Fish stories

It’s all about the metaphor.

We know what a “real” book is, how it looks and feels, which end is up, how the pages turn.  An electronic book is a different kettle of fish.

Indeed, an electronic book is just as much like a “real” book as is a kettle of fish.  Neither the electronic book nor the kettle of fish has a cover, leaves of paper that can be turned or flipped through, or page corners that can be folded down to mark your place. If we’re not reading a real book with real pages on real paper, then what we’re doing with either an electronic book or a kettle of fish is a metaphor for the process of reading a real book.

There are a fair number of folks who find the very concept of reading an electronic text as sensible and appealing as trying to read fish, but this number is getting smaller every day.  Here in my small, independent bookstore in Indiana, I have customers who are as far from early adapters as you can imagine asking “what’s a Kindle?”  More and more of my regulars have already taken the plunge.

Neither Amazon’s Kindle nor the current version of the competing Sony Reader is a bad piece of equipment.  They work, they have plusses and minuses.  Mostly, they’re good first drafts.  You can see where this is going, but they’re not there yet.

The biggest problem?  Neither has the metaphor just right.  As electronic reading devices, they are both closer to the “real” reading experience than kettles of fish.  But pushing a button isn’t the same as turning a page.  It’s not difficult, but it doesn’t look right and it doesn’t feel right.  It’s just not what we’re used to.

Then my colleague Austin Lugar showed me the Kindle reader on his iPod Touch.  Suddenly, I saw the metaphor done right.  You turn pages with a flick of the finger -- the same motion you’d use to page through a “real” book.  If you want, you can even dogear a page.

The Kindle app lacks some important features and the iPod’s small screen size limits the experience. But it masters the hard part: it gets the metaphor right.  Turning these electronic pages is as natural as turning paper pages.  It’s not something you have to get used to; it’s what you already do. You can feel how the e-book reading experience can be as familiar, comfortable and comforting as reading a real book.

Because it’s all about the metaphor.

As an independent bookseller who’s also an independent publisher, I can’t tell you how torn I feel about what’s going on.  I’m in this because I like to connect people and books -- that’s my mission and that’s my passion.  It’s cool to imagine how electronic books and electronic book systems (be they dedicated pieces of hardware or smartphone apps) will expand readership and put books in front of folks who just aren’t picking up old-fashioned paperbacks and hardcovers.  Like every other person in the book business, I want to see more people reading more of the time.

At the same time, the bookseller in me sees the writing on the wall.  Increased market share for e-books is likely to mean a decreased market share for the small independent bookshop.  The pie will expand, but a lot of the pie will move out of brick and mortar stores.  Once we move from selling the tangible good to providing digital downloads, it’s a whole new ball game, one that we’re not equipped to win.

Recently, the independent booksellers’ trade association, the American Booksellers Association, announced a program that will allow store-branded ABA-operated websites to sell e-book downloads for the Sony.  While this isn’t a bad program, one can already see the problem: e-book downloads aren’t a part of the “real” store. They are instead connected to websites that rely on the association’s virtual infrastructure.  No longer are small independent stores quite so independent.  No longer are we putting books in people’s hands.  We are, instead, web mavens, trying to understand and manage a metaphor for putting books in people’s hands.

On the other hand, the publisher in me is truly excited about the possibilities of the new frontier.  My publishing company has achieved a modest level of success.  Our books are well and widely reviewed. We’ve been nominated for and won more than our share of significant awards in our genre. Given the constraints of our resources, we can’t be unhappy with our sales.

Electronic books are a whole new market, offering even my tiny little publishing house the opportunity to reach a lot of new readers. There is considerable chatter about the fact that Kindle is a proprietary file format and, from a consumer’s point of view, it’s a closed system. There’s also much gnashing of teeth over about Amazon’s pricing practices for Kindle downloads.

On the other hand, Amazon offers small publishers the opportunity to walk onto their site and make Kindle versions of our titles available with little fuss and no expense.  In terms of access to this market, my tiny little publishing company now offers four titles in Kindle format, side-by-side with titles from Random House. Sony does not yet offer this functionality to us. Others provide access, but for a fee.

I’d like to be able to publish -- if that’s the still right term -- in all e-formats, and I’m sure that at some point, my tiny little publishing company will find a way to do so.  But in the meantime, we’ll take what’s being given.  You can now get Kate Flora’s Chosen for Death and Stalking Death and Terence Faherty’s Kill Me Again and In A Teapot on your Kindle, your iPod or your iPhone. You can discover these fabulous books by these fabulous writers.  And that’s what this is all about, it’s it?  The opportunity as a publisher to help put books in front of readers who are going to love them. (Go! Use these links to download them now!  You will love them!)

No longer are we talking about fish confined to a kettle.  As a publisher, I can leave the kettle to seek greener pastures.  Ok, there may be a limit to the usefulness of this metaphor.  But there are fewer limits to what we might now be able to accomplish.