselves.

I've written a number of books on software development, and recently began my own publishing company, Fingerpress. I therefore approached this event from the perspective of an upstart book publisher trying to figure out how our published works should fit into the e-publishing space.

I expected the answer to be a bewildering mix of grey areas, but surprisingly — despite the diversity on offer — the answer turned out to be quite clear-cut.

Der Frankfurter Buchmesse 2010's crowded halls feature several so-called technology Hot Spots. The Devices Hot Spot is oddly named because it isn't about devices. Instead it features advances in content creation and delivery — that murky zone in between the device and the customer. One company inhabiting this area is exhibitor Stilo, which specialize in converting content into XML and EPUB formats. Smashwords, which wasn't at the show, converts to a much broader range of platforms for free — provided you use their distribution service, of course.

The Mobile Hot Spot was exactly that, while the Information Management Hot Spot supposedly bought together "the latest developments in workflow processes, content management systems, multimedia integration and advanced content delivery platforms."

There were also Hot Spots for publishing services, literature, special interest (top shelf, sir?), and education.

The predominant message behind almost all of the tech exhibitors at each Hot Spot was this: e-books are here, they're cool, and we should all be using them. Whether that's actually true or not is a different matter.

A speaker from publishing-services company Aptara asserted that publishers will need to change the way they think about books, as the very notion of "a book" is morphing. People are busier than ever, information is becoming more fragmented, and books can now contain animation, sounds, and — gasp — hyperlinks.

But this is fundamentally missing the point, and sounds remarkably similar to the "sea change" hype that accompanied Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) in its — thankfully — short-lived day. This new technology is going to open up new revenue models, change the way people access their information, yada, yada, yada — you get the picture.

The problem is that books — novels especially — are entrenched in our habits and expectations. People love a good novel, and that's unlikely to change. They don't want the formula to be messed with too much. And as for fragmentation? It's always been easier to print a leaflet than a novel, but novels still sell by the million, whereas "short-shorts" don't.

What is changing, and rapidly, is the way that books are delivered to us, along with the medium the words are displayed on. From the Apple iBookstore to Kindle to Kobo, it's never been easier to buy a book and be reading it a few seconds later. And while the device is where the excitement is, the real war is to potentially own the e-publishing "middle tier" — the site that readers go to in order to buy their books.

While Kindle is potentially limited by being just one class of device, Amazon scored a home run by making the Kindle reader available on a range of platforms — meaning your books follow you wherever you go. Read a Kindle book on your Android phone, then pick up your "real" Kindle and resume from the same page. It's spooky but useful. The iPad by comparison is tied to a single closed platform, though some of their books are decidedly pretty — and the animations distracting.

Outside Kindle and iPad, the other big player is the unassuming Aldiko on Android. Every self-respecting Android owner will have installed this classy app, though Aldiko suffers from a weak shopping experience. It's perfect for reading your collection of EPUBs, though.

But here's a question: does anyone actually like paying £8 plus ($12 plus) for an e-novel? My brand-new iPad gulped down my credit card number so that it could begin serving up songs, apps and e-books. But I find it quite difficult to shell out that amount of money for something I don't really "own". There's nothing quite like being licensed a book, rather than being sold one.

This issue is being addressed by Kobo, an emerging force in the e-publishing world. While the company line is that publishers who sell through Kobo's store can "have DRM if they want it", when signing up Fingerpress their wording seemed to me at least refreshingly anti-DRM.

Company spokesman Cameron Drew was candid: "Anything that's limited is not seeing its true potential." And e-publishing is certainly opening new possibilities. "The next step," Cameron told us: "Is to form a meaningful social community around people's e-book browsing and purchasing habits — the ability to 'tweet', add notes, and share passages, for starters."

E-book publishing does have the capacity to turn traditional publishing on its head: newcomers with trendy names and sans-serif logos might just have traditional publishers nervously twiddling their bow ties.

While published books can take a year or more to become available, e-publishing is as quick as clicking the Upload button. The reading devices, meanwhile, get more compelling with each new generation.

Michael Bhaskar of digital publisher Profile Books said at the show: "Independent publishers can move quickly. I hate to use the term 'agile', but it's true." The Mongoliad being a prime example of authors successfully building a web community to cut traditional publishers out of the loop.

This shouldn't be much of a surprise. One half of IT is, of course, information, so a marriage between books and technology, however unholy, is long overdue.

Matt Stephens is the founder of independent book publisher Fingerpress, and co-authored Design Driven Testing: Test Smarter, Not Harder (Apress, 2010)

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