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Thoughts on Kindle 2

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Vertebrate Publishing - award winning books and ebooks

I’m sure Amazon don’t mind one bit that Kindle has come to be the generic term for digital book reading device. It’s the ebook Hoover, and that makes it difficult for their competition to gain a foothold in a marketplace they dominate – although that domination is slowly declining.

I wrote a blog last June where I reflected on my personal experiences of Amazon’s Kindle e-reading device, at a time when I blew hot and cold with it. New devices – e-readers and tablets – were on the horizon, including Amazon’s own Fire tablets, and these looked set to reshape the e-reading landscape, potentially taking a chunk out of Amazon’s market share in the process.

That’s exactly what has happened – in the last few months new tech has come thick and fast. Fire did indeed arrive, released by Amazon in October and even on sale in high street retailers such as Waterstones (and others), alongside Amazon’s other Kindle readers (how that partnership benefits Waterstones is still the cause of much debate in the book trade; we speculate it’s simply mark up on hardware sales). Contrary to my prediction, Nook is now on sale in the UK – both the Touch e-readers and the HD tablets, and we have a range of other tablet devices such as Apple’s iPad Mini and the Google Nexus devices – specifically the Nexus7. There are a bunch of Kobo devices too, just to ensure the market is now well and truly saturated in tablet and e-reading tech.

One device it’s worth mentioning is the ‘txtr Beagle. Available later this year, it’s the smallest and lightest e-reader (almost) on the market and will be available for just £8 in the UK. You’ll need an Android device (phone or tablet) to use it, as this is the only way of sending books to it. It’s expected it will come bundled with some smartphone packages too. Interesting.

I’ve been reading less and less on the Kindle – it struggles to hold my attention – but I have been keeping an eye on how these myriad devices develop, and their relevance to our own books and content. You can buy most of our narrative titles from the main ebook players already, but we’ve hung back with our guidebook content. And it’s likely we will do for a short while longer as we don’t believe the hardware and software is yet at a point where it beats a well thought out and well-designed printed guidebook. Functionality, durability, battery life.

We have a handful of these devices in the office for testing files, development and watching movies of baby monkeys riding backwards on pigs (God bless the Internet). The most recent addition is the iPad Mini. It’s a very nice unit – small and light, with a nice, big and bright screen, it has all the usual Apple features and access to the wider world through the App Store. The screen is noticeably larger than the other equivalent tablets out there. It opens epub files without problem through iBooks or one of many other third party apps. But it's not the cheapest on the market.

A week or two before the Mini arrived, we had a Kindle Fire HD land on the doormat too. This is less expensive, but also impressive. You’re locked very tightly into Amazon’s scaled down version of Android and its own app store (not the Android app store) and the whole thing feels very much like it is principally designed to help you buy stuff as quickly as possible from Amazon. Which I imagine is exactly what it was designed for. A heavy device, the user interface is slow and laboured, apps do crash (annoying!) and the screen has an irritating yellow cast. On the flipside, web browsing is OK, and some apps – Twitter, Facebook, IMDB, iPlayer – work fine, most of the time...

Most irritating for book people – and me – is that you can’t load epub files onto the Fire unless you go around the houses. This device is not designed for epub; it’s designed for buying mobi files direct from Amazon. You can create Fire-specific mobi files, but they are a pale imitation of the epubs that work so well on Apple devices and other Android devices. And epub is the future of interactive digital books.

We created a sample conversion of one of our guidebooks specifically for the Kindle Fire, and it’s poor. The big problem: you can’t zoom into images, i.e. maps. You have to feel Amazon will sort this out, as it’s no good for development and attracting new content – and they’re all about selling everything to everyone.

In the book trade we’re bombarded by statistics, 96% of which I’m sure are made up. At the end of 2011 it was estimated there were about seven million tablets and e-readers in circulation in the UK. At the end of the 2012, it’s expected that number will be 12 million. And that doesn’t take into account smartphones, laptops and the other devices which allow people to read books online. These are significant numbers, although the trend in the US – which is typically a year or two ahead of the UK – suggests tablet/e-reader take up is now slowing and stabilising

We’re still in the very early stages of ebook and e-reading development, and given the rate at which hardware and software have developed in the last year or two, it will be fascinating to see what happens this year.

JC

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