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Rejoin us at The .com version is now just an archive

Cross-posted, the web’s oldest site devoted to general-interest news and views on ebooks and related matters, has just moved back to
Please rejoin all of us there if you haven’t already: Editor Chris Meadows (photo), Associate Editor Paul StJohn Mackintosh, Senior Writer Joanna Cabot, Contributing Writer Susan Lulgjuraj, and me. A former poverty beat reporter in an Ohio steel town, I founded TeleRead two decades ago to advocate well-stocked national digital libraries for all, and today I’m publisher.
In keeping with the .org, we’ll stand up for the commonweal and write on topics dear to us and our long-time community members. We won’t worry so much about pleasing Google and other SEO-related dieties. Hosted at, the new site will cost a fraction of what the .com version did. So no need to chase after ads right now. will remain online briefly as a locked-up WordPress site, then as static HTML.

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Giving Amazon Prime Now another try

Screenshot_2015-12-19-09-51-34In the middle of the night, my cats informed me that their feeder had run out of dry cat food—and I knew I’d just emptied the bag a few days ago. This would ordinarily mean taking a trip out to buy more food and cart it home. The problem was, it was twenty degrees (Fahrenheit) out, and I didn’t want to go out in that. As I woke up, I pondered the problem with my still-foggy mind, and settled upon a solution: I’d try Amazon Prime Now again. After all, they had one bag of the brand of cat food I normally used last time I ordered from them, and if nothing else that would keep me from having to venture out into the cold to get cat food for a few more days. So I reached for my smartphone (plugged in and lying on the mattress next to my head) and placed my order without even getting out of bed.

I was in for some pleasant surprises. For starters, they had a lot more Iam’s cat food available now, in different sizes and varieties. The prices weren’t bad, either—certainly no worse than I’d see at the local Wal-Mart. I settled on a 9.2 lb bag of “IAMS PROACTIVE HEALTH Adult Multi-Cat Complete Chicken and Salmon Recipe Dry Cat Food” for $17.97 and added it to my order.

Then, out of curiosity, I started browsing some other categories of bulky, heavy items. They had my brand of cat litter (Fresh Step, scoopable, 25 lbs, $12.99), so I added that to the cart. I’m about out of toilet paper, and didn’t want to have to make another trip to replenish that, so I selected a 12-count package of Cottonelle Big Rolls for $9.99. A box of Kleenex and some cans of Friskies on special completed the order. Then I noticed Amazon was offering a free 12-pack of soda with a coupon code, so what the heck, I added some Mountain Dew, too. In the end, my order came to about $53, including a $5 tip but no delivery fee.

I placed my order at 9:20, with delivery scheduled between 10 a.m. and noon. The app showed me a map view of Indianapolis, with my driver parked at Amazon’s warehouse out by the airport, and me in my home just north of the downtown area. And then I got up, got dressed, and waited.

As with the last time, I had to refresh the app whenever I wanted a new view of where my driver was. I saw him travel through the downtown area, making deliveries, and finally head up toward where I was. In fact, I saw him right as he arrived at my building and was able to go down and greet him as he got out of the van and brought out my purchases. The big and heavy items were unbagged, though the Mountain Dew had an Amazon Prime-branded tape carry loop wrapped around it. The Kleenex and the canned cat food came in another one of those Prime Now grocery bags.

Unlike the last driver, he actually did come around to the back door where my apartment is situated, as I had specified in the delivery instructions. When I complimented him on this, he explained that he makes a point of reading the special instructions on his deliveries.

So, I ended up with some of the more annoyingly bulky/heavy items on my normal grocery list delivered to me, and didn’t pay a lot more than I would have to get them at the grocery store. A $5 tip, yes, but that’s on par with what I might have paid for renting a BlueIndy car to drive the groceries back—and that would have involved me having to get up, get dressed, go down to the grocery store in the 20-degree weather, do the actual shopping, then pack it in a BlueIndy car, drive it back, and unload it. And then, assuming I originally got to the grocery store by bicycle, then I’d have to drive the BlueIndy car back and ride my bicycle home.

I was accustomed to the idea of having to pay a premium for convenience to have groceries delivered. I just never thought it would be such a small premium. Even the $5 tip was nicely counterbalanced by the free 12-pack of Mountain Dew, which was worth just about that much.

And it’s not just for groceries, by any means. The Prime Now catalog has a pretty good selection of all sorts of items Amazon offers. The only thing I’m not too impressed with is the way you can only browse and order via the Prime Now mobile app. The small screen of a smartphone is not necessarily the best for complicated store searches, and the items didn’t seem to be arranged in any particular order. Fortunately, most of the things I searched only brought up a dozen results or so, but still, that was quite a few to scroll through.

According to the Amazon Prime Now homepage, Amazon is offering free 2-hour delivery “on gifts, groceries & more” until midnight, Christmas Eve. I hadn’t even considered the idea of using the service for Christmas shopping, but you know what? If the gift you want is on Amazom Prime Now, you’re in one of the areas where the service is offered, and you’re a member of Amazon Prime, then paying a moderate tip to have it available within a couple of hours would sure beat paying about the same amount to get it delivered the next day.

I really don’t want to sound like I’m just shamelessly plugging the service, especially since TeleRead does use an affiliate link for Amazon purchases, but I’m simply amazed at how amazingly fast and convenient it is. You try something like this, you start to believe that maybe Amazon could figure out a way to get packages to you with a fleet of drones. Of course, the service does have its limitations—most notably, the limitation of only being available in a handful of metropolitan areas, rather than in every city in every state.

For all that Amazon is trying to extend its reach with its own delivery, ground shipping, and even air shipping services, building that kind of physical network takes a lot of time and effort. There’s a reason we have only a few parcel delivery services, rather than every company having its own. Most companies just aren’t big enough to feel the need to bother. But Amazon is actually getting there, little by little—and so it’s starting to bother, little by little. That’s honestly amazing—and if you’re one of the entrenched retail or publishing interests that a bigger Amazon could threaten, it’s more than a little scary.

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The OCLC officially sunsets its library card catalog program

cardcatLibraries just reached a milestone yesterday. In some ways it’s a sad one, but in other ways it’s one that you would honestly have expected to have been reached years ago. As found on Facebook, and confirmed via the OCLC’s official catalog cards page, as of September 30, 2015, the OCLC ended support for physical paper catalog cards—it will no longer be printing or sending them out.

If you’re like me, you’re probably scratching your head in wonderment at the idea anyone actually still used those cards—even small public libraries now have access to computerized cataloging systems. But for a service as basic as that, you pretty much have to continue providing access to it long past the time most would have switched over, because some might still be using it.

But that’s over now. If anyone still is using physical cards, as of today they will have to make up cards for each new book themselves. Or else maybe they’ll finally have to get around to putting in a computer system.

Of course, we still have some way to go before e-books push out paper books in the same way, if in fact they ever actually do. But at least you can rest secure in the knowledge that the closest thing library science has to a cataloging standards body has now left the last vestiges of paper cataloging behind.

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In an age of tablets and e-books, high school testing still relies on the TI-83 graphing calculator

ti-83We live in a world where Amazon is just about to release a $50 tablet which puts all the power of the Internet at anyone’s disposal. (Or all the power, at least as filtered through Amazon’s own native apps.) Many people, including high school students, already have that power at their disposal via smartphones.

But this is also a world where high school math students have to shell out $100 for the same TI-83 graphing calculator that their parents used twenty years ago (or one of its descendants, at least)—instead of using a free app that they could simply download to their phone. Why? Mic reports that the main reason is tradition. Texas Instruments has managed to get its calculators written into the standardized tests used by many schools. And inertia being what it is, it’s really hard to change something like that once it gets set down on paper.

It’s a profitable technological incumbency that is nearly monopolistic. In the 2013-2014 school year, Texas Instruments sold 93% of all graphing calculators in the U.S. The Washington Post estimates that TI is manufacturing the calculators for $15 to $20 and achieving a more than 50% profit margin, making calculators one of the company’s most profitable items.

There actually is an app that could be just as useful, called Desmos, available as a web, Android, or iOS app. The problem is, it has an uphill battle to get approved. Even leaving aside how tradition has enshrined the TI to the point where it’s still considered worthwhile to manufacture and sell an expensive, obsolete bit of technology, you have the problem that kids could get distracted by their devices’ other functions. (Of course, kids are fully capable of programming the TI-83 to play video games, so you could make a case that they’re going to find ways to distract themselves no matter what you give them.)

And, although the Mic article doesn’t bring this up, there’s also the question of kids using their Internet-connected devices to cheat on tests. They’re going to have to figure out some way around that if they want a computerized device to become an acceptable alternative.

(Though if you think kids couldn’t find some way to use a programmable, computerized calculator to cheat on tests, such as by programming their notes into it, perhaps you aren’t acquainted with the ingenuity that even an average high school student can develop when his grade is on the line.)

It remains to be seen if and how long it will take for Desmos or something like it to unseat the physical TI calculators. currently being used in standardized testing. But I think it’s a great illustration of just how much school isn’t like the real world anymore. It used to be that using TI calculators in high school made sense, since those were going to be the tools you had to work with in business and science. But now…who even uses those anymore except for high school classes? Everyone else is using smartphone and tablet apps by now.

(Found via BoingBoing.)

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Seeking Alpha contributor: Barnes & Noble not doomed after all

Barnes-NobleJust how much trouble is Barnes & Noble really in?

It seems to be in a good deal of it. We haven’t covered it that much lately on TeleRead, but Nate mentioned on The Digital Reader in the last couple of weeks that its revenues and losses were down last quarter, and that while it claims it’s still “considering” closing stores, it actually is closing stores.

But not so fast. An article on investor-advice site Seeking Alpha suggests that looks can be deceiving. The author, who goes by the handle “12 Quarters,” states that he is long on Barnes & Noble (that is to say, he invests in favor of B&N gaining rather than losing money), and proceeds to explain why. (The article is behind a free-registration wall, but I’ve found Seeking Alpha to be worth the registration.)

The explanation is a bit overfull of financial jargon, but given that it’s used mainly in supporting his contentions, you can get the gist from context without worrying too much about it. If there’s some term you want to know more about, I suggest checking a financial encyclopedia like Investopedia for definitions.

12 Quarters thinks that the profitability of the B&N stores is still very good. B&N has closed some of its weaker stores, which has served to cut into revenue, but it’s also increased its cash flow, which is what really matters. And 12 Quarters notes that the number of all brick and mortar bookstores has actually increased over the last 5 years, suggesting that people aren’t through with paper books just yet. This bodes well for B&N’s future, as it’s basically the only major nationwide bookstore chain left. Amazon might be king of the hill digitally, but B&N still has the real-world catbird seat.

The weaker part of the B&N business is the Nook division, which has been a money sink over the last few years. But B&N has been acting to rationalize that division—that is, reorganize it to increase efficiency and cut the money loss—with moves such as shifting Nook from a hardware to a software business and outsourcing it to third parties rather than try to make tablets itself. But 12 Quarters’s more interesting contention is still to come.

Secondly, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that there is no reason to be in the e-book business at all.

For example, as mentioned previously, independent bookstores have been growing in recent years, and they don’t have digital platforms. Secondly, consumer research indicates that popularity of e-books peaked several years ago and has been trending down. People are simply over-screened, and they prefer a physical book during their leisure time.

I think Mr. or Ms. Quarters is oversimplifying the point here. It’s not that e-books’ popularity has been “trending down.” It’s that the amount of popularity they’re gaining has slowed. Their popularity isn’t increasing as fast as it was, but it’s still increasing. More people are still adopting e-books every day, it’s just that not as many more of them are doing so as before. Even if some publishers reported a percentage point or two decrease in e-book revenue last year, that doesn’t necessarily bespeak a downward trend. There’s certainly no sign that there’s a mass movement to give e-books up, which is what would be necessary for their popularity to “trend down” even if no new users were picking them up!

But we can let that pass. Whether more or fewer people are adopting e-books is largely beside the point, because if more of them are, most of them are doing it via Amazon, and Barnes & Noble’s best attempts to compete for e-book share with Amazon have obviously not been good enough. (And its weird decisions on matters like changing up its DRM and cutting off downloading and sideloading e-books haven’t helped.) So it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other, and we’ll cede 12 the points that the Nook division’s performance has been rotten so far, and people are still interested enough in paper books to come out to the paper bookstores.

It’s interesting to contrast this with Mike Shatzkin’s recent discussion of the problems with Barnes & Noble and the Nook. Shatzkin thinks the biggest problem is that B&N simply hasn’t been using its dot-com and Nook knowledge to benefit the stores the way it could have. For example, it could use its customer database to look up and email customers who’ve bought books by a given author and let them know the author will be doing a signing in their area, and perhaps get some promotional money from the publisher in return for doing that kind of thing.

12 Quarters thinks that, as an ostensibly “rational actor,” B&N owner Len Riggio will not continue to throw bad money after good, especially after he just bought another million shares in the open market. Therefore, 12 Quarters predicts, the Nook division will either find some way to break even or be eliminated altogether within the next couple of years.

The rest of 12 Quarters’s arguments don’t have as much to do with e-books. He brings up various opportunities members of B&N’s board have had to be influenced by investors who make copious use of stock buybacks, and thinks that such a buyback could be a recipe for recovery for the bookstore side of B&N’s business if it can deal with the Nook money pit. He notes that such buybacks have rescued companies such as Best Buy, GameStop, and Outerwall that were previously thought to be goners but have since doubled in price.

12 Quarters concludes with several paragraphs of financial jargon to suggest that a buyback would be relatively easy and could drive stock price as high as $30 a share. He sums up:

If that seems aggressive, that is fine. The point here is that the margin of safety is HUGE for patient investors. At this point, an investment in BKS is not an investment in a struggling bookstore chain, but rather an investment in human nature. All that needs to happen is that the owner operator wants to maximize his own wealth through buybacks. That is a bet that I make with a smile.

Now, sometimes these investment sites’ advice articles aren’t worth the electrons they’re printed on. If I had a nickel for every “short Amazon and sooner or later you’ll be right” article I’ve seen on Seeking Alpha, I would be independently wealthy. And I lack the financial expertise necessary to evaluate 12 Quarters’s contentions with the fullness they deserve. Still, the non-jargonistic sides of his arguments make some sense. It’s going to be interesting to see what they do with the Nook division in years to come.

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AP Stylebook comes to e-book format

1-2015-ap-stylebookThe AP Stylebook is a singularly important newsroom resource, used in English-language newspapers and magazines all over the world to provide guidelines on things like whether to hyphenate “email” and a zillion other formatting niceties that no one person can ever remember all of. With that being the case, it’s a little surprising it’s taken as long as it has for an e-book version to come out, but it finally has. (A PDF version has been available for a while, but that’s really barely an e-book at all.)

For just $9.99 on Kindle, or presumably other digital platforms, you can now own a fully “interactive e-book” edition of the 2015 AP Stylebook. While the article isn’t clear on exactly what makes the e-book “interactive” and whether it is any more so than a regular e-book, even having it as a regular e-book means that it can now be text-searched. And at least a digital version will be more manageable than that annoying spiral binding.

Sadly, you’ll have to re-buy the book once it hits its 2016 edition, as it gets updated every year. But $10 for such a resource isn’t bad.

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Sony’s 13” Digital Paper business notepad: Not dead yet, apparently—and here’s how you can buy one

SonyDigitalPaperpSNYNA-DPTS1_alternate4_v500Good E-Reader has a piece announcing the imminent demise of the Sony Digital Paper notepad. The problem is, Sony’s current online store for the U.S. knows of no such plans. We talked to the store. The real news is that the e-commerce site is shutting down August 28—not the discontinuation of the reader.

Sony’s future online operations instead will send people to  authorized retailers, a complete list of which is here. Alas, the list isn’t geographically organized. But you’ll presumably see some familiar names and can find out if Sony Digital Paper notepad will be available. What’s more you might be able to order the reader online through eBay outlets.

The fact that the reader was even for sale was news to me, as I hadn’t been aware that Sony had been selling it. We last mentioned it in 2013 when Sony was developing it, but they actually started selling it in May of 2014—and sold out of their distribution channels so fast they had to start selling it directly in August.

It seems to be a specialty device—a $799 13.3” e-ink notepad (originally $1,100 when they started selling it last year), with an attached stylus pen for writing on documents, that seems to see most of its use by businesses. That makes sense; they’d be most interested in being able to see documents displayed at their original size and make notes on them, and would be able to afford to drop a grand on a device that could do it. Certainly it has never been never connected to Sony’s consumer-facing e-book store that  closed down in February, 2014.

The slate is a boutique gadget and sold without customer service support. Apparently Sony’s telephone hotline to order it is quizzing potential buyers on their level of technical expertise and is refusing to sell it to them if they don’t know enough.

(Revised to reflect an update in The Digital Reader.)

The post Sony’s 13” Digital Paper business notepad: Not dead yet, apparently—and here’s how you can buy one appeared first on TeleRead.

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Exploring abandoned Second Life virtual college campuses

screen-shot-2015-08-12-at-1-59-42-pmOne of the clever bits of invention in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is the establishment of schools in the virtual reality game world where everybody games. But it turns out this wasn’t entirely an invention, as back in 2007, many colleges established virtual campuses in the Second Life virtual-reality game—and some of them are still around, albeit abandoned. On, Patrick Hogan writes about taking a tour of some of these campuses.

And “abandoned” is the word. Hogan writes:

First, I didn’t see a a single other user during my tour. They are all truly abandoned.

Second, the college islands are bizarre. They mostly are laid out in a way to evoke stereotypes of how college campuses should look, but mixed in is a streak of absurd choices, like classrooms in tree houses and pirate ships. These decisions might have seemed whimsical at the time, but with the dated graphics, they just look weird.

The article is full of interesting screenshots with dated graphics. Judging from the campuses on display, it looks like educators of the day saw the virtual space’s potential but weren’t really sure what to do with it—so what they did do didn’t have any staying power. Hogan did find the campuses’ overall weirdness delightful by comparison to the bland reality of most Internet schools these days. He also wondered who was paying for their upkeep, given that it costs hundreds of dollars per month to maintain a virtual space in Second Life.

I suppose one of the things that’s really missing for virtual schools to be effective is a truly good implementation of virtual reality. The VR schools in Ready Player One are possible largely because they have a form of VR that’s effectively as good as real life. Out here in the real world, we have monitors and keyboards—and there’s no point in trying to make believe you’re in a virtual college campus if the cheesy graphics are just going to be a distraction from the education.

We’ll just have to keep working on that.

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