Penny Gnomes Price Drop!

Penny Gnomes CoverIf you’ve been considering picking up an eBook of In The Land Of The Penny Gnomes then this is your lucky weekend! Now through Sunday the eBook is on sale in the Kindle store for only 99 cents!

I’m a bit biased, but this would make a great read for a holiday weekend.

%error% Just as long as you don’t leave us on clearance permanently. %error%

And now the characters are infiltrating my blog. Great.

Textbook pain

My son is visually impaired. It doesn’t slow him down all that much, but it does make school more difficult than it would be for him if he had better vision. Several years ago we got him an iPad so he’d be able to read – it’s been amazing for him. The iPad has become my son’s notepad, eBook reader, and word processor. The ability to pinch-zoom on just about anything really is magical (yes, geeks growled at Steve Jobs when he referred to the iPad with that description, but it is amazing). This year he’s even able to scan workbook pages with an app and import them into Notability to edit (that is, when he’s not feeling too self-conscious).

The only place the iPad hasn’t been helpful is with textbooks. School textbooks layouts take visual stimuli, inject with with crack, and vomit it on to a page. I am a visual learner (as is my son), but school textbooks break up the data so much it’s almost impossible to figure out what’s important if you’re a fully sighted person. If you have difficulty seeing, it’s a nightmare. Particularly when a reading curriculum depends on “open book” tests.

Unfortunately, textbook publishers have been slow to take up digital publishing. Even when they have jumped into these waters, it’s been done tentatively. Rather than make actual eBook versions of their textbooks, publishes have opted for web-versions which are identical to the printed page. This would be a minor annoyance which could be overcome with pinch-zoom and dragging but for one huge flaw in the implementation – the online versions of the books depend on flash. Not only does this make them inaccessible on the iPad without a third party browser like Puffin, it removes the very accessibility features which make the iPad such a valuable tool in the first place. Imagine our frustration! Imagine my son’s! Sadly, Reading has sapped the joy of reading from him.

So here is my call to textbook publishers.

Please, end your tentative wading into the digital world and jump in. Stop being enamored with your busy layouts and accept that digital screens require a different type of format – a format already set for you by the ePub standard. You may still have your images, charts, and call-outs – an ePub, after all, is basically a XML file with specific extensions. In such a format all your added charts, call-outs, and “think abouts” could just be links which could be tapped in order to access. Images could be embedded into the text itself, and tapped to access a zoom-able version. By taking up this standard, students like my son could have access to the same content a fully-sighted student has, and without a suffering from a diminished experience. If he can’t see something, he may simply enlarge the text and continue reading.

I understand publishers have a business model to protect. To this end I have no problem if you apply some kind of DRM to your textbooks, linked to an account for each student. I dislike DRM intensely, but I understand textbooks are not like other books. They are meant to be used year after year in the same class context. Students don’t own textbooks (at least, not until college), they borrow them from their school. If DRM can be a way to make sure the books get “handed in,” then I’ll grudgingly make a exception for it in this case. Just understand any system you develop will be cracked, but most people will play by the rules if you treat them well.

Just, please, make the shift to standard eBooks while I can still salvage some of my son’s educational experience.

Simply the Nook

Nook Simple Touch box

I received my Father’s Day present a bit early this year. My wife let it slip that she was planning on getting me an eReader as a present, and had to pick the model I wanted. Thanks to some sleuthing I managed to track down a Nook Simple Touch with Glow Light at a local Target, and off we went to pick it up. I just finished my first book on the device, Prisoner of Azkaban, and have some thoughts on the device.

First, I was impressed as soon as I went to open the packaging. The Nook comes in a minimalist package that is both beautiful and incredibly easy to open. The box has two flaps, one which contains the power adapter and usb cable and the other which contains the Nook and a colorful quick start guide. In a world where device makers think of packaging as a shipping container, it’s clear that Barnes and Noble wanted their device to be presented as a work of art – their eye for detail pays off.

The device itself deserves such a presentation. It is thin, feather-light, and a joy to hold. The front of the Nook holds four buttons to control page turns. The buttons can be set up to allow the device to be controlled left or right handed. Being left-handed, this is a feature I appreciate. Apart from the control buttons, the front of the Nook has home button in shape of Nook’s distinctive “n” branding. On the back of the device is a power button, and on the bottom edge is a micro-usb port for charging and syncing. The right edge has a flap which reveals the mico-sd slot for expanded memory. All in all the hardware is elegantly minimalist. It looks elegant.

The touch screen isn’t as responsive as a capacitive LCD screen – but that’s a limitation of eInk as much as the device itself. Even with the slower refresh rate on the screen, the user interface is simple and well-implemented. In fact, the layout is so good that my mind expects that the Nook is more than an eReader. The system is responsive enough that i wouldn’t mind typing an email on it if a client was ever provided for it. Being left-handed, I tend not to use the touch screen to flip pages in books, but on the occasions when I’ve done so I’ve been impressed with how well it works.

The display itself is stunning. The agonizingly slow refresh rates of early eInk displays are a think of the past. In fact, the Nook Simple Touch even manages to avoid the massive screen blackout which plagued earlier displays. While I never felt I had a problem reading on an LCD screen, I was stunned by how my eyes took to reading the eInk. In fact, I felt I could read a much smaller font-size on the Nook than I can on my iPad. The killer feature of this Nook model, however, is the glow light. Holding down the home button for two seconds engages the light, which bathes the display in a soft light. The light can be adjusted for brightness via a menu accessed in the status bar. The Nook with glow light is extremely difficult to find (our local Barnes and Noble has a waiting list of about 80 names), and having used the light I can see why. The light completely lights up the text, but manages to do so without overpowering the eyes.

Reading on the Nook is a pleasant experience. I’d never complained about reading on my iPad, but after reading a book on handed on the Nook I can’t see myself using the iPad as my primary reader. In fact, after using the Nook to read in bed I’m tempted to say the reading experience is better on this device than a paper book. I don’t miss the hand cramps which come from trying to hold a book open!

If you’re in the market for an eBook reader, the Nook Simple Touch with glow light is a great choice. In fact, the combination of hardware, display, and ease of use might make it the choice.

Harry Potter and the future of eBooks

When I first tracked down some rumors that JK Rowling was pursuing options to offer eBook versions of Harry Potter, I was ecstatic. I love the books, as do my wife and daughter. I wanted my son to be able to enjoy them as well, but without an eBook option it wasn’t in the realm of possibility. We did eventually find a book library for the blind and visually impaired called Book Share, but the reading experience there is… lacking. So I waited, and hoped.

Then over the summer JK Rowling announced that eBooks were definitely coming, but would be sold only through a site she would create called “Pottermore.” There people would be able to purchase the books for use in various readers, and use the site to read them interactively with others. I was skeptical about the nature of the endeavor because I wasn’t sure how book purchases would be handled, or if I was going to be forced to jump through some painful hoops just to load the books on whatever device I wanted to use. I have a problem with DRM in general, but at least the ease of going through Amazon and Barnes and Noble is numbingly simple. Having to download a file and jump through hoops to use it wasn’t my idea of a good time.

As the rumored date for the opening of Pottermore (Halloween) came and went without so much as a peep from the site, I began to get worried. When I read an announcement in the site’s blog in January that the site was being re-done I thought I may never get my Nook app around these books. Then last week I stopped by and read a new blog post which detailed the problems their beta test had uncovered, their joy at having made the site better, and an announcement that the site would open in early April!

Today a friend of mine told me, “Go to Barnes and Noble’s web page” – and there I was greeted by the announcement that Harry Potter eBooks were now on sale! The entire series can be had for just under $59, a great price for seven books. I immediately followed the link to the Pottermore store, wondering how the downloads of the books would be handled, and what I found was the future of eBook sales.

One of the things which makes people leery of purchasing eBooks is the idea of “vendor lock-in.” If you purchase a book from Amazon, you can read it in Kindle branded ways. Yes, they have apps everywhere, and even an html5 web-reader, but you’re still stuck with Kindle. It’s similar for the Nook. Once you purchase a Nook book, it will always be a Nook book. We encountered a problem with vendor lock-in when Barnes and Noble first came out with a Nook-branded e-reader for the iPad. Their previous reader had fantastic font options which were perfect for my son, but the Nook app had a bug which make the large fonts tiny – a bug which went unresolved for months. When I asked fir a refund after going nowhere with tech support (who wouldnt even acknowledge the problem), I was told Nook book sales were final and non-returnable. We had Nook books which were unusable, but Nook books they would always remain. This is one problem vendor lock-in can lead to.

What JK Rowling has done with Pottermore is break vendor lock-in. When you purchase the books through the site you may link it to your Barnes and Noble or Amazon accounts and wireless receive your books as normal. You may also download the file and use Adobe digital editions to load the book on to any device compatible with that software. Finally, the file can be dropped into the books section of iTunes and synced with iBooks. You can download each book eight times (as far as I can tell, the Kindle and Nook links each count as one download). Additionally, the Pottermore store encourages parents to download the books and put them on any devices their children use for reading without purchasing another copy. They do state that they expect parents to get their children to purchase their own copies once they are 18 – but that’s it. They don’t use a draconian “age check” lock-down, they don’t tell you to choose your reading device wisely because you’ll always be tied to it, they don’t treat their customers like criminals waiting to pirate their books.

Pottermore will sell gobs of books. No question.

This is the future of book sales – where books aren’t tied to a vendor forever and ever and ever, and authors can use other technologies to change how their books are read. I’ve not used Pottermore yet, but the idea of being sorted into a house, and reading with others is sure to excite my daughter and son (and, honestly, I want to see what house I get in to). I don’t know how Amazon and Barnes and Noble get a portion of the sales of books which get linked to their respective accounts, but I’m sure they must (they wouldn’t advertise the books otherwise). JK Rowling, however, sets her price. She controls the content, and the publishing of it. In the world of Pottermore Amazon and Barnes and Noble return to being vendors in a world that isn’t permanently locked into one ecosystem. On the other hand, iBooks, tied as it it to the iTunes licensing scheme, won’t see anything from sales of Harry Potter eBooks – and it may be the first of many such books which Apple will never be able to sell unless they make some allowances (which they should, books are not apps).

Pottermore may also be the lifeline traditional publishers have been waiting for. For years the assumed narrative has been, “Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other eBook stores will eventually cut out the publishers from the book selling process.” JK Rowling has taken that narrative and shredded it to pieces. In it’s place is a world in which publishers can do their work, and once again add value to the works under their care by offering generous terms for reading and creating a space where conversations can form around each book. It’s a whole new world, again. Can we expect anything Iess in this age of rapid transition?

 

iPad

My son has Ocular Albinism.  It doesn’t slow him down much, but it does make reading a frustrating experience for him.  I’ve found his frustration disheartening because my son is a very good reader.  He has the ability to give characters voices and can work unfamiliar words out pretty well.

At our church children are given a Bible at a certain age, and our son is receiving his this year.  We assumed that we could get a large print Bible that would work for him, but on Monday we checked out the large print Bibles and found that there we wholly unsuitable for someone with my son’s sight issues.  The font was still far too small for him to read without a magnifier of some kind, and even then the paper was so thin the text on the opposite side could easily be seen – for someone who needs strong contrast, it would have made it impossible for him to read.

Three years ago he would have been out of luck, but the advent of digital readers offers my son a chance to learn to enjoy reading like everyone else in the family (which he desperately wants to do).  So my wife and I resolved that we would look for grants to help acquire an iPad for his use in school, home, and church.  Really, that wouldn’t have been a difficult task.

You may be asking, “Why an iPad?”  For a few reasons:

  • It’s backlit.  The e-ink displays are nice, but they are terrible in low light and so the lit screen is a must for someone who has vision issues like my son.
  • It’s out.  I would have loved to see what Android and WebOS tablets will come out – but they aren’t here yet and we have a small window to get our son reading for enjoyment.  We also will need it for school come September.
  • It’s simple, he took to it immediately.
  • It’s got multiple book stores.  iBooks is nice, but the book selection is terrible.  Kindle has a nice book selection but for some dumb reason they limit how big you can make the font.  Kobo isn’t a great experience, but has good font sizes and a good number of books.  B&N doesn’t have their iPad reader out yet, I expect it to be well-designed.
  • Even though it’s simple, it’s multi-function.  I can set up a drop-box between him and his teachers and he can have access to lesson notes, reducing the strain looking at the board puts on his eyes.

So, those are some of the reasons.  Like I said we had committed to writing grants to acquire the device, but we didn’t have to wait that long.  In a rare AT&T late voicemail delivery #win, my mother called up shortly after we left the Christian book store and went on to other errands.  She works at a local university so I said, “Hey, while you’re on the line, do you think you could give me some leads on where to apply for educational grants?”  When my mother asked why I was looking I told her about what we wanted to do for our son and why we thought the iPad would work well for him.  She said, “You have a grant.”  I said something like, “Whubhuh?” To with my mother replied, “It’s called ‘Aunt Ann’s estate.'”

My great aunt, the last matriarch of the depression generation for our extended family passed away last year, she apparently left money to her nieces and nephews and my mom was looking for a good way to spend it.  She said, “This is what I want to do with it, go get him one.”

Now, my folks are not wealthy.  It also wouldn’t have been difficult to write a grant for the device, so I tried to balk at my mom’s generosity by nervously chuckling.  She got a bit miffed with me when I did that. Mom’s can do that.  Her offer also wasn’t some sort of impulse purchase (that’s my job).  My Aunt Ann spent her entire life in the service of others, particularly in seeing the elderly empowered rather than set aside in their later years.  She even was invited to a White House dinner once because of her work (I remember readin the invitation).  My mom wanted to do something with the money that would be in line with her aunt had lived – she insisted this was it.

One of the things I will always be thankful for in my family, both nuclear and extended, is the value of education.  My mom saw a way to see that her grandson could strive forward, and she jumped on it.  I’m very thankful.

Below is a video of our son seeing the iPad for the first time on Monday.  Before you watch it let me stress a couple of things:

  • This is his iPad.  Yes, I’m a geek and it it tempting to take this with me wherever I go and play with it.  That would be a terrible thing to do with my mother’s generosity.  Yet, it’s tempting – but it’s not mine.  I’ll have to save up money for that.
  • While he says, “It has my games” in the video – I have very few games on this (and some are for my wife to play after our son crashes for the night).  He likes “little metal ball” – and it’s good practice for his eye-hand coordination. This is for reading, and if he takes it into his room at night that’s all he will be allowed to do with it. He has a DsiXL for games, it was his birthday present.

So, yes, I will do some reviews on my thoughts on the iPad and it’s uses, but I’m more interested in tracking how my son uses it.  He’s very into the Winny The Pooh that comes with iBooks.  Now if iBooks would only get the Narnia books.  I got him a sample chapter of Eregon, but he said, “No, this is a book where people die – I don’t like those.”