How Publishers Can Make Ebooks More Reader Friendly

I am now around twenty-five thousand words into a book project (details to come), and I’ve already given some thought to the book’s packaging. In today’s world, “packaging” includes ebook formatting as well as print design.

My goal is to format my book, both in print and in ebook, so that it is as reader-friendly as possible. Unfortunately, most other publishers fail miserably at that task. Here I offer my ideas for improving today’s books as published in multiple formats. Continue reading “How Publishers Can Make Ebooks More Reader Friendly”

Zubrin Aims to Turn Waste Gas into Profits

Image: Mars Society
Image: Mars Society

Robert Zubrin—whom I’ve interviewed for the Objective Standard—runs Pioneer Energy out of Lakewood, Colorado. The Denver Post describes the “Mobile Alkane Gas Separator” Zubrin’s company is developing: “The unit captures the waste byproduct of drilling” and turns it into salable natural gas. Zubrin told the Post: “This is a significant step forward and a significant resource for America.” Soon “the first MAGS unit will be sent to North Dakota for full field operations,” the Post reports.

I really hope this pans out, not only so that Zubrin and his crew earn spectacular amounts of wealth, but so that I and millions of other people around the world can have access to the energy he hopes to provide.

The “Miracle of Manufacturing”: Better Goods, Lower Prices

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

At AEI Mark J. Perry offers an interesting comparison between old and new window air conditioner units. In 1956, Sears sold a unit for $299.95. In 2014, it sold a better unit for $219. Based on an average manufacturing wage, “the time cost of a Sears room air conditioner has declined from 164 hours in 1956 to only 11 hours today,” Perry writes. Perry writes that such advances “are part of the ‘miracle of manufacturing,’ which continues to deliver cheaper and better goods to American consumers year after year, which translates into a higher standard of living for all Americans, especially for lower and middle-income households.” Of course manufacturing is no miracle; it is the consequence of productive and self-interested people collaborating voluntarily to earn a profit.

Amazon Explains Rationale for Cheaper Ebooks

Image: James Duncan Davidson
Image: James Duncan Davidson

Amazon recently explained its rationale for wanting ebook prices set at $9.99 or less, as Jillian D’Onfro writes for Business Insider: “The company says it’s found that e-books priced at $9.99 sell 1.74 [times] more copies than when they’re priced at $14.99.” (Hat tip to Diana Hsieh.) Unfortunately, Amazon also beats up publisher Hachette over the government’s antitrust persecution of that company and others. For why the government’s antitrust action against publishers was immoral, see my post for The Objective Standard.

These African Cocoa Bean Producers Had No Idea What the Beans Were Used For

Image: Wikipedia
Image: Wikipedia

A remarkable video from VPRO Metropolis shows what happens when a reporter brings a chocolate bar to cocoa bean farmers from the Ivory Coast—it is the first time the farmers learn what their produce is used to make (hat tip to Twisted Sifter). Some of the men thought the beans were used to make wine. One of the farmers says of chocolate bars (apparently in perfect seriousness), “This is why white people are so healthy.” One thing the video demonstrates is how people, interacting through global markets, can cooperate to mutual benefit without even knowing how they’re benefitting their trading partners. Of course, it also shows how communication technologies can help people, including chocolate lovers, become more educated about the world around them.

Why Printed Books Remain So Popular

IMGP4502Ownership of ebook reading devices exploded by five-fold within three years, as I review in a post for The Objective Standard. That’s an extraordinary development. Still, the growth of ebooks has been slower than I once would have predicted. Although 30 percent of the population read an ebook in 2012, 89 percent read a printed book. Given the relatively high costs of printing, shipping, and stocking a printed book, versus the negligible costs of distributing an ebook, why is the ebook market not growing even faster?

Clearly many publishers push to make printed books the continued standard, at least for now. Whereas the retail price of a printed book covers substantial printing, shipping, and stocking costs, such costs are all but irrelevant regarding ebooks. And yet publishers successfully pushed up the price of many ebooks well above the $10 level. Indeed, sometimes at Amazon I find I can buy a paperback for less than the cost of the ebook.

A large part of the issue here is that marginal costs drop off radically with large print runs and shipping orders. Thus, whereas many small-market books appear only in ebook, the economics of a popular book support large print runs. Plus, of course, brick-and-morter retailers can display printed books, increasing “impulse” purchases.

But I think the publishing end of it is only part of the story. I think there are a variety of reasons why many consumers often prefer a printed book.

Obviously printed books offer a distinctive tactile experience, and, as a bibliophile cousin of mine notes, a good old book also has a distinctive smell. But I think there’s something more important going on.

Although I was an early adopter of e-book technology, I have purchased several printed books of late. Why? I use my printed books for book clubs, book reviews, and research. E-books are difficult to cite, as they often don’t offer page numbers matching the printed edition (or the page numbers do not match precisely).

Often I can remember and visualize where certain content is with respect to the printed page and the page number. With an e-book, the material becomes a constant stream, with no stable relationship to the medium.

Another important feature of a printed book is that I can write notes in the text and in the margins. Although many e-book readers accommodate notations, I have found those systems to be clunky and impractical for my needs.

So, given the current technology, I’m likely to continue to buy both printed books and e-books, depending on my needs for the book.

I also predict that ebook producers and sellers will soon (within a few years) figure out how to overcome many or all of the problems mentioned here. Once that happens, printed books will eventually become about as common as music CDs and vinyl disks are now. At least that’s my guess. It will be exciting to see how it actually pans out.

Creative Commons Image: Kristian Bjornard

How About a Tester Store?

Recently I bought a Canon camera from Costco. (It’s an Elph 110 HS, and so far I’m quite happy with it.) I bought the Canon after buying and returning a Nikon to the store; I didn’t like the Nikon’s video abilities.

After my experience with the return, I thought I’d try to avoid that with the second purchase. Returns are costly for me (as I have to box up the item and drive it back), costly for the store (which at a minimum has to process the return), and costly for the producer, which has to repackage or perhaps eat the item.

So I asked the Costco team to unhook the display camera from the board to which it had been wired (for security), give me the battery and flash card, and let me play around with it for a while. The staff was happy (or at least willing) to accommodate my strange request.

So I shot some stills, took some video, then uploaded that content to my laptop (which I’d brought along for the purpose) to check out the results. I bought the camera much more confident I’d be happy with it. (It has only a 5x zoom, but, while I’d wanted more, I’d also read numerous reviews claiming that longer zooms tend to have problems with sticking.)

This got me thinking. While in my youth it seemed like catalog buying would become a thing of the past, today it is back in a serious way, with Amazon leading the way. I buy a lot of stuff online simply because I can’t find it locally—or because the local prices are significantly higher.

But internet buying creates a problem for brick-and-mortar stores: people come into the stores to try out products, but then they buy the products online—often on their mobile devices in the store itself.

So I thought to myself, why doesn’t somebody try separating out the service of letting customers try stuff out from the service of delivering the product?

What I envision is a “Tester Store.” It’s a large, warehouse-type “store,” filled with display models of loads of products, only the “store” doesn’t actually sell any of the products. You just try stuff out, then buy the stuff online.

Why would anybody do such a thing? Where’s the profit? When I mentioned this idea to a friend, he pointed out that such store could potentially become the world’s largest Amazon affiliate. (I mean, not in Colorado at this time, because our idiot legislators imposed an “Amazon tax,” but in other parts of the country where the legislators aren’t quite so painfully stupid and destructive.) The whole point of the “store” would be to actively encourage shoppers to order stuff online.

There is a range of products for which this would be useful. Obviously books are out, because you can just read previews digitally. But anything you want to handle before you buy it, such as cameras, clothing, air conditioners, cookware, etcetera. The whole point would be to make the stuff easy for people to check out, try on, put through the wringer.

I envision something like an Ikea, someplace with food, that’s sort of like a playground for adults (and kids, too).

Other than the “Amazon affiliate” strategy, there are a variety of ways such a store could make money. Perhaps many or all manufacturers would provide free floor samples to keep costs down. The store could sell old floor models, or not, depending on their condition and on agreements with manufacturers.

Think of how much better this would be than today’s typical model. Often I’ll look at products online at various stores (Walmart, Home Depot, Costco), but the local store won’t cary something. So I have no ability to try out that stuff before I buy it. Instead, why don’t stores just carry one or two copies of an item for people to check out, then ship from a central location?

Obviously this eliminates the “instant gratification” of real-store shopping. But usually I don’t want something right now; I want something I know will work for me. (Here’s another idea: the store could sell limited items at a premium to those who have got to have it now.)

I don’t know whether this idea would work (and I certainly don’t want to spend the effort to try it out). But it seemed interesting enough to me to blog about. If somebody else wants to run with it, be my guest.

How Consumer Reports Could Get My Money

I’ve used Consumer Reports exactly once in my life, several years ago when researching used cars. It’s too bad I haven’t used it more often—the organization features reviews of several products I’ve recently purchased, including cameras and air conditioners.

So what’s the problem? The unfortunate fact is that Consumer Reports makes it too hard for me to pay money to read the research relevant to me. It’s especially ironic that Consumer Reports sucks at making its material available to consumers, given that helping consumers is supposed to be what the organization is all about.

Let’s take the example of air conditioners. To get the relevant information, I’m told that I need to “Subscribe now” at a rate of $30 per year or $6.95 per month.

Well, screw that. I’m not going to sign up for a long-term subscription that I then have to think about and manage just to spend five minutes to learn about air conditioners.

What I did instead is just rely on whatever free reviews I could scrounge up through Google searches and from Amazon customers.

It would be extremely easy for Consumer Reports to get money from me in exchange for research. Just sell me individual reports in pdf format for a few dollars. I would have happily paid five bucks for the latest Consumer Reports information on cameras and air conditioners. But apparently Consumer Reports thinks its more important to unsuccessfully attempt to bilk me out of $30 per year than to actually get $10 right now for specific reports. That’s just bad business.

I really want to pay you my hard-earned money, Consumer Reports! You need merely make it easy for me to do that.

An Open Letter to Krista Broussard of Hewlett-Packard’s ISB Team

Update: On July 9, Keith from Hewlett-Packard contacted me through Twitter and provided me with his number. I did have to provide additional details about my printer model, but Keith promptly facilitated the exchange and restored my faith in Hewlett-Packard’s commitment to its customers.

Dear Ms. Broussard of Hewlett-Packard Company’s ISB Team,

I have been a loyal HP customer since the early ’90s, when I purchased my first serious printer (my actual first was a dot-matrix), a glorious HP laser printer. I ran many thousands of pieces of paper through that workhorse.

It saddened me, then, to read the many news stories all indicating that your once-glorious company has been heading down the toilet. For example, just today the Los Angeles Times refers to HP’s “faltering business.”

Your letter to me dated June 27 hints to me why your company is faltering. You obviously don’t take any pride whatsoever in your products, nor do you care anything about making your customers happy. Instead, you harangue me for daring to politely ask HP to replace a faulty HP product that I paid good money to purchase.

On June 4, I drafted the following letter to Hewlett-Packard. I sent the letter with a defective ink cartridge to the company, hoping for a timely and satisfactory reply:

Hewlett-Packard Company
3000 Hanover Street
Palo Alto, CA

Ari Armstrong
9975 Wadsworth Pkwy. #K2-111
Westminster, CO 80021

Dear HP,

We purchased the enclosed Color 61 ink cartridge, but unfortunately it is defective. (Our printer gave us an error message, and the next cartridge we tried worked fine.)

I request a replacement cartridge or a certificate for the same.

Ari Armstrong

P.S. I tried your customer service phone line, but after an absurdly long hold time I gave up.

Rather than send me a timely and satisfactory reply—with a replacement cartridge—you instead sent me the following huffy note asking me for information a) that I had already provided to Hewlett-Packard or b) that was entirely irrelevant to the company for replacing the defective cartridge:

So please allow me to take this opportunity to reply to your letter.

First, I was shocked to read that HP does not normally replace defective products, that you deign to “make a one time exception” in my case to do right by your customers.

So let the buyer beware: Hewlett-Packard does not stand behind its products, judging by Broussard’s reply.

Second, I found it ludicrous that you requested my “valid shipping address” in the very letter that contains a copy of my valid shipping address. Obviously you are not seriously attempting to get the relevant information from me to make a good-faith effort to replace your defective product; instead, you are merely hassling me.

I therefore take this opportunity to beg your forgiveness for purchasing HP products.

Finally, no, I will not provide you with my telephone number, my printer model number, or my printer serial number in order to process the replacement. Perhaps in your ineptitude you missed this detail, but I sent you the defective cartridge. That provides quite sufficient information, I think, for you to send me a replacement! (Moreover, it seems to me your crack “ISB Team”—whatever that is—should have embraced the opportunity to check out the defective cartridge in an attempt to avoid such manufacturing defects in the future.)

It seems to me that the obviously right move in your position would have been to promptly and cheerfully send me the replacement cartridge. That’s what good companies do, companies that do not wish to suffer “faltering business.” Well, obviously you blew your first chance. Please consider this your second.

Ari Armstrong

Amazon Considering Renewal of Colorado Associates Program

I was furious when Colorado’s idiot legislators imposed the so-called “Amazon tax” in 2010, forcing the company to drop the Associates program for all Colorado residents. The basic problem is that the Associates program, which incentivizes people to link to Amazon products by paying out a percentage of the resulting sales, arguably created a “nexus” that expanded the state’s power to impose tax-collection obligations on out-of-state companies.

Now that a district court has tossed Colorado’s “Amazon Tax,” what does that mean for the Associates program? I just received the following correspondence from Amazon: “Thank you for contacting us regarding rejoining the Associates program. At this point, we’re evaluating the decision from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado. We’d welcome the opportunity to re-open our Associates Program to Colorado residents. We’ll contact you if we are able to re-open the program in the future.”

Hopefully, the Associates program will again become available. Now will the legislature kindly leave us the hell alone to earn money?