Category Archives: Ebooks

This is my real life. All the rest is fiction.

The Bathtub Spy, by Tom Rachman

I wanted to like this one. I enjoyed Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (though with some reservations), and as soon as I saw he had a standalone short story out on kindle I snapped it up. Unfortunately, I’m left writing a review of a story that I didn’t hate but didn’t much like either.

Bathtub Spy

The narrator in this short story, Mr Tregwynt, is a reader. That’s true too of course of pretty much everyone who follows my blog. As we all know though, there are different species of readers. Tregwynt’s the sort who reads to escape. His days are frustrating, lonely and dull. In the evening he settles in a tub, opens a book and escapes into a better world:

Already, by the first sentence, I land on the galloping carriage of the story, and the drab locations I inhabit – this ramshackle house with Connie, the subway to the office, my bare cubicle there – dissolve, only black letters cantering across white pages now. This is my real life. All the rest is fiction.

The irony is what Tregwynt does in his office, his bare cubicle. He’s a translator in the intelligence community. He is, in a particularly unsexy way, a spy.

My work is mostly transcription. Wayne provides digital audio files and I render them into English. As such, I am privy to chatter that few others hear. And it is strikingly dull. Terror suspects, on wiretaps around the world, spend much of their time grumbling: their Internet connections are down again, their fellow cell member forgot to buy yogurt. If this is the enemy, he is cheeringly inept. Doubtless, they have their masterminds stuffed in a cave somewhere, just as we have ours in this concrete complex. Still, I’m starting to wonder if this War on Terror is waged partly between nitwits, theirs hostile to every book in the world but one, while ours – I glimpse Wayne typing a search into the classified military Internet for “awesome videos stuff blowing up” – are only slightly more formidable.

Wayne is the narrator’s team leader. Wayne is a petty workplace bully; a player of minor power games who sends the narrator on demeaning errands then keeps him waiting on his return while Wayne taps out an unimportant email or chooses to take a call. I’ve worked with people like that. I suspect most of us have. There is something peculiarly humiliating about hovering not sure whether to stay or go while someone shows their importance by carrying on as if you weren’t present.

Those days are behind me now since I’ve become more senior over time, and anyway I don’t work with people like that any more. Tregwynt’s not so lucky. He’s fifty-three years old, reporting to a man much younger than him and who he doesn’t respect at all. Wayne is vulgar and witless and so clueless he uses the name Iceman when ordering in pizza because he’s more in love with the idea of being a spy than actually doing a decent job as one.

Then, one day, Wayne notices Tregwynt reading a book, worse yet a book in French. Wayne is incredulous, dismissive, then he forces his own book by some Russian named Krapotnik onto Tregwynt and orders him to read it. Tregwynt is too mild-mannered not to comply , but how bad will a book read by Wayne be? He fears the worst, but what happens next is more terrible than anything he’d dreamt. Wayne’s choice of book is brilliant.

How could Wayne have read a book like this? How could someone have appreciated a work this fine, yet remained so foul? I don’t want to share anything with him. Not musical tastes. Not preferences in food. How could he like Krapotnik?

I won’t say more about what happens. The story follows Tregwynt and Wayne’s bizarre one-way book club and how it impacts their relationship. It’s well written, as the quotes above hopefully show, and much of it is funny.

So, why didn’t I like it then? The ingredients are all here. There’s that ironic contrast between the mundanity of Tregwynt’s existence and job and what we popularly imagine spies to be like (actually, this is exactly what I imagine a spy to be like, but that doesn’t diminish the irony any). There’s that question of how we reconcile discovering that people we despise like things we like (every time David Cameron names another band he likes a legion of left-wing music fans cry – how can he like The Smiths, The Jam, the Manics? Hell, how dare he?).

The problem for me was that it never really went anywhere. Rachman’s a natural at the short story form as he showed in The Imperfectionists, but for me this story was all setup and no payoff. I didn’t mind that I didn’t believe in Wayne, he’s meant to be a caricature after all. I did mind that I didn’t care about him or his relationship with Tregwynt. 

The Imperfectionists was funny (mostly), had great and well drawn characters and lovely little story arcs that intertwined with each other. I thought it had flaws, but I liked it and it’s held up well in memory. Here, well, it’s funny early on but the story has no real arc and the characters weren’t particularly interesting, or rather they were potentially interesting but they didn’t really do anything interesting.

Since Rachman is a writer of wit and character rather than of finely wrought artistic prose, not caring about the characters doesn’t leave much else to care about. I don’t necessarily want to put someone off reading this because Rachman has talent and there’s a risk of making it sound terrible when it’s merely not great. Still, if the quotes or the situation grab you then you could certainly do a lot worse, and as it’s a kindle single it’s both short and cheap. I just think he’s written better.

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Filed under Ebooks, Novellas, Rachman, Tom, Short Stories, Spy Fiction

Waterstones and Kindle

Waterstones started selling kindles in their stores today. That’s not a surprise, the date’s been long-trailed, but it is still an important step in UK book retailing.

The offering is a fairly simple one. You can buy kindles in-store, and if you do you get points on your Waterstones’ loyalty card for the purchase. Soon there’ll be wifi in stores (it’s not ready at launch) so you can browse Amazon and buy books on your kindle while still in the shop. Staff will help set up kindles (not that most people will need much help, they’re pretty simple devices) and of course offer advice on which books to buy.

Interestingly, you don’t get loyalty card points for ebook purchases, even if bought while you’re in the store. You will though be able to browse books on your kindle while in-store, and as long as you’re in-store you can keep browsing to your heart’s content – you’re not limited to just reading a sample. You could, if time were no object, just sit there and read entire books in full.

Intuitively none of this looks like a smart move. Waterstones is providing shop frontage and promotion for its biggest rival, and selling a device which allows readers to buy books from the comfort of their own home and have them instantly delivered. Intuition though is often wrong.

Here’s how I think the Waterstones’ offering will progress, and how I think they’re looking to monetise this. To make this work Waterstones need to increase in-store dwell time. Basically they need to get potential customers to stop in the store, browse, and stay long enough that they either decide they like the book they’re considering and so buy it on the spot, or feel they should buy while there out of some vague sense of obligation given they have spent so much time in the shop.

To achieve that you need more of some things, and less of others. The more is chairs and coffee. The less is books.

Browsing physical books is a mobile activity (at first anyway). The reader wanders among shelves, picking up books, looking them over, putting some back. Eventually they may wish to sit down and look at a few in greater depth, but initially at least they’re walking and looking.

Browsing a kindle is a sedentary activity. Walking while reading a device is a recipe for collisions. The reader here will want to sit down immediately, to have some time in a comfortable place where they can use their kindle to look up books (which frankly isn’t the smoothest way to access the Amazon store in my experience) and to have a bit of a read of the books they decide to consider.

When most of your browsers are just wandering the shelves you don’t need that much seating. In fact, you can perfectly well get away with no seating at all (though in larger stores there’s usually some somewhere). When most of your browsers want to stay still for extended periods of time though it’s obvious you’re going to need a lot more places for them to do so.

Equally, if you want browsers to linger, to enjoy the e-browsing experience, coffee makes a lot of sense. US stores have long led on combining in-store coffee houses and books, but plenty of UK bookstores have followed that lead. My beloved London Review Bookshop even has a (excellent) cafe attached. With kindles you also don’t have to worry about customers damaging the books they don’t buy by putting them in puddles or crumbs (I realise kindles don’t do well in puddles either, but it’s the customers’ kindles as opposed to the store’s books and anyway, most people are careful what they put their consumer electronics down onto).

So, more seating and where possible coffee. The shops though aren’t magically getting bigger to accommodate all this - something has to go. The obvious thing is books.

That doesn’t mean Waterstones will stop selling books of course. It just means it will stock fewer of them. Likely fewer multiple copies of the same title, but also perhaps a greater focus on the books people are likely to buy in hardcopy. I’d expect in a year or so, perhaps sooner, to see more space devoted to gift titles, stationery, coffee table books and the like which the kindle doesn’t replace, and less to say the more obscure literary titles and back catalogue (though I could easily be wrong on what kind of books they’ll reduce stock of).

From a booklover’s perspective all this seems a bit depressing. If I’m remotely right (and the only safe prediction is that predictions are generally wrong) we’re talking about bookstores as places to hang out, to relax, drink coffee and use free wi-fi to check out titles on your kindle (again, a development of an existing US retail model). The shops will be attractive and will have helpful staff, but a larger share of physical product will likely be aimed at the non-reader, since the reader is online.

All that and it’s incredibly risky. The alternative scenario is people buy their kindles, maybe at Waterstones but equally possibly they’ll just try them out in-store, head home thinking about them and then buy them online from Amazon that evening. Those same people once they have their kindles may browse occasionally in Waterstones, but just leave books in their Amazon basket buying them later when they think they’re likely to get round to reading them. On that scenario Waterstones becomes just a large advert for Amazon, and eventually goes bust from lack of its own trade.

The problem is that there is no path forward that isn’t incredibly risky. Waterstones has a ton of expensive high street real estate. It’s business model is predicated in large part on selling physical books on a volume basis, but it’s plain to anyone paying the slightest attention that the mass market is moving online. Staying as they are is an option, but it’s not necessarily any less risky than what I’ve outlined above.

To survive Waterstones has to somehow adapt to the ebook. It’s made a start by selling ebooks through its own website, but Amazon’s market share in the ebook space is so overwhelming that there’s a real sense in which it’s the only game in town. If to the average reader the word ereader might as well mean kindle, then Waterstones’ choices are either to try to shift that perception (good luck) or to come to terms with it. They’ve chosen the latter.

Waterstones’ strategy is to become the cleaner wrasse to Amazon’s shark. That’s not the best outcome imaginable, but it’s a lot better than being eaten.

Anyone interested in this topic should also read this BBC interview with James Daunt, where he discusses some of the ideas regarding dwell time (not that he uses that phrase, it’s one I know from an airport investment I worked on) and coffee.

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Filed under Ebooks, Personal posts, Publishing

Further thoughts on epublishing

I promise a post about a specific book shortly, honest.

Anyway, there’s now an excellent debate on the implications of ebooks for publishing at the Guardian here. You need to scroll down in the comments past the Amazon specific stuff, a chap called Dan Holloway makes some interesting remarks as do UnpublishedWriter, Tomkuryakin, TokenGesture (don’t you just love internet handles? I certainly do). There are lots of other good comments too.

As the thread was going that way, I set out my own view of a possible future, which I repeat below for the curious:

Here’s how I think the future could look.

Presently, I read a fairly wide range of books, I buy stuff from guys like Pushkin Press and Oneworld Classics both of whom produce books which as physical objects are a joy to hold and read. They also both serve as indicators of quality, they make intelligent choices of often less well known works. When I buy from guys like that, I buy from places like the LRB or other independent bookstores, as I want there to be places which stock those kinds of books and as it’s genuinely useful to have that opportunity for serendipitous discoveries (I don’t buy direct from the publishers, which may be worth exploring at some point).

I also read more mainstream literary fiction (the Pushkin stuff is often a bit obscure, though brilliant), I’ll often buy that from independent bookstores but may equally buy it from Waterstones on a three-for-two or from Amazon or thebookdepository. Convenience becomes more of an issue for me. The physical book much less so, saving possibly Penguin’s stuff.

And I read some SF and a fair bit of crime. Those are usually published as mass market paperbacks, as physical objects they’re interchangeable, often actually quite ugly and in the case of sf frequently with covers that are either embarrassing or bear no relation to the contents (or both). I buy those online, they’re cheaper that way and as objects they’re commoditised.

So, going beyond the solipsistic, how could that reflect a possible future?

Here’s how. Small independent publishers could continue to sell through specialised outlets, there will always be a market for books which as physical objects are things of beauty. I like the Pushkin’s and Oneworld Classics, others like the Everyman Library series (I may have the name of that wrong), Penguin recently brought out half a dozen titles in loose-leaf leather bound format (though I’m not sure all the books chosen were best suited to that format) and those sold even though you could buy the same titles in Penguin’s ordinary format (and I’d guess almost every customer they had already owned those books). Similarly, where a publisher is specialised, like Pushkin or Dedalus say, there’ll be a market for their books and those seeking them will be prepared to pay a premium in order to ensure those books continue to be available.

At the other end, mass market fiction will I think go wholly electronic, in time. Collectors aren’t as a rule collecting the SF Masterworks edition of The Demolished Man, it’s an excellent novel but physically it’s been commoditised and it would read as well on an ereader as anything else.

In between, you have the mainstream literary stuff. I’d expect to see something like the current hardback/paperback split, with releases coming in print format (probably hardback or good quality paperback) and with a separate release in electronic form. Some folk want the books on their shelves, so people can see them, and you can sell them the physical copies. Plus older people (including many young now) will want physical books as that’s what they’re used to.

So, small publishers will continue, where they publish interesting works in good quality attractive formats. Pushkin Press, Oneworld Publishing, Dedalus only survive I think due to grants but I still see them as the sorts of guys who might have a chance.

Mass market stuff will go fully electronic. Hardly anyone lines their walls with Charlie Stross and Alastair Reynolds to impress visitors to their home, the way they may do with Ian McEwan or Salman Rushdie (though personally I’d read a new Stross or Reynolds over a new McEwan or Rushdie any day).

Mainstream literary fiction will go part physical, part electronic. Physical for those who won’t make the shift (I’d expect many of the refuseniks to be into the more highbrow stuff, not sure why) or for those who want to buy to impress. Electronic for those who just want to read the thing.

On top of all that, I’d expect to see publisher run ebook clubs, free first chapters with payment only if you read that and want to read on, books disseminated chapter by chapter with micropayments for each (that would work particularly well for genre works), short stories suitable for reading on mobiles and other mobile platforms (already happening in Japan) and best of all – stuff that I haven’t even dreamt of yet.

Looking at it, I rather regret the word refusenik, which could be read as derogatory which really wasn’t my intent (I am, after all, in part one of them), but I think the analysis broadly holds.

A commenter named TokenGesture added the following, which I think is helpful:

Aren’t we talking about tiered pricing.

Free for ad funded etc, a compromised user experience but which could serve to widen overall readership

Low for commoditised popular fiction, ebook editions

Higher for physical – ppb, hb

And then premium for “objects of beauty” – the equivalent of the Special/Limited edition/box set

An economic model that offers an upgrade path for those who seek value.

I agree with his view.

So, that’s my take, and in some ways it’s quite an optimistic one, though I think there will be real challenges in terms of new authors getting their voice heard and in terms of novelists monetising their craft, Dan Holloway is a new writer experimenting with alternative methods of generating revenue where the book itself is available free, he’s much more optimistic than I am about the prospects for that. I hope, naturally, that he’s right and I’m wrong.

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Filed under Ebooks, Publishing

Kindle lives up to its name

I noticed an interesting story in the New York Times today, discussed in more detail (and with more up to date information) in the Guardian here.

Essentially, Amazon remotely deleted purchased copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from customers’ Kindles, crediting their accounts with the values of the books removed.

Amazon initially stated the publisher had changed their minds about selling the books, later it clarified that in fact they were unlicenced copies sold by a company which wasn’t a rights holder, they have since stated that they will not delete books from bona fide purchasers in future.

That last statement I suspect comes from the negative response this has received, leaving aside those who were part way through the books when they were deleted, it meant a sale was not final. That a book purchased, wasn’t really owned. It’s a big deal. And while the corporate policy has been changed to prevent such deletions in future, corporate policies can change again and not necessarily with prior announcement.

For me, this damages the Kindle as a brand and a concept. There is already an issue with the inability to lend or resell books published electronically, with some overeager early spokespeople for the ebook industry referring (inevitably) to lending books to a friend as a form of theft. That sort of rhetoric is no longer bandied about (though lending is not enabled, it has been recognised that it’s not smart to insult your customers), but this is if anything a more worrying development.

Personally, I struggle in any event to be comfortable with an ebook named in reference to bookburning, it just seems fundamentally crass. But that’s an aesthetic point, this is a practical one. Digital rights management issues and the use of proprietary software already threaten the development of a vibrant ebook industry, suspicions that books we buy may not even be ours won’t help matters.

For me, ebooks need a format similar to the MP3 for music, one that does I grant risk piracy but also allows me to change my device (or reader) and yet keep my collection (or library). As long as shifting to an ebook means transferring control of my library to a third party publisher, with the prospect that if they go out of business or cease to support the format my ereader utilises my library ceases to exist, I won’t be buying an ebook. The prospect that my books may simply be deleted without my consent, that would prevent me buying any device with remote access. And that’s not even touching on the possibilities of post-purchase revisions to the text…

It reminds me of the tivo debacle, where in the UK tivo overrode people’s preselected recording choices to record a new show which the BBC wanted to promote. Once tivo demonstrated, on just one occasion, that it rather than the customer had control of the device in the home, sales never recovered.

As I’m generally optimistic about the prospect of ebooks, in a way I rather hope the Kindle doesn’t recover from this, though it likely shall. Ebooks are I think a good idea, the Kindle perhaps not so much.

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Filed under Ebooks, Publishing