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On Board with a Revolutionary Electronic Magazine

posted January 6, 2010

Posted by Thomas Riggs in E-books books technology trends


Recently on a flight from the United States to Europe, I read a book by Paulo Coelho, worked on my computer, glanced at a magazine article about Tiger Woods, listened to Bach and Francis Cabrel on my smartphone, read the paper, and watched part of The Proposal. What’s strange is that, while flying thousands of feet off the ground in a metal tube, it’s normal to have so much “content,” so much power to satisfy our wishes and needs.

And more is coming. Airlines have started offering in-flight Wi-Fi, and someday soon we might be able to make cell calls from the sky.

KLM is now considering one more way to distract passengers: e-readers containing books, magazines, and newspapers. According to KLM, which provides service to numerous countries, passengers would be able to choose material in their own language. The idea emerged from a contest sponsored by KLM, Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, and the Dutch social networking site Hyves.

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So Long, Quartet Press, Sassy Publisher of Romance Novels

posted September 11, 2009

Posted by Thomas Riggs in E-books independent publishing

Who doesn’t get seduced by the Internet? Always on, always clothed in beautiful colors, always full of stories to tell. It almost seems real, like something’s alive, like something’s there. Though admittedly from an aerial view, we all must seem a bit pathetic staring at our illuminated screens.

Wednesday night I had nothing better to do than to eat a light dinner—Gouda with cumin, mâche with tomato—and to read a short book I just bought, Insoupçonnable (Beyond Suspicion) by Tanguy Viel, a thriller about family deceit in the south of France. But before doing that, it seemed like a good idea to shut off my illuminating little seducer.

That’s when I saw the news, a bleak tweet stuffed in its 140-character jacket.

quartet2 QuartetPress  I truly hate being the bearer of bad news, but it has to be announced: Quartet Press has disbanded. 1 hour ago from TweetDeck


How can I explain my reaction? It was something like a heavy object and a thud. And suddenly gone were all thoughts of family intrigue in the south of France. I had a real death to consider.

There was, however, one problem.

I didn’t know anyone personally at Quartet Press. I just thought I did, sort of, in an Internet way. Quartet Press was an ebook publisher recently started with great fanfare and confidence, its little Windows-like flag flying bravely into the new world of publishing. But it didn’t last long enough to publish a single book.

So why did I care?

Quartet Press was to publish romance novels, a project far from our own. They were going to focus on ebooks, while we will be offering both paper and electronic options. But I admired the enthusiasm of its site, its clear desire to do something new, its courage. And, I guess, in the mysterious way the Internet, or a book, makes you believe in what you can’t see, I was seduced by the drama of another new publisher.

Only yesterday morning did I learn the cause of death: higher than expected editorial and technological costs. Kat Meyer, one of the quartet heading the press, said, “The financial risk was increased beyond what our financial backer was able to accept, and the only options we had were to close or to regroup and go forward without financing,”

So adieu, Quartet Press, onetime maker of digitized, illuminated colors on my screen. I’ll miss you, whoever you were.

An eBook Reality Check

posted September 3, 2009

Posted by Thomas Riggs in E-books books publishing technology trends

So much talk these days about ebooks. So much speculation, in both despair and excitement. Do we need a reality check?

Here are a few facts to keep in mind.

According to Bowker, in 2008 ebooks represented only 0.6 percent of all books sold in the United States. The majority of buyers were men, and more than half were between the ages of 18 and 34. This year ebook sales will still be less than 2 percent of the U.S. book market.

Here’s something else to ponder.

Most people prefer paper. According to a recent survey, only 37 percent of Americans are interested in buying an ereader. Here in France I’m often at the beach and see one person after another stetched out in the sun reading a paperback. Not an ereader in sight.

Yes, ebooks are likely a big part of publishing’s future, but for now dead-tree books, as some people disparagingly call them, are how almost everyone reads novels, biographies, cookbooks, self-help books, and titles in every other publishing category, and that’s not going to change overnight. For many people the battle between Amazon and Sony (and other smaller manufacturers) is taking place on some sparsely populated island of technogeeks.

Not to be insulting. I’m about to buy an ereader myself, and I’ve already picked out the first book I want to read on it (L’élégance du hérisson by Muriel Barbery, published by Les Editions Gallimard; in the United States The Elegance of a Hedgehog published by Europe Editions). But when I think of ebooks, I’m often reminded of this video, the funniest in my opinion of the mock battles produced by Green Apple Books.

Sherman Alexie in Battle with Digital Books

posted June 10, 2009

Posted by Thomas Riggs in books publishing

A long time ago I saw Sherman Alexie at a reading in Spokane, Washington. Still in his twenties, Alexie arrived late. He stumbled to the podium, pretending, I think, to be drunk, and mumbled insults at the audience. As I remember, he left shortly afterward without reading a thing. Alexie was new on the scene, but his gift as a writer was already matched by a dramatic, provocative presence that got people’s attention.

A book worth reading, published by Grove Press. Click for more information.

A book worth reading, published by Grove Press. Click for more information.

I thought of this event recently when I was reading a New York Times article on BookExpo America. There was Sherman Alexie, now a famous writer, quoted about ebooks. On his plane going to the convention, he saw a woman reading a Kindle. According to article, Alexie, who thinks Kindles are elitist, “wanted to hit” the woman.

I doubt Alexie really wants to hit anyone, but like many literary people, he hates and fears digital books. For authors the fear is understandable. Ebooks are potentially threatening. But this antidigital urge seems to be part of a broader trend, another act in the man versus machine drama. An earlier scene occurred in 1987, when Wendell Berry wrote a piece in Harper’s describing his disdain for computers. Although compelling, the essay was widely criticized, especially for being sexist. Instead of using a computer, Berry said in the essay, he asked his wife to type his work.

Alexie, too, received mixed reviews from his comments. To his credit, Alexie on his website wrote about the many people who sent him e-mails supporting ebooks. Some, because of physical ailments, couldn’t read without the Kindle or similar machines. Alexie, who said he has not allowed his books to be available digitally, announced he would be meeting with “folks at Amazon and Kindle” and promised not to “beat up anybody” there.

Here, in another context, is Alexie in a provocative duel.

HarperStudio, OR Books, and Colin Robinson

posted June 3, 2009

Posted by Thomas Riggs in books publishing

Several blogs, including HarperStudio’s The 26th Story, recently covered the launch of OR Books, an independent publisher devoted to digital printing, ebooks, and online selling. Headed by two well-established editors, John Oakes and Colin Robinson, OR Books shares a lot in common with HarperStudio. Both imprints embrace new technology and new ways to attract readers. In this video, found on The 26th Story, Oakes and Robinson chat about the rapidly changing book business and how OR Books plans to be different.

Unfortunately it took a bit of bad luck to make this new press possible. Robinson, formerly with Verso and New Press, accepted a job as senior editor with Scribner in 2006, but when the financial crisis hit last year, he and 34 others were laid off. In the London Review of Books Robinson explains why he lost his job, despite being a highly respected editor with a long track record, and provides an impressive summary of what’s wrong with publishing today. After discussing issues from deep discounts to the Robinson Patman Act of 1936, he says,

Perhaps the problem has to do with more than just the way in which words are transmitted. People bowl alone, shop online, abandon cinemas for DVDs, and chat to each other electronically rather than go to a bar. In an increasingly self-centred society a premium is placed on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and on being read rather than reading.

We wish OR Books good luck in finding a new and better system for publishing.