Why is text on screens so ugly?

So asks Dan Visel over at if:book’s blog. He’s talking about the way both Kindle and the Sony Reader full-justify text, leaving odd-looking spaces between words, something that doesn’t usually happen – or anyway doesn’t strike the eye – when printers full-justify on paper. Visel has a point, but he could have taken his argument further. Poorly laid out text is a symptom of a larger problem with ereaders. Reading onscreen has a lot of advantages over reading on paper – easy access to supplementary materials, easier navigation around a text and between texts, and so forth. But reading itself isn’t, in the main, as pleasant onscreen as on paper. Certainly there are technical obstacles to overcome here, the need for better screens chief among them. I suspect, though, that this problem’s real source might have to do with these devices, and their software, being designed by people who just don’t read that much, and so haven’t thought a great deal about what a great reading experience is, and how an ereader could provide one. I can’t say this is true – I don’t know anything about the people who designed the Reader, the Kindle, or the various other ereaders out there. But my (admittedly limited) experience using ereaders sure makes me wonder about this.

Great ideas of 1984

Pat Holt has an idea to save trade-book publishers: they publish titles in softcover right away, not bothering with a hardcover, save in special cases. She points out that some houses tried this in the 80s, aiming to market “their young, unproven authors to young, adventurous readers.” I could be wrong about this, but I think she’s talking about Vintage, and books like Bright Lights, Big City. Right? Anyway, her point is a good one – hardcovers cost too much to make and buy, and publishers need to cut cut cut costs anyway they can. Especially since readers really don’t care if a book’s a hardcover or softcover, unless we’re talking about a coffeetable book or something else that’s meant to be a keepsake. But reading her post makes me wonder, why, in 2009, is this even still an issue? Is book publishing really still this backward?

Command publishing, 2.0

Check out Clay Shirky’s post on the idea that micropayments for content might save traditional publishers. He makes the same points I made in my post on the same topic, but his is more fun to read, because it’s full of zingers a la:

[S]mall payment systems are always discussed in conversations by and for publishers, readers are assigned no independent role. In every micropayments fantasy, there is a sentence or section asserting that what the publishers want will be just fine with us, and, critically, that we will be possessed of no desires of our own that would interfere with that fantasy.

How many Kindles has Amazon sold, and why doesn’t it want to sell more?

Kindle 2.0 is here, and it’s… err… well… imagine an iPod that didn’t play mp3 files. That’s how I think of the Kindle, given that it still can’t handle .epubs – even though, as Levi Asher notes, .epub “seems to be emerging as the much-needed industry-wide digital publishing format.”

There’s been a ton of press about the Kindle since the first version was released, but Amazon hasn’t provided any actual sales figures, and that can’t be a sign that the thing is selling well. I have a sense that in publicizing the Kindle, Amazon’s decided to play to its strengths, taking advantage of the facts that 1) the tech press loves novelty, 2) journalists of all sorts want there to be a device that “saves reading,” and 3) everyone is awed by Amazon’s track record, in creating a business out of nothing. Also, 4) Jeff Bezos does a killer “I’m just a supersmart nerdy bald guy who’s changing the world.” This strategy has worked – Kindle coverage has focused on its being somehow morally “good” (because it will “save reading”), while overlooking such problems as its technical shortcomings and Amazon’s decision not to support a number of ebook formats, and not questioning Amazon’s assertions that device and Kindle-format ebook sales are strong.

But at some point, the bloom will come off the rose, as more “real” journalists start to ask hard questions about the thing, and especially about those sales numbers – questions that for now, are coming mostly from bloggers. And as the iPhone and other devices move toward supporting a far greater range of formats, and offer more functionality than the Kindle, those sales numbers, whatever they are, might well crater. At which point, we’ll find out if Amazon really cares about selling Kindles, and is thus willing to make it into the device it should be. It’s not like the company’s short on cash, for goodness sake! And if that doesn’t happen, we’ll know that Amazon’s just using the Kindle project as a way to piss on the epublishing space, as it were – to get publishers used to providing their epublished content via the Amazon store, and get readers used to buying it there. In order, forever after, to make hay while sticking with its core business, which is selling content.

Paying to read Time online

Would you pay to read Time online? No. That’s the problem with Walter Isaacson’s suggestion that big media launch a micropayment system, to charge readers a small amount, billed automatically to their credit cards, each time they read an article online. Levi Asher gives Isaacson credit for creativity, but adds that he doesn’t think the proposal would work, because online ad sales already give publishers a way to monetize this content. Good point, though the bigger issue is one neither man addresses: whether Time‘s content is worth paying for. Certainly it was, back when print media only had to compete with TV and radio, and both barriers to entry were so high, for anyone looking to get into either print or broadcasting. But that’s no longer the case. And it’s easy enough to find free content that’s as good or better – as or more informative, providing as or more interesting opinions – as anything Time runs. Isaacson, I think, has come a little way out of the midtown bubble, but not far enough – not far enough, anyway, to see that most professional journalists can’t compete on price with bloggers and unpaid citizen-reporter types. He think they’re uniquely talented both at finding stuff out and writing about it, and wants to find a way to support them in this work. He’s coming at the problem wrong, I think – the challenge is to find great content and get it to people who want it, not support an outdated content-production model, on the assumption it’s the only way to meet this challenge.

Originality is overrated

From the Wikipedia article on the Sex Pistols’ song “Holidays in the Sun”:

“[The] main hook, a simple descending figure, bears a resemblance to the bassline of The Jam’s “In the City”, which was released a few months previously in April 1977. Bruce Foxton, bass player for The Jam… alleged in a 1994 book that the riff had indeed been stolen from this song. By one account, Sid Vicious and Foxton got in a fight over this, with Foxton the clear victor.”