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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Me & My Kindle

I'd give the Kindle 3 slithy toads.

This seems a good day to write about the Kindle. I boarded a crowded Amtrak train to head down for a Charlaine Harris signing in Newark, DE, and while I was reading my Kindle I noticed a man across the aisle reading a Sony Reader. Whatever is the world coming to?

So first, why do I have a Kindle, and not a Sony Reader? Well, I am a Mac person. The Sony Reader requires you buy stuff at the Sony Store, and they haven't made it easy to sync purchases on a Mac. I tried once to see if I could go to Sony's web site and at least check out the offerings and didn't even find that very easy to do. The Kindle, you don't even need a computer since you can shop wirelessly from within the Kindle. It also offered a feature that I found very tempting, that you could email your .doc files to your Kindle and have them show up there wirelessly for a ten cent fee. Some people think it's silly to pay to send your own files to yourself, but I can compose an e-mail with attachment much more quickly than I can grab a USB cable, connect some other gadget with my computer, and drag and drop a file. If you really want to save the ten cents, you can e-mail the file back to your computer and do the USB connection. The Kindle also offers newspaper subscriptions. A good newspaper is hard to find, so the idea of being able to get at some of the few good newspapers that are left was tempting. So those two things were to me the killer apps. If the Kindle had been in stock I would probably have ordered one well before I did, but I had to overcome my reluctance to buy with no idea when I would receive. As it turned out, I ordered just in time to have my backorder arrive several weeks later when they finally had enough to keep it in stock, so I ended up having mine around zero days sooner than if I'd waited. Oh well.

I find the reading experience on the Kindle to be excellent, and at the end of the day that's probably one of the most important things. The electric paper technology is crisp and readable, and walking around in very bright DC sunlight a few weeks ago I had no problem at all. There is one problem the Kindle shares with a physical book. Since there is no backlight, it cannot be read in darkness. And in dim light, it is more like reading a gray newspaper than a coated white paper like an issue of Variety. You don't have as much contrast. But unlike the newspaper, I can adjust the size upward to compensate, so I got far more Kindle reading of the Washington Post on Kindle done walking over the Queensboro Bridge at night relying on street lights than if I had been reading the physical paper. There is one area where the newspaper has an advantage over either a book or a Kindle. I can read a newspaper in a light rain or drizzle since it doesn't matter if it gets a little wet; I'll be throwing it out soon enough anyway. But the Kindle is an electronic gadget, and rain and electronic gadgets are not a good match. Today, I had to balance whether it was better to read more newspaper (printed NY Times) on the train ride down which I could then deposit in the newspaper recycling bins, or to read more Kindle (Washington Post & Wall St. Journal) on the train and save all my newspaper for the rainy outdoor parts.

On balance, the Kindle might be too good a reading experience. The screen kind of draws you in a little hypnotically, and I find when I am walking that I give more of my attention to it than a physical newspaper where I almost have to look up when I turn the page. Agent run over by car when crossing street against light, Kindle in hand.

Mr. Sony Reader on the Amtrak train and I spoke only briefly as we were pulling in to my stop. It did seem the Sony Reader has a better interface to change the type size. You press something on the bottom of the screen, and it's done. The Kindle requires you to press a "size" button on the keyboard, then move a cursor to the desired size, then press an enter button.

But the Kindle isn't Mac friendly on the audio front. You can play audio on the Kindle, but you can't set the Kindle up to get Audible content without first having access to a PC. Once you have set it up on the PC you're good to go without a PC, but it's annoying that I'd have to rely on the courtesy of strangers (or a friend) to let me have at their PC and download the audio manager first.0

The wireless and the newspaper subscriptions are every bit as wonderful as I had hoped. Late last night I e-mailed a Jim Hines manuscript to my Kindle, it showed up there while I was on the train, along with the Wall St. Journal and the Washington Post. No paper, mom! When I was in DC, I was able to buy a Kindle NY Times for seventy-five cents instead of a print version for $1.25. Less paper to carry around, save a few pennies. The Washington Post costs at least $3.50 for the Sunday edition in Manhattan, for $10 I get it for the whole month. There are some sacrifices. The Post on the Kindle comes with no pictures at all, the NY Times with maybe half a dozen, and the Wall Street Journal with a sampling of their line drawing portraits. There aren't charts or tables or box scores. The NY Times includes its baseball roundup with brief lines or two on the out of town games, the Washington Post does not. You don't get to look at the ads, and sometimes I like looking at the ads. You don't get the funnies. The Kindle can show illustrations (you can e-mail your JPGs to it), but it's used sparingly in the newspaper subscriptions. But you pretty much get the entire article text of the paper, front page to back. Parts of the paper read a little quicker, parts a little slower, and on balance I don't know if I'm better or worse off time-wise. I know I'm worse off to the extent that I'll spend a lot more time with the Washington Post each day than with the NY Post or Newsday or Daily News which I just can't abide paying for any more. If you're at the beginning or end of an article you can go back with two presses to a list of sections, a list of articles, or to the article list for a particular section, but this option isn't present in the middle of an article. I wish it was, when I'm 400 words into a 1000 word article and ready to move on. Some words with an accent, you get something like an HTML tag for the accent instead of the accented letter.

Manuscript reading is good, and there's a full keyboard so if I want to take a note while I'm reading so I can share my thoughts with the author I can start typing a note in two presses. But one big but. All those notes go into a single "My Clippings" file. If I switch back and forth from one manuscript to another, the notes will be mingled in this file. To separate out the notes for a particular manuscript or author, you've no choice but to grab out the USB cable, move that My Clippings file on to your computer, and cut and paste and separate them out. I would be much happier if the notes or annotations I might make to one thing could be separated on the Kindle. Second big kind-of but. Because you can change the type size the concept of page #s is alien to the Kindle. If I e-mail a manuscript the page #s disappear, and in some instances the chapter #s may. Or may not, I guess it depends on whether the chapter #s are typed in or updated via some kind of insert page # marker? Instead, the Kindle gives you a "location, " with each location representing around 15-18 words I think. So in "My Clippings" I will have a note that some character does some foolish thing at "Location 2383-2395." Do I make my note longer to give full context so the author can find the place I am talking about, or do I have the Kindle and original Word file that i e-mailed to the Kindle side-by-side so I can dig up a page # to give the author to help with finding where a revision is needed? Will someone set up a unifying standard so that Word, Pages, neoOffice, the Kindle, the Sony Reader will all agree on some replacement for the page #?

The back of the Kindle has a clip of some sort that fits into an indentation on the cover, and which does somehow hold the KIndle in place as you tilt it different ways in the course of reading it. But, you have to tilt the Kindle up a bit to access the on-off switch and the wireless on-off (battery life goes down a lot if you leave the wireless on when you don't need it), and that act can sometimes dislodge the clip mechanism. Can those switches be put someplace where you don't need to tilt the Kindle? The Kindle also comes with a cover, but it's easy to open the Kindle from the wrong side and again risk dislodging the clip mechanism. The cover should come with some writing of some sort so you can tell the front cover from the back and top from the bottom without having to remember that the space with the power cord, USB outlet and earphone jack should be on the bottom left when reading. Maybe they're worried this would make the Kindle a theft magnet? Hence the anonymous cover tha looks almost little like a diary or an organizer, so they're not putting "Kindle, valuable, steal me" in big letters? If so, they can take the Mad Magazine approach and put a fake book cover on it?

I'm not sure the battery life even with the wireless off is as long as they say. This is not an uncommon thing with gadgets. But is this just my imagination? I haven't drained the battery since the instructions say it will last longer being charged often than being drained and recharged. Is it because I read or skim a newspaper very thoroughly and turn many more pages than the usual person? On the other hand, I read in the smallest size and thus turn fewer pages than somebody reading in large type.

There is rudimentary web access that I've tried only once. Worked OK, nothing to write home about, may get better w/subsequent iterations.

So it's not perfect, but it does a lot of things right and fewer wrong, I think.

And I am not known as an early adapter. If I am finding the Kindle to often be better than a newspaper or magazine on dead trees, are we finally at the cusp of the e-book revolution? I do know more of my clients have gotten e-mails regarding e-book unavailability since the Kindle came out than before.


Charlie Stross said...

I'm a Mac/Linux guy and I use a Sony PRS-505.


Well, I'm in the UK. The Kindle's never going to work over here -- not unless they ditch the EV-DO networking for something that the local telcos support. That's strike 1. And strike 2 is, the Kindle is plug-ugly.

On the other hand: the Sony isn't as Mac-hostile as you think. There's the excellent Calibre open-source package for converting files into its LRF format; it can also read RTF and PDF files directly. (Calibre is here: Support for Adobe's ePub is allegedly coming up. True, the lack of support for the Sony Store in OS/X and Linux means no DRM-locked publications are available, but I don't see that as a drawback, personally.

The annotation issue is obviously one that renders the PRS-505 unsuitable for use in your job, but if all you want to do is read novels it works fine. (It's also a problem that affects other ebook readers, such as the Bookeen Cybook -- but not the Irex Iliad, which has a pen digitizer, offering the prospect of actually being able to copy-edit and mark up manuscripts -- at least, if you're a Windows user or willing to use Parallels to run the associated PC-side software.

Anonymous said...

Any writing you do comes out in a single file? You can't create multiple files? That is a HUGE flaw. Especially since I was hoping I could use it to write as well as read.


Maria said...

I do know more of my clients have gotten e-mails regarding e-book unavailability since the Kindle came out than before.

?? Enjoyed your critique of the Kindle--but couldn't for the life of me figure out what you meant by the last line. Who emails the clients and say the ebooks aren't available?


The Brillig Blogger said...

So Charles Stross answers one question: I won't be able to use the Kindle at London Book Fair next year to have the NY Times delivered wirelessly. Having gotten a Kindle I'm not going to go out and buy a Sony tomorrow, but maybe someday if I buy another for the assistant we can get a Sony Reader there and have some kind of read-off. Bottom line here is it might be nice if one company nails it totally enough that we won't have to weigh these things like apples at the Tesco (Safeway for those not in the UK).

I do think the inability to write comments to a separate specific manuscript is a big bugaboo. Though with most mutli-task things, you balance the benefit of being able to read on the same thing you write on while you're riding the subway against the drawback if you have to spend some extra time manipulating the file on your computer later.

And I would like to know what kind of person would blame and e-mail an author because book isn't available for Kindle. I spend my time doing more productive things, like filling out complaints about fax spam at the FCC web site so the government can get right on them. Right on them, yessir. Not.

Anonymous said...

I have a couple of suggestions:

1) regarding the Kindle annotation issue (page numbers not matching). I recently checked a manuscript for internal inconsistencies and when I typed up my annotations to send to the author I just included a line or so of the manuscript for each annotation. That gave the author a section of text to search for, so he could find the part of the manuscript I was talking about.

Regarding the comments being scattered through "my clippings" I used the "My Notes and Marks" option from within the manuscript to see all my highlighted text and annotations in the order they appeared in the manuscript. I don't know if there's a way to get that file off the Kindle, though; I type quite fast, (and frequently wanted to expand on the annotation anyway) so I retyped it all.

One thing I did find incredibly handy for reviewing the manuscript was the search function. Being able to search on a character's name, for instance, to check that she has been introduced, or that some incident that involved her has been previously mentioned, stuff like that.

2)I've never had a problem with opening the Kindle cover the wrong way; I just remember that the elastic attaches to the back, and loops over the front. I hold the spine of the Kindle "book" in my left hand, and undo the elastic with my right--if the elastic is hidden "behind" the book, I've got it upside down.

Maria said...

Ooooh, READERS want the book available for kindle! Got it. :>) Sorry, bit slow. And I had my hot chocolate already too!


Tim Akers said...

When you mentioned that you needed the manuscript as a .doc, so you could transfer it to your Kindle, I thought "Ah, he has a Kindle. I wonder what he thinks of it." And now I know.

Lynxswift said...

Thanks for the review of the Kindle. Answers many of my questions. Very tempting device :). I do wish it was able to read PDF's. How is the sci-fi selection, though?