*grr* I’m sorry, but I just flat-out don’t believe what some of my friends and fellow travelers seem to; that the reason the publishers want to control and initially raise the prices of e-books is that they need that control and increase…in order to DECREASE prices in some indeterminate future. Not buying it, folks.

What I’m seeing on the ground is that they could do that now if they wanted to, but they don’t. I had been waiting to buy So Damn Much Money by Robert Kaiser (had heard good things) until it dropped to $9.99 for my Kindle, but I failed to catch that text-to-speech is disabled. So in car last weekend, and wanted to just listen…no joy. Yes, I know publishers have to protect audio-book sales. Spare me.

So, already irritated by that this morning, nevertheless I thought about buying a digital copy of a book I already own, in hardback; Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America. I’ve started the book several times, and I always get so angry I have to put it down…not a good choice of book to carry physically and double my bag weight. But dumped on the Kindle and available whenever? I just might get through it.

I found it in the Kindle store; excellent! Then, all downhill: “Digital list price”, $30; crazy! Kindle price, $16.50; insane! “Text to speech, disabled”; not going to happen. I’ll finish it in physical form, someday. I suppose.

Note: this book was published in 2001. It’s no longer in print, as far as I can tell. I bought it as a hardback on a bargain shelf a couple of years ago for I think about $7. I would have bought the book AGAIN if it had been available for the Kindle for $7 (with text-to-speech enabled; without it, either no-go, or maybe $4.99 or less). There’s no hardcover in print for e-book sales to parasitize; this e-book pricing makes no sense whatsoever, in my opinion. They just lost a sale is all I know…and at a current ranking of 140,479 in the Kindle store, they’re not exactly making a huge case for the price discrimination strategy.

As for the text-to-speech issue; yes, I know I can crack the DRM and listen to these books…that’s not the point. Get a clue for how I might want to use a book, and I might even pay more! (O’Reilly, for example, sells technical books without DRM, in multiple formats whenever possible, allows you lifetime updates, and use on any supported device. The last e-book I bought there was almost $21 on sale…but with copies I can put on my phone and my Kindle, and updates forever, I was OK with that.)

Zoinks! I was offline for much of Saturday, so it wasn’t until Sunday morning until I caught up on the Amazon – Macmillan feud: Amazon and Macmillan go to war: readers and writers are the civilian casualties. Amazon, in a disagreement with Macmillan over a change in pricing model (brought on primarily, IMO, by the sense of increased leverage that the release of the iPad has given Macmillan) has temporarily removed ALL Macmillan books, both printed and electronic, from the Amazon website. Panic ensues. *grin* (UPDATE: Amazon has already [as of Sunday night] acknowledged that they’ll have to capitulate to Macmillan’s new [and higher, in some cases] pricing model.)

It’s been REALLY interesting to watch the reactions, though. One of the main US science fiction publishers (Tor) is a Macmillan line…so they were affected. And a number of the bloggers that I read online are science fiction writers; many for Tor! So the comments have been flying fast and furious; some of the best at Charlie Stross’ blog. First, Charlie wrote up his own thoughts, which begat a giant, interesting thread of comments. Then he went and gathered up links to several other thoughtful responses (mostly authors, but also lawyers, editors, etc.). Great stuff.

I love most of these guys, but I do find it interesting to see them dealing with business model changes, technology shifts, digital rights management, etc. within their own industry, after having seen them discuss the issues from a safer, more objective vantage point for years with regard to music and movies. Not to suggest that these guys have never talked about how this will affect publishing; they have. But now…I think the enormity of the change is starting to sink in. Think about this passage from Cory Doctorow’s essay Science Fiction is the Only Literature People Care Enough About to Steal on the Internet in Content. (note: I wouldn’t say that Cory speaks for all authors here, but the point, to me, is clearly relevant)

Technology giveth and technology taketh away. Seventy years later, Napster showed us that, as William Gibson noted, “We may be at the end of the brief period during which it is possible to charge for recorded music.” Surely we’re at the end of the period where it’s possible to exclude those who don’t wish to pay. Every song released can be downloaded gratis from a peer-to-peer network (and will shortly get easier to download, as hard-drive price/performance curves take us to a place where all the music ever recorded will fit on a disposable pocket-drive that you can just walk over to a friend’s place and copy).

But have no fear: the Internet makes it possible for recording artists to reach a wider audience than ever dreamt of before. Your potential fans may be spread in a thin, even coat over the world, in a configuration that could never be cost-effective to reach with traditional marketing. But the Internet’s ability to lower the costs for artists to reach their audiences and for audiences to find artists suddenly renders possible more variety in music than ever before.

Those artists can use the Internet to bring people back to the live performances that characterized the heyday of Vaudeville. Use your recordings — which you can’t control — to drive admissions to your performances, which you can control. It’s a model that’s worked great for jam bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish. It’s also a model that won’t work for many of today’s artists; 70 years of evolutionary pressure has selected for artists who are more virtuoso than charismatic, artists optimized for recording-based income instead of performance-based income. “How dare you tell us that we are to be trained monkeys, capering on a stage for your amusement? We’re not charismatics, we’re white-collar workers. We commune with our muses behind closed doors and deliver up our work product when it’s done, through plastic, laser-etched discs. You have no right to demand that we convert to a live-performance economy.”

Technology giveth and technology taketh away. As bands on MySpace — who can fill houses and sell hundreds of thousands of discs without a record deal, by connecting individually with fans — have shown, there’s a new market aborning on the Internet for music, one with fewer gatekeepers to creativity than ever before.

Point that same argument at authors rather than musicians, and I see a lot of resonance. It seems to me I read a lot of statements from authors that want the status quo to remain in place; who want what technology giveth, but not what it taketh away. But honestly…I’d love to see some of them strike out with really wild ideas, things outside the status quo. Maybe Amazon’s new Terms and Conditions for ebooks; maybe Cory’s experiment With A Little Help...I don’t know. But I know that, for example, I’d much rather see Peter Watts get State of Grace published on Lulu, or in Amazon’s e-bookstore, than not at all!

And I don’t think all the criticism of Amazon is wrong, by any means. This is a complicated story. But times, they are a-changin’.

Along with many others, I sat and watched the announcement of the iPad earlier this week. If nothing else, Apple certainly knows how to hype and put on a show! It’s a pretty device, certainly, but I have no plans on purchasing one. And as for being a Kindle-killer? I think not, and certainly hope not, being a pretty happy Kindle user. I think a comparison of the two contrasts both the differing ideas on device functionality that Amazon and Apple espouse, and also the “openness” question that has troubled the Kindle. If the Kindle is closed, what about the iPad?

The most obvious difference between the devices is the simplest: the screen. The Kindle screen is a low-power reflective e-ink screen that only displays black, white, and shades of gray; the iPad is a full-color, touch-sensitive backlit (emissive) screen that is designed for all sorts of media consumption, including music, movies, full-color magazines, and web browsing.

The Kindle is designed and optimized for reading books and text-focused periodicals. While it does have a (free) 3G wireless connection, said connection is focused on easily delivering content to the device, and light browsing of sites like Wikipedia. The Kindle is a reading device; it tries to get out of the way of the reader, and just provide the words (honestly, once I get into the flow of a work, I often forget I’m reading on a “device”). Even with the recent release of a SDK that will allow app development, I maintain that the Kindle is a limited function device, and I like that. Reading is best done on a device with limited distractions, and the Kindle is just that.

The iPad is designed and marketed for a completely different experience. It’s really more of a “netbook without a keyboard”; I can definitely see it being more of a threat to some of the devices in that market segment. Multimedia from the get-go. For me, it’s not as attractive; I read and listen to more than I watch. I use my phone (Android G1) for podcasts, audio streams, and music, and the Kindle for text (with the G1 as a fairly capable backup). I’m not a big movie and TV consumer.

Another difference, for me, is the Kindle’s ability to stand alone. A Kindle never actually needs ANY connection to a PC whatsoever; you can use the USB connector to charge the device from a computer, and when connected in that way, it can be mounted as a USB Mass Storage device. This means you can drag and drop files both ways…you can copy off your books as a backup strategy, and you can put books on the device that you didn’t get from Amazon. It’s great; but none of that is necessary. You do, of course, have to have an Amazon account to purchase things via WhisperNet, but that’s the limit. You can purchase on the device and have it immediately delivered, or open up a Linux-based netbook, buy the book via browser at Amazon, copy it down to the filesystem, and mount the Kindle as a USB device and copy it over. Works just the same.

The iPad, on the other hand, is tied completely to the same Apple iTunes software stack that the iPod and iPhone are. All purchases and media are sync’d via iTunes…which doesn’t run on Linux, for example. You can’t backup your media (in a supported way) without involving iTunes. You can’t purchase media without involving iTunes. You and iTunes are joined at the hip…at minimum.

The strategies of the companies involved (Apple and Amazon) are interesting as well, and the jockeying between them continues even as I’ve been editing this post. More to come on that and the openness question.