Some of you may have seen my tweet the other night, where I fessed up that impulse bought the new Kindle. I went for the WiFi only graphite model, figuring that I didn't need to be downloading books on the go. Why did I go for the Kindle? Well, of course, there is the promise I made to myself that I would not invest in an iPad until my master Steve Jobs release the infinitely more powerful iPad 2 next year. And there was the little matter of my not being able to slake my gadget lust by laying hands on an iPhone 4 the other day. And I had had a few drinks.
But anyway, I've ordered one now and I'm going to make it work for me. Literally. I have huge volumes of reading I have to get through for work, particularly when researching books, and I am constantly hauling used books off to the secondhand bookstore to keep my shelves in order. So for those types of titles an e-reader would be useful. (And yes, Beeso, and iPad would be much more useful, but only for other things). So I'm cool with this impulse purchase.
However, I'm not that cool with the state of the e-book market. It's a fucking shambles. For instance Designated Targets and Final Impact are both available in Kindle versions, but not Weapons of Choice. W. T. F.
Apple's iBookstore is crippled for now by Cupertino's failure to secure comprehensive deals with all of the major publishing houses. There's just not much in there. But the much vaunted Amazon is not necessarily much better. Particularly if you do not have access to an American Amazon account. Because of the territorial rights issue, and because of the relative slowness of our local publishers in securing digital rights to their backlist, and of digitizing their back list when they do have the rights, the offerings available are pretty thin indeed. As an example, if you type in SM Stirling as a search term on the general Amazon home page, you'll get about 200 returns. On the Kindle page, you get just four.
Having begun to investigate electronic books seriously, I've had reason to think about my own backlist. Although Felafel has been a success everywhere it's been released, for instance, it has never been released in the US. An e-book version could do well there (although I would undoubtedly have to change the name of the first chapter). I started talking to my old publisher Michael Duffy about this the other day and he was very keen to look into the subject. As soon as we began to discuss it however, my thoughts turned to the aesthetics of e-book publishing.
Beeso will like this. The iPad seems a natural platform for a book like Felafel, or How To The A Man, both of which rely on rich dense layers of illustrations for some of their impact. Even when Felafel isn't deploying illustrations, it uses some quite unusual layout and design to achieve an effect. None of those tricks are available on the Kindle, or the Nook or pretty much any e-reader that uses an e-ink display. Anybody who's had a look at the Marvel comics app on the iPad will note just how lush and gorgeous and powerful those old full-color illustrations can be. That would still be the case even if they weren't displayed on an Apple tablet. But it would not be the case if they had to be displayed on a Kindle. You just wouldn't bother.
This makes me wonder whether or not e-books in future will become a differentiated medium, with some presenting as little more than gigantic slabs of text on cheap, almost disposable low end e-readers, while others work only as fully illustrated, aesthetically rich visual extravaganzas, requiring a much higher end display technology.
A final thought that occurred to me as I was pondering all this is that any such differentiation might be a way for publishers to maintain their hardcopy back lists. If you strip all of the graphical content out of something like Falafel, you could still publish a thick slab of very funny text on something like a Kindle, but you wouldn't necessarily cannibalize your hardcopy sales if people still felt the need to own a paperback to get access to the full experience of the book.