Sunday, January 31, 2010

How I read eBooks, and how I'd like to buy them

Tobias Bucknell, who stuff I enjoy, has a long summary of the Amazon/Macmillan dispute. It's good to hear from people who have perspective inside the industry, as all too often I find myself asking, with respect to eBooks, what exactly I am paying for. The limitations of the Kindle reader are the source of some of these questions, but not all of them are Amazon specific.

When I buy a book, I get a book. Physical, good for riffling through, resilient in the face of beach sand and cookie crumbs. Not searchable, though, and requires storage space. Heavy to transport. If used, sometimes the source of odd smells. I have a variety of price points to purchase at, usually based on release date. But there is usually no option to buy a premium-priced paperback at the hardcover release date; eager readers must pay the hardcover price.

When I buy an eBook on my Kindle, I get the following:

- Searchable version of the text, particularly handy for SF/F novels where characters have made-up and similar-sounding names.
- Lightweight transport with easy one-handed reading (for public transit!)
- Changeable text size for reading from a variety of distances.
- No option to lend freely due to DRM.
- Maps and other graphics or charts are often unreadable. Bad for epic fantasy novels where world maps are handy.
- Cover art is either missing or monochrome in color.
- Resolution lower than print, but nicer reading experience than on a backlit screen.
- Kindle version is almost always available later than the print version (and in many cases still not available at all).

As a weirdo who likes to read Word documents in Web View, I took immediately to the Kindle's text-size function. And on the Kindle, page breaks and chapter breaks can be maintained, but the number of words per page/screen is flexible. Bucknell lists the following, in addition to editors and marketers, as personnel at the publisher who need to get paid from the proceeds of a book:
A typesetter: makes the inside of the book look professional and easy to read, well put together

Designer: interior art, layout, more look and feel of the inside. The look and feel of the outside of the book and how it incorporates the cover art

Art: someone has to paint, create, or put together the graphics that sell the book

Copy editor: this person goes through and makes sure the book is readable, looks for internal consistency (your character has blue eyes here, but brown here. Suns don’t actually go nova like that).

Proofreader: this final pass looks for any final typos that have slipped through everyone else.
Now I hate lame typos in books, so the editor, copy editor, and proofreader get a pass from me. I notice the absence of their contributions no matter what format the book is in. But with a Kindle book, the art is (for better or worse) effectively disabled. The page design is superseded by the imperative to fill the screen with words at different sizes. The font choice, page size, and margins are similarly short circuited; differences that would contribute to the feel of a paper book just aren't registering in the Kindle version.

And you know what? I am mostly fine with all of this. eBooks have limitations. They have offsetting conveniences, but not so much so that I am willing to pay the same price for an eBook as a regular book. The anti-DRM folks are right: there is no guarantee my Kindle books will be available in the long run. I solve this problem by purchasing shelfworthy books and buying via Kindle only those books that have not proven their shelfworthiness and are not easily available from the library. But as an eBook purchaser, I ask the following:

- Don't treat me like I'm stupid. If you tell me you want to price books between $14.99 and $5.99, I'm going to assume that most of the books are closer to $14.99. Particularly if you're fighting like a cat on a leash against someone who wants to price books at $9.99.

- Don't expect me to pay more than the price of a print book for a DRM-ed, limited life, unlendable text that lacks most of the aesthetic features of a print book. The price of an eBook should never be more than the price of an available print version. If a book is currently only available in hardcover, you might be able to get me to pay more than $9.99. But if you've released a book in mass-market paperback, the eBook better cost less than that.

If publishers want to squeeze more surplus out of eager readers, here is what I would like to see: a sort of Priceline for eBooks. A book comes out in hardcover. I don't want to buy the hardcover; I want it in eBook form. So it should be available for a price lower than the hardcover price--sort of like "Buy It Now!" on eBay. But if I don't want to pay that much, I should be able to name my price. The publisher drops prices over time, perhaps in conjunction with its schedule for printing trade and mass-market paperback editions. When the price drops to the one I named, the eBook is sent to my Kindle. The price of the eBook version should never be more than the price of the cheapest available print version. But once the market is squeezed of all people who value the book at or above the current price point, the eBook version can continue to sell. Amazon does this already for its pre-ordered books. Consider these purchases as pre-ordered eBooks.

Update: Tyler Cowen links to this long discussion of the dispute, which asks this very interesting question: "Will you some day download your e-books directly from [the publisher]'s website?" That sounds like a promising channel for eBooks. Say I want to read this book. Wouldn't it be nice if I could just type "The Inheritance of Rome" into Google and land on the Viking website, where I could then purchase the eBook directly from the publisher with a few clicks through Google Checkout? If I had the option to email my purchased download to my Kindle device, it would be nearly as convenient as buying it through Amazon's web page. (Assuming the format was readable on the Kindle.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Bullying: An Academic Crime?

My first reaction upon seeing this story, after visceral disgust and rage, was that there ought to be some consequences for teen girls who bully a classmate to death. People have lost college admissions for less. But as PG pointed out, revoking admission for plagiarism is kosher because it's "an academic crime," whereas bullying goes on everywhere.

So what is an "academic crime"? Isn't this sort of bullying something that "brings into question your honesty, maturity, or moral character," just like plagiarism? If you can receive points toward admission for community service, leadership in extracurricular activities, and other holistic factors, why shouldn't you be downgraded for instigating the death of a classmate? (Presuming, of course, that authorities investigate and find you've committed wrongdoing?)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Finland saved by mittens?

Via Metafilter:
Simo Häyhä is often revered as the deadliest sniper in history. Using nothing more than a Mosin-Nagant sniper rifle with stock iron sights, Häyhä is credited with felling 542 Soviet soldiers during the Finnish Winter War (with as many as 150 more kills by SMG). Nicknamed "The White Death", Häyhä spent weeks in snow-covered forests, enduring sub-zero temperatures while sniping Russian officers, weapons crews and snipers. The Soviets placed a bounty on Häyhä's head, utilizing counter-snipers and artillery fire in an attempt to kill him. Over the course of only three months, the 5'3" Häyhä (a farmer by trade) killed upwards of 800 of the Red Army soldiers deployed to Finland. Despite eventually being shot in the face by a Russian sharpshooter, Häyhä recovered and passed away in 2002 at the age of 96.
When asked in 1998 how he had become such a good shot, he answered, "Practice."

But the secret of Häyhä's success may have been in his mittens:
One of the reasons Häyhä was so successful, believe it or not, was because of his mitten ensemble. They consisted of three layers: the bottom layer was an incredibly finely knitted tight-fitting glove made of handspun yarn, finer than commercial woolen knits could be found at that time. The second layer was a fingerless mitt that stopped short of the base of his fingers, while covering his wrist and the first joint of his thumb. The outer layer was made of heavy, thick wool, in a technique unique to scandinavia called nålbinding, which was looped rather than knitted. This nålbinded mitten, in addition to being virtually impervious to cold, also had a split in it for his trigger finger, so he could fire his rifle without taking them off.

The underglove was fine enough that he could reload his rifle without taking THAT off, drastically reducing the amount of time that his hands had to be exposed to the cold. And if he did have to do maintenance on his rifle that required the underglove to come off, he could put the wrist-covering mitt back on; because that covered the pulse point in his wrist, it kept his blood warmer longer and kept feeling in his fingers.

The Russians, by contrast, had thick, bulky gloves or mittens in a single layer. The gloves had to be taken off to reload, which caused a lot of wasted time due to numb fingers. And the mittens had to be taken off even to FIRE the gun! Numb, frostbitten hands were the cause of many poor shots and lost ammunition, or even parts of the rifle if field maintenance had to be done.

so. Hoorah for mittens! Warm hands, strong people!
My mittens are not this cool.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Skinflint 2.0

What I really need is an iPhone app that cross-references my downloaded Kindle samples with the card catalog at my local library.

Mini Book Review: The Red Wolf Conspiracy

Are you tired of waiting for Scott Lynch to finish the next Gentlemen Bastards book? Have you exhausted the complete Robin Hobb catalog and are stymied from further satisfaction due to her prohibition on fan fiction? Maybe want to give a new author a whirl? Try this. The sequel is already out, so if you like it, there's no need to jones in vain. The action is well-paced, the world well-realized, and the characters appealing. If it has a few improbable twists ... at least the plucky tarboy in love with the prince's betrothed isn't also the secret son of the emperor or something.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Flatter me

Phoebe has some interesting thoughts on the elusiveness of flattering clothes: in particular, how the very secondary sex characteristics that appeal to the "Darwinian hindbrain" make clothes unflattering.

To relate this back to Lady Gaga: Part of why her spectacle is so compelling is that she's completely short-circuited the frump/skank dynamic. It can be startling to see a scantily clad pop star who is so emphatically not seeking your approval through the standard channels to sex-object status. Is this really skanky? Frumpy? There's something almost wholesome about her here, like a diving girl from a century ago. And a lot of the time she's embracing the iconography of sexiness without actually submitting herself for your sexual assessment or gratification. The refusal to submit was particularly marked during her performance of Teeth---Gaga was definitely the sexual subject, and the audience was getting the business.

Monday, January 25, 2010

There were monster claws involved.

So, this weekend I went to the Lady Gaga concert in NYC: the first concert I've ever been to in a nice venue with seats, where I could sit and see the stage and all that jazz. And while the music was great (kudos to performers who actually sing instead of lip sync), I spent most of the evening staring at Lady Gaga. Specifically, her body. Specifically, her belly. She has this delightful, rounded little torso and it completely freaking hypnotized me.

See, this is the weird part. Lady Gaga is one of the most normal-looking celebrity women I see. Yes, normal. Look at her arms, her thighs, her proportions. Contrast Rihanna, who always looks like she was extruded from a machine, or like some sort of articulated doll. And compare Amanda Palmer, whose belly is slightly softer than Gaga's but was too fat for her label. I am in love with Lady Gaga and her non-anorexic belly.

One of the criticisms of haute couture is that a model's physique makes already avant garde designs look even more alien---a 6-foot 100-pound woman is just beyond the average person's experience. But Lady Gaga is a more or less average-to-petite young woman, and she totally rocks the weird fashion. She makes me want to run around in a PVC bodysuit with a rooster hood, or no pants with giant hoof-heels, or whatever weird thing you can imagine. She is really inspiring.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Friday, January 22, 2010

Your egg, your responsibility?

You hear a lot about non-anonymous sperm donors being hit up down the line for child support. Has this ever happened with a non-anonymous egg donor? Or are we just accustomed to looking to uninvolved male bioparents for dough?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Random Roundup

- I'm less angry than I used to be. But maybe it's just because I know I'm not getting any prettier.

- I wanted to spin this as "she may be a careerist sociopath, but she's our careerist sociopath," but it's even worse than that. The followup is, if anything, even more off-putting than the original piece. I can put up with a certain amount of "go Team Red/Blue! Beat Team Blue/Red!" with minimal nausea, just from living in DC, but to see someone shrug at the systematic corruption of the justice system is a whole other kettle of rotten fish. And can you imagine this kind of defense of a cop committing similarly repugnant acts? I can't.

I interviewed at a prosecutor's office once and answered a question about charging decisions along the Balko line, i.e. the prosecutor's job is to work toward justice, not maximizing time served for defendants. They asked me why I was interviewing there and not at the public defender. FAIL.

- I have accepted that I am a satificer, not a maximizer. DC is a decent town for satisficers. I find maximizers and their environs exhausting. This is not least because many self-identifying maximizers pay little heed to search costs and diminishing returns. However, when I need a really awesome. trendy outfit for a show, DC is sort of disappointing. Returns for outre fashion are high! Suggestions for concertwear welcome.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Blue Man Group

All you need to know about Avatar.

My companion thought I was just bitter because I couldn't see the 3D.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fun fact

Elmo projectors hum at the precise, barely audible frequency to give
me a raging migraine.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Radio host impersonates cop to bust cheating husband

In the January 4 broadcast of this radio show, did the host commit a violation of DC Code 22-1406? And is anything going to happen if he did?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Yarn companies tangle in trademark lawsuit

In a dispute that is perhaps only of interest to knitters, Cascade Yarns has sued popular online retailer Knit Picks for trademark infringement.

I am rooting for Knit Picks, not because I think they should win but because I like their products. (h/t Belle)

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Oh dear.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Yo! Vienna rules!

Reason no. 687 I am obsessed with Vienna: You might be able to introduce yourself* by saying "I bî da ___."

This whole thing tickles me. What would the folks who went crazy over the idea of AAVE in US schools think of people who use Schriftdeutsch and Bairisch?

* Yes, I know Viennese German is its own thing.

ETA: Also, Perchta the Belly-Slitter. Wow.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Discretion is the better part of CRAZY.

What organizations, outside of secretive government agencies, are so tight-lipped that an innocent Facebook post expressing excitement about an interview would be enough to "increase[] the chances that someone at the organization gets wind of your blabbing and decide[] you lack the discretion to be a good fit"?

The more likely result is that you don't get the job and look silly in front of your friends, but there are much more embarrassing things on Facebook.