Talking about things

eBooks in Australia are ready to take off

A friend recently asked about our experience with eBooks and I thought it would be interesting to post my reply here as well.

I’m a big fan of eBooks, and am looking forward to the day they hit critical mass in Australia and we can actually start to buy them big time.

That’s not to say don’t I love paper books. I do, and I love the fact that you can pick them up and carry them around and you don’t need any technology— power, batteries or reader— to read them (not counting my glasses, if you want to call that technology). But I like eBooks too, and am happy to buy them if the price is right. Often I find if I get a cheap eBook that I like I will purchase this and other books by the same author in paper. I did this earlier this year with Namoi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon, which I first read when it was available through the Suvudu Free Library.

Availability of eBooks

  • eBook readers have really only arrived in Australia in the past 12 months. The first was the Kindle, which arrived in October last year, and Borders had the Kobo coming around the same time as Apple released their iPad and suddenly you can get eBooks anywhere
  • Just because you had a reader, didn’t necessarily mean you could get anything to read on it. I remember looking at the Borders site when they first started demonstrating the Kobo, and there was nothing, just lots of ‘coming soons’
  • The Apple eBook store opened last month
  • Finally, just before Christmas 2010, we actually getting some books to buy
  • Finding eBooks is hard. Have you ever tried to find an eBook in iTunes? I don’t understand why Apple doesn’t simply create another menu option. If eBooks grow like music has, surely hiding them under Apps isn’t the way to sell them. Or maybe they think no-one buys books any more and it’s a niche market. I find it difficult to find books in general, and have to say that I find Amazon’s site easiest to find books under
  • Insofar as my own buying of eBooks to date, I have not bought any electronic books from any of the the big publishers or booksellers. My buying has been from niche publishers, books I wouldn’t get any other way

Price points

  • eBooks are still way too expensive. When I can buy the paperback version from the Book Depository for two or three dollars cheaper than I can buy the electronic version (and have it posted free), what do you think I’m going to do? I’ll opt for the dead tree version every time
  • In a recent survey Andrew Burt, captain of the Critters online writing workshop, found that 93% of people thought $4.40 was a fair price for an eBook, with the price going down for older works. While I’d be prepared to pay a bit more for newer novels ($2 below the paperback price is my ideal), I have definitely found that I’ll pay around $4.00 for an older book that is released in electronic format. In fact, right now I’ll happily do that for all the old classics I have stored in boxes in my garage. (By classics I mean the books I grew up with. Charles Sheffield, Vernor Vinge, Nancy Kress)


  • Digital Rights Management issues are still a minefield. Just be sure that you can actually read what you buy
  • After the 1984 fiasco with Amazon I’m still not comfortable with them being able to take back something that I have bought, even if they didn’t have a right to sell it in the first place
  • I notice you can buy eBooks like Pride and Prejudice. Given that they’re in the public domain, I can’t see how some people get away with doing this. Sure, few people do it, and they don’t cost much, but still. If it’s out of copyright you will be able to get it free from somewhere


  • What a nightmare. I’m sure the formats will finally settle (remember VHS and Beta anyone, or Blu-ray vs HD-DVD?) and we’ll end up with one formats. I’m tipping it will be ePub, with maybe mobi (Kindle) and PDF as contenders for a very long time. I’m lucky though. I’m pretty good at the technical stuff and if I choose the wrong format I should be able to still convert my documents to whatever the new standard becomes. Most people don’t have that option. They’ll need a program that does the ePublishing equivalent of transferring video to DVD.
  • Think carefully about the format you want to use. Amazon sell a proprietary format (mobi I think) while Apple do ePubs and other places do other things. Notwithstanding Amazon, who started early and have a huge proportion of the market because of this (and because of the way they discounted books to start with). If you buy books from Amazon Amazon keep the books on their server and can take them back at any time (remember the fuss about 1984 a couple of years ago)

Out of print books and niche books

  • This is one of the things I love about eBooks. When I discover an author I like I usually go through and read their backlist. Until now some books have been downright impossible to get. Publishers aren’t interested in reissuing these books, and why should they. Sometimes, when the rights revert back to the author, the author makes the book available for sale electronically. (Memo to authors who do this. Please do not make PayPal the only way to buy your books. I’ve had two bad experiences with PayPal already, and would rather not buy your books than go through a third. There are other ways to handle the money.)

I believe that eBooks in Australia is about ready to take off, and judging by the interest in eReaders at retailers this Christmas, come December 25 there will be a lot more people with technology to read them.

One of the most fascinating, and science-fictional aspects of eBooks is the comment from Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) foundation on the demise of physical books. He said,

The physical medium cannot be distributed to enough people. When you go to Africa, half a million people want books … you can’t send the physical thing. When we ship with our laptop books to a village, we put 100 books on a laptop, but we also send 100 laptops in … That village now has 10,000 books. This is an African village without electricity. So that’s the future…

Nicholas Negropote, OLPC Foundation

Here in the Western World we find it hard to imagine a world without books, but as Negroponte says (my words, my take on what he means), you can’t physically send 10,000 books into each village.

The people in these communities will go direct from no books to electronic books, with no paper in between. They will never know paper books.

Talking about things

The iPad is a good eReader

Sherylyn bought an iPad as an eReader. Neither of us were planning to.

Just before they came out she asked me if I was planning on buying one. I’m the techno-geek. I love toys like this (except for some reason I never buy phones). I’m always the first to have the latest computer or the newest operating system. I said no, for a number of reasons.

First, I’m not really an Apple person. I love their products, but my working life revolves around Microsoft products, Word and SharePoint in particular. Apple do beautiful products, but they’re expensive (comparatively). I’m also not a big fan of the iTunes store. I love the way they make it easy to do things, but I hate the way they force me to do it their way. It’s a bit like the feeling I get with online bookstores, particularly Amazon.

And of course, I’m paranoid about security, and the only real reason I feel that Apple hasn’t had the big security flaws to date other companies (a la Microsoft) have had is because there appears to be a sort of honour amongst developers. A feeling that ‘Apple is a good product, I won’t hack it’.

Second, I need a portable computer to write on. My little netbook comes everywhere with me. It fits into my handbag. Every spare moment I have it’s on, and I’m typing my story into it (until the battery runs out, more of which later). Yes, you can type on the iPad, but believe me it’s no substitute for a full-blown keyboard, and Pages just doesn’t compete with Word.

What I do want, however, is an e-reader. For the past few months have looked seriously at everything available, and read up on anything coming. If it’s an e-reader, and it’s in store, I have looked at it.

Most of what I have looked at is e-ink technology. This has two problems for me.

First is the size of the screen. I’m not getting any younger. The average e-reader I have seen to date is around 12×18 centimetres. Not too bad, you think, but with my eyesight—even with glasses—I have to have the text magnified enough so that I read around two paragraphs per screen. I’m happy enough with that, except that every e-reader I have looked at takes forever (1-2 seconds is forever in e-reader time) to refresh. People say you get used to it, and that you learn to judge when to click the button to get the next page up. Okay, I can live with this, but it leads onto the second problem.

When you click the button the page flickers as it refreshes. I have checked the web sites and 90% of people say they get used to it. I, however, am epileptic, and a fast reader to boot. I can imagine what the constant subliminal flickering is going to do to me. Particularly at two paragraphs per page. It will be like a strobe light. I am scared to even buy one of the things.

So I need more reading real estate, and I need a screen that refreshes smoothly.

I don’t even know what made us walk into the Apple store. I know that I dragged Sherylyn in. But we did.

Being in an Apple store just after a new release is like being in a store the weekend before Christmas. It’s absolute bedlam and you can’t move for the crowds. But somehow we managed to get to the iPads and have a play.

Man, but the e-Reader on the iPad has to be the best around. It’s smooth, the page turning is beautiful, and you have enough screen to read a whole book page.

The battery is poor compared to other e-ink readers (10 hours) but it’s fabulous compared to my little netbook, which gives me one and a half hours of typing time. I can read a book in ten hours, and it’s enough that I can use it all day and put it on to recharge overnight.

Sherylyn had her iPad within a week.

I haven’t bought one yet. I still need my netbook and the netbook and the iPad together weigh down the handbag too much. (I borrowed Sherylyn’s, just to test.) Even so, I’m seriously tempted. It may be the most expensive, but to me it’s the best e-reader on the market right now.

Talking about things

Are e-books changing my online reading habits?

Sometimes I feel I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t have time for Twitter and Facebook.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against either of them. They’re great sites. It’s just that the way I use my computer and the internet is changing. I find that the content on Twitter, especially, but also Facebook, is too short. I don’t get enough information out of a single post.

I know they say that people’s attention spans are getting shorter, but mine seems to be getting longer. If I don’t have something meaty to read I just don’t read it.

Take blogs, for example. I subscribe to a lot of blogs and nowadays I mostly skip the shorter posts and go straight to the articles with substance. Newspaper articles are the same. A 200 word article simply stating the facts doesn’t cut it any more. I want facts and opinions and background as well.

I even check my email less. Some days I don’t read my emails at all. (That’s not counting work emails, of course. That’s part of what you get paid to do.)

I don’t know if it’s co-incidental, but this reluctance to read short parallels almost exactly my increase in reading electronic books. I wonder if reading more e-books is training me to read longer in general both onscreen and online.

Talking about things

In defence of elves … the stereotype (or not)

Are elves really past it? Are they just stereotypes now? Cardboard cut-outs with no personality that no-one bothers to make human any more? (If I can call elves human, that is.)

Sherwood Smith, over at Oached Pish, posted an article on the Glamor of Elves.

Tolkien’s Elves were fairly benign, but the elves in many of the derivative fantasies that followed on don’t look all that different from what we could imagine finding in a world a thousand years after a Nazi victory: the horrors at the start are long forgotten, but now there is a master race. Unfair?

Unfair . . . or kinda boring? Does anyone else feel their heart sinking when Elves show up in a story? Especially elves with glowing eyes? Or is the current crop of urban fantasy with the super-pretty, utterly amoral elves still got appeal outside of YA?

Bittercon: The Glamor of Elves, Sherwood Smith (sartorias), 16 February 2008.

A lot of us still like elves, and I’m one of them, although we all agree that there are a lot of stereotypes. One of the posted replies (by Anna Wing) stated:

… Tolkien’s Eldar are fascinating because they allow all sorts of interesting cod-anthropological speculation about what a society of indefinitely longaeval people would actually be like. Bearing in mind that Tolkien himself said that his elves were the artistic and scientific aspects of human beings taken a bit further…

She got me thinking about elves in the context of my own aging. I am what they politely call ‘middle-aged’ now, and the upper limit of middle age seems to be increasing roughly in line with my own age. I know I have changed since my youth, and I don’t want to go back there, even though it had lots of advantages. So if we take how I have changed over time and extrapolate it further, might that be a valid basis for an elf?

So how have I changed?

I don’t do things on impulse any more

In my early twenties, and even into my thirties I would pack up and go without a moment’s thought. Think about taking off for the weekend, no sooner thought than done. I changed jobs and homes on whim. And as for holidays, nothing was ever planned. We got got in the car and drove.

I don’t do that any more. Everything is considered before I do it.

What does this mean for the elves? They’ll take ages to decide to do something.

I am more financially secure

I still have a mortgage but as the years go by the debt burden becomes less and less. I look forward to the day when I will be debt-free. I am also making money from investments. Eventually I expect that I won’t have to work to pay the bills at all, and if I don’t want to work I won’t have to, but I can if I want some companionship, or to stretch my mind.

For the elves: They won’t have any debts. They will have an assured income. They will have shelter, presumably a home of some sort.

I’m not climbing the corporate ladder and I don’t live for work

I choose work now that interests me, not on how it will improve my chances of promotion. If I don’t like it, I look for another job.

Work is only part of my life, and not the most important. I have family, I have my writing, I have other things to do. Sure, I work hard while I’m at work, but it’s not my whole life any more. I’m through with these places that ask you to work until midnight every night and all weekend.

For the elves: They will only choose work they enjoy, and a lot of that will be creative or stretch the mind.

I am way, way less ‘self’ conscious

Talking about things

The best thing about Harry Potter

8:50am on Saturday 21 July. I have a 9:00am appointment. Because I am early I linger, leaning on the rail, looking down at the queue outside Dymocks on the level below.

The woman fifth in line is wearing a purple cloak. There is a buzz of anticipation but overall it’s an orderly queue. They all clutch pre-paid receipts. These people are waiting for Harry Potter.

A librarian friend introduced me to Harry back at the start of book two, before the hype had really begun. I enjoy the books, but not enough to stand in a queue before opening time just to get the next book.

9:00am. The saleswoman cuts the tape to the box with a flourish, and starts putting books into the purple promotional bags.

Even though I am now, officially, late for my appointment, I stay to watch.

The first to people to receive their books are teenage girls. They’re together. Then another two girls, then Purple Cloak. Then it’s a boy and his mother, another boy with his mother, and a boy without his mother. They’re all young. I’d guess somewhere between ten and thirteen.

Next comes an older man on his own, and then another mother and son.

One young boy starts reading as soon as he gets his book.

I regretfully decide that it’s time to go.

As I walk through the shopping centre I see evidence of Harry Potter everywhere.

Two young boys—friends or brothers, I can’t tell—sit on a seat, reading. A girl trails behind her mother, reading. Her mother stops and the girl runs into her but hardly notices, she’s so busy turning the page.

Over at the rival bookstore a passable looking Hagrid charms the crowd. Robbie Coltrane has made Hagrid his own. No-one else could ever play Hagrid now, in my opinion, and this man looks a lot like Robbie.

It makes me smile and I’m still smiling as I arrive at my destination, ten minutes late.

After I am finished I walk back through the shopping centre. Hagrid has gone, replaced by a young woman in a pointed hat with oversized Harry Potter glasses.

The two boys have gone too. There is someone new in their seat. A girl—not the same one I saw earlier—and she is reading Harry Potter too.

And Purple Cloak is still here, walking slowly along the upper level, eyes glued to the pages.

It’s wonderful to see so many people reading.

That’s what I love most about Harry Potter. People reading books.

Talking about things

On-line writing forums

On-line writing forums are great, but if you don’t manage them carefully they can become a black hole that absorbs all your writing energy, leaving you no time for writing.

I know from personal experience.

Some danger signs, and how to avoid them.

Logging on to the forum before you do any writing

I used to do this to get into the mood for writing, and for a while it worked. But then I found I was spending so much time on the forums I had no time left to write.

Nowadays, I do my writing first and visit the forums later—if I’m not too busy writing to bother.

If I ever do pop into a forum before I start, I watch the clock, and try to get out within the hour.

The dead end relationship

Any forum loses members through natural attrition. People drop out, or get other interests.

In my experience a forum that has shrunk to a dozen or less active members, all of whom know each other intimately (on the web, at least), and whose posts can really only be understood by the other regular posters, is not worth it.

If you find that you are one of those last half-dozen posters on a site, and that it has become a general purpose chat session rather than specifically about writing, maybe it is time to jump ship.

Most forums have a finite life. Sometimes it’s kinder to let a dead forum go than to hang on to the bitter end. (The bitter end being when the person hosting the forum pulls the plug.)

If you really like the people in the forum, then by all means keep in touch, but if you’re in it for the writing don’t hang around simply out of loyalty.

The too scared to post forum

Everyone should lurk a little in a forum before they post.

Like any other social setting you need to know the do’s and don’ts before you start blasting away with your own opinion.

Once you know the etiquette, however, you shouldn’t be afraid to contribute.

If everything you post gets savaged, find another forum. You are not doing yourself or your writing any favours by sticking around.

(Inappropriate posting is a totally different matter —worthy of a whole subject to itself. I am amazed at the number of writers who ask people to review their work, for example, on forums that clearly state they do not do this.)

Used properly, online writing forums can be a great tool for a writer, but choose your forum carefully and beware of the traps mentioned above.