Bermondsey. A block of flats overlooking Jamaica Road. I’m sitting beside Toby Litt, in his living room, listening to a female voice coming out of his laptop computer. The voice says: “Well, um, hello John-Paul. I hope you didn’t have too much trouble finding the place. Has Toby offered you a coffee or something?”
The name of this particular voice is Victoria High Quality. She continues: “I am part of the ‘speakable-items’ package that came with this Powerbook. As you can tell, there is a certain Stephen Hawking quality to my voice. But I’m sure that future generations can look forward to conversing with something a little less robotic.”
We’re not really conversing. Victoria’s speech was written by Litt, one of British fiction’s most acclaimed younger talents, the author of four novels and a book of short stories. To start the reading, he typed the speech, pressed a couple of keys and selected Victoria from a pull-down menu. He could have chosen her male counterpart, Bruce High Quality, or other, more exotic voices, including Bubbles, Deranged and Zarvox. And he could have given her something else to read – perhaps even one of his novels – but he typed this speech to show the strengths and weaknesses of the software.
Victoria pauses, for effect, when she reaches commas and ellipses. She correctly distinguishes between words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently: “read” in the present tense, for example, and in the historic. At question marks, her intonation rises. And she has no problem at all with numbers; not even pausing briefly, as I would, to read 1,000,100,231,005. On the downside, her French accent is hopeless; and she can’t sing.
At the end of Victoria’s speech, Litt has included a paragraph from his latest novel, deadkidsongs. When she’s finished reading that, Victoria says, “Thank you”; and Litt, a quietly spoken man in his 30s, dressed all in black with a goatee beard, shuts her down.
I’ve come to see him because his publisher, Penguin – a subsidiary of Pearson, which also owns the Financial Times – had told me Litt is one of the authors most enthusiastic about the impact of technology on writing and reading. deadkidsongs, published as a paperback earlier this year, was one of the first titles Penguin published as an electronic book: since October, when Penguin officially launched its ebooks, it’s been available to read on desktop, laptop and handheld computers.
As Litt explains, the technology underlying ebooks liberates authors to try entirely new approaches to their craft. At the most basic, for instance, it enables them to use more complex vocabulary; with novels and reference books loaded onto a single device, readers need only tap on an unfamiliar word to call up a dictionary definition.
Liberated from the fixed sequence of pages found in paper books, authors can experiment with alternative outcomes; allowing the reader to decide, say, whether a murder takes place, and providing alternative follow-up chapters according to that decision. There are limits: “If you have a character that has eight choices in one scene,” Litt cautions, “and then again in the next scene, and so on… no single human author could write a book that complex.” To overcome this, writers have worked together, on the internet, to write “hypertext fiction” which sends readers to following pages through a mass of hyperlinks. (But this raises entirely new problems: “If the variety of outcomes is too big,” says Litt, “there are problems with creating believable characters.”)
Another idea might be to use the clocks built into computers to schedule the reader’s encounter with the text. “You can introduce controls on delivery. A five-week self-help book, for example, could hold readers back till they’ve completed each stage. If you write serial fiction, you can make the reader feel they have been rewarded: make them wait a couple of weeks for a new chapter. Or imagine a book where authors can control something like reading about a haunted house – so that you can only read that bit after midnight.”
Just as time can influence the reading experience, so too could geography. Using satellite technology – similar to that which tells the owners of Wap phones where to find their nearest branch of Starbucks – ebooks could “translate” texts to local contexts. For instance, a story set in London, featuring the Thames, Marble Arch and the Tube would, for readers in the US, feature New York’s Hudson river, Columbus Circle and the Subway. (For Parisians, the same story could be set against the Seine, the Place de la Concorde and the Metro.) To achieve this as a one-off would be complicated and expensive; but if it proved successful, publishers could purchase algorithms and a database, containing all the world’s major cities, off the shelf.
Of course, these possibilities would not be suitable for all ebooks. Nobody wants to read the Bonfire of the Vanities set in Oslo, or A Tale of Two Cities set in Brussels and Quebec, because those novels were written precisely to indicate the condition of particular places at particular times: wrenched out of their proper context, they’d be meaningless. But if it’s used imaginatively, the technology could produce sensational results, unlike anything we’ve known before.
In practice, ebooks have done little to harness innovation. They’ve tended to be little more than on-screen versions of what’s already available on paper. Litt had hoped to include links enabling readers to jump from the text to a map, but this turned out to be impossible (at any rate, the funds were not available). In the event, he had to settle with incorporating into his ebook a chapter which he says was “too extreme” for the paperback. Similarly, an electronic edition of Ulysses, available from Peanut Press, includes a the text of a judge’s decision to lift the ban on Joyce’s novel, as well as a letter from Joyce to his publisher. But these are not improvements: they’re additions, and could just as easily have been effected on paper. In neither case do they provide a compelling reason to opt for the ebook instead of a paperback.
One thing that could push readers towards ebooks is their ready availability. Ebooks never fall out of print: they just sit on servers, waiting to be downloaded. Thus, if neglected books should suddenly become topical – such as, currently, a specialist analysis of Afghanistan – demand can be satisfied at once. (“It takes just three seconds to download,” says Litt of his own book, which fills 400 pages in the paperback, “which can make you feel a bit strange about all the work you have put in.”) By doing away with the costs of printing, storage and distribution, ebook technology should enable the publication of texts that would otherwise remain hidden in somebody’s drawer; but there are other costs involved. If authors and publishers intend to protect their copyright – as most do – they must buy costly software enabling them to encrypt texts and make them readable across a variety of platforms. For readers, encryption introduces a range of unwelcome complications. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to print from encrypted texts. Nor is it possible to send them as gifts, in most cases, unless you are willing to share your account details – username and password – with the gift’s recipient. And ebooks are not returnable.
As this indicates, some of the advantages of technology can equally be seen as disadvantages. It’s great that you can carry several books on a single device; but this means you can lose them all at once. Partly for that reason, readers are unlikely to carry ebooks – on costly handheld devices – into the bathroom or on the beach.
One reason ebooks have not taken off is that there’s no standard format. The most popular software packages, compatible with Apple Macs and Windows-based PCs and Pocket PCs, are Microsoft Reader and Adobe Acrobat. But many personal digital assistants, seen by many as the future of ebooks, run on incompatible operating systems; as do specialised ebook devices. (Of these, the best known is the Gemstar eBook, which has an eight-inch screen and enough memory for 5,000 pages. But it has none of the functions of a PDA, such as address book and diary; and it weighs a mighty 33 ounces.)
Then there’s an altogether different format, known variously as electronic paper or digital ink. This consists of electrically charged sheets, three or four times the thickness of ordinary paper, consisting of reversible white-and-black particles which enable any conceivable configuration of text and graphics to be displayed. Both Xerox PARC and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed prototypes, and spun out companies to exploit the commercial potential.
The big publishing houses, unwilling to spend vast sums converting their books into every available format, have tended to favour Microsoft Reader and Adobe Acrobat above other systems. Of Britain’s major publishers, HarperCollins, Little Brown, Random House and Penguin restrict themselves to those two formats; Hodder Headline, which has not yet launched its ebooks, intends to do the same. (Orion does not publish ebooks and nor does Pan Macmillan.) As part of my research I talked to Litt’s e-editor at Penguin, Jeremy Ettinghausen, who was strangely reluctant to admit me to his office on the Strand. Initially I assumed this was because, as a young man – as he puts it, the “office geek”, recently promoted to his first editing job – he felt uncomfortable to be seen with a journalist. But when, eventually, I got inside I began to suspect that his modesty might be akin to that of the Wizard of Oz: he just didn’t want me to see his humdrum HQ. Penguin’s investment in ebooks, I discovered, comprises just two staff, Ettinghausen and his colleague Sam Evans, in a corner of a room otherwise devoted to Penguin’s website. Between them, they choose forthcoming titles and talk to agents and authors, but day-to-day work, Ettinghausen says ruefully, largely comprises the conversion of Microsoft Word files to Microsoft Reader.
A specialists ebook publisher, RosettaBooks – which found itself in court, in a case which has yet to be resolved, after publishing electronic editions of books for which mainstream publishers held all other rights – offers a wider range of format but does not currently supply ebooks compatible with Linux-based systems. And that’s particularly unfortunate, considering that early adopters of ebooks are likely to include the geeks who worship that operating system.
Another cross-platform system, Mobipocket, does provide for Linux users (as well as users of Unix, Mac, Windows, Palm, Psion and Franklin eBookMan). Software for readers costs nothing to download, and publishing software, at its most basic, just $149. But the content available from Mobipocket is less than compelling. Unless major publishers supply their books to Mobipocket, readers will have no use for its ingenious software.
Even more threatening to ebooks than the balkanised marketplace – which may eventually be consolidated – is the poverty of the reading experience. To argue that people will never be willing to read on screens – as some sceptics occasionally suggest – is foolish. After all, office workers stare at screens all day; and many young people have been reading screens all their lives. But studies have shown that reading speeds are 25 per cent lower on the screen than the printed page, for reasons to do with the resolution of the text, contrast between the text and the background, and the number of words on each line (the ideal is between six and 12). Unless the screens used to read ebooks are readable, nobody will use them.
The screens on handheld computers, plainly, have fewer pixels than the larger screens on desktops. This drastically reduces the quantity of information that can be displayed. To cram in as much information as possible, PDAs have tended to use typefaces without serifs (flourishes such as the ticks hanging off the top of this capital T, lying across the peaks of this W, and underscoring this P.) But as any designer will tell you, the best typefaces for reading large quantities of text have serifs. That’s why Microsoft has invested heavily in developing its ClearType display technology.
Peter Mollman, director of judging at the International eBook Foundation, which presented its second annual awards at the Frankfurt Bookfair – also in October – said afterwards that the judges found the reading experience to be “overall a very good one”. Particularly in non-fiction titles, he added, they “found that reading ebooks actually allowed them to better understand difficult texts, as they used the enhancements available in this medium, such as noting, book-marking, and searching to better follow and understand the author’s thoughts and ideas.” I’m not convinced: anybody who ever managed to make notes and insert bookmarks in a book made of paper might reasonably ask what’s so special about these particular “enhancements”. I’m tempted to point out that the International eBook Foundation is supported financially by Microsoft, among other companies eager to get ebooks out of research and development and into the market.
To find out for myself what ebooks are like to read, I went on the net and downloaded reading software for my Palm Pilot, from Peanutpress.com (which Palm acquired earlier this year). Then I searched the site for something to read. The site divides ebooks into 39 categories (including, perhaps inevitably, “Star Trek books”). To judge by one, the “Modern Library”, the number of sales transacted on peanutpress.com is small. The list of best sellers changes dramatically from one day to the next, suggesting that a few sales – maybe just one – could be enough to propel a title to the top of the chart. How else could the second volume of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire be the category’s seventh-highest seller? And how, when I visit a day later, could Jack London, with a combined offering of The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and How To Build a Fire, reach number four – knocking Ulyssess out of the top ten? And how many copies of Ulysses have been sold, over the following three days, for that to reach number one? Not many, I suspect.
In the event, I downloaded one of the site’s free titles, The Hacker Crackdown. Its author, Bruce Sterling, explained in a lively foreword that he was giving away this valuable property for nothing, having established that the publisher who produced the printed version, Bantam, does not own the electronic rights. (“However,” he cautions, “if you were so foolish as to print this book and start retailing it in violation of my copyright and the commercial interests of Bantam Books, then Bantam, a part of the gigantic Bertelsmann multinational combine, would rouse some of their heavy-duty attorneys out of hibernation and crush you like a bug.”)
The Palm reader is simple to use. Chunks of text come up as numbered screens, or “pages”, in one of two type sizes. To turn the page, simply tap the bottom half of the screen or press the “down” button. To go back, press the top half, or “up”. Pages can be marked, with a folded corner appearing on the screen, or with annotations as long as a few sentences.
After half an hour reading it on the Tube I had consumed 176 screens (out of 2,741, each one comprising ten lines of large, sans-serif type). I’d also developed sore eyes. The Palm V has a shiny screen. Its pale, black letters were hard to see clearly, even when I took advantage of the “invert screen” function (showing white letters on a black background, instead of the other way round). I even tried turning on the backlight, but beneath the train’s harsh fluorescent lamps this made no difference at all. What I needed was to plug in an earplug and activate Victoria High Quality – but regrettably that’s impossible with the Palm V.
The worst interference was caused by reflections. I tried tilting the screen, but even the flickering reflection of my pale shirt buttons was distracting. Now I could understand why publishers seem to prefer working with Microsoft. Watching other people on the Tube, staring at the bright screens of their Microsoft-compatible Pocket PCs, I used to laugh: it was like they were staring into a torch. Now, I had to accept that, for these adherents of Microsoft, distracting reflections posed no problem. And that ClearType – developed by the same people at Microsoft who commissioned the ultra-readable Verdana typeface found all over the internet – is an admirable piece of work.
But I don’t want to abandon my Palm, which in other respects is entirely satisfactory. If I do switch to Microsoft, who’s to say I won’t need to switch again, later, to yet another platform? Then I’ll have to restock my library of texts – just as, over several years, I gradually upgraded my music collection from vinyl to CD.
Hoping that the next generation of Palm and Palm-compatible handhelds might be better, I went to yet another October launch: for Handspring’s Treo, a combined mobile phone-and-PDA. I asked William Holtzman, international vice president, for his views on ebooks. I wondered whether Handspring, as well as attacking the customer base of telephone companies, might soon go into battle against Amazon and Waterstone’s. My questions seemed to make him apprehensive. But when I indicated that, so far as I could tell, ebooks appeared to be less than perfect, his face lit up. The best platform for reading, he said with a twinkle in his eye, was hidden in his bag. He rose from his chair, rummaged through his briefcase, and plonked in front of me… a fat paperback.
© FT Magazine