What We Need From an Ebook Reader for the iPhone

There was some buzz in the lit-bloggy-verse a little bit ago about eReader coming out with an ebook reader for the iPhone/iPod Touch. Let me tell you why this is not a big deal.

eReader's software only reads one ebook format, Palm Doc or "pdb", which was originally developed for the Palm Pilot. As an aside, the help section on the site unhelpfully calls this the "Doc" format, which is confusing since for most people "doc" refers to files with the ".doc" extension, that is, Microsoft Word files. I suppose eReader didn't want to confuse people who might think that the format only works with Palm Pilot, but I think it would have been a much better idea to simply explain that the format originated on the Palm Pilot. As it is it might confuse people into thinking their eReader software can read Microsoft Word documents.

Anyway, the eReader store only offers eBooks with DRM, which is typical for Palm Doc files. (Typically the only way to get a Palm Doc file without DRM is to make it yourself.) I once bought two ebooks like this to read on my Palm Pilot. One was an essay collection, the other a long novel I never finished. Now they are useless to me, because to read them I have to input my old credit card number as an "unlock code". I haven't had this credit card in years. No matter that I paid real money for these books, no matter how much I want to reference that essay collection or finish reading that novel, I can't. The books I bought are useless to me, in striking contrast to, say, physical books, which when paid for can be reread and reread to one's hearts content. (And if I didn't want to be able to reread the books, I would have just gotten them from the library in the first place.)

I will never buy another book in the Palm Doc format, or any other format crippled with DRM.

This shouldn't be a problem. More and more eBooks are being offered in non-DRM'd format, specifically, as reliable, old PDFs. What we need is a proper PDF reader for the iPhone/iPod Touch.

Of course, the iPhone/iPod Touch can already read PDFs. There are, however, two major problems with the way it does so. One, it can only read PDFs that are emailed to the device or that are on a web page, and it can't move those PDFs into the file system for easy access, meaning in the case of web page PDFs one has to be online to read them at all. Two, even more critically for eBooks, the PDF reader can't bookmark pages.

So this is what we need: the ability to transfer a PDF from the computer to the device's file system and the ability to bookmark pages. Solve those two problems and you will have (finally) turned the iPhone/iPod Touch into the ebook reader we've all been waiting for.

And if nobody makes an ebook reader like this in July, when the iPhone/iPod Touch App Store is unveiled, I may just make it myself.

Richard Grayson on Print on Demand

The new issue of The Quarterly Conversation has some great stuff in it, including Daniel Green on Barthelme and an article about the man who made a metaphysician out of Borges. There's also a piece by Richard Grayson about his experience with print-on-demand.

Some of you may remember the review I wrote of Grayson's self-published book, And to Think He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street. In that review I puzzled over Grayson's motives,

Grayson's work paints a portrait of a talented writer whose ambition has washed away in a sea of middling reviews and self-pity. This is a man who has given up, and I'm not talking about going to law school, I can understand resigning yourself to not making a living as a writer when so few do. It's like he's given up on being read, he's given up on literature, and he's given up on mattering. And frankly if he thinks so poorly of his own work then why is he inflicting it on other people at all? Why bother?

In the new essay, Grayson talks about how, after a recurring piece on, sending out review copies, and paying $350 dollars for a review from Kirkus Discoveries, he sold a grand total of 15 copies of the book I reviewed (as well as 15 copies of another book, and 35 copies of a collection of the McSweeneys pieces). 15 copies. "But then," says Grayson, "I've never done this for the money. I would just like people to be able to read my stories if they want." He goes on,

Who needs unnecessary books? And what books are really necessary? Not mine, I'll admit.
Nearly all POD books are absolutely dreadful, published—or privished—by people who can't write much better than the students in remedial writing classes I've taught over the years. Most serious literary writers don't want to be associated with that kind of crap.

On the other hand, for an older writer like myself who's been through trade and small press publication and essentially has nowhere else to go if he wants a book published—also, recall that a major newspaper called my first book crap anyway—POD books from Lulu and similar companies seem like a good deal. (Emphasis Mine)

Once again I wonder why someone who seems to think his work belongs with "that kind of crap" would bother going through the trouble of publishing it. It's not a question of being in it for the money, it's a question of being in it to be read at all. My girlfriend seems to think he's just being emo, like publishing is a cry for attention.

Grayson seems like a nice enough guy. But if he doesn't think his books are important and if he's resigned to nobody reading them, why does he publish at all? I could probably get fifteen readers by writing a book and emailing it to friends and family. At some point I fail to understand.

Puppet Show Book Trailer

This book trailer is pretty amazing:

Still, neither that trailer nor the novel's website give me any solid description of what the book is about. Which, after that trailer, is what I really want to know.

Via GalleyCat

The Steve Erickson Party

Last night Ed Champion and crew, which luckily included myself, went to a reception during the AWP conference in honor of Steve Erickson and his new book Zeroville.

I have to confess that I was somewhat obsessed with Erickson's work some years ago, so when I arrived at the building and saw the man walking up, before I could control myself I actually pointed straight at him and yelled "You're Steve Erickson!"

"Yes, I am," he said with good humor.

Later at the party I was able to grill him about some questions that had always bothered me. Specificially, "How can you teach at an MFA program when your own work is so idiosyncratic and wouldn't work in a workshop?"

He looked at me sadly, and said, "I know. And I tell my students that this might not be the best way to write something, I mean, can you imagine Faulkner dividing up his work into 15-page chunks for a workshop? It wouldn't make any sense. But you know, I was getting older and had a kid and I needed a job, and I liked the idea of teaching writing at an arts school."

And suddenly I had much more respect for the man.

I also met Kent Carroll who runs the publishing house Europa Editions which published Zeroville. Not knowing this, I asked him who he was. Turned out it was his apartment and his party. Who knew? (Well, everyone else.)

The interesting thing here is that Erickson used to be published by major presses and apparently they dropped him because he didn't sell. Which is mind-boggling to me because the man is fucking genius. But anyway, he went to a smaller press, Europa, with his new book, and it has been very successful. It looks like the classic example of a writer that the large houses just didn't know how to handle, while a small house who really believed in the work served the author much better.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Lethem showed up and I was about to point at him and yell "You're Jonathan Lethem!" but Ed thankfully stopped me. I then tried to start a completely groundless and spurious rumor that Lethem is gay. Let's be clear, Lethem is not gay. At least not in the traditional sense. However, I did go into the bathroom later and found Lethem in there dressed in nothing but a diaper, bib and bonnet, begging Kent Carroll to spank him. Carroll blanched and left the room, and Lethem turned to me, eyes wide and imploring. Well, let's just say after that he let me into his Fortress of Solitude and leave it at that...

Finding and Reading International Literature

Back in the mid-nineties, my favorite magazine at the time—The Comics Journal—introduced a new column called "Eurocomics For Dummies". Each month, this column highlighted a different great European comic, and for the first few months I read it with enthusiasm. Then I realized that most of these comics had never been translated into English and most likely would never get translated into English. In other words, the column was doing everything it could to work me up into a frenzy over books I wouldn't ever be able to read without learning another language (French for the most part), an elaborate, journalistic cock-tease, the literary equivalent of a girl who keeps leading you on without letting you get anywhere. And as with that sort of girl, the only real solution to my frustration was to part ways, and I stopped reading the column.

Now, consider the article about Rodrigo Fresán's novel Mantra in the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation. After reading the article, I really want to read this book but it's only available in Spanish. So how am I to experience its strange world of luchadores and terrorists in modern day Mexico City? Wait, I remember now, I can read Spanish! Alright, so sign me up, let me at it. Then in my excitement I discover that the book isn't available in the US. Okay, that isn't quite true; according to Amazon I can get a used edition for the low, low price of $41.50. Which is a bit more than I'm willing to spend.

This makes me wonder. What is the point of writing an article about a book in an American magazine that's available in a language most Americans can't read and that's not even available in America for those who can? Sure, you might say, how are we supposed to drum up enough interest in these books to bring them to America in the first place without articles like these? Well, okay, but as with Eurocomics for Beginners, most of the time these books will still never get translated and the articles just end up being big cock-teases. For a writer or a magazine editor I can understand the appeal of having articles about books from foreign lands that aren't available here, it's exotic and cool and makes your publication seem cosmopolitan and gives people a glimpse at a different publishing world. And it's nice to know that in other countries publishers pay their writers to go to foreign countries and write, as happened with Argentinian Fresán and six other Latin American writers who were sent around the world to write books about random foreign cities, resulting in Mantra among other works. But as a reader it's frustrating to be turned onto a book you can't read even if you want to. I mean, WTF Quarterly Conversation?

Maybe in the case of Mantra I can do something. I've started a petition. Go sign it. If you're reading this and you're in the publishing industry, bring Mantra to the US. If you're reading this and you have a copy of Mantra, send it to me. (Email for my address.) Please.

How to Save Fiction Magazines

Warren Ellis has written a series of posts about sf short fiction magazines which relate to the state of literary magazines and the larger issue of the survival of short fiction. Magazine sales overall are up, you see, and yet sales of the major sf fiction magazines are down. The problem? These magazines aren't designed to be wanted:

i-D Magazine, with its famous “wink” portrait covers, at once put-on and come-on, seducing with its knowledge of The New Scene and yet laughing at its transience. The Arts & Crafts conceits of The Believer, the subtle comedy of the covers, balancing hipster here and intellectual there.

These are things that are designed to be wanted. We are supposed to get pleasure from viewing and handling these objects. Things that are designed to be wanted do the job of drawing our eye to them on the newsagent’s shelf. And that’s the key.

Subscription sales are great, but they’re almost a closed system. To survive, new accounts must constantly be injected into it. And that chiefly happens through people finding a magazine on a rack and thinking, yes, I’d like to have this, and wouldn’t it be nicer if it was delivered straight to my house?

He adds later:

But you know what? ASIMOV’S, ANALOG, F&SF — they don’t think they need saving. I mean, they haven’t changed for years, have they? They’re not designed to be wanted because they don’t want to be wanted, not really. They want to be left alone to do their thing, and they don’t want any loud new people in the room. They serve a dwindling audience, and they have to be aware of that — so they have to be in it to simply serve that audience, to provide that presumably cosy experience to their people until the last light goes out. Otherwise they would have done something different years ago. This is why those three magazines have a web presence that can charitably be described as “vestigial.” That’s not a dishonourable thing.

Cory Doctorow over on Boing Boing chimes in

I think the biggest impediment to the magazines' sales is that there's no easy way for people who love the stories in them to bring them to the attention of other, potential customers. By the time you've read the current issue and found a story you want everyone else to read, the issue isn't on the stands anymore and the best you can do is to try to get your pals to shell out to pay for an ebook edition.


If I were running the mags, I'd pick a bunch of sfnal bloggers and offer them advance looks at the mag, get them to vote on a favorite story to blog and put it online the week before the issue hits the stands. I'd podcast a second story, and run excerpts from the remaining stories in podcast. I'd get Evo Terra to interview the author of a third story for The Dragon Page. I'd make every issue of every magazine into an event that thousands of people talked about, sending them to the bookstores to demand copies -- and I'd offer commissions, bonuses, and recognition to bloggers who sold super-cheap-ass subscriptions to the print editions.

Sure it's lot of work, and a huge shift in the way the mags do business. But hell, how many more years' worth of 13 percent declines can the magazines hack?

Part of what's troubling about this is that if my own experience is any indication, sf short fiction is better than its ever been. So it's not quality that's hurting the sf magazines, and assuming there is still a potential audience for this stuff at all then the problem is packaging, publicity and perhaps medium.

Back when I first started complaining about literary magazines, my main complaint was the size and price. But it's true that McSweeney's is doing well (they "print 20,000 copies an issue") and it's precisely because of their design and image and ability to promote themselves. One Story, our old favorite, also has an innovative design and presentation, but I worry about them because they're subscription-only and their main promotional plan seems to involve trips to writer's conferences and MFA programs which invite a kind of incestuous ceiling of popularity. Perhaps this is uncharitable, they do go to the Brooklyn Book Festival and have a blog and a good web presence. But I think the answer for One Story might be a better web presence; which is to say, to put all their stories online, complete. Doctorow's been exploring the idea that giving things away online helps sell print copies for quite some time; he's given away all his books online and the sales of print copies have made him a successful novelist. The reason One Story's format is so compelling is because each story is such a small, portable little booklet. I think that if they put their stories online, then people who found them would be impressed by their quality and want very much to subscribe so that reading them would be that much easier. And this may be the ideal format for the fiction magazine: a free online edition, with the ability to obtain single issues either by subscription or of individual issues—as in, you start reading a story, realize you like it and want to finish it offline and with the click of a button you can have it mailed to you. (Of course, you can always also print the thing out, but you want to support the people who made it and those little booklets are so well designed you just have to have one.) You could even make the first one free, just click and here it comes, and then you'd want the next one and the next...

Had I time and resources I would happily try this experiment with Wet Asphalt; I would love to offer little booklets of Wet Asphalt material, or even eventually a "Wet Asphalt Reader" in cheap, portable paperback. Perhaps some day.

Reading the World

In honor of Reading the World 2007, an effort to promote literature in translation, many lit blogs are suggesting and discussing translated books. May I suggest the novels of Jin Yong?

My Soft Skull Recommendation: Branwell by Douglas A. Martin

Soft Skull Press is currently experiencing a financial crisis. As a result, they're offering their entire catalog at 40% off.

If you'd like to take advantage of this, may I recommend Branwell: A Novel of the Brontë Brother by Douglas A. Martin? Full disclosure: Martin was my writing teacher at the New School; in fact he's the best writing teacher I've ever had. Branwell is a lyrical and beautiful novel, biographical fiction done in a sparse, almost poetic style. It's a novel in the tradition of Marguerite Duras, gradually building character and mood out of striking images, unattributed interlocutors (which often seem to be within Branwell's head) and startling juxtapositions of sentences and words that speak volumes.

He would paint his sisters, all three of them, around this time.

For a time he struggled with this. Even at eighteen, he's not a good painter yet. He paints himself with a gun.

Now he wasn't to paint his sisters too ugly.

What would be the best way to arrange them all in a portrait. He paints them all with the eyes of rabbits, glazed over in a fear. He paints that there. He puts them almost in tears. He had begun to paint himself in there along with them, all arranged around him, and now he has just given up.

He's not going to be able to live up to their image of him.

They could all be seated around a table, or standing up.

He gives Charlotte the most firmly set mouth. He paints Emily with more sensuousness. He had himself initially standing up behind them, but he looked like the one thing that didn't belong. One could see how if he'd just remove himself, the painting might appear more balanced. He didn't fit with his sisters, where Emily has been placed in shadows, Anne resting her head on her shoulder, Charlotte lit with something like the sun.

A breeze in the portrait will touch only Emily.

The next time he paints her, he'll give Emily an even nicer dress.

One day Charlotte will have this painting to keep.

He's been removed, for the sake of making a better picture, and the composition overall is indeed better without him. That pillar there in the center instead will take his place. A cross divides the canvas into the scope of fields, how it must have been folded in on itself once to protect it when there was no frame.

Over time, the self he's tried to cover over in the painting of his sisters by the placement of the centered pillar, will come to light; as the oil paint slowly gains more transparency, the older and older it gets, his figure, a fourth, emerges between them, ever more visible beneath the pillar of separation painted down the middle, becoming him.

Serialized Fiction

I really like the idea of serialized fiction. One of the appeals of TV and comics for me is coming back to the same characters and seeing what they're up to (and how they've changed). In other countries, such as China (and especially Hong Kong), serializing fiction in newspapers is still widespread, and created the cradle which gave birth to novelists such as Jin Yong. In Scotland, Alexander McCall Smith is getting credit for revitalizing serialization in newspapers here in the West. Personally, I'm looking forward to Michael Chabon's "Jews With Swords" serial upcoming in The New York Times Magazine. For now content yourselves with Jaime Hernandez' excellent La Maggie La Loca. (Jaime's Maggie and Hopey characters I've been following loyally for quite some time from their adventures in Love and Rockets. If you like La Maggie La Loca, go check those out.)