The Ward Report: Introducing A New Blog

     |    Wednesday February 1st, 2012

Hi, folks. My name is Ed Ward and this is my new weekly blog for realeyz. They’ve given me permission to write about just about anything I want to, which I take to mean I’m going to range far and wide over the cultural landscape, covering everything except films. They’ve got that taken care of quite nicely.

These days, of course, you can’t write about culture without writing about technology a lot of the time, so that, too, will figure in here. The way our cultural artifacts are created and consumed has been revolutionized in a very short time, and we’re still catching up. As you’ll see, I’m not totally certain we’ve figured out the interface between our devices and our artifacts, and I further think there’s a baby-and-bathwater danger to the unthinking acceptance of new formats and delivery systems that could wind up biting us in the butt if we don’t pay attention. I mean, ask anyone — anyone who remembers, that is: Betamax really was better than VHS.

Not that I consider myself a technophobe or a Luddite. I mean, I’m a guy, and guys love gadgets. But fortunately for me, gadgets cost real money a lot of the time, so I think long and hard before investing in one, particularly if it’s a whole new thing. I just got an iPad, for instance, but not before I’d considered what I’d do with one for a couple of years. The gateway drug for that was the iPhone I bought over three years ago when I moved to France: I needed a cell phone, Orange offered a good deal, and I went for it. It turned out to be good for a lot of things — including being a phone.

But it was also a gadget, and it had other gadgets you could add to it, called apps. At first, I downloaded a lot of apps, especially if they were free. I futzed around with them and then, inevitably, I deleted a lot of them. At some point, I got a Twitter account and put a Twitter-reading app on the phone. It only took me about a year to decide that the whole thing made no sense for me, that I was getting more spam than anything, and that nobody I knew was using the network in any way that I cared about. Plu$ @ll the# crap% that people& stuck in the #texts made my brain ache. Boom. It was gone. Then, just to prove to myself that it, too, was a stupid idea, I downloaded Amazon’s Kindle app, and, while they were promoting the iPhone Kindle, I downloaded a couple of books they were giving away, one of which was Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. I’m not much of a science-fiction fan, but I’d heard it was good.

And there it sat for a long time. Then, months later, I found myself on a plane headed to the U.S. from Europe. In the chaos before leaving, I’d forgotten to pack anything to read, something I never do. I settled in for what was going to be an extremely boring flight when I remembered: hey, I have a really long science-fiction novel on my phone! I fired it up and started to read and discovered to my amazement that it wasn’t at all difficult to do. The typeface was easy to read, the interface on the phone made it easy to turn “pages,” and it was easy enough to bookmark your place and return to it later. Eventually, though, I hit a problem. The novel deals with mankind’s first colony on Mars and how it evolved, and at one point in the exposition of this history, there’s an illustration of Mars’ orbit. Now, the fact that this is included signals the fact that it’s going to be important to the story, and so it turns out to be. But on the Kindle, it was unreadable: scratches on the screen. So that was something a Kindle didn’t do well. For another plane journey, I got a Kindle copy of Keith Richards’ Life, and there was another problem. At one point there was a footnote with a hot link. I clicked it, read the note, and tried to click back to where I’d been. Didn’t work. Fortunately, there’d been an unusual word in the text a couple of paragraphs back, so I searched for that and was soon back to where I’d left off. There were also pictures in the book. They weren’t in such hot shape, to be honest.

But I began to see the virtues, if not of owning a Kindle (I really don’t like dedicated, one-use devices except in the kitchen, and not always there, either), of at least being able to read on one. Just imagine that I’d become addicted to Terry Pratchett books when I had one: I wouldn’t be overrun by stubby paperbacks. Stuff you’re going to read just once, like genre fiction, is perfect for a device. You can reduce clutter, which is always a good idea.

So when I got the iPad, I already had experience with the basics of the device. I got a cover which allows you to stand it up, which makes it easy to read on it, and a subscription to the New York Times, which is, most of the time, well-adapted to the app it puts on the iPad. My New Yorker subscription also gives me free access to the iPad edition, but I rarely use it except to check out the tablet-only features, which are, again, excellently done. Oddly, Wired, another of Condé Nast’s publications, and the one that’s the big cheerleader for new technology, is a dud on the iPad.

But it’s in the kitchen where, believe it or not, the iPad is turning out to be the most useful. First there was the Mark Bittman How To Cook Everything app, adapted from his book. Very well designed, with little bells and whistles (shopping lists you can create, timers) that I mostly don’t use. Then I saw that Ken Hom, one of my favorite cookbook writers, was coming out with an extensive new book. I downloaded the Kindle sample, and discovered that the index was 100% linked. I could find a dish I wanted to cook, hit the link, and there it was: with the iPad standing up, I could have the recipe right there while I cooked, just like with a regular cookbook. I still need to buy a stylus so I can swipe the pages with dirty hands (although I’ve been told a carrot stick works, which is a very green solution), but I like the possibilities here. I still haven’t read a book on it, but I do have another long plane flight ahead.

So, for all the chaos e-readers are causing in the publishing business, it all looks just swell, right? Well, no.

The other day the New York Times had a long article in its business section about e-readers and the “threat” to bookstores they represented. Ridiculous. In the short period between Christmas, when I bought my iPad, and Monday afternoon, Apple came up with something called iBooks Author, which is its own proprietary iPad-friendly publishing software. Monday, a friend in Texas sent me the news that he was re-doing his first novel for the format, adding illustrations and audio files to it. From the screen-shots, it looks nice. But there’s a catch: you can only read it using Apple’s software on an Apple device. Not a problem for me, but maybe a problem for you.

I’ve e-published, too. Last year, I took a long article I’d written but knew I’d never get published even back in 1994, when I wrote it, updated it a little, added a preface, tweaked this and that, and submitted it to the Kindle Singles program, which publishes short manuscripts in the Kindle format. When they turned it down, wanting something newer, I went and published it myself through Kindle. I hyped it relentlessly through my Facebook page, by e-mailing friends, and so far I’ve sold a few hundred copies. Encouraged, I took two long short stories which shared a central theme and published them, too.

[We interrupt this blog-post for a commercial. The first book is entitled The Bar at the End of the Regime, and tells about the cultural confusion which ensued when a tightly-knit family in a small village in the former East Germany is confronted with three Americans, one of whom thinks he’s related to them. I was lucky to have been there, witnessing a slice of history that’ll never be repeated. You’ll love it.

The second is called Two Blues Stories: Fiction by Ed Ward. It’s twice as long and a buck cheaper, and you’re going to love it, too, so buy both while you’re out there.

These are available in the Kindle stores in the U.S. and all European countries. Please buy them; I love getting royalties for the first time in my life, and I need the money. Now back to The Ward Report.]

 

One thing I kept hearing after I published these, though, was that people didn’t have Kindles to read them on. Amazon, no fool, makes Kindle software for every operating system out there, for your phone, your tablet (well, most of them), your computer. It’s also free. You don’t need a Kindle.

 

So I was encouraged. Some of my friends had bought Nooks, from Barnes & Noble, and declared them superior to Kindles. I thought, fine, I’ll do a Nook edition, too. But I didn’t: the publishing process was so tedious and complicated that I didn’t think it was worth my time. And there are more formats out there, too: I subscribe to a book-of-the-month list run by a major university, which offers a free e-book every month. For that, I have to read it on Adobe Digital Editions software, which only runs on my computer. No analogous software exists for the iPad. And you know what? The confusion doesn’t end there, although my patience with researching it did. Oh, and back to the pictures: Adobe’s software does a pretty okay job with them, but from what I hear, the rest of the formats are just as bad as Kindle, except for this new iBook authoring system, which is, as I said, limited to its own app and devices.

 

It’s kind of hard to see how the headless-chicken behavior of the publishing world, as exhibited by the folks in that Times article, is justified by the reality. Yes, e-books are here, but only just. Forget Betamax vs. VHS: there are a dozen formats out there — and no consensus in sight. And there’s another thing: I’m not going to spend $300 — or even $79 for a plain-vanilla Kindle — to buy a thing to read a book on when I can spend $12.95 and get a book which I can read. All of these techno-elitists with their shiny devices forget that not everyone has them. Especially in the places that most need them, which is to say the poorer parts of the globe, people just don’t have computers, smart phones, or tablets. But they have books. If they’re lucky, they have access to some of these devices through a library or other institution, but the digital divide still exists on a level that a lot of these utopian folks ignore when bloviating about our silicon future. Which I tend to read about in magazines. Printed, for the most part, on paper.

 

So I really enjoy my iPad, and I’m aware how lucky I am that I could afford it. I read the newspaper, the weather, and the occasional book on it. There’s also music on there, but that’s another rant for another day. Like, probably, next week’s Ward Report.

 

Thanks for reading: there’s a lot more happening in these next few weeks as I blog from SXSW Interactive, SXSW Music, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and more. Right now, though, I’m going to fire up the iPad and play Angry Birds.

 

 

 

 

EdWard