Monday, March 1, 2010

Fingering your nook

A suggestion for Barnes and Noble re the nook ebook-reading device:

The very first Palm Pilot going back all the way to 1996 and the original Rocket eBook from 1998 allowed you to do handwriting recognition (on Palms, using the Graffiti or Graffiti 2 system, the former of which used simplified characters, the latter of which recognized fully formed characters; on the Rocket, using the similar Allegro system).

I know in these post-iPhone days it's supposed to be old-fashioned to use a stylus, but for inputting short notes or words to look up, it's much faster to use a stylus than a tiny pop-up keyboard.

The handwriting recognition on these devices turned the characters you drew into text, just as if you'd typed them. Since the nook (unlike the Kindle) does NOT have a physical keyboard, why not take full advantage of the touch-screen interface and allow Graffiti-style handwriting input (as well as the on-screen keyboard)?

The idea that ONLY allowing fingertip input instead of optionally also allowing the fine control of a stylus is like only allowing finger painting instead of using a brush. It's fine for kids the first time they're doing it, but for adults who actually do need to frequently enter text (for annotations, searches, and so forth), it's a clumsy method -- and one to which the nook could easily offer an alternative.
Robert J. Sawyer online:

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

B&N nook: There's no justification for this!

It's bad enough that the Barnes & Noble nook forces text to be fully justified left and right, whether the user wants that or not, but it does an atrocious job of producing that justification -- among the worst I've ever seen on any e-reading device (and I've been using such devices for nine years now).

To justify properly, you first have to break the line properly. And when deciding where to break a line of text (wrapping what follows to the next line), the rules are simple. Lines should wrap at these characters:
  1. after a space (with the space itself disappearing beyond the right margin);

  2. either before or after an em-dash (the long dash—like this—often used in typesetting);

  3. after an internal hyphen in a word.
The nook obeys only the first of these rules (the bare minimum for wrapping text at all), producing aesthetically awful pages (Figure 1):

Look two-thirds of the way down the above page. See that line that says "antecedents of particular" with gigantic spaces between each word? That's a result of the nook failing to apply rule 2: the break should have been either before or after the em-dash in the following line (so that "behaviors—" stayed on the previous line). Instead, the nook treated all of "behaviors—especially" as a single word.

(If only "behavior," but not the em-dash, would have fit on the line above, then just "behavior" should have been retained on that line, and the em-dash should have wrapped around to start the next line.)

Note, too, by the way, that the last line of the page is short: it isn't quite fully justified, but instead stops about a half-character-width shy of the right margin. We'll see that error on every page we look at; it's yet another flaw in the nook's rendering of justified pages.

Let's look at another example (Figure 2):

See the second last line, the one that says "about it. Shortly after the," with massive spaces between each word? That's the result of the nook failing to apply rule 3, breaking words at embedded hyphens.

Now, as it happens, in this example, the phrase "big-mammal-scavenging" is really three words strung together to form a compound adjective, but the nook makes the same mistake with single words that have an embedded hyphen (such as the way some people spell "micro-organism" or "co-operation"). The text should wrap after the last hyphen that will fit on the line: if all of "big-mammal-" would have fit, that should have stayed on the line above; if only "big-" would have fit, it should have stayed on the line above.

Oh, and above we see the em-dash wrapping problem again: just below the middle of page, the text should have wrapped after the em-dash in "wise—emerged," which would have eliminated the huge spaces in the preceding line.

As before, the final line on the screen (which is not the final line of a paragraph; yes, it's true that you don't right-justify the last line of a paragraph, but that's not what's going on here) comes up a short of the right margin.

And we discover yet another bit of nook-fail here: see the "the" at the end of the line "sapiens sapiens—wisest of the"? Note that the "e" is slightly clipped; its right-hand edge is trimmed off. We'll see that error repeatedly, too: the cause is that the nook's justification algorithms don't take into account the slanting of italic text, and the italics earlier in the line ("sapiens sapiens") have pushed the final "e" off the active part of the screen.

The "e" is only slightly clipped above, but we'll see that same flaw more egregiously in the next example (Figure 3):

Look at the fifth line up from the bottom of the screen (starting with "Homo"). That line, and the next two, all contain italics, and all three show the clipping of the final character in the line because of it: the "l" in the first line; the "g" in the second, the "e" -- which is missing half of it width -- in the third.

We also on this page see the failure to wrap at an embedded hyphen, resulting in huge gaps between words: the line "Homo), omnivore plus preferential" should have also included "meat-" from the following line.

Now, just fixing the errors pointed out here (the failure to wrap properly before or after em-dashes; the failure to wrap properly at embedded hyphens; the failure to properly justify the final line on the screen) still wouldn't be enough to give the nook decent full justification, because to do that properly, avoiding huge swathes of white space between words, requires the intelligent insertion of hyphens into words.

Look at any printed, typeset book from a commercial publishing house. It will almost certainly have hyphens inserted at syllable breaks in some words at the ends of lines on each page, so that the words can be broken and wrapped over two lines. That is, words of more than one syllable that fall at the end of a line should frequently break after one of the syllables, with a hyphen added just before the break. This is done so that the spacing between words ends up being approximately the same even with full justification.

Hyphenation is a tricky thing to do right. Mobipocket's original attempt to stake out territory in the ebook marketplace was in part based on their claim to successfully hyphenate words -- but they simply used an algorithm that often got the breaks wrong (putting them within syllables, or between pairs of letters in consonant blends); a quick glance at the first Mobipocket book I opened just now showed these incorrect hyphenations within the first few pages: "sta-gnant," "remai-ned," "silen-ce," and "wal-ked" and "deadli-nes."

The only really good way to do it is by having the algorithm hand-coded with the correct syllabification points of many common words, and having it consult a dictionary interactively for uncommon ones. As it happens the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the most commonly used reference for the niceties of preparing text for the printed page, recommends Merriam-Webster's Collegiate for this purpose, which is the dictionary already built into the nook.

Finally, please note that one of the big sales points for ebook devices is that they can be used by those who need large print. But the larger the print gets, the worse full justification looks. By forcing it on at all times you take one of the great strengths of ebooks (user-selectable type sizes) and turn it into one of the great weaknesses (aesthetically ugly pages).

Fixes I'd suggest:

Dear Barnes & Noble, first and foremost, make full justification a user-selectable option; let us turn it off if we don't like it. This already is an option in many versions of the eReader software that underlies the nook, including the Palm version, the Windows versions (both eReader for Windows and BN Reader), the iPhone version, and more. Don't force those of us who dislike full-justification to have to look at it.

Second, if you are going to do justification, do it properly.

What we have here is a classic example of what's wrong with many ebook platforms: a failure to actually look at how it's done in printed books. If you're doing it a different way than it's done in print, ask yourself why. There are millions of guides -- millions of printed books -- you can consult as samples of how it should be done. Please do consult them; please do get it right.
Robert J. Sawyer online:

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Monday, February 22, 2010

YouTube video of my ebook reader collection

My first-ever YouTube video, recorded Saturday, February 20, 2010: a survey of nine different devices I've used over the years to read ebooks.
"You're looking at in aggregate at about $3,000 worth of ebook-reading hardware here, and my own personal use almost nine years now of using devices to read ebooks. I'm an absolute convert to the concept of electronic-book readers. I just hope that we actually get the ideal hardware device, a decent price point, and the ability to share the content [between devices]." -- Robert J. Sawyer
Devices shown and discussed (with the dates I acquired them and the price I paid):
  • October 19, 2001: Handspring Visor Neo (Cdn$299)

  • October 20, 2001: Franklin eBookman 911 (US$229)

  • December 20, 2001: RCA REB 1100 (US$249?)

  • January 22, 2003: Sony Clié PEG-SJ20 (Cdn$269 -- not shown in the video))

  • September 7, 2004: Sony Clié PEG-TH55 (US$259)

  • September 26, 2006: eBookwise 1150 (US$115 with 64MB SmartMedia card)

  • May 3, 2008: iRex iLiad (a gift, list US$699)

  • December 18, 2009: ECTACO jetBook - Lite (U$149)

  • December 19, 2009: Foxit eSlick (US$259)

  • February 13, 2010: Barnes & Noble nook (US$259)
You can watch the video here.
Robert J. Sawyer online:

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Foxit eSlick: poor line justification

I'm getting tired of high-priced ebook readers that are brought to market without anyone who knows anything about book layout and design having vetted the software they use.

Have a look at this photo, which shows a Foxit eSlick ebook-reading device displaying a .PDB eReader book from Barnes and Noble's under the new 2.0.1 build 0205 firmware. The eSlick retails for US$259, the same as the Kindle and the nook.

Every line shows the same error: instead of justification putting an equal amount of space between each word on a line, there is always more space just before the last word on each line.

It's not a LOT of extra space -- but it's enough to be visually irritating. You can clearly see it on this line: "purpose of this book, then, is to educate. It is a."

There is way more space between "is a" than there is between "It is."

Or look at the last line: again, there's way more space between "reality the" than there is between "in reality."

This happens with every eReader DRM format (.PDB) commercial ebook I've tried.

I've already complained to Foxit that there should be an option to turn justification off altogether, but when the device does fully justify lines, it needs to do it properly.

On why users should have the option to turn justification off: One of the big sales points for ebook devices is that they can be used by those who need large print, but the larger the print gets, the worse right justification looks. By forcing it on at all times you take one of the great strengths of ebooks (user-selectable type sizes) and turn it into one of the great weaknesses (aesthetically ugly pages).

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

The scandalous state of ebooks

An email I received this morning from my colleague Jamie Todd Rubin:
I ran into the same problem with the Kindle that you reported with the Nook regarding hyphenation. They implement full justification without adherence to any hyphenation rules and that makes some lines look awkward (4 words, widely spaced).

The other thing I've noticed, and I don't know if this is Amazon or the publisher, but in numerous books that I've read on the Kindle, there are substantial typos that appear to be the result of some kind of OCR import. The word "t-u-r-n" appears as "t-u-m" from time-to-time, but it's not consistent. There are other minor errors that I don't find in the printed text and I wonder if copyeditors look at the eBook text before it goes live.
Those are the three great scandals of the ebook industry:

1) The people designing the way pages are presented on screen seem to know nothing at all about typography. This ranges from the outrageous (the eSlick until last week's firmware update thinking that it was okay to break lines at the embedded apostrophe in words, or before the closing quotation mark) to the merely incompetent: the insistence on right justification ("because that makes it look like a book, see!") without understanding or doing any of the work required to make right justification aesthetically appealing.

2) The complete lack of proofreading or even spot-checking of ebooks before they are put up for sale. For example, I recently bought the eReader-format ebook edition of The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley, a book published by a major publisher (HarperCollins), and every line on every page throughout the book was centered -- no one had so much as glanced at the book after converting it.

3) The use of OCR as a way to get books into ebook format. For instance, Tor Books offers my Golden Fleece for the Kindle and the nook. For the print edition they typeset from my computer files, but for the ebook edition, they used a scan of the printed pages, and ran it through optical-character recognition. Page one proudly lists other books by "Rohert J. Sawyer."

Print publishers keep arguing that they have to charge high prices for ebooks in part because of the care and expense that goes into proofreading and laying out a printed book's text, but if that's just thrown out the window -- if not one dime of the money spent for that is actually reflected in the ebook edition -- then it's a specious argument to say that those costs need to be reflected in the ebook's price.
Robert J. Sawyer online:

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nook suggestion: swap page buttons

I sent this suggestion to Barnes and Noble tech support today, and posted it on the nook discussion forum:
To my way of thinking, the page-forward and page-backward buttons are in the reverse of where they should be, given the weight and design of the nook.

If you hold the nook with your thumbs over the page-forward buttons (on either side), it's top heavy, and has a tendency to fall backward, and I'm always afraid it will drop backward out of my hands.

But if you hold the nook with your thumbs over the page-backward buttons (which are higher up, near the device's center of gravity), the nook is balanced nicely in your hands, but you have to reposition a hand every time you want to change a page.

Obviously, going to the next page in a book is a very common operation, whereas going to the previous page is something rarely done.

Because of this, I'd be grateful for an option to swap the function of the page-forward and page-backward buttons, so that the one labeled ">" went to the previous page, and the one labeled "<" went to the next page.

(By the way, a decade ago, the old Rocket eBook and its successor, the RCA REB-1100, offered this very option; they called it "reverse paging".)

Thanks for considering my suggestion.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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Why the aesthetics of ebooks suck

A perfect example of why ebook readers are so crappy at formatting these days: the people who make them don't even have a rudimentary familiarity with typography. As I observed in my review of the Barnes & Noble nook, the algorithms used to justify text there are atrocious, making for awful-looking pages.

The Foxit eSlick does a better job at justification, because at least it breaks words and compound phrases that have embedded hard hyphens in them at the embedded hyphens (instead of wrapping the all the text to the next line).

But on both devices, there should be an option to turn justification off, because on narrow lines and at large type sizes, many people find it hard to read.

But typographic niceties apparently aren't even discussed by ebook makers. Here's an exchange I had with Foxit tech support today:
RJS: Previously, eReader books on the eSlick had right-justification turned off. Firmware 2.0.1 changes that to right justification on -- with no way to turn it off. This is not a trivial change; it should have been noted in the change log -- but wasn't.

I much prefer right justification to be off; a ragged right margin, with even spacing between the words, is easier for me to read than lines that have different sized spaces between words (and often ridiculously large spaces, especially at larger font sizes).

Please put in an option to turn right justification off (as is found in eReader implementations on many other platforms).
Foxit Tech Support: Do you mean the enlarged page margins on both side?

2.0.1 firmware does not turn right justification on, it only leaves 10 pixel margins on both side.
RJS: No, I do not mean that. I mean that for eReader books, prior to version 2.0.1, the text was flush left, ragged right; now it is justified (flush left and right). Please see this explanation in Wikipedia.

Please provide an option to select "flush left" or "unjustified" text, instead of forcing justified text; that is, please provide an option to provide a ragged right margin.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with the number of pixels that are not used at the left and right side of the screen; that's a completely different issue.
Robert J. Sawyer online:


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A nook of the north!

Last weekend, in Chicago, I bought a Barnes & Noble nook ebook reader. Since they're not for sale in Canada, I probably have one of the very few units in all of Canada now -- a nook of the north! (Yes, it was worth the US$259, just to get to make that pun.)

My initial thoughts:

The nook seems to have no trouble loading my content in eReader format from Fictionwise, and sampling and buying content wirelessly from Barnes & Noble seems to work fine.

The display is beautiful, but right-justification is forced to on, and the justification algorithms are terrible: even words with embedded hyphens (such as "middle-class") don't break at the hyphen (instead, the whole thing wraps to the next line), and em-dashes are treated as parts of words--frustratingly meaning that even if, in this sentence, "words," or "words--," would fit on one line, all of "words--frustratingly" wraps to the next line. That leaves huge gaps between words in the previous line. It is distracting and mars the aesthetics of an otherwise nice display.

(And the nook doesn't do hyphenation of its own -- which really is required if one is doing justification; look at any print book or magazine that has fully justified text, and see what a difference the hyphenation makes to the word spacing in the lines.)

Also missing is the ability to do a folder hierarchy (separate "Fiction, "Nonfiction," "Biography," or whatever you wish folders) in either main memory or on an expansion card, and the expansion card is very awkward to put in and remove; you won't be using it as a standard way to add new content.

The page-forward and page-backward buttons are in the reverse of where they should be, given the weight of the device. If you hold it with your thumbs over the page-forward buttons (on either side), it's top heavy, and has a tendency to fall backward; if you hold it with your thumbs over the page-backward buttons (which are higher up), it's balanced nicely in the hands, but you have to reposition a hand every time you want to change a page.

But except for those things, it works quite nicely.

It does not have a backlight for the main screen. Having the color LCD screen below the main screen (which is used for navigation and menus) light up in the dark (which it did once spontaneously on me last night) does starkly remind one of this lack.

Page turns (with the new 1.2 firmware, which came preinstalled on my unit) are fast; and the nook wakes up from hibernation very quickly, leaving you right at the page you were last reading.

It's substantially heavier than the Foxit eSlick -- the other e-ink device on the market that supports Fictionwise's eReader format -- and the eSlick does support folders. Also, the eSlick supports landscape mode, and the nook does not.

But the nook wins hands-down because you're back to reading your book in 2 seconds after picking up the device if it's hibernating (and only have to hit the power button to get there), versus 23 or so with the eSlick (and on the eSlick you have to re-select your book from a menu after powering up).

The nook does have a built-in dictionary (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate -- a very good one), but the interface for selecting a word on the e-ink screen is very awkward and time-consuming; the eSlick has no dictionary support.

The nook is a nice device, and I'm glad I bought it, but it needs at least one more firmware upgrade. The justification issue has to be fixed (first, it should be user-selectable whether it's on or off; second, it should obey the rules of typography when on). A better interface for selecting words for dictionary lookup (and highlighting) needs to be devised. And I'd like to see the ability to swap the functions of the page-forward and page-backward buttons.

But it is a great example of what an e-ink device can be.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Letter in The Mail on Sunday

Britain's The Mail on Sunday (which has a circulation of 2.2 million copies) solicited a Letter to the Editor from me about the forthcoming Apple iPad and its science-fictional precursors. Here's what I had to say in full; a shorter version appears in today's (14 February 2010) print edition of the newspaper:
Once again, science fiction has become science fact. The Apple iPad brings us very close to the portable flatscreens on which the astronauts in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey watched the BBC World News -- and read their documents.

Even before that, the original Star Trek had characters reading books and manuals on their computer screens, and in one episode Elisha Cook, Jr., guest starred as a Luddite lawyer who, much to Captain Kirk's amusement, still used paper books.

But as the cover note on the most famous ebook of all -- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- proclaims, "Don't panic." Marshall McLuhan was wrong; the medium is not the message, and a book is a book even if it's displayed on a Kindle, an iPad, a smartphone, or a desktop computer.

-- Robert J. Sawyer, Toronto

Sawyer's novel FlashForward -- available in print and as an ebook -- is the basis for the TV series of the same name.

Robert J. Sawyer online:


Friday, February 5, 2010

Amazon reinstates sales of Macmillan titles

After six days of being unavailable for purchase there, paper editions of Macmillan books -- including Tor Books such as my novels FlashForward, Hominids, and Rollback -- are now back on sale at
Robert J. Sawyer online:

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Hey, Fictionwise! Use this book for your in-house testing!

Although eReader is a very robust application on Palm OS devices, and the Windows implementation isn't bad (although the B&N Reader version has lots of bugs, and many features stripped out), other recent implementations have left much to be desired, especially when dealing with complexly formatted ebooks.

The Foxit eSlick, as I observed before, can't even properly format basic text properly. The ECTACO jetBook - Lite does a much better job with eReader-formatted books, but still isn't anywhere near as good as the Palm implementation (for instance, hyperlinks for tables of contents and footnotes don't work).

I hereby suggest that Fictionwise and Barnes & Noble (owners of the eReader format), and Foxit, ECTACO, and others making hardware designed to interpret that format, use the following book as one of their standard in-house-testing samples:

Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene

Why? Because it is a great example of what the electronic edition of a print book should be, and it incorporates features that will put any ebook-rendering software through its paces:

* Hyperlinked table of contents

* Chapter headings and subheadings coded to be in different text sizes

* Bulleted lists

* Block quotations set off from the main text

* Numerous footnotes (including often more than one on a single page/screen)

* Foreign-language characters (including Hebrew and Greek) embedded in the text

* Numerous illustrations

* Captions for these pictures

* Proper typography (including em-dashes and smart quotes).

It is, in fact, a joy to read on a Palm -- and should be a joy to read on all platforms.

As an example of work still to be done, when reading this book with the ECTACO jetBook - Lite implementation of eReader software, subheadings appear in the same text size as normal text (on the Palm, the render at a size intermediate between Chapter headings and normal text); pictures that are small enough to show on screen render properly, but larger ones don't (instead they show as just a black square), and all hyperlinks and footnote calls are dead.

Indeed, on the ECTACO jetBook - Lite, depending on the dimensions of the picture, the picture may show properly when using the device in portrait mode but not in landscape, or vice versa.

Now, as it happens, this is also a truly fascinating book, and I'm enjoying it immensely -- but that's not the point.

The point is that Fictionwise clearly hasn't been testing eReader sufficiently on new platforms (and particularly not on platforms that they are actually selling as the single most expensive things available for purchase on their site). Testing the software in-house with this book would be a good start.

Oh, and hats off to Penguin/Viking, the publishers of Reading in the Brain in both print and electronic editions, for doing the ebook version right. (On the other hand, a pox on whoever set the price for the ebook edition; $27.95 is crazy.)
Robert J. Sawyer online:


Amazon has not backed down; Times and Post are wrong

First The New York Times and now The Washington Post have reported that Amazon gave into Macmillan's demands, and it's been flashing all over the web that this is the case for four days now.

But check the source. The only reference is to this unsigned anonymous post buried deep on the site; that's the one and only bit of evidence to support the belief that Amazon has changed its tune.

The reality is that there's been NO public surrender by, NO change in their policy, and NO announcement by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and, as of right now, Macmillan books are still not for sale in either electronic or paper editions from

How much weight should we give to the anonymous blog post cited above? Here's a test. Go to the main page, and try to follow a chain of links to get to that supposedly big, important, game-changing public announcement. Go ahead, try. You'll never find it.

Amazon is based in Washington state. That unsigned blog post went up at 2:22 on a Sunday afternoon Pacific time, when no one in real authority was likely in the building. It's either a case of some clueless eager beaver deep in the bowels of the hierarchy speaking up when he had no authority to do so, or -- if you want to take a more sinister approach -- a brilliant bit of misdirection, knowing that the little posting would go viral (and then be picked up by lazy old-media reporters), and so any planned boycott or collective action by customers or authors against Amazon would dissipate, with everyone saying, "Whew, glad that's over!"

But it isn't. Nothing has changed in the standoff. The books are still off-sale, Amazon has reached no agreement with Macmillan, and authors are getting hurt.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Amazon vs. Macmillan: increasing jeopardy and rising stakes

Last week in Montreal, I gave a talk about how one structures a story. I spoke about how the stakes should get higher and higher with each subsequent plot revelation. This weekend, we encountered a perfect real-life example of that structure:
  • First revelation: my books are no longer on sale at (personal jeopardy)

  • Second revelation: OMG, it's not just me; all Tor authors have had their books pulled from (people the main character cares about are in jeopardy, too).

  • Third revelation: it's not just Tor, which is a small operation in the grand scheme of things, but the whole vast Macmillan publishing empire that's affected (the whole nation is in jeopardy).

  • Fourth revelation: Holy crap, the entire future of the publishing industry is at stake (the whole world is in jeopardy).
The Authors Guild explains it well, in this press release entitled THE RIGHT BATTLE AT THE RIGHT TIME:
February 2, 2010. Macmillan's current fight with Amazon over e-book business models is a necessary one for the industry. The stakes are high, particularly for Macmillan authors. In a squabble over e-books, Amazon quickly and pre-emptively escalated matters by removing the buy buttons from all Macmillan titles (with some exceptions for scholarly and educational books), in all editions, including all physical book editions. Thousands of authors and titles are affected; hardest and most unfairly hit are authors with new books published by Macmillan that are in their prime sales period.

Yet if Macmillan prevails, the eventual payoff for its authors (and all authors, if a successful result ripples through the industry) is likely to be significant and lasting.

For those of you who may have missed it, here's the story so far:

Last Thursday, Macmillan CEO John Sargent informed Amazon that beginning in March, it would offer Amazon access to a full range of e-book titles only if Amazon were willing to sell books on an "agency" model that would pay Amazon 30% of e-book proceeds and allow Macmillan to set its own retail price for e-books. (Currently, Amazon buys e-books as a reseller at a discount of 50% off the retail list price and sells at the price it chooses.) Macmillan's price under its agency model, in many cases, would be higher than the $9.99 ceiling that Amazon has been seeking to impose on the industry.

If Amazon didn't find the agency model acceptable, Sargent said Macmillan would expand its "windowing" of e-book editions. "Windowing" is the practice of waiting until a particular edition of a new book has been on the market for a while before making cheaper editions available. Publishers have for decades waited until the hardcover sales window has closed before opening the sales window on paperback editions, for example. This helps protect the sales channels for hardcover books. Windowing e-books is similarly believed to help protect a publisher's sales channels for physical books. The risk with windowing is that some owners of e-book devices are angered that low-priced e-book editions aren't available as soon as books are released in hardcover form.

This was a bold move by Macmillan. Amazon has a well-deserved reputation for playing hardball. When it doesn't get its way with publishers, Amazon tends to start removing "buy buttons" from the publisher's titles. It's a harsh tactic, by which Amazon uses its dominance of online bookselling to punish publishers who fail to fall in line with Amazon's business plans. Collateral damage in these scuffles, of course, are authors and readers. Authors lose their access to millions of readers who shop at Amazon; readers find some of their favorite authors' works unavailable. Generally, the ending is not a good one for the publisher or its authors -- Amazon's hold on the industry, controlling an estimated 75% of online trade book print sales in the U.S., is too strong for a publisher to withstand. The publisher caves, and yet more industry revenues are diverted to Amazon. This isn't good for those who care about books. Without a healthy ecosystem in publishing, one in which authors and publishers are fairly compensated for their work, the quality and variety of books available to readers will inevitably suffer.

Macmillan's move is timely because, at the moment, the e-book market is still far smaller than the physical book market, but the e-book market is growing quickly. The longer Macmillan waited, the more difficult the transition.

Amazon didn't wait for March, when Macmillan's new policy is slated to go into effect; it decided to hit Macmillan immediately and comprehensively, removing the buy buttons for nearly all Macmillan titles, in all editions. This is a direct attempt to use its clout in the physical book industry to enforce its business model in the e-book industry. In some ways, it was an unusual exercise of power for Amazon. The company has used the tactic of turning off buy buttons on several occasions before, but, with major publishers it's usually selective, and doesn't turn out the lights on nearly all titles. That treatment is reserved for smaller publishers. (Authors receive no advance warning of Amazon's treatment of their titles, nor can they do anything about it.)

Amazon, it appears, overreached. Macmillan was a bit too big a foe, and Amazon's bullying tactics were a bit too blatant. (For a flavor of media reaction, see this story in Fast Company.)

Sunday evening, Amazon announced that it would have to "capitulate" to Macmillan, "because Macmillan has a monopoly over its own titles." (By this definition, nearly every company exercises a monopoly over its products.) We're all still waiting for that capitulation: Macmillan's books still weren't available on Amazon on Monday evening.

If Macmillan does indeed prevail, the economics of authorship in the digital age are likely to improve considerably. We may go through some rough stretches to get there, however.

You'll be hearing more from us on this matter soon.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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Monday, February 1, 2010

eBook pricing

Scott Westerfeld says it well in his blog:
All discussions of [the Amazon/Macmillan war] will draw commenters who think they magically know how books should be priced, and who say there is no reason for electronic editions to be more than $9.99. A quick note to them: You don’t know what you’re talking about. Seriously, your back-of-the-envelope calculations are crap. The printing costs of a book are generally between 3% and 10% of list price. So in most cases, 10% should be your “first-printing” e-book discount, not 50%. That may seem weird to you, but that’s because all the cheap stuff on the internet is backlist (like Baen Books), subsidized/coerced (like Amazon), self-published (no editing or marketing costs), or promotional.

Robert J. Sawyer online:


Saturday, January 30, 2010 no longer carrying Tor Books

Holy crap! See this coverage from The New York Times.

Tor is the publisher of the current North American editions of my novels Golden Fleece, Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, Foreigner, End of an Era, Frameshift, Factoring Humanity, FlashForward, Calculating God, Hominids, Humans, Hybrids, Mindscan, and Rollback, all of which are still in print.

This really, really sucks. I'm not pointing any fingers here (as Patrick Nielsen Hayden, the director of SF&F Publishing for Tor has said, "Tor is part of Macmillan, but I have no more idea what’s actually going on than you do. And yes, I’m not thrilled with that fact"), but it is an awful state of affairs.

Update: Letter from Macmillan's CEO.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Kindle vs. iPad

So different: e-ink vs. backlit LED; dedicated ebook reader vs. multipurpose device. Not sure which one I want -- may have to get both! :D
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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A great article about ebooks

I've been trying to find time to write a tirade about the quality failure of most ebook editions (recent travesties in books I've bought from commercial publishers: the entire book being centered in one, no indenting or blank space between paragraphs in another)

But it doesn't have to be that blatant to still result in an unsatisfying experience. Publishers and ebook retailers: read this article by Kassia Krozser. It explains why so many serious book readers just walk away from the disappointing experience they have with ebooks. They may not be able to articulate what they don't like, but Kassia Krozser does a great job of explaining what's wrong.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Amazon's 70% royalty

Sounds pretty good -- but note that Tor (well, its parent corporation, but Tor has to toe the line) recently cut ebook royalties paid to author to 20% of net proceeds. Which frankly sucks.

So, for a $9.99 eBook sold on the Kindle under this new scheme:

Tor's share: $5.60
Amazon's share: $3.00
Author's share: $1.40

Other publishers are offering 25% of net as royalties, so:

Publisher's share: $5.25
Amazon's share: $3.00
Author's share: $1.75

Of course, those figures ignore Amazon's deduction for "electronic delivery costs," whatever that amount might be. You think Whispernet is free? It isn't; it's paid for by the publisher and author when you buy a Kindle eBook.

And the above assumes that the publisher doesn't farm out its ebook-making to third parties (Tor does), further reducing the claimed net proceeds, and thus further cutting the author's income.

As we transition ultimately to ebooks, is it really true in a world of no shipping to bookstores, no warehousing, no physical product at all, that the lion's share should still go to the print publisher? Yes, it's probably fair now, but it won't be forever.

Ah, but the publishers cry, we pay advances to authors! True, true, but many publishers have cut their average advances, and I have friends -- names you'd all know, Hugo winners included -- who have not seen their advances rise in over a decade, despite always earning them out.

Okay, many authors need advances to write books. But it'd be interesting to see for authors with a track record (those who could actually get a bank loan), how the numbers would crunch comparing simply getting a bank loan equal in size to the advance they're now receiving, using a portion of that to hire a freelance editor for the novel (going rate is roughly $3,000, give or take), and then pay back the loan with interest from the proceeds of the sale of the ebooks? How much further ahead would an already established author come out?

(And, of course, if you didn't need the advance up front, just cut out all that stuff about the loan.)

And, no, I'm not advocating self-publishing, and especially not for beginning authors (although imagine how well an ad hoc collective of Hugo and Nebula winners and nominees could do with their own electronic imprint); the best way to sell your new book is to have an established audience from your previous ones. But we do live in interesting times.

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Thursday, January 14, 2010

More Foxit eSlick / eReader woes

Trying to read the book The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, purchased from Fictionwise, locks up the Foxit eSlick (a dedicated ebook reader using e-ink technology, sold by Fictionwise and Foxit). You can turn pages until you reach the page with the dedication (page 8 at the default font size in portrait mode), and then the unit locks up.

Checking the same book with the Windows version of eReader, I see that the next couple of pages are a hyperlinked table of context. Of course, the eSlick doesn't support hyperlinks (since it has no way to select text in eReader books), but it should not crash when it encounters them.

It took a reset to get my eSlick functioning again.

So far, I've tried to actually read three books on the eSlick, and two have failed. The first, Harnessing Complexity: Organizational Implications of a Scientific Frontier, was unreadable because it dropped words or lines at the end of the page every time a bulleted list was included in the book.

The one I could read at least didn't lock up the machine, and did display all the text, but, of course, with the myriad awful formatting errors the eSlick exhibits with every eReader book (plus a new one I hadn't noticed before: the last line of each paragraph before an illustration was centered rather than flush left):

The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal

I see now why the eSlick firmware can't return you to the last page you were reading when you power-up; if it did, you'd never be able to get out of a book that locked it up. So, instead, it takes you to a higher-level menu, and only then lets you select the book you just read for re-opening, at which point it does take you to the page you left off at.

(That whole process, by the way, takes an irritating 23 seconds from hitting "on" to getting back to the page you were last reading, whereas on my Palm OS Sony Clie TH55 or even an ancient Rocket eBook, it's instantaneous. In the TMI department, I like to read on the toilet, and was keeping my eSlick in one of my washrooms -- but I now keep it on my desk so that I can start the boot up as I walk with it to the washroom, and have it be just about ready for me by the time I'm -- ahem -- seated.)

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Monday, January 11, 2010

ECTACO jetBook - Lite firmware apparently fixed

It's gonna be a few days before I have time to play around with doing a firmware upgrade, but over at the ECTACO forum, user JeePea reports that the various problems I and others have reported with the ECTACO jetBook - Lite handling ebooks in eReader format (Fictionwise and Barnes and Noble's DRM ebook format) have been fixed by the new firmware released today -- so, yay! Here's what JeePea has to say:
This firmware update seems to solve several problems. First, there is no text loss at the end of the page for DRMed PDB from Second, there is now an option for changing the alignment from full justification to left aligned. And third, I think they've fixed the problem with having to enter unlock information for each book. I tried this with three different books and was only asked for the information for the first one. I say this with the caveat that I've played with these books for a while and may have opened them previously. Hopefully someone else can confirm this. There may be other changes but I haven't found them yet.
UPDATE by RJS: Okay, I couldn't resist. I've now done the update myself. Jeepea is right: the ECTACO jetBook - Lite now DOES remember your credit card number, so you only have to enter it once; other books open right up without you having to re-enter it or your name.

Justification on/off, works, too, but defaults to ON for every new book you open.

Still no dictionary support when reading eReader files (there is a dictionary for plain text files), no text searching when reading eReader files (although this feature is offered for plain text files), no highlighting, and no annotations. But it's now usable, and the hardware is quite nice, I must say. :)
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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Kindle DX comes to Canada -- and the world -- on January 19

The large-screen Kindle DX from is now available for pre-order for Canada (and other countries around the world); it has a 9.7-inch screen compared to the regular Kindle's 6.0-inch one. (Until now, only the regular Kindle has been available outside the US -- and even that's a recent occurrence.)

The Kindle DX Global Wireless edition will be released on January 19, 2010, for US$489.

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Saturday, January 2, 2010

Barnes & Noble Desktop Reader

The Barnes & Noble Desktop Reader for Windows is a new wrapper around the long-standing eReader Pro for Windows software, with some new features, and some old ones removed. It's mostly a very nice ebook-reading platform for Windows, but I sent three notes to B&N tech support today with comments and suggestions:
I like the Barnes & Noble Desktop Reader for Windows, and, of course, recognize that it's adapted from eReader Pro for Windows. But the B&N version is missing one very important feature of the original: the ability to set the background color of the page. eReader Pro allows any background color the user might desire, but "Settings | Reading Preferences" allows only foreground colors to be set. A bright white background is much too harsh on my eyes. Please add the ability to set the background color. Thanks! (I'm using the latest version of your software.)
Using Barnes & Noble Desktop Reader for Windows, I see that you can add only one book at a time to the "my stuff" subsection of "my library." I have hundreds of books from your subsidiary that I'd like to add, but it will take forever adding them one at time (especially since the file browser doesn't remember the previous folder location you looked at). Barnes & Noble Desktop Reader is modified from eReader software, and eReader allows the bulk importation of titles. Please add this feature. Thank you!
I note that in the documentation for Barnes & Noble Desktop Reader for Windows, you have retired several features (listed under "8 - Retired Features" in the manual). Please bring back: 1) Bookshelves, 2) Hot Keys, 3) Two Page Reader View, and 4) Exporting Annotations. In particular, "Two Page Reader View" is important to emulating the paper-book experience, and separate bookshelves are crucial for organizing a large library. Thank you!

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Fictionwise updates ECTACO jetBook - Lite ad

Yesterday, in reviewing the $149.95 ECTACO jetBook - Lite (currently on sale at with a $50 store credit toward ebook purchases), I pointed out that the device does not support dictionary lookup when reading eReader-format ebooks (eReader is Fictionwise's own format), despite the graphic to the contrary, saying, "Really, Fictionwise-folk, you must take down that picture; it is misleading advertising."

Well, they're clearly listening -- sort of. As of Thursday, December 24, 2009, Fictionwise has updated the ad by Photoshopping the picture on their website to remove "Dictionary" from the Function menu. But it's still misleading, because the menu in that graphic is the one you get when reading plain text books, NOT eReader books. The Fictionwise / eReader ad still includes "Find" on the menu, which is NOT available for eReader-format books.

The Fictionwise ad originally showed this menu of functions:

[1] Dictionary
[2] Bookmark List
[3] Bookmark This Page
[4] Find
[5] Jump To
[6] Settings

It's now been Photoshopped to remove "Dictionary" and slide all the other choices up the list (leaving a blank space at the bottom):

[1] Bookmark List
[2] Bookmark This Page
[3] Find
[4] Jump To
[5] Settings

But the actual menu available when reading an eReader-format book is missing "Find":

[1] Bookmark List
[2] Bookmark this Page
[3] Jump To
[4] Settings

There is no "Find," and there is no "Dictionary."

Since we're looking at the menus available when reading an eReader-formatted book, let's walk through them:

"Jump To" displays this dialog box:

Jump To
Please, enter page number (1 - 691)
Current page: 46

And "Settings" displays these the choices:

[1] Font Size
[2] Auto Turn Page
[3] Rotate

Choosing "Font Size" gives you six choices (measured, I think, in pixel-height not points): 12, 16, 18, 20, 24, 32.

Choosing "Auto Turn Page" gives you 7 choices: Never, 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds, 40 seconds, 50 seconds, 60 seconds.

Choosing "Rotate" turns the screen to landscape mode by rotating the display 90 degrees to left (counterclockwise).

By the way, the ad also claims that the jetBook - Lite come with "Pre-loaded CIA World Factbook." The one I received didn't have that, or any other sample book.

Anyway ... last night I started reading a plain-text version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice from on my ECTACO jetBook - Lite, and I have to say I am favorably impressed by the hardware; the screen is lovely, and the ergonomics are very good, with three different ways to change pages. With a firmware upgrade to properly support eReader format, this might be a very nice ebook reader indeed.

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

ECTACO jetBook - Lite and eReader

Here's my experience after two hours with the ECTACO jetBook - Lite, an AA-battery-operated dedicated ebook reader with a very nice black-and-white non-backlit LCD sceen (instead of an e-ink display). I bought this specifically to read eReader-formatted books from; Fictionwise is promoting this reader on their site.

Despite Fictionwise's ad here, which shows "Dictionary" as the first menu choice [same graphic as above], dictionary lookup is not supported with eReader files. It only works with plain text files (or maybe with some other formats -- but NOT with eReader (whether DRM'd or not).

Really, Fictionwise-folk, you must take down that picture; it is misleading advertising.

Now, here is the un-effing-believable part: you have to enter your eReader unlock code [the credit-card number used to purchase the book] for each book (and it's a pain in the ASCII to do so, since the device has no keyboard, virtual or otherwise). It remembers the code for books you've already opened, but you have to enter it for each new book.

It took me about 90 seconds to enter my name (after I figured out how to do it); the credit-card number wasn't nearly as hard, but still the whole process takes about two minutes in total, and is VERY frustrating. I have never seen a device that supports eReader format that requires you to re-enter the exact same name and credit card information for each commercial book you open.

Features found in eReader software on other platforms that are not supported by the ECTACO jetBook - Lite:
  • dictionary lookup
  • highlighting
  • annotating
  • word search
  • hyperlinked table of contents
  • seeing how many pages/screens are in the current chapter
  • setting margin widths (and they're way too narrow by default)
  • toggling justification on/off (it is stuck ON for eReader files; it can be toggled for plain text files, though)
Font choices: Arial (sans-serif) or Verdana (also sans-serif) in various sizes. No serif face available.

Features the device does have:

Portrait and landscape: supported.

Auto-page turn: supported.

Actual formatting of books seems fine (well, ellipsis points that are coded as three periods with spaces between them sometimes split over two lines, which is wrong); none of the unbelievably bad formatting errors found with eReader books on the Foxit eSlick are in evidence on the jetBook. Forcing justification on is wrong, though; it should be a user-choice (justified lines look particularly bad on small screens, such as this device has).

The physical device is actually quite nice with decent enough ergonomics, and it's comfortable in the hand.

The screen is very good -- and one forgets how annoying the slow screen change on an e-ink device is until one sees something with a similar-looking screen that does it instantly. One also forgets how irritating the ghosting on e-ink devices is until using one that doesn't exhibit that behavior.

The poor eReader support -- no dictionaries, no way to turn off justification, making you enter your credit-card number every time you open a new book -- makes this pretty irritating as a device for reading premium content from Fictionwise.

As a plain ASCII text viewer (Project Gutenberg, anyone?), it's actually rather nice: justification on/off as you please, and dictionary support. But for eReader DRM'd books? Ugh -- I can live with the other deficiencies for the time being, but the need to enter my credit card number for every new book is a show-stopper.

For those in Canada, like me, ECTACO ships from a Canadian warehouse, by the way, so you avoid customs hassles (Americans get the device from the US warehouse). That's nice (and shipping was cheap).
Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Foxit eSlick and eReader ebooks

I've just received my Foxit eSlick, a dedicated ebook-reading device, under the current Fictionwise promotion. Delivery was very fast, even to Canada.

I've waited a long time for an e-ink ebook-reading device that supports secure eReader format. This device does, but with some major deficiencies.

These eReader features, standard on other platforms, are NOT supported:
  • dictionary lookup
  • highlighting
  • annotating
  • adding your own bookmarks
  • word search
  • seeing how many pages/screens are in the current chapter
  • setting margin widths
  • toggling justification on/off (mercifully, default is off)
Also missing: any way to change typeface (the only choice is Times Roman, or something similar; there is no sans-serif choice)

Features that ARE supported:
  • change font size
  • portrait and landscape reading
Biggest single problem:

The implementation of eReader software on the eSlick does an atrocious job of formatting text (and I mean atrocious -- was this beta-tested AT ALL?):

Periods, commas, question marks, and other punctuation wrap on their own to the beginning of new lines:
end of sentence
. Beginning of next

Or this sentence
, which has a comma

? That looks odd.
A phrase like "A U.S. senator" ends up as:
.S. senator
Also, line breaks are allowed after opening quotation marks:
"And so," he said, "
it's time to say hello."
Incredibly, line breaks are allowed after apostrophes within words:
I really don'
t know what they
Line break are also allowed midword, if a word contains an accented character: the o in the following is actually o with an umlaut:
dinger's cat
Other things that are irksome:

The middle button on the five-way navigator brings up "Go to Page" [by page number, with no buttons for first or last] which is silly (how often will you use that?), and, even sillier, is having it come up with the number "5" highlighted on the little keyboard, instead of "OK," meaning if you press the middle button by accident (and you will -- the navigator is a bit finicky) it's four keypresses to get out of it (down, down, left, center).

The software uses the term "Bookmark" on the menu when it means "Table of Contents." Fortunately, though, if the book has a hyperlinked table of contents, it does work on the eSlick.

No way to set margin widths -- and, in my view, the default is way too narrow: if your lighting source is off to one side, the first or last character in each line often ends up in the shadow cast by the bezel around the screen.

(I bought a black unit, but suggest you get white -- the crowding of the text toward the edge of the screen might not look as bad with a lighter casing.)

The file directory: on the plus side, it supports folders.

But the file directory shows only the filename, not any metadata (author's name, publisher, year), and only shows the often confusing filenames that Fictionwise assigns to ebooks, which sometimes include numerical strings at the front, or, evn worse, contain nothing but numerical strings. For instance:
A Thousand Words for Stranger.pdb
The one beginning 9780 is David Brin's The Uplift War, and the one beginning 9781 is my own FlashForward -- but there's no way at all you could tell from the eSlick's library listing. And, of course, if the filename begins with "The," the book is alphabetized under the Ts, instead of where it really belongs.


The good news is that the firmware in the Foxit eSlick is user-flashable. Let us hope a new software release, with much better eReader support, is coming soon.

UPDATE 16 February 2010: Well, they finally did update the firmware, and supposedly the problem with wonky line breaks is fixed -- but I, and many others, have reported on the official Foxit eSlick forum that the update will not install for us. The reports have been going up for six days now, and no one from Foxit has deigned to reply.
UPDATE 17 February 2010: On my sixth try, I finally got the firmware update to install, and to my great disappointment discover that they've turned the default from ragged-right margins to flush right with no way to turn it off. I'm very disappointed; this change was not documented anywhere, and, as with most small-screen displays, fully justified text looks crappy on the eSlick

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Huge changes at

I've long been a customer of, which was recently purchased by Barnes & Noble. But there's been a huge change in Fictionwise policy, and the only announcement I've seen is a notice at the very end of the pro forma receipt email you're sent after making a purchase there:
NOTICE: You should download your purchases as soon as possible. Fictionwise will maintain your purchases on your bookshelf for at least three months, and longer if we can, but that is not guaranteed. Make sure you back up your files.
This goes to the heart of two basic parts of Fictionwise's appeal.

First, many Fictionwise books, including the electronic versions of Analog, Asimov's, F&SF, and Interzone, are offered in what Fictionwise calls "Multiformat" -- you pay one price, and you get the books in all the formats Fictionwise offers, whenver you wish to download them: Mobipocket/Kindle, Sony Reader, eReader, PDF, iSilo, Rocket, ePub, and more.

The beauty of buying Multiformat was that you could go back and get the same book or magazine later in a different format without paying for it again. Except now apparently you either download ALL the formats (14 for each book) within three months of purchase, or you risk losing the very flexibility you paid for.

And there's a hint that Fictionwise is going to phase out those formats. Fictionwise has changed, again without any fanfare, the description of Multiformat books. Although all the formats are currently available, Multiformat is now described as:
Fictionwise MultiFormat titles are unencrypted eBooks that can be read with the FREE eReader application that you can download by clicking here. The eReader software is compatible with the following devices: Palm OS, Windows Mobile Pocket PC (Professional), Windows Mobile Smartphone (Standard), Symbian Series 60 or Symbian UIQ. You can also read eBooks on a Windows PC/Notebook, Apple Macintosh or an OQO Ultra Portable Computer.
And what about eReader, Fictionwise's DRM format? It's tied into your credit-card number -- and it used to be that you could go back at any time and update that number, and get a new version of the book that would be unlocked by the new number. But if the book disappears from your bookshelf after 90 days, you won't be able to do that; you'll be stuck with unlocking books with various numbers -- and I believe eReader software has a limit on how many different credit-card numbers it will accept.
Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Bringing some sense to ebook pricing

My favorite ebook format is eReader (now ultimately owned by Barnes & Noble), and they've announced some nice pricing initiatives over at, which should help to bring some sanity to ebook pricing: has the most competitive pricing in the industry, including:
  • All new titles are $9.95 or less for the first week after release at
  • After one week, all new titles are set to the publisher list price but will not exceed $12.95.
  • No title is priced over $12.95.
  • All titles on the New York Times best seller list at eReader are $9.95. The New York Times best seller list at eReader is updated every week.
  • All titles receive 15% eReader Rewards.
Note: These special offer price limits do not apply to multi-title bundles, subscriptions, and non-eBook products.
And, yup, my Wake, which is a $25 hardcover, is just $12.95 there, and my Hugo Award-winning Hominids is just $5.99.

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Friday, June 26, 2009

National Federation of the Blind launches lawsuit to prevent Kindles from being used

Because, as I've said all along, the text-to-speech feature on the Kindle series of ebook-reading device was not conceived as, never was intended to be, and can't be used as an assistive technology for the blind.

Read about the lawsuit here.
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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Richard Curtis on the Kindle and the blind

As always, Richard Curtis -- a leading literary agent -- has words of measured wisdom on the furor over the disabling of text-to-speech on the Amazon Kindle. You can read what Richard has to say on this topic in his blog at E-Reads.

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Digitial Barbarism

Just bought Digital Barbarism: A Writer's Manifesto by Mark Halperin and am very much looking forward to reading it. From the publisher:
Renowned novelist Mark Helprin offers a ringing Jeffersonian defense of private property in the age of digital culture, with its degradation of thought and language, and collectivist bias against the rights of individual creators. Mark Helprin anticipated that his 2007 New York Times op-ed piece about the extension of the term of copyright would be received quietly, if not altogether overlooked. Within a week, the article had accumulated 750,000 angry comments. He was shocked by the breathtaking sense of entitlement demonstrated by the commenters, and appalled by the breadth, speed, and illogic of their responses.

Helprin realized how drastically different this generation is from those before it. The Creative Commons movement and the copyright abolitionists, like the rest of their generation, were educated with a modern bias toward collaboration, which has led them to denigrate individual efforts and in turn fueled their sense of entitlement to the fruits of other people's labors. More important, their selfish desire to "stick it" to the greedy corporate interests who control the production and distribution of intellectual property undermines not just the possibility of an independent literary culture but threatens the future of civilization itself.
The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Authors Guild responds to the National Federation of the Blind

From The Authors Guild, of which I am a member:

Today, the National Federation of the Blind led a protest in front of the Guild's offices in Manhattan. This protest stems from Amazon's announcement in February that it would allow publishers to disable the voice-output feature of its Kindle 2 after we had objected that the feature threatened audio markets, violated authors' copyrights and exceeded the e-rights licenses that authors granted publishers.

The Guild, of course, is strongly supportive of making books accessible to the blind and other print-disabled readers through the Kindle and other devices. For decades (we think going back at least to the 1930s), authors have donated their rights so that Braille and audio versions can be made freely available to those who need them. The key is to make this technology accessible to print-disabled readers without undermining authors' audio markets.

There's an easy technological fix here: those with certified disabilities could have a Kindle operating system that is subtly modified to permit voice output for all books, overriding any limitations put in place by publishers. This could work in conjunction with existing programs such as Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, Bookshare and the National Library Service.

We issued the following statement today in response to the protest:

Authors want everyone to read their books. That's why the Authors Guild, and authors generally, are strong advocates for making all books, including e-books, accessible to everyone. This is not a new position for us. For decades, we've informed new authors that the expected and proper thing to do is to donate rights so that their works can be accessible to the blind and others. In October, we were praised by the National Federation of the Blind for the settlement of our lawsuit against Google, which promises "to revolutionize blind people's access to books," according to the Federation's press release.

E-books do not come bundled with audio rights. So we proposed to the Federation several weeks ago the only lawful and speedy path to make e-books accessible to the print disabled on Amazon's Kindle:

1. The first step is to take advantage of a special exception to the Copyright Act known as the Chafee Amendment, which permits the blind and others with certified physical print disabilities access to special versions, including audio versions, of copyrighted books. Technology makes this step easy: certified users of existing Kindles could activate their devices online to enable access to voice-output versions of all e-books. This process could be ready to go within weeks.

2. Since step one would help only those with sufficient eyesight to navigate the current Kindle, we encourage Amazon or another e-book device manufacturer to make an e-book device with voice output capability that would be truly blind-accessible, with a Braille keyboard and audible menu commands.

3. Finally, we need to amend existing book contracts to allow voice-output access to others, including those with learning disabilities, that don't qualify for special treatment under the Chafee Amendment. There's no getting around the need to amend contracts: for the past 16 years, standard publishing contracts with most major trade publishers do not permit publishers to sell e-books bundled with audio rights. Fortunately, publishing contracts are amendable, and can (once terms have been negotiated) be handled in a systematic fashion.

The Authors Guild will gladly be a forceful advocate for amending contracts to provide access to voice-output technology to everyone. We will not, however, surrender our members' economic rights to Amazon or anyone else. The leap to digital has been brutal for print media generally, and the economics of the transition from print to e-books do not look as promising as many assume. Authors can't afford to start this transition to digital by abandoning rights.

Knowing how difficult the road ahead is for the already fragile economics of authorship, we are particularly troubled at how all this arose, with Amazon attempting to use authors' audio rights to lengthen its lead in the fledgling e-book industry. We could not allow this rights grab to happen. Audio books are a billion dollar market, the rights for which are packaged separately from -- and are far more valuable than -- e-book rights.

That said, our support for access by all disabled readers is steadfast, and we know how to make it happen. The Federation rightly heralded the settlement in Authors Guild v. Google. That class-action settlement represents a quantum leap in accessibility to books for the disabled. It will, if approved, make far more books than ever before, potentially tens of millions of out-of-print books, accessible to not only the blind, but to people with any type of print disability.

Through the Google settlement, we have a solution for out-of-print book accessibility. We're confident we can arrive at a solution for in-print books as well.

Today's protest is unfortunate and unnecessary. We stand by our offer, first made to the Federation's lawyer a month ago and repeated several times since, to negotiate in good faith to reach a solution for making in-print e-books accessible to everyone. We extend that same offer to any group representing the disabled.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pre-order the Wake ebook has the ebook of my next novel Wake available for pre-order right here. The ebook -- and the paper book -- will be available April 7, 2009.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Yesterday, Publishers Weekly posted a good article about Fictionwise, the company I buy most of my ebooks from (I've purchased 1,230 ebooks of various lengths from them), and the company that offers the largest amount of RJS content electronically.

And today, I got my Fictionwise royalty check -- cool.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Monday, March 2, 2009

The Authors Guild on reversal

The Authors Guild sent this note to its members today concerning's announcment last week:

Amazon Reversal on Text to Speech on the Kindle 2

At the end of the business day on Friday, Amazon announced that it would allow publishers (and thereby many authors) to block text-to-speech audio functionality on a title-by-title basis for its Kindle 2 reading device.

This is a good first step. Amazon's Kindle 2 can convert text to audio through text-to-speech (TTS) software, making it a combination e-book reader and low-quality audiobook device. (The quality of the audio will improve, of course, as TTS software is refined.) Amazon's initial implementation of Kindle 2 would have added audio playback to your e-book regardless of whether Amazon had properly acquired audio rights. For most of you, Amazon's announcement means that it will now respect your contractual right to authorize (or not) the addition of computer-generated audio to your e-books sold for the Kindle. We will be sending recommendations to you shortly on your TTS audio rights.

One important consideration in those recommendations will be to ensure that visually impaired people have access to this technology. Book authors have traditionally authorized royalty-free copies in specialized formats intended for the visually impaired, and copyright law has long provided a means to distribute recordings to the blind. We can work this out.

Wall Street Journal on Amazon's announcement

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Why ebooks cost so much

Richard Curtis was my first literary agent (and he still represents several of my friends, including James Alan Gardner, Linux guru Marcel Gagné, Harlan Ellison, and Greg Bear).

Richard is one of the most insightful writers about the book business, and here he sheds light on the mystery of why ebooks cost so much.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Saturday, February 28, 2009 statement re Kindle and text-to-speech released this statement on Friday:

Kindle 2’s experimental text-to-speech feature is legal: no copy is made, no derivative work is created, and no performance is being given. Furthermore, we ourselves are a major participant in the professionally narrated audiobooks business through our subsidiaries Audible and Brilliance. We believe text-to-speech will introduce new customers to the convenience of listening to books and thereby grow the professionally narrated audiobooks business.

Nevertheless, we strongly believe many rights-holders will be more comfortable with the text-to-speech feature if they are in the driver’s seat.

Therefore, we are modifying our systems so that rightsholders can decide on a title by title basis whether they want text-to-speech enabled or disabled for any particular title. We have already begun to work on the technical changes required to give authors and publishers that choice. With this new level of control, publishers and authors will be able to decide for themselves whether it is in their commercial interests to leave text-to-speech enabled. We believe many will decide that it is.

Customers tell us that with Kindle, they read more, and buy more books. We are passionate about bringing the benefits of modern technology to long-form reading.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

New York Times op-ed: "The Kindle Swindle?"

Today's New York Times has an op-ed piece by Roy Blount, Jr., president of the Authors Guild, entitled The Kindle Swindle?

The Authors Guild has also put up a web page with demos of the Kindle's text-to-speech (TTS) feature here.

Oh, and by the way, not on this topic, but I occassionally do op-eds myself for major Canadian newspapers. An op-ed piece is an opinion piece or essay that appears opposite the editorial in a newspaper — it's a featured opinion piece by someone other than the newspaper's staff editorial writer. I've been commissioned to do op-ed pieces by both The Globe and Mail (Canada's national newspaper) and The Ottawa Citizen (the largest-circulation newspaper in Canada's capital city):
The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Sunday, February 22, 2009

eReader in beta for the BlackBerry Storm

Woot! eReader, my favourite ebook application -- recently released for the iPhone -- is now in beta for the BlackBerry Storm. Now, if they'd just get a version for an e-ink reader to market ...

eReader has a fair and livable DRM scheme tied to the user, rather than the user's hardware (unlike Mobipocket), and is much less wonky/buggy than Mobipocket (which still can't reliably do something as simple as paging backward through a file).

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Investing financially and emotionally in an eBook reader

An interesting phenomenon has emerged with discussion of ebook readers. You see it over on the iRex discussion forum, and in the hardware-specific topics on (the Kindle section, the Sony Reader section, and so on), and elsewhere: any criticism of the device (the hardware, the availability of content for it, and so on), is taken as a failing of character on the part of the person making the criticism, with sinister suggestions made about hidden agendas. It actually makes those discussion forums rather less pleasant -- and less productive -- than they should be.

My own take is this: people invest so much money in these devices (a Sony Reader is around US$300, a Kindle around US$350, an iRex iLiad around US$600) that it was a difficult purchase to make financially and psychologically, and they don't want anything said after the fact to instill or enhance regret.

Nothing new about this: we saw it for years in Mac / PC wars, we see it now in iPhone / Blackberry debates, and so on.

As long as the hardware is expensive, people will respond emotionally, rather than rationally, to discussions of the device they themselves have sacrificed to buy.

I hope the hardware prices will come way, way down in the next couple of years so that people will comment on and respond to the actual functioning of the device and not their financial/emotional investment in it.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Monday, February 16, 2009

And, just in case anyone has any doubts

... I love the Kindle, as I said loudly and clearly right here when it first came out. It's a great piece of hardware, and Jeff Bezos has done a lot to bring pricing sensibility to the ebook marketplace.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Sunday, February 15, 2009

To get major publisher content for the Kindle ...

... you have to buy from the Kindle store.

Over on, they have a thread entitled "Kindle Myths and Partial Truths," in which the very first claim is this:
Myth: If you buy a Kindle, you are locked into Amazon's Kindle store.

Truth: There are many sources for books that can be read on the Kindle.
And he goes on to site as an alternative.

My reply:

Weeeeelllll, since this thread is about "myth" vs. "truth," the "truth" should be the whole truth, explicitly spelled out.

Yes, it's a myth that you can only acquire content for the Kindle via the Amazon store. However, it's a truth that the only source for a wide range of major-publisher content is the Amazon store: you want a New York Times bestseller -- or even most of the authors you see in a bookstore or library (assuming their work is available as ebooks at all) -- you do have to buy from Amazon.

When someone buys an ebook reader to read novels by James Patterson or Stephen King (or even me) or nonfiction by Malcolm Gladwell or Bill Bryson, to tell them that -- hey, no probs, you can get Jane Austen's Emma over here -- is ducking the question and not really separating myth from truth. :)

Fictionwise's multiformat books available in Mobi format can indeed be used on the Kindle but they are principally titles from small publishers, old and otherwise out-of-print works, or public-domain works.

For a graphic example of the difference, simply go to the main page at The books listed on the left-hand side are the ones you can get there for the Kindle; the ones on the right-hand side are then ones you can't get for the Kindle anywhere but the Amazon store.

Myth vs. truth is useful discourse; obfuscating boosterism isn't. :) It seems "Kindle Myths and Partial Truths" is indeed an apt title for this thread.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Kindle 2, the Authors Guild, and the National Federation for the Blind

As I've already said, I support the ability of the blind and visually impaired to be able to use assistive technologies -- including screen-readers -- to access text. Hell, anyone who's read my Wake (recently serialized in Analog), which has a blind girl as the main character, can't have any doubts about that.

My grandfather was blind for most of his adult life, diabetes (a leading cause of blindness) is rampant in my family, and I myself spent six days blind in 1972 (hospitalized with both eyes covered because of a severe eye injury); I am totally, totally sympathetic to the needs of the blind. If you're blind, as I've said in this blog, I think it's perfectly fine for the Kindle (or any other device) to help you access text you've legitimately acquired.

But the market that Amazon is pursuing with the Kindle is not blind users. We need to clearly understand that Amazon did not put text-to-speech in the Kindle as an assistive technology; they put it in so people could have books read to them while driving in their cars, and so on: they put it in to go after the market segment that now buys audiobooks.

You want proof? If it were an assistive technology, then the user interface for the Kindle 2 would also support text-to-speech, and it doesn't. I quote Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, on this very point:
We note, however, that the device itself cannot be used independently by a blind reader because the controls to download a book and begin reading it aloud are visual and therefore inaccessible to the blind.
Now, some have said the text-to-speech quality is so bad that no one but the blind would routinely use it; it's a "GPS voice," as Stephen King called it. But it will not always be so; Amazon is savvy enough to grab the rights now when few will use this technology, rather than waiting until the technology is more mature and widely used.

Authors have ALREADY FOR DECADES NOW waived their rights to income from audio versions of their work made for the blind, whereas Amazon has said nothing about giving away ebooks -- let alone Kindles -- to blind users. We authors are the ones with the established track record of supporting the rights of the blind; let's not forget that: we've been the good guys for decades when it comes to making our content freely available to the blind.

This is not an authors vs. the blind issue, and to paint it as such is unfair and misleading. I fully grant that an accommodation for the needs of the blind and visually impaired has to be found as we move ahead with technology, but an accommodation for authors' rights has to be found, too.

And the bottom line hasn't changed: contracts have been breached, and unless and until we decide that contracts don't matter in our society, that fact should not be glossed over.

Indeed, I bet that if Amazon had approached authors' organizations first and asked if they could do this, they would have gotten permission from authors' groups to do it for free (or, perhaps, on condition that Amazon donate a portion of its profits on the Kindle hardware and the ebooks it sells to the National Federation of the Blind). But they didn't ask. They just took the rights -- and that's wrong.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site