Yesterday, Scott posted the good news that six Bay Area libraries are making audiobooks available as downloads that readers can listen to on their digital devices. At least one other library appears to be jumping on the digital download bandwagon, but this one is providing the mp3 player as part of the deal. The South Huntington Public Library in Suffolk County, New York, is lending out iPod Shuffles preloaded with audiobooks. Right now the selection is pretty limited, but I think the news that libraries are beginning to digitally distribute audiobooks could point towards a burgeoning revolution in the audiobook business. Goodbye CDs 1 through 28, hello davincicode.mp3. (This is especially exciting news for me since this happens to be the childhood library of Mrs. Millions. I’ll have to look for the iPods next time I stop by.)
Publishers want to be the only ones allowed to make digital copies of books, and what does the reading public get for it? Widgets. These self-contained online readers are meant to provide an anywhere-on-the-Web presence for books, especially on blogs and even, god forbid, on MySpace. But before we get to the merits of this initiative, lets look at what we’re working with.Earlier this week, HarperCollins unveiled its “Browse Inside” widget, and Random House followed soon after with its “Browse & Search” widget (announcing it to the world with a somewhat breathless “Breaking News” email alert). Both widgets have two components, a smaller interface that, when clicked, launches a larger digital reader. Here’s an example of HarperCollins’ widget (click it to launch the reader). And here’s Random House’s (It’s at the right. Once again, click on the widget to launch the reader.) Right now, Random House has more than 5,000 books in the program while HarperCollins has nearly 2,000, though both publishers intend to make more titles available by widget. At a glance, the Random House offering is much nicer to look at, faster to load pages, and offers additional functions like search. So, if you want to know who winds the first round of the “Widget Wars,” Random House does.But who cares. Publishers have exerted a tremendous amount of effort to wrest control of their books from third-party digitizers like Google, and the apparent goal of this effort is to spawn viral campaigns for their books and little more. While somewhat nifty to look at, these widgets offer little more in terms of functionality than the Amazon “Look Inside” feature. The only real innovation is the ability to place these readers on any Web pages. Frankly, however, I fail to see how this serves anyone but the publishers looking to “virally” spread the word about their books.As a book blogger, I am presumably an ideal candidate to place these widgets all over my Web site, but I have other, better ways to point people to info about books. A link to Amazon (or Powell’s) makes it easy for my readers to find out most anything they might want to know about a book, from its physical dimensions, to reviews from critics and readers, to, in many cases, a peek inside the book. It’s also important to note that both Amazon and Powell’s actually provide an incentive for linking to them, offering a small commission, should site owners decide to take it, for sales that result from click-throughs to their sites. These online bookstores also let the site owner control the interaction, so that appearance of the links and images add to, rather than distract from the content of the site they are on.These widgets, on the other hand, are akin to putting a big billboard on the side of your house and getting nothing in return.At the same time, from the perspective of readers, I fail to see usefulness of these widgets. Offering a dozen or so pages is fine. Readers can get a taste of a book if they want, but in this context the widgets again serve as little more than ads. we are meant to stumble across them on blogs or at MySpace and be enticed to make an impulse buy. They do not, however, harness the power of the Web to approximate any sort of useful experience. There’s a reason why you don’t see any bookstores selling only Random House books or only HarperCollins books. People want access to a bigger chunk of the universe of books when they are researching, browsing, or buying. This is why third parties (book stores) handle the selling, and, they more I think about it, this is why third parties should handle the online experience as well. And right now, Google Book Search does this the best. They have a widget, too, and as you may have realized I’m not a fan of widgets, but at least Google’s widget points to a useful service, where readers can discover (and if they want to, buy) books that interest them.Regardless of what I think, though, the age of the widget is here. Plenty of companies want a piece of our blogs and MySpace pages, and publishers are just jumping on the bandwagon.Update: I should add that Random House’s broader offering, “Insight,” is open to other publishers who want to sign on (for a fee, I’m guessing), and extends beyond the widget to potentially partnering with online retailers and making the contents of books accessible to search engines.Also, as Bookblog.net points out, I missed that Random House lets people allows you to customize the “Buy” button to point to your preferred online bookstore and supports affiliate links. Based on this new info, I think Random House has actually put together a pretty compelling tool. (Though I still won’t be likely to use it since I’d rather just point people off my site if they want to peek inside a book.)
Back at the beginning of September I mentioned a new book cataloging site called LibraryThing. It had only just gotten underway and I was busy so I didn’t try it out at the time. It looked like the sort of thing that, if it ever reached a critical mass, could be phenomenal, but it seemed to me like it would take a while.Well, it didn’t. I was reminded of the site by an AskMe thread today, so I went to check it out and was astonished to find that in about six months, people have catalogued almost two million books using LibraryThing. This much data allows for some really cool features. For starters, check out the zeitgeist page, where the aggregate numbers are used to generate lists of the “most owned books” and the “most contentious books” along with several other lists. Also very nifty is the “social information” page for each book. Here’s the page for East of Eden. By crunching all the aggregate data about users who have this book, LibraryThing can generate a number of lists of related books. On top of that, the whole site is very slick and easy to use and understand.I entered about a dozen books just to try it out today, and I’ll probably work my way through my library at some point – I’m just waiting for some free time since I’m in danger of getting sucked in.
With each new holiday season the reach of ereaders expands, as a new crop of Kindles, Nooks and iPads are fired up. The first thing to do is download a few books.
Just a few years after ebooks and ereaders first emerged as futuristic curiosity, they are fully mainstream now. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, old-school readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are very popular. Looking at the statistics that Amazon provides us, 45% of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links this year were Kindle ebooks. Last year it was 33% and the year before it was 25%, so the trend continues unabated.
So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going.
For starters, The Millions published a pair of very highly regarded and very affordable ebook originals in 2013. If you are new to the ereader game, we hope you’ll pick up these titles:
Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by Mark O’Connell ($1.99)
The Pioneer Detectives: Did a distant spacecraft prove Einstein and Newton wrong? by Konstantin Kakaes ($2.99)
Here are some of the most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2013 (which you’ll see are very similar to our Hall of Fame and most recent top-ten which take into account books in all formats). Publishers appear to still be having luck pricing ebooks pricing above the magic $9.99 number that has been a focus for many in the industry (all prices as of this writing).
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt ($7.50)
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner ($10.99)
Selected Stories by Alice Munro ($10.74)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton ($8.59)
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon ($10.99)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri ($9.99)
Tenth of December by George Saunders ($8.99)
Fox 8 by George Saunders ($0.99)
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer ($8.99)
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda ($11.04)
MaddAdam by Margaret Atwood ($1.99)
Other potentially useful ebook links:
And in this fractured ebook landscape, you’ve also got your NookBooks, Google ebooks, Apple ibooks, and the IndieBound ereader app that lets you buy ebooks from your favorite indie bookstore. Finally, don’t forget Project Gutenberg, the original purveyor of free ebooks (mostly out-of-copyright classics) available for years.