Sunday, July 11, 2010

iBooks Cook!

Once, alone atop the e-books pyramid, was Amazon's Kindle. Along came Barnes & Noble's Nook, trying to unseat it. Now there's Apple's iBooks.

iBooks is, like Kindle and Nook, a way to read e-books on a handheld device. But whereas Kindle e-books prefer Amazon's dedicated Kindle reader and Nook e-books prefer B&N's dedicated Nook handheld, Apple's iBooks can be read on any of several Apple iDevices: on the brand new iPad and on any iPhone or iPod Touch that employs Apple's latest-and-greatest mobile operating system, iOS 4.0.

iBooks App Icon
iBooks is an app that runs on those devices; it's not an integral feature. If you buy an iPad or iPhone 3GS, you don't have to get, or use, the free iBooks app. But reading e-books is the main reason you'd buy a Kindle or Nook, so the software that does that is bundled with the device.

iBooks is also an online store, the iBookstore ... part of Apple's iTunes Store:

iBooks Store in iTunes

The iBooks app is designed to make it easy for you to buy e-books from the iBookstore. You do it right in the iBooks app. Purchases go on the same credit card or PayPal account you use to buy music from the iTunes Store. Then they instantly download wirelessly to your iDevice. Later, when you sync your iDevice to iTunes on your computer, your iBooks purchases get copied to it, too.

That's also what happens with music downloads ... with one crucial difference. If you download an album but later delete it from your iTunes library and from your various iDevices, you can't get it back without buying it again. But with iBooks, you can trash all your personal copies of a book and later on go back to the iBookstore and download the same book again, for free, from the Purchases section.

That one's purchases stick around forever at the iBookstore allows me to do what I intend to do soon. I am now using iBooks on my iPhone while accumulating enough cash ($499 and up) for an iPad. When I get the iPad, I can just sync to it the books I currently have in iTunes ... but if there are books I have purchased but have removed from iTunes, I can retrieve them, at no further cost, from the iBookstore.

Using iBooks on the iPhone

Reading books in iBooks on my iPhone is just a wee bit more pleasant than using any of the other e-book apps I've tried, though many of the details are the same. For instance, to turn a page in iBooks you can either tap on the right side of the screen or swipe your finger from right to left. Some other apps make you choose between these two options, but iBooks recognizes both.

The turning of a page in iBooks actually looks super-realistic:

The few settings you can customize in iBooks ... there aren't many ... allow you to to choose a display font and size, alter the page brightness, and flip between a white page background and a sepia one. (I like the sepia one.) These settings are available as tiny icons superimposed at the top of every page:

You can dismiss the icons by tapping page-center, and then bring them back the same way. When the settings icons are visible, so is a button that exits you back to your Library. The Library's graphic metaphor is a bookshelf:

Another settings button brings up the table of contents of your current book:

Yet another icon brings up a standard search-for-text function that locates, in the current book, whatever text you type in, while another icon bookmarks the current page:

iBooks in Landscape Mode

The red symbol is the bookmark itself; it obscures the smaller icon you tap to create the bookmark. If you tap the red bookmark symbol again, the bookmark is removed from the current page.

When the superimposed icons are visible, there's a handy display at page-bottom that tells you numerically and graphically how far through the book your current position is, and a slider control which can be dragged to the right or left to move to a different page. "159 pages left" at lower right refers to how many pages are left in the current chapter. (Of course, these "pages" are really just screenfuls of text, with "page" capacity depending on font size. If you change the font size, the "page" numbering updates to reflect the change.)

Even when the superimposed icons are invisible, there remains at page-bottom a figure like "1468 of 2810": the number of "pages" you are into the book.

One advantage iBooks has over many other e-book readers is the ability to display color graphics:

iBooks lets you annotate text:

iBooks lets you highlight text in various colors:

Your bookmarks, annotations, and highlighted text show up in your book's table of contents for easy retrieval:

The iBookstore

You buy iBooks at the iBookstore — part of the familiar iTunes Store. The iBookstore give you access to "Featured" books ...

... to New York Times bestsellers ...

... to Classics, which are not necessarily free of charge ...

... and to all of the free-of-charge books from Project Gutenberg.

You can also search the iBookstore for specific titles and authors you are interested in. Here is one of my own search results:

(Notice that I'd already downloaded the book when I took the screenshot.)

iBooks Pricing and the New "Agency" Model

If you look back at the screenshot for James Patterson and Maxine Paetro's Private, at the iBookstore it costs $12.99! Here I come to one of the biggest complaints about iBooks: we lovers of e-books can no longer expect to pay the erstwhile norm, $9.99, for bestsellers. The reason can be read in "Publish or Perish: Can the iPad topple the Kindle, and save the book business?" by Ken Auletta, from the April 26, 2010, issue of The New Yorker.

Basically, $9.99 was the price that Amazon chose to charge for bestsellers, back when the Kindle was new. Amazon was taking a sizable loss on each e-book sold for that price, since it had paid the book's publisher much more than that $9.99. This was fine with Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, who was mainly interested in selling lots of Kindles and books to read on them, thereby establishing Amazon's e-book market supremacy.

Publishers hated it. Even if Amazon was buying e-books from them at acceptable prices, the publishers feared thatthe e-book market, as it grew, would erode their traditional market for printed books.

When Apple's Steve Jobs was lining up publishers for his new iBooks operation, five of the six biggest publishing houses signed on: Penguin Books, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan Publishers, and Hachette Book Group USA. But the biggest of all, Random House, wouldn't.

The problem? Random House wasn't thrilled with the new "agency model," according to the terms of which the others of the Big Six were agreeing to furnish e-books to Apple (their bookselling "agent") for a set to-the-public selling price: in the case of Patterson and Paetro's Private and of many other hot sellers, $12.99. Of that price, Apple would keep 30 percent, and the rest would go to the publisher. Out of the publisher's take would come authors' royalties and all usual costs of book publishing.

Random House chairman/CEO Markus Dohle feared the agency model's spread to Amazon and elsewhere. And well he should have ... according to the terms of the model, the publisher receives less money per e-book sold than with the old Amazon model! With 30 percent of $12.99, or $3.90, staying with Apple, the publisher is left with $9.09 — less than the erstwhile Amazon price of $9.99 for a bestseller, which in turn was significantly less than Amazon had originally been paying the publisher for the e-book.

Dohle was prescient. The Patterson-Paetro book is now available at Amazon's Kindle Store for ... $12.99! A notation below the price says, "This price was set by the publisher."

Hello, agency model!

Random House and Apple are apparently still in negotiations, but for now you won't be able to buy (for example) Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol at the iBookstore. Brown is published by Doubleday, which is owned by Random House.

It's clear to me that this situation cannot long stand. If Steve Jobs cannot get Markus Dohle on board — on whatever terms — his iBooks experiment will flop.

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