Sunday, January 31, 2010

And so it begins

Okay Amazon. I know everyone's excited (or not) about the iPad (and unnecessarily so, or do I need to explain for the thousandth time that this isn't an eReader?), but acting like a little annoying kid is only going to make your parents angry. Your parents in this case are probably folks who like buying books from you and don't give a hoot (yet) about eBooks. You guys do realize that you're screwing over your customers, right?

If you're wondering what Amazon's latest drama is, check this out: Amazon has decided to stop selling books by a publisher that went with Apple. And I don't mean they stopped selling Kindle editions, I mean they stopped selling books. Want to laugh especially hard? They haven't stopped selling the Kindle editions (for Wolf Hall, at least). So you know what, Amazon? Now I'm angry because you're screwing me over.

The story is as follows. Publishers don't like Amazon's $9.99 eBook policy. Neither do I, but that's because $10 for less than 1Mb of information is absolute stupidity and incredibly expensive. More on that another time. Point is, publishers think Amazon's prices are unfair, claiming that the downward trend is ruining publishing, blah blah, no money for us, blah, you're paying for content not for format, blah diblah blah. Publishers have jumped at the idea of the "magical" iPad because they think that Apple will fix everything. This is because Apple has consented to sell higher priced eBooks, meaning more money gets back to the publishers. Publishers hope that the saying that "consumers will do what Apple tells them to" will stand here too (and yes, I did just make that up).

Clearly, Amazon is worried. Otherwise, would they really remove titles to "express disappointment" (or disagreement)? Amazon has convinced consumers that it's all right to pay incredible sums of money for eBooks, publishers think even that's not enough, and consumers are taking it lying down (again, more on this later). Now Amazon is acting like they're the victims of some strange nefarious scheme (if someone understands this comment as something else, please let me know and explain it to me - I'm honestly completely baffled), saying that $14 is too expensive for an eBook (which is absolutely true), saying "Oh, well I have to sell it like this because that's what makes me money but not money the way I'd like it but hey I'm getting more money out of it are you confused yet?".

There are other sides to the story as well. Read this account from an author whose book was temporarily removed too - it looks at this whole issue from a different angle that may, given time, make me more sympathetic towards publishers. Regardless, this whole affair is turning out to be exhausting. One conclusion is that Apple's iPad isn't the eReader to solve our problems, but rather is apparently going to cause a furor or two just because of pettiness. These fights will do no one good - Amazon, because of the bad publicity, and the publishers, because of the decrease in sales and old-fashioned mindset - most of all hurting consumers. In the meantime, I'll happily read free literature on my Sony and go shop at the Book Depository*.

*And complete a book blogger survey. Only a few days left!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Pretty price, same device

It's called the iPad and while it's cheaper than those mysterious tech specs speculated, I find myself having to say I told you so.

In a nutshell, Apple has produced a large iPod Touch, which is very spiffy, yes, but not very practical for most people's needs. Curiously, though, those who are unimpressed technologically suggest that the iPad will revolutionize eBooks and challenge the Kindle (and for some odd reason, keep mentioning the lackluster Nook). On one count the iPad may make a difference - magazines. Magazines look great glossy and shiny, and now they'll look even cooler, with the potential for embeded videos, sound clips and more. But eBooks? Just because publishers are excited for the future of eBooks doesn't mean consumers (or the readers of these eBooks) should be. Or as Chad Post of Three Percent so eloquently put it:
[I]f I had one of these things—and I read a hundred plus pages every day—and had the choice between video, gaming, and books, I’ll tell you what I ain’t going to choose . . .
I'll just reiterate my point. This iPad is a curious mashup that seems unlikely to stand on its own. It's not an eReader, as it does not have eInk screen technology and while it allows for reading, that does not mean much. Publishers are eager to get in on this because they think this is what consumers will go for, except consumers and publishers seem to be at odds more and more on this subject (more on that another time). Basically, the whole thing is a mess but some things still stand: the iPad is not an eReader, it shouldn't be a game-changer, and publishers (and consumers as well!) should stop hoping that Apple will magically take care of a system that is in desperate need of an overhaul. It won't.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Quote of the week

Today's quote comes from the excellently titled "A Honeymoon in Space" by George Griffith, and is an exchange between an Englishman and a young American woman. Lord Redgrave says:
"I'm for sound money all the time, if I may be permitted to speak American."

"English is quite good enough for us, Lord Redgrave," said Miss Zaidie a little stiffly. "We may have improved on the old language a bit, still we understand it, and—well, we can forgive its shortcomings.["]
*A small reminder to readers - the book blogger survey is still going on; see here for more details.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Another book thief

This is really more a teaser than anything else, but I just read a very interesting article over at The Millions (hat tip, GalleyCat) about eBook pirating.

In truth, I think it is clear that morally, the act of pirating a product is, in
fact, the moral equivalent of stealing… although that nagging question of what
the person who has been stolen from is missing still lingers. Realistically and
financially, however, I feel the impact of e-piracy is overrated, at least in
terms of ebooks.

It's a fascinating interview, if only because I don't agree with everything the anonymous uploader says. The interviewee compares eBooks to movies and music, looks at who uploaders are, reasons for downloading pirated eBooks, and more. I've been thinking quite a bit about this topic over the last week and this was a timely and interesting find.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Newbery, Caldecott, Printz and... Batchelder?

This is an interesting award:

The Batchelder Award is a citation awarded to an American publisher for a
children's book considered to be the most outstanding of those books originally
published in a language other than English in a country other than the United
States, and subsequently translated into English and published in the United

Everyone always hears about the Newbery, the Printz, and the Caldecott (Stead, Bray, and Pinkney respectively and all other winners: congratulations), but here's a smaller, fairly new childrens' award that is actually quite different. And even though it deals with two facets of literature I quite like, I've never heard of it.

The reason I'm so intrigued by this is because some of my favorite kids books are in translation. Like "The Neverending Story", which though I read belatedly (a few years ago), stands as one of the best kids book I've ever read. Or one of my favorite picture books, "The Little Polar Bear", written by a Dutch author. It's true, few kids books are translated into English but there should be some kind of outlet to recognize the best of them. And isn't it interesting that the award is given specifically to the publisher? A curious award indeed.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Scientific summaries

I decided to have a sci-fi month because I felt that I didn't know enough about the genre. I like science fiction and always have, but it suddenly seemed humiliating that I'd never read anything by Arthur C. Clarke, or anything beyond Asimov's short stories, or... the list goes on. Even though I've never been the biggest fan of organized reading, I thought it might be nice to have a designated "month" that was devoted to the genre (or, more accurately, the general sci-fi-ish field).

The official month has definitely passed. I've enjoyed non-sci-fi books in the last couple of weeks and no longer feel the drive to necessarily seek out only genre books. Here's what's cool, though: I've got so much more reading material than I ever expected. At the library the other day, I found myself walking off with almost 100% science fiction books. To the casual observer, I'd appear to be much more devoted to the genre than I really am.

I know a lot of people don't like science fiction. I know there are all sorts of stereotypes when it comes to sci-fi and I know that sci-fi (like all other genres) has its good and its horrendous. But the last month - studying the evolution of the genre, looking at subjects like women in sci-fi, scrolling through dozens of "best of sci-fi" lists - has done more than give me an opportunity and an excuse to read science fiction. It's made me want to read more. It has, ultimately, educated me as I hoped it would. Sure, I didn't make it to everything I wanted to but I've read some pretty awesome books (the winner is probably the excellent "The Day of the Triffids"). And now I know where I'm going to head to next. In the same way that I've been digging myself deeper with classics over the last four years, now I make my way into the sci-fi realms. So sure, Sci-Fi Month is officially over, but who's to say it won't come back soon?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Take your time

For most book bloggers, the last months have probably been hectic in blogland. The end of the year means more than just a new number to get used to, it means an almost obligatory best of list. I mentioned recently in a post that I'm not a big fan of best of the year lists, but it wasn't until a few days ago that I realized the main reason why: retrospect.

I was going through some old reviews I wrote back in 2007 when something somewhat unpleasant occurred to me (other than the fact that the reviews were terrible) - my ratings (and sometimes opinions) all seemed completely off. Time is a key component in the absorption of literature, a point I often forget. It was only recently I started waiting a little while before writing a review or opinion of a book. I'm often surprised at how much it affects the review - even waiting as little as two or three days.

When compiling a Best of 09 list, there's more than just the "here's a good book--catch" thing going on. There's theorizing about the future, a bit of sneaky guesswork. Compiling best of lists is like trying to predict which books will be remembered from the year that passed. Which is legitimate, yes, but not exactly the same thing. It's at this point that I realized the key. Some books just need time in order to like them (or hate them). As time passes, some books gain points because of how much you find they've affected you and get in your head. Or you later realize that this book was very unoriginal and builds on the success and style of another book.

I know everybody has his/her own ways for reviewing. I know some readers like to get down their immediate sensations before other opinions cloud their own. I know many will disagree with my claims, probably speaking in favor of Best of lists and the importance of the immediate impression (go on, share your thoughts!). Still, every so often people use the phrase: "This is a book I'll remember for a long time to come." In some cases, I only wish they'd take their time to test their theory.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Notes on a survey

For the last couples of months, I've found that instead of just thinking about book blogs as recommendation sites, I've started to wonder a little more about who's on the other end and what exactly most bloggers are doing. I started this page with clear intentions and pretty much knew what I wanted and what I wanted to avoid. I have my own rhythm and style (or so I'd like to think), just like every other blogger has the things he/she does and doesn't do.

This question has been on my mind for quite some time. Originally, I planned to collect data myself and see what came out of it but a couple of days with Google searches and blogroll lists revealed to me that the book blogging world is vast, much larger than most of us realize (or at least, than I realized). Hundreds of people are out there, writing new and relevant posts about books, reading and all manner of things. What to do?

I've written up a fairly quick survey to better understand our book blogging world. It's entirely for curiosity's sake (absolutely no information will be passed on elsewhere) and even filling in "decline to state" answers will help give an impression about book bloggers (but I suspect we'd all prefer as complete answers as possible!). The survey will run for 3 weeks and I hope to discover some interesting stats in the number crunching stage*.

I imagine many of you will be receiving e-mails over the next few days but feel free to fill it out in your spare time. The survey can be found here. An alternate location is here.

*I have never studied statistics. I hope this turns out well.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Through the ages

In the 1966 Encyclopedia Britannica, “science fiction” was defined as having two basic types. The first is science fiction proper, “an almost step-by-step development of possibilities from known scientific or social data.” 1984 was given as an example. The other type is science fantasy, which “can leap directly to whatever farfetched requirement of dramatic plausibility” and “permits the imagination not only to go beyond the known and proved but to contradict it when necessary”. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is mentioned as an example. The article goes on to mention that “the two [types] are often combined”.

In 1986, the Encyclopedia Britannica (macromedia) goes into less detail, mentioning the origin of science fiction and defining science fiction as a genre “in which the fiction writer treats how scientific discoveries, technological developments, and future events and societal changes affect human beings. The description of these influences may be a careful and informed extrapolation of scientific facts and principles, or it may range into farfetched areas flatly contradictory of such facts and principles.”

Wikipedia (~2006) is a different case entirely. It plainly starts out not by defining science fiction, but rather saying how sci-fi differs from fantasy, in that “its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation).”

There are, of course, points in common for all three. What's interesting is which of these are shared. For instance, all point to dystopian, apocalyptic and alternative histories as science fiction, three fields which are typically separated from sci-fi. All three list 1984 as science fiction. All three allow some fantastic (from fantasy) leeway. Obviously, each has its own differentials, not including the fact that science fiction developed mostly throughout the 20th century and so it’s quite logical that the articles would be quite different from each other. It's that the similarities are mostly things people assume to be outside the realm of science fiction that has my eyebrows raised.

It's that even Wikipedia sticks to this definition that is most surprising. Not because I think it's an inaccurate way to look at the genre (quite the contrary, actually), but rather that Wikipedia tends to reflect the views of the crowd. And while I may be wrong, it's always appeared to me like the crowd (readers and writers alike) wants to keep dystopian literature far from the phrase "sci-fi" (look at Margaret Atwood and "speculative" - link contains spoilers beyond the directed paragraph). There's something curiously great to the fact that this one key part to sci-fi's definition has remained the same throughout the years. Also interesting to note is the slow move to gender equality in the articles. 1966 has no mention of women sci-fi writers whatsoever. 1986 mentions Frankenstein as the "first" sci-fi book, and Ursula Le Guin among the listed authors. 2006 (Wikipedia) does better in that it provides the king of sci-fi author lists, but it actually disappoints a little too - I'd have expected a packed "Women in Science Fiction" article. No such luck.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Oh one

With the end of the year and decade*, readers everywhere rushed to name their favorite books. Year lists are a little more boring - the same titles seem to repeat fairly frequently and there's not much to discuss with them. Decade lists, though, have sparked some interesting and insightful conversations. There's something nice in looking back at a decade. I thought about that one and discovered a major roadblock.

For me, summarizing the last 10 years of reading is essentially summarizing my entire life in reading. 10 years ago, I was proud to have read a whole Harry Potter book by myself (my first real book, not just a "chapter book"). 9 years ago I read "A Wrinkle in Time" and subsequent sequels with a friend and we spent months acting out scenes from it and quoting from it (instead of Harry Potter, which resulted in a slight schism between us and some of our friends). It was also the year of "The Golden Compass". That was a good year for reading. 8 years ago I read my first abridgment of "The Count of Monte Cristo" (clocking in at 500 pages, so no mean feat). It was awesome.

7: I attempted to read "The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes". I made it through two stories before giving up. 6: I read "The Count of Monte Cristo" again. Unabridged. It was awesome. This was also the year I began writing simple online reviews. 5: "Pride and Prejudice", "Of Mice and Men" and "All Quiet on the Western Front". The beginning of the Classics age. 4: "War and Peace", "For Whom the Bell Tolls", "East of Eden" and "Animal Farm". Continuing with classics, "making up" for years of reading "childishly". 3: "1984" (not impressive), "The Neverending Story" (awesome), and "The Bell Jar" (impressive but depressing). 2: I started recording books I'd read, keeping a list, and writing more reviews. "Germinal" the year's winner and while there were many good books in 2008, I seem to have read many, many bad ones.

But this isn't a list of the best of the decade because I don't know enough to be able to do that. This is the decade that raised me as a reader. 10 years ago, I was literally a child, unable to read the vast majority of books in my home library. I started this decade with big books being read to me (like the first two Harry Potters) and ended it with "Vanity Fair" and "War and Peace" under my belt. 10 years ago I read the childish fantasy books that so appealed to my growing imagination - today, I enjoy a Sci-Fi Month to see where else non-realism can take me. This decade has seen my reading styles emerge, but has not yet seen them set in stone. The next ten years can still see much change in what genres I like and what types of books are best suited for me. This is where it gets interesting...

*Happy 2010!