Christian Ross

Reading Is(n’t) Easy

I’ve chronicled my on-again/off-again relationship with reading books in this space before and 2011 has been another year of the same. When I find a book I enjoy, like others, I have a hard time putting it down. Conversely, I’ve hit on a couple of so-so items this year which cause me to first get bored and then struggle between thinking should I finish it or just decide that the TV is the much easier route to go. Once I get derailed, it takes a bit for me to want to get back into the habit and start the whole process again.

In the last couple of months I have attempted to go a different route than the standard hardcover editions and given a try to reading some stuff on the old digital tablet. I’ve now made it through a couple of books in the Kindle app and am halfway through my second in iBooks. My goal here is not to debate the merits of either platform (I think I prefer the Kindle app at this point) but to quickly point out a new frustration I have with a medium that is still struggling to find its place in this world.

Since I know that having a love for reading is important (and that I’ve got a pretty flimsy relationship with it), one of my favorite things to do is to take my boys every other week or so to the library to get some new books. I let them pick out a few (with the full veto power a dad possesses) and I get to pick out a couple that I think they might like as well.

From as early as I can remember, the older one has had a fascination with books and will sit in your lap for hours to read or sit by himself and flip through them if you are busy doing other things. The younger one didn’t quite start out with the same love, but I have noticed that as he’s gotten a bit older he has started bringing a few of his favorites to me to read and seems to enjoy flipping through them by himself in the car. My hope is that this passion for reading will continue to grow in each of them and it will benefit them in multiple ways going forward.

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Returning back to our library excursion, once we have secured the 5-6 books for them, we usually take a swing through the other side of the library starting with the CD section (great if you’re into names like Gillespie, Marsalis or Sinatra). We then head over to one of the computers to search for any of the author names that I have taken a liking to after reading one of their titles or been pointed to by some other source. This past Monday was no exception; same routine, typical results. Books for the boys, nothing new in music and the couple of books I had been thinking about getting were already checked out. No biggie.

However, there was one small difference this week that we hadn’t done before. I had recently seen a tweet from our local government social media account that mentioned an upcoming class on e-books through the library. This, of course, was right up my alley. A renewed passion for reading, the recent emphasis on reading on the iPad and the ability to read titles for free in a legitimate manner. Score. We made a swing by the reference desk and in no time we were out the door with paper instructions on the two different “e-book” options available.

Once home, we plowed through the boys books a couple of times so it was my turn to see what I could conjure up. Of the two options I had, one was only available online and not transferable to devices like my iPad but the other had the magic words of “Download in the App Store” so I proceeded. My first tip to something going awry should have been the fact that once I located it, the app was preceded by the name Adobe. Strike one.

I pressed forward with the install and then fired it up to hopefully find some quality digital reading material. Once open, the first task at hand was to add a library to the app. Unfortunately this process requires you to link out to Safari and search for it online. Once located, you then have to log in with your library credentials and are finally ushered in to the book area. Again all online, not in the app itself.

Upon getting logged in, the first thing I noticed is that the actual number of books in the store was quite a bit less than I would have imagined. Think of your library, then think of the nonfiction section, now think of a rack of books and this collection probably fills about a third of that rack. Strike one-and-a-half.

I navigated my way to the business section just to see what type of material was available. Much to my surprise, I found the grand total of thirty-one books. Yes, 31. This is the library, right? Without being deterred, I decided to try a simple one, Tribes by Gladwell, just to see how the whole process worked. Process as follows – clicked on the book, page loaded, given a multitude of information about the book and two buttons for my options: Place a Hold & Add to Wish List. Strictly from a UX standpoint, I’m at a loss. As a user I don’t really know what the difference is. I’m supposed to be browsing the library but is it safe to assume that they are trying to sell me this book in addition to letting me check it out? Interesting (and confusing) strategy.

I decided on Placing a Hold and then noticed the 10pt font just below, “0 copies available, 9 users in queue.” At this point, my frustration level is rising. To recap the situation thus far:
1. The app is useless for book finding
2. The selection of books is weak at best
3. The online experience is confusing for users
4. And now I find that I am at best nine-ish weeks out from reading this title and at worst some thirty-six weeks (9 users * 2 weeks per checkout * 1 renewal period for each user) from getting my turn.


I decided to check a couple of other titles but the best I could find was a book that was listed with five copies and two users in the queue, no matter that it wasn’t a book I cared to read. Who knows how many strikes at this point, but it’s definitely enough for an out.

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My first thought of the entire process was to throw the blame at the library and ultimately at our local government for choosing such a poor product to associate themselves with. It seemed like a pretty standard thing for a government to do: create a program, implement it poorly and then tout their capabilities as if they accomplished some great thing. And it may still very well be just that.

The publishing world is still doing it wrong.

But after a few minutes of thinking on it, I’ve come to realize that the more likely scenario is the fact that the publishing world is still doing it wrong. Similar to newspapers, the book world is struggling to keep up. Yes, I realize in their eyes, jobs and executive bonuses are at stake – but on the other hand, they are absolutely fouling it up for themselves in the long run. I see more and more authors going at it by self-publishing or through smaller publishing firms that are paying attention to the changing times.

I know guys who publish on multiple formats – print, epub, mobi, PDF and more – just to be able to reach every audience available. Instead, Adobe builds the big publishers a proprietary crutch similar to the stupid DRM-crippling tracks that recording labels tried to push on users in the early ages of digital music. I bought very few of those and I plan on buying even less of these.

I get the fact that publishers feel like they lose money (and possibly do to a small extent) on libraries. But I have to assume that over the decades of libraries in this country – usually multiple in every decent-sized town – that they’ve earned some back by those who either go out and purchase a library-read title or purchase other titles by an author they found through the library. I have. If they felt like they weren’t getting a return, wouldn’t they kill their books from the library shelves by now? I would.

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So, after getting my hopes up a little, I’m back to my two original options. Paper editions from the library or digital editions I can download at a cost. I realize I can also buy paper editions but like most, our family’s hard/paperback purchases will decline as we move forward. I dig the tactile-ness of a book but the storage of, upkeep of and resources used in their creation tend to make me think they will ultimately see a decline in the years to come.

It seems like a market that could really be taken by storm by a publisher. Prove to authors that you’re ready to play on the next level. Market online, publish digital, find a way to better find/promote the undiscovered talent and be the reason they shouldn’t go anywhere else with their content. Your dependence on store placement and book tours goes down and your fixed cost like printing and shipping could ultimately disappear. Business and Customer Win.

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