Review: Kogan eBook Reader

At this year’s Willylit festival, Chris Flynn made a convincing sales pitch for eBook readers. Not only are eBook readers ‘libraries-in-hand’, they’re also tree-savers, since only a small part of a book printed in the US is made from recycled paper.

I was reluctant to rush out and buy a Kindle however, since it would limit me to DRM material from Amazon, and I hate monopoly, especially in the publishing industry where it affects both authors and consumers. There’s a few other low-end eBook readers out there, such as the Kobo, but I thought I’d give the Kogan a go. Kogan is an online store, and there was no opportunity to play rough on a demo device, so I ruminated before clicking the ‘shopping cart’ icon. I bought it in the end because the Kogan supported an amazing range of eBook formats as well as being Adobe DRM-friendly.

My Kogan eBook Reader arrived on Monday. It’s teeny-weeny bit smaller than a DVD cover, and the screen is six-inches, same as a Kobo. The buttons feel a bit plasticky and unresponsive (think of the old Nokia 3210s), but the e-ink screen is easy on the eyes. Size of the font was not an issue for Kogan’s preloaded material, but my uploaded Adobe books sported newspaper-print, which can be a problem for the visually impaired. One can zoom in and reformat pages of course, but then one ends up with widow text.

One major flaw with the Kogan is that it doesn’t have a ‘last page’ function. On one occasion, my Kogan switched off after being idle for too long. I forgot to bookmark my page, so on my return, I had to trawl through half of the book to find my spot again.

With a potential storage capacity of 34G (using a 32G SDHC card to shore up the built-in 2G memory), the Kogan can store images and music as well. I’m not sure why anyone would want to look at images in greyscale, but an eBook reader that also works as a basic MP3 device would be muchos useful for travellers. One less gadget to fit into your hand luggage.

In regards to Mac/PC compatibility, Kogans seem to be Mac-unfriendly. I got around this hiccup by uploading books onto my SD card, but this is frustrating, especially when I know my Kogan can sync with Adobe Digital Editions.

Nevertheless, I’m pleased with my purchase. When it comes to buying books, bookshelf space has always been a limiting factor for me, and it’s nice to have a home for closet publications (i.e. trashy fantasy). I know this is very ‘Stuff White People Like’**, but, hey, you’ve got to agree with me that fantasy books take up a lot of space. Stephanie Meyer*, anyone?

To find out more on Kogan eBook Readers, visit Kogan’s website here. For eBook reader geeks, I’d suggest looking at iTWire’s more comprehensive review.

*Note: I was so ashamed of my Stephanie Meyer collection, that I donated the whole lot to the Borders Bushfire Appeal. I really should borrow books first before buying them.

**Second Note: I suppose that makes me a wannabe white person? Okay, let’s not go there…

Willylitfest *giggle*

Blue skies and a ‘Let’s Be frankie‘ panel lured me and my bike out to Williamstown on Saturday. I didn’t think I’d make it back home before sunset, so I picked up these cute bike lights along the way:

Skully front light

Skully back light

On my ride, I caught the Westgate Punt, a scenic shortcut across the water. It was temporarily commandeered by someone’s youngster, but I arrived safely at the Scienceworks Museum and continued along the coastal trail.

At the ‘Let’s Be frankie‘ session, frankie senior contributors Marieke Hardy and Benjamin Law described the magazine as frank articles plus cupcakes, craft, and rock & roll. Having never read or seen frankie, I started picturing shots of pink teacups, jauntily arranged on astroturf, juxtaposed next to awkward descriptions of bodily functions. Having written about personal experiences such as losing one’s virginity, Benjamin and Marieke discussed the ‘illusion of intimacy’* that they had manufactured. Marieke also used to blog; only 20% of her personal life became blog fodder, though her parents did develop a catchphrase rather like ‘and that’s not going in the blog’.

Right to left: Susan Bird (chair), Benjamin Law, and Marieke Hardy @ 'Let's Be frankie' (1/5/10)

I returned the next day for ‘From the Quill to the Kindle‘, a much more formal discussion between Sophie Cunningham, Chris Flynn, and Dmetri Kakmi about the so-called death of the book and eBook revolution.

left to right: Sophie Cunningham, Chris Flynn, and Dmetri Kakmi @ 'From the Quill to the Kindle' (2/5/10)

Working from a prepared speech, Dmetri described eBook trends that defied initial suppositions. Prime eBook consumers were not sci-fi/fantasy-reading, tech-savy geeks but tended to be thirty-five-to-forty-year-old females with tastes that reflected their hardcopy-buying counterparts.

Chris Flynn brought up environmental concerns. In a 2006 report, it was revealed that recycled paper makes up only 5-10% of books published in the US**. Publishers are aiming to improve this figure, but this means that thirty million trees are cut down each year for US books alone**. Our habit of collecting our favourite books is a selfish one.

Technology, however, is dictating the terms of the alternative. While you may own a physical book, you can never own an eBook, only the right to keeping a copy of it. If you breach your contract with Amazon, the copies get wiped. In other words, you can lend your Kindle to a friend, but you can’t let them borrow a copy of your favourite book. Libraries are screwed in this electronic universe, and writers/publishers can do little to help them, unless they release an open source version of their book.

Meanwhile, Sophie Cunningham examined how eBooks and eReaders may change reading/writing habits. Podcasts have already revived the audio book. Will access to social media on devices such as the iPad affect the way we read? Will collaborative processes, such as commenting/feedback on uploaded drafts, change the writing process? Computers certainly have. In the past, typewriting forced people to recreate drafts from scratch, whilst computers allowed for more sloppier writing via ‘cut and paste’ methods. Sophie hoped that the novel will survive this eReader revolution as a rarified form.

From the Quill to the Kindle‘ managed to outline what seems to be a mammoth topic. There’s a plethora of articles on eBooks available on the interwebs. Try ‘Publish or Perish: Can the iPad topple the Kindle, and save the book business?‘ (via theliftedbrow), and ‘Amazon Erases Orwell Books from Kindles‘ for starters.

After Willylitfest *giggle*, I went down to Gem Pier with my fellow literary punters  who nearly incited a seagull riot with their chips. I have not seen The Birds, but seagulls are scary in numbers.

*Benjamin and Marieke also mentioned ‘frankie girls’ but never satisfactorarily explained the term. I did a Google search and found this.

**Figures confirmed via ecolibris.net.

Death of the printed journal: an interview with Chris Flynn about electronic distribution (Part 2)

TL: I guess that’s the good thing about Kindle. You’re only getting 35% of RRP but you’re guaranteed that 35%. And you don’t have to worry about print runs, etc. Does this mean that the 35% will go to the creatives?

CF: And don’t forget after June 30th we’ll get 70% from Amazon, and 70% from Apple once they launch the ibook store and we convert to that format. You’re also right that without print costs any money made will mean I can finally pay contributors a small stipend each, which I was never able to do in print. Although the huge assumption here is the mythical, oft-forgotten last link in the chain, the reader, will actually buy the damn thing. Torpedo sales were never anywhere near those of Meanjin or The Brow and in theory we might have a much wider audience now and be offering a journal much more cheaply and directly into the palm of the hand, but that doesn’t mean readers are queuing up to hand over their five bucks.

Marketing is the biggest skill absent from most independent publishing houses. Having a bunch of creative, artistic people working together to produce a great journal is all very well, but how does the reader find out about it? It’s easy to cover the six hundred or so people in Australia in the indie publishing scene, but what about the other twenty million Australians? How do you even reach 1% of those without a marketing budget and plan? It’s easy to believe people will love your journal, but the reality is most people will never hear about it. I have no solution to that one. If I did, I’d be selling a few thousand copies per issue and still working in print.

TL: True, marketing isn’t taught much in the writing and editing courses (or at least not in mine). I know The Brow has a couple of marketing advisers, which helps, though Ronnie Scott seems to have a knack of making things that sell.

So that’s it? No more beautifully designed bound copies of Torpedo?

CF: The thing is I paid for everything out of my salary when I worked full time and never made a penny from it (or never got my money back for that matter either). I don’t work full time anymore and because each issue made a loss that’s the end of that unfortunately. I’ve outlaid almost twenty grand in the past two years for no return. Quite a sobering thought. It’s been great though and I don’t regret it. I just wish a few more readers had been interested in buying it so it could have survived in print form, but them’s the breaks. I’m happy to let all the other journal editors worry about printers, distributors and postage from now on.

Torpedo will continue to publish work that I think is exciting, but on a different platform, hopefully one that will have an ever increasing audience rather than a dwindling one…I’m glad I was bald when I started all this, otherwise I would have pulled all my hair out.

TL: That has got to be the most depressing thing I’ve learnt all week. And I’ve noticed that we’ve just been discussing money for the last couple of hours. Money’s a dirty word in the literary scene (even more dirty than ‘networking’). But maybe there’s something to be learnt from Torpedo? Your thoughts?

CF: I hope there is a lesson to be learnt, and I’m quite happy to talk openly about the unmentionable issues. The most important piece of advice I would give any aspiring journal editor/publisher is this: Don’t kid yourself. You’re not breaking any moulds or doing anything that previous generations (or people you don’t know about in your own generation) haven’t already done. No matter how awesome you think what you’re doing is, you have to be realistic. If you don’t have much money starting out, you’re not going to make much money back. Morry Schwartz told me that if you were able to convince every single tertiary educated, discerning Australian book-reading adult that your fiction journal was something they absolutely must have (and how on earth would you manage that) then chances are you might just sell 4000 copies. Max. And he has half a billion bucks in the bank, so his reach is greater than ours. That’s why he doesn’t publish one. McSweeney’s only sells 16,000 copies worldwide and it has a superstar editor. The average published book only sells 800 copies and if your Aussie lit journal sells that many, you deserve an Order of Australia medal. It’s worth remembering that it’s not all about sales, but if you want your journal to be around for more than a couple of issues and don’t have any grants to sustain you, that’s the beast you’re going to have to confront.

Torpedo opened so many doors for me personally and it might be one of those retrospective selling things once I’m accepting an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical Comedy, but without the Eggers wow factor, a new journal is equal parts foolhardy, brave and insane. I’m sure Ronnie only sells The Brow because people think he’s a ninety-nine-year-old jazz legend (who is in fact deceased).

TL: Well, I think that’s a wrap. Thanks Mr Flynn for your honest advice, and now I owe you a coffee or perhaps some badly baked cupcakes.

CF: There’s no such thing as a bad cupcake.

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Back to previous post, ‘Death of the printed journal: an interview with Chris Flynn about electronic distribution (part 1)’.

Death of the printed journal: an interview with Chris Flynn on the hows and whys of electronic distribution (part 1)

Less than two weeks ago, Torpedo announced the release of its back catalogue on Kindle and the demise of its print issues. According to its blog, Torpedo is the first Australian journal to embrace the Kindle format, citing prohibitive printing and postage costs and a saturated lit market as its reasons to go digital. I thought this was a bit space age, so I started bugging Torpedo’s editor Chris Flynn about the transition process; he was nice enough give me some decent replies.

TL: How does it feel to be the first Australian journal on Kindle?

CF: In Australian terms, it feels good to be a pioneer and to be embracing new technology, though there are virtually no Kindles in circulation in Australia, so that’s unfortunate. Still, it means we’re available on iphone and PC through the apps, but people seem to be unwilling to make that much of an effort. Since launching it on Kindle last week, every sale we’ve had has been in the U.S. No Australians as yet. Part of the problem there is that we’re so far behind with this technology. Americans have had Kindles for almost two years now and Amazon sold several million in the last quarter of 2009 alone. In New York, it’s not so much a case of ‘have you got a Kindle’ but ‘what sort of skin have you got for your Kindle’. We seem a long way off that here in Australia and I find that a little embarrassing.

TL: Yeah. We’re a bit backward in the outback. I don’t have a Kindle and I don’t have an iphone. I didn’t even know that we could put journals onto Kindle. Is it easy to set up? How does one go about it?

CF: It is and it isn’t. You have to register with Amazon as a publisher and present your credentials to them so they know you’re not uploading books you don’t have the rights to. All that takes a little while. Once that’s done, it’s a matter of playing with their desktop publishing software, which is easy to use, and creating html versions of your books. Having some coding experience is handy, but html is not as difficult as it might seem to the layman.

You definitely need a physical Kindle to test how your books look before putting them up live on the Amazon store though. There are limitations to what they’re capable of at this stage too. Although they can handle 32 shades of grey, some photos, illustrations and comics don’t look very good, mainly because you can’t zoom in the way you can on an iphone, and will be able to on an ipad. Plus, no colour. So for the moment the Kindle versions of most books are relatively simple text-only format. But hey, it’s a book, what more do you want? Once they go colour and touchscreen, graphic novels and photography will be perfect for the format, as it will be an inexpensive method of displaying rich content.

The financial model has come under question since Apple’s ipad announcement. Amazon currently take 65% of the list price of every book sold on their store, but on June 30th that will change to 30%, in line with what Apple are proposing.

TL: So Amazon takes 65% from your RRP (hopefully less in the future). How does this compare to the middle-men who distribute print journals, for example Readings, Mag Nation, and Selectair?

CF: Selectair (or Speedimpex as they are now known, since their amalgamation with Europress) are the only Australian magazine distributor who will distribute independent titles…Selectair also take 65% of the cover price, which is quite a lot considering how much it costs to print. Getting 35% back on the cover price makes it very problematic in covering print costs and paying staff/contributors. Also, you have to pay to ship your stock to Sydney where they are based.

If you distribute yourselves through shops like Readings and Mag Nation, you may be able to strike better deals (where they take as low as 35-40%) but you have to manage that distribution yourself and that is very time consuming. Plus, you have to chase up invoices and as a small player it can be very difficult getting money back. Readings are good eggs in this respect, but there are unfortunately many independent bookstores that I have found to be sadly unreliable when it comes to paying me what I’m owed. They’re keen to have the stock to make their store look good, but less enthusiastic when it comes to paying their bills it seems. That’s a real shame and it makes it hard for an independent publisher to get behind independent bookstores.

TL: You’ve mentioned in private that you’ve lost a bit of stock through dealing with unreliable independent bookstores, a common pitfall that emerging journals are often unaware of. Can you tell us more about this? Who are the bad eggs?

CF: Obviously I can only speak about the stores I’ve had personal dealings with, despite having heard about the problems other journals may have had. When I self-distributed my magazine Litmus Journal prior to Torpedo, I had problems getting money back from McGills (now closed) on Elizabeth Street, and unfortunately Metropolis in Curtin House. I like that bookstore, and I’m sure the hundred bucks or whatever it was at the time wasn’t high on their priority list, but when you’re an indie publisher it only takes a few stores to be slack in paying their bills for your next issue to be screwed. Perhaps other editors/writers will tell a different story, but I’ve heard too many people talking about this topic to stake the future of my journal on it. That’s why I chose not to distribute Torpedo in any bookstores at all (except Readings). I knew if I ended up waiting six months for a few hundred bucks here and there to be paid back to me, the next issue would be put in jeopardy and I didn’t want to spend half my time chasing up invoices that I felt should have been paid automatically at the end of the month or whatever.

There’s a strange symbiotic relationship between independent publishers and independent bookstores. They rely on each other. I just feel personally that the bookstores aren’t as invested in keeping the publishers alive as the publishers are in supporting the bookstores. That’s short-sighted and makes no long term business sense and I know no one likes paying bills, but if stores want fresh stock on their shelves then they have to understand that’s not possible unless they tighten up their invoice-paying process.

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More ‘Death of the printed journal’ will be posted up on Thursday. Meanwhile, read Torpedo’s post on Kindle here.