The Shatzkin Files


A Little Ado About Something


The transition from print to digital is going to be a continual lesson in branding for publishers and in merchandising for retailers. I got a dose of that trying to make use of modern technology to deal with an old common problem last week.

I knew two or three weeks before that I was going to Boscobel to see Much Ado About Nothing on Friday night. If you’ve never been there to see Shakespeare, I recommend you put it on your calendar for next summer (this season being about over.) Boscobel is a beautiful site above the Hudson on the eastern shore opposite West Point, with beautifully manicured gardens leading to a stunning river overlook.

They put on Shakespeare under a big tent. The direction is uniformly excellent and imaginative; the performances often very good. (I am not an expert in theater, but I did have the good fortune to act in several Shakespeare plays in my youth, including a turn as Tybalt in a Romeo and Juliet that had subsequently famous actor Peter Strauss playing Benvolio. Our duel in the first scene is a story I’ll save for another time.)

I didn’t think I had ever read Much Ado, and it turned out I hadn’t. But I was both busy and dilatory. So it was only last Thursday, the day before the show, when I got back from London, that I finally went on BN.com to buy a copy of the play to put in my iPhone so I could get it read over the next 24 hours.

And that’s where I encountered some branding lessons.

What you get on the first screen from BN.com when you search ebooks for “Much Ado About Nothing”, in order, is the SparkNotes Guide for $4.95 (that’s a dormant Barnes & Noble-owned brand, and I’m sure the notes are good, but at that point I wanted the play); a “Digital” (that’s presumably a brand) eBook for $2.99 on which I could get a free sample; then 8 free versions each labeled “from Google Books.”

I should have loaded the “Digital” sample (but didn’t at the time; I am not familiar with the brand) and I would have seen it was well worth the $2.99 to buy it. I tried 3 from Google; they all turned out to be from Princeton’s “William Seymour Theater Collection” and they were, to put it gently, unsuitable. The typography, design, and editing were old and impractical.

So I changed my search criteria to “Shakespeare’s Comedies” and bought a Modern Library volume by that name that came up on the first page of the search. It came equipped with a Table of Contents and it is quite readable. Only twenty bucks. I paid it. I needed it and in my disappointment over what I got from Google I had forgotten the much-cheaper “Digital” edition of the single play above all the Google-branded ones.

But then on Friday afternoon, I had hardly cracked the play and I was running out of time. I remembered that last year at Boscobel time I had bought a copy of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare for my Kindle. I found it stashed at Amazon online and downloaded it to my iPhone. When I looked at it, I remembered what was wrong with it: no Table of Contents. Last time I had to scroll through the entire book page by page to find the play I wanted to read. I remembered that what I had done was make the font on the Kindle the smallest possible size to make that laborious process go faster.

Then I remembered that I had figured out after the fact that I could search on the Kindle for the play title and find it! Great. But the Kindle for iPhone doesn’t have the search function! So I retrieved the Kindle from my wife (who got it as a hand-me-down when decided I could do all my reading on the iPhone), searched for “Much Ado About Nothing” and was taken to the opening page of that story. I noted the Kindle text chunk number, found that chunk on the iPhone and, bingo, I was in business.

That wasn’t easy. It uncovers a number of points worth noting as we enter the digital book age.

1. Google’s books will be acceptable if they are the only choice available for the title. They will almost certainly not be the version of choice if something really prepared as a digital version in a modern way is available. Their “brand” will rapidly be seen as “last choice” if you have a choice. This is not good.  And if they intend, as they suggest, to sell new books as well as giving away PD books, they better do something about it. Imprint branding may not be the most highly developed skill set at Google (but don’t get advice from a publisher!)

2. And the retailers shouldn’t interpret downloads as popularity when they present choices. It wasn’t good merchandising for BN.com to show me all those identical Google editions for Much Ado so near the top, which one might assumes might have happened because they are free.  B&N should note, if they’re keeping score, that I downloaded them because they were free. If they’re looking into my ereader for useful information (in ways that will give many people the creeps, of course), they will see that they’re already deleted.

1A and 2A. Both Google and any retailer selling their books would be very well-served if they tagged (“branded”) the books which are uniquely available in Google editions.

1B and 2B. Both Google and any retailer selling their books would be very well-served if they refrained from displaying multiple copies of what is effectively exactly the same thing, particularly since they do so without making that clear.

3. Random House’s Modern Library brand sold me a $20 book of Shakespeare’s comedies because I wanted to read this play and didn’t have time to fiddle around once I’d found that a presumably competent commercial publisher had an edition available. This undercuts my supposition that publisher brands are meaningless. I still think that’s true for most purposes, but in this case it wasn’t and the brand was worth a high-priced, high-margin sale to them.

4. Kindle for iPhone isn’t as functional as Kindle on the device. There’s no text search capability. There is such a capability in BN.com’s ereader, however. That’s a reason I’ll be buying and reading from BN, not from Amazon.

5. Non-functional (unlinked) Tables of Contents are a real no-no in an ebook.

Having found the right spot in Lamb’s, my wife and I were both reading the story of the play in our seats during the ten minutes before it began, she on the Kindle and I on my iPhone. This attracted a great deal of interest around us and no small amount of envy. I think it is highly likely that we inspired some of our neighbors to be doing this themselves next summer. By then there’s hope they will have a smoother shopping experience than I just did.

Two codas to this piece.

Right after I finished it, I got a note from Ami Greko of Macmillan to tell me that Tor is making its Wheel of Time series available on Kindle for the first time and, to do it, the full text of the books has been retypeset to better accommodate the ebook format and all original illustrations and maps will be retained in these new releases. Tor appears to be the industry leader in establishing a 21st century sci-fi brand and taking this kind of care with a flagship series is good for their readers and good for the brand.

On another front, a great discussion broke out on Brantley’s list about publishers trying to squeeze textbooks onto iPhones. A number of us made the point that books originally intended for 150 square inch presentation need to be rethought to be effective within 6 square inches. Andrew Savikas of O’Reilly was the most articulate and compelling on the point when he said:

The bigger issue I see is that thinking of the problem as “how do we get a textbook onto an iPhone” is framing it wrong. The challenge is “how do we use a medium that already shares 3 of our 5 senses — sight, speech, and hearing — along with geolocation, color video, and a nearly always on Web connection to accomplish the “job” of educating a student.” That’s a much more interesting problem to me than “how do we port 2-page book layouts to a small screen.”

Even when all a publisher is doing is presenting the same text in an ebook, the way Andrew suggests we be thinking is the right approach. And almost every publisher has a long way to go to cover even the basics on a consistent and competent basis. Defining what “competent” ebook-making consists of in 2010 will be a topic at Digital Book World.

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  • William Clark

    While I appreciate the point you are making here, you could have saved yourself a lot of trouble by downloading the “Shakespeare” app by Readdle.com, which formats the complete works of the the Bard perfectly…

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      Thanks for the tip, William, but I'm just an ordinary book shopper. I don't
      have the time or energy to shop for stores or download points when I'm
      shopping for books. Time may change me, but right now I'm still looking for
      a bookseller to help me out!
      Mike

  • andrewdugas

    I've been enjoying greatly your posts on publishing and e-books and e-readers. (In fact, I was the one who first recommended your work to Flatmancrooked.)

    I enjoyed this article as well, but please!

    Why on earth would you want to read “Much Ado About Nothing?” It's a play, after all, not a novel or novella. You would have been better advised to search for an audio version.

    Consider: would you rather listen to a movie or read the screenplay? Which would better prepare you for the screening?

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      Thanks, Andrew, but we'll part company on this one.
      I take in information through the printed word much more effectively than I
      do through my ears. That may have to do that I have been hearing impaired –
      not nearly as serious a problem for the last 11 years, but I spent the first
      51 years of my life having to work very hard to capture any aural
      information that didn't come through headphones or a face-to-face
      conversation.

      And audio takes too long. I can read the play faster than anybody can speak
      it, and you'll recall from my post that I ended up only having time for the
      Charles Lamb version anyway!

      Mike

  • Charles Kress

    I agree, totally. I really have “fun” with the rhyming dictionary I bought for the Kindle. I, like you, prefer the iphone (in my case itouch) app. Since there is no way to search, I set book marks for lots of pages, but an index with hypertext jumps would make it closer to usable. I suspect the same goes for dictionaries.

    • /blog Mike Shatzkin

      All of this is a moving target, of course. If Amazon choose to put search
      functionality on the iPhone version of Kindle, they can. One must assume
      that all of the offerings will improve over time.
      Mike

    • Glenda

      IDPF now has EPUB Working Groups for both indexes and dictionaries, so things should be much more usable next year.