With the economy in the crapper and discount online retailers putting the financial squeeze on brick and mortar book sellers, it came as little surprise when Borders, long-time book retailer No. 2, finally filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Borders isn’t totally dead and gone as a brand, but it seems unlikely that it will continue to exist in the shape and form we’ve known for so many years.
Part of the plan is to shutter as many as 250 of their existing stores that are simply too expensive to operate. They’re mostly in areas already hard hit by the recession, representing around 30% of their total retail space. This will bring them down to nearly a quarter of the 1,329 brick and mortar stores that they operated at the height of the commercial real estate boom in 2005.
I have heard from many who know me as something of an ereader evangelist claim that it’s the rising tide of ebooks that took down their favorite local book retailer and coffee shop, but the numbers don’t really seem to back it up. In their bankruptcy petition, Borders list more than $1.29 billion in liabilities – they were in a staggering amount of debt. eBooks to date represent less than 5% of the total book retail market, and looking at the numbers, conflating the disastrous management and the slowly shifting market for books would be incredibly disingenuous.
According to reports, the leaner, meaner post-bankruptcy Borders will put more of a focus on its customer rewards program, eBooks business, and non-book products. To me, that speaks to the fact that management still hasn’t learned its lesson. I always thought it was precisely this focus on toys, novelty calendars and low-quality crap that got them into this mess in the first place.
Fortunately for Kobo owners, my prognostication that having a Kobo put you on the wrong side of ereader history was not correct. According to the Q&A the company recently posted, the fallout at Borders has next to no effect on their operation, since Borders was only ever the mainstream icing on the Kobo-powered cake. So not only is your ebook library safe, but you will still be able to purchase ebooks from Borders.com, get technical support, and use Borders apps as though nothing else had changed.
It seems the one truly wise management decision that Borders has made in the last several years was not trusting any of their ebook operation to themselves.
For intents and purposes, it appeared late last year that Amazon was going to forever alter the ebook landscape when it announced that it was going to finally match Barnes & Noble’s biggest feature trump card – ebook lending.
Unfortunately, much like Barnes & Noble’s extremely limited lending service, Amazon restricts book lending to just fourteen days per book. Even worse, users can only lend out one book at a time, and each book can only be lent out a single time before the loaning feature is disabled for it completely. In Amazon’s version of reality, books are simply antisocial, sticking to your bookshelf after the horrible trauma of being lent out one time for a period of no more than two weeks.
Lending books on Amazon.com is a fairly simple affair. Simply go to your account page, click “Manage Your Kindle” under Digital Content, and click through your list of purchased titles looking for those elusive “Loan this book” buttons. It’s not immediately clear to me whether my collection of books is a representative sample, but only about one in three or one in four books actually featured this option, which seems to indicate the publishers haven’t given the full go-ahead.
Of course, the reasons for the restrictions on lending are obvious. Digital books lend themselves as well to file sharing as movies, music and television, so by instituting a more liberal lending policy, ebook publishers would essentially be inviting people to set up elaborate lending networks, totally circumventing the need to purchase copies of the book in the first place. In the real world, we call such sinister institutions libraries, but one can understand why Amazon wouldn’t want these replicated in the digital space. There’s money to be had, after all.
Since this is the Internet we’re talking about, people have still managed to set up a work-around. A site called Books For My Kindle opened up a few months ago, which connects users with books to lend and users looking to borrow. When you register, you set up a list of books in your account that are available for lending. Users are then able to search for books they might want to read in the database, and the site allows you to make a connection so somebody can borrow your book and vice versa.
The site depends quite a bit on the good will of all parties involved. Member ratings act as the sort of currency that keeps the site moving, and ratings are predicated on the notion that you’re going to give loans as often or even more than you receive them. Does it work as well as loaning actual books? Of course not, but it takes a severely hampered feature and renders it somewhat useful, and for that alone I have to endorse it.
The ebook world has been abuzz in the last week or so, after Apple made the controversial move of rejecting a Sony Reader Store app that would have allowed users to purchase and read ebooks from Sony on their iPhone or iPad. Apple defended the decision, citing existing app store policy that says intra-app purchases have to be routed through the Apple store, so that Apple can charge their 30% toll charge. Cue Internet outrage.
While the policy may remain unchanged, this would certainly represent a monumental shift in the way that policy is enforced. Right now, users of both the Barnes & Noble and Amazon apps are able to purchase books on the iPhone and iPad, albeit in an indirect way. Instead of actually purchasing them from within the app, they are directed to the Safari web browser, where they can then purchase them via the web. It’s not the most elegant solution possible, but so far, it’s worked.
If Apple, attempting to leverage the popularity of their devices, decides that this is all of a sudden a violation of the rules, it wedges both Barnes & Noble and Amazon between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, a 30% cut off the top almost totally negates their margins for any books purchased on an iOS device.
On the other, both companies have been actively promoting the cross-platform nature of their ebookstores, which allow you to start reading on your Kindle and pick up where you left off on your phone, PC, or other supported device. That is a feature and a promise that they would have a hard time backing away from now without losing a lot of good will with customers.
B&N and Amazon aren’t left with terribly many palatable choices. They could bend over and take it from Apple and write it off as a cost of doing business. They could abandon Apple platforms entirely. They could even try to skirt around the requirements by just burying the option to buy books within the app somewhere hard to find. It’s hard to say at this point.
Speaking personally, I’ve grown rather fond of reading Kindle books on my iPad. Based on the number of people I routinely see reading books on their iPhones on the train to work, I’d wager a guess that others feel much the same way. Whatever the fallout from this, all the companies involved would do well not to disturb the status quo too much, lest they cast aside the good will they’ve spent years building up.
Since their debut in October of 2010, games on Amazon’s Kindle have absolutely taken off. Starting with a simple slate of three word games meant to test the mettle (and vocabulary) of Kindle-owning bookworms, the offerings have ballooned to incorporate a much wider range of game-playing fare. While I am of the personal opinion that offering games dilutes the power of the Kindle as the one device where one can read without distraction, some of these new entrants are compelling because they at least appeal to one’s intelligence.
Panda Poet from Spry Fox
For all their virtues, the first round of games on the Kindle were essentially variations on board games or flash games we’d all played millions of times before. Panda Poet stood out to me as an essentially new experience, which was a big part of its charm. Panda Poet charges you with using letters on a grid to form words. When you create words, you are given points and those letters are absorbed into your panda, making her ever larger. The wrinkle is that letters have a limited shelf life, and if they expire, they turn into skulls which block the growth of your panda.
While basic to begin with, the scoring allows for a lot of strategy and forethought. Scores are determined by the total letter score multiplied by the square of however many letters are in the word. So if your letter score is 20 and the word is seven letters long, your score for that round will be 20x7x7x7x7 or 48,020 points. You’ll find yourself quickly trying to maximize your multiplier while also fending off those dastardly skulls. It’s a deep game punctuated by the inclusion of comically cute pandas, but more than anything, it just works.
Triple Town from Spry Fox
As my first non-word-based Kindle game, I was initially skeptical about whether Triple Town would be able to hold my attention. It’s a puzzle strategy game where players are tasked with building a city by matching three square tiles of the same type into ever-expanding degrees of complexity. Three grass tiles become a flower, three flowers turn into a bush, three bushes into a tree and so on. Things get tricky when enemy barbarians and wizards start appearing and compromising the flow of the game board.
Triple Town winds up feeling like some combination of chess and connect four, and can be played simply in a matter of minutes or with great care for several hours. It’s quite unlike anything you might play on a smartphone, since its simple interface seems to be more of a response to the Kindle’s limited output ability, but it has its charm for all that.
Slingo from Gameblend Studios
The only mindless game I’ve tried thus far is Slingo, a port of the old internet favorite. It’s a combination of slots and bingo. You’re given a bingo card full of numbers, and given a number of pulls, just like a slot machine. If any of the numbers that come up on a given spin match the ones on your card, you get to mark them off. There are bonuses and wild cards of various sorts, but the crux of the game is just trying to get a Slingo.
Unlike the other offerings, which actually manage to stimulate your brain so you don’t feel quite so bad about not reading, Slingo is for the most part totally brainless. The only time player input actually seems to matter is in the last four spins or so, each of which cost a certain number of points to perform. It’s a risk-reward calculation, betting on whether the outcome of said spins will be worth more than the points it takes to buy them. It’s an addictive game, to be sure, but it’s precisely the sort of game I don’t want distracting me from reading.