Crap futurism, cruftiness, and walled gardens: A Download the Universe roundtable on e-reading

On April 4, the Pew Research Center’s released an extensive report on the country’s e-reading habits as part of its Internet and American Life project. It is, as is oftentimes the case with Pew reports, quite interesting and exceedingly bland. (You can find an introduction to the Pew report here; the full report is also available online or as a free download.)

As readers of this blog know, I love me some roundtables–and since I recently joined a new online science e-book review called Download the Universe, I figured I had the perfect excuse to gin one up…which is exactly what I did after roping io9′s Annalee Newitz, TIME.com’s Maia Szalavitz, and superhuman science journo Carl Zimmer into it.

Anyone interested in e-reading (or books or words or computers or technology) should check it out. The first entry, “Crap futurism, pleasure reading, and DRM,” ran yesterday; today’s entry is titled “Walled gardens, cruftiness, and a race to the bottom.” (The final entry will go up tomorrow morning.) Here are some samples to whet your appetites:

Maia: The thing that shocked me most about the Pew survey, however, was how little most people read.  I suppose I already knew that to some extent, but I had no idea how much we all are outliers.

Seth: That’s interesting–I was struck by how much people read. I’m not sure where it’s from, but I feel like I’ve heard dozens of times over the past several years that the average American adult reads less than a book a year. Given that possibly apocryphal factoid that’s been lodged in my brain, the notion that, as Pew reported, more than 20% of all adults had read an e-book in the past year and a shocking 28% of Americans age 18 and older own at least one specialized device for e-book reading kind of blew me away. It also made me wonder a bit about whether their definitions a little too fluid: That 28% includes tablets, and I think most iPad users don’t regard their iPads as a “specialized device for e-book reading.”

Annalee: The first e-book I ever read was Heart of Darkness on the Sony Libre, the first e-ink device, which I was test driving for Wired in the early 2000s. I don’t think the Libre ever got sold in the U.S., though its underlying technology is what makes the Kindle so nice to read in broad daylight. I remember sitting on the bus with the little device, reading Joseph Conrad’s gooey, beautiful prose, planning to stuff the thing full of every other public domain novel I could.

I wanted to use that e-reader for preservation more than anything – as a place to stow history. And that’s probably why I didn’t pick up another e-reader until a couple of years ago, when I caved in and bought an iPad 1. I’d been leery of the Kindle because it seemed too bound up with Amazon’s creepy DRM-driven business model. Despite the fact that the iPad’s gated garden business model was even creepier — so creepy, in fact, that I wrote an article at io9 about how it was “crap futurism” — it was just too sexy to turn down.

And you know what? I’m glad I gave into my base instincts to get that hot little thing into my hands. Because suddenly I was reading the newspaper every day again. And reading comics! I realized I’d been avoiding both because their form factors were just too flimsy and annoying to hold. Somehow, reading the Guardian newspaper and Scott Pilgrim books became much easier when I had them on my book-shaped iPad.

Seth: There’s an equation I’d like to see: How sexy does something need to be to overcome its creepiness?

Annalee: I think the quick answer is that you have to be able to use the device to read/view open media formats. So if it’s sexy enough to have some openness, then go for it. Or jailbreak it and then go for it.

***

Seth: Carl, as someone who has written “traditional” print books and dedicated e-books, I’m curious if your thoughts about Amazon changed over the past few years–because mine definitely have. David Carr’s recent column in the Times, about how the DOJ should have gone after Amazon, not Apple, if it wanted to take on a monopoly threatening the book business, is just the latest data point that has me wondering whether I’m contributing to my own demise by patronizing Bezos’s warehouse of goodies.

(Some of those other data points: This April 1 Seattle Times story about how Amazon is putting the squeeze on small publishers and this April 15 NYT piece about the same.) I’m also curious as to whether you find Stross’s argument convincing — because I’m not sure I do. Do you really think we’re on the brink of Amazon letting Kindle books out of the garden?

Carl: Stross is arguing that the only way for big publishers to escape Amazon’s lock is to give up DRM (digital rights management), so that you can read their ebooks any way you like, much like you can with a pdf file. A DRM-free ebook would be readable on your laptop, on your iPad with all kinds of apps (not just iBooks), on your Sony Reader (if you still have one), or, yes, even on your Kindle. … The distributor for my ebooks, IPG, got into a tussle with Amazon, which wants distributors and publishers to pay for promotion on the site, to accept sharply lowered costs, and so on. IPG didn’t want to accept the terms, and so–zip!–all 5000 titles they distribute vanished from Amazon (This article in the Times this week details the conflict). I went from having two ebooks on Amazon to none. People can still buy my ebooks if they know where to look, but I’ve taken a huge hit because Amazon was responsible for most of my sales.

My choices are now to bow down to the power of Amazon and work directly with them, on their terms, or to enter that DRM-free wilderness where Doctorow has wandered for years.

Seth: I guess I should have been more clear — I actually do find that aspect of Stross’s argument compelling; what I don’t see is why publishers choosing to un-DRM their books would automatically mean Amazon agree to sell books in something other than the AZW format. Wouldn’t they just say, essentially, bully for you — but if you want to see your books on amazon.com, your going to need to do so under our terms?

I hadn’t realized that your ebooks were distributed by IPG. As someone essentially unaffected by that squabble, I’m rooting for IPG. What are your feelings?

Carl: I’m rooting for IPG too, simply because Amazon is playing such hardball with them, and I don’t like bullying. But I don’t think any short-term settlement between them will last long. IPG depends on access to outlets like Amazon to make money. Amazon doesn’t depend so much on places like IPG. IPG, in its current state, is only good at one thing: distributing books for independent publishers. Amazon, like Google and other web-based giants, is good at many things, and can easily retool itself to become good at many new things. They may have started out as a book dealer, but now they do cloud computing, video streaming, and all sorts of other things that were inconceivable a couple years ago. They can also be their own publisher and distributor, as well as a bookseller.

As I said, the rest of it is over at DtU — which should be a regular destination for you all anyway.

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