If Screens Are Bad for Kids Are They Also Bad for Adults Too?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 29, 2018

While reading the Sunday The New York Times yesterday on my iPhone, 3 of the 8 stories in the Trending Section dealt with the dangers of computer screens and kids. They were:

The first story opens:

SAN FRANCISCO — The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it. Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them.

A wariness that has been slowly brewing is turning into a regionwide consensus: The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high. The debate in Silicon Valley now is about how much exposure to phones is O.K.

“Doing no screen time is almost easier than doing a little,” said Kristin Stecher, a former social computing researcher married to a Facebook engineer. “If my kids do get it at all, they just want it more.”

The gist of these stories is: If the creators of screens won’t let their kids use them, why should we? If the Luddites are also the Technophiles, shouldn’t we worry? Or is this just elitism, like those intellectuals who sneer at watching television? Or is this a genuine back-to-analog-reality movement?  Ever since science and technology began integrating into society there have been those who want to stop its progress. There have been protests against trains, industrialization, cars, television, computers, automation, robots, and now joining the hive mind via our smartphones.

screens

On one hand, society teaches using and understanding technology is an important part of education, on the other hand, people question if using technology constantly is a good thing? Both children and adults are spending a larger percentage of their time staring at screens – phones, tablets, laptops, computer, and televisions. That means a significant portion of reality is viewed through a flat surface. Are the critics of screens saying we should have more 3D reality-time?

I’m not actually sure where the basis of the criticism lies. If they mean kids are spending too much time playing games or watching videos, then is the danger they fear escapism? If you spend ten hours a day in AutoCAD designing NASA space probes are you spending too much time using a screen? What about an author writing the great American novel? Or a heart surgeon using five screens at once in their surgery? If your kid spends five hours a day on a screen becoming a mathematical genius would you object?

If I wasn’t using a screen to read I’d be using a book to read. Is spending hours a day on pages instead of screens a more valuable experience? What if I gave up writing and spent those hours outside gardening? Would that make my life more rewarding?

Kids love toys. Evidently, screens are preferable to other toys. Does that make them unhealthy toys? My guess is the Silicon Valley types know about getting ahead in life, becoming a success, making money, inventing products. They want their kids to have an advantage over other kids, so they’d prefer their kids not waste time playing with screens but learning what it takes to be the next generation of billionaires.

Then the question becomes: What are the best activities for children if you want them to get ahead in life? Maybe we don’t worry about adults using screens so much because we’re not worried about them succeeding in life. Either they’ve made it or not, so wasting time on screens won’t change our fate. But with kids, they have this huge potential and we don’t want them to blow it.

Or have we reached a stage where we’re worrying about becoming cyborgs? Should kids be reading instead, or playing baseball outside, or Monopoly inside? Maybe seeing so many kids mesmerized by screens is making us think about what it means? But, then shouldn’t we wonder about our own screen use?

I like writing. Would using a typewriter and submitting my essays to magazines be more fulfilling than writing for my blog? Would it be even more rewarding if I wrote longhand on paper? What if I gave up television? Is reading really a better use of my time? If I didn’t read or watch television, I think my next choice would be building and programming computers, developing databases, teaching myself AI and machine learning, and constructing robots. I don’t think I’d be happy if I gave up technology altogether. I could take up gardening and woodworking, two very down-to-Earth activities, but I don’t think I’d find them as rewarding as what I’m doing now.

If I counted all the hours I spend with my HDTV, 4K computer monitor, Kindle Paperwhite, iPad Mini, and iPhone, it would be a lot. Certainly, the majority of my day. Should I really wonder if that’s unhealthy?

JWH

 

Analog Reading in a Digital Age

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 22, 2018

I used to be able to sit with my book for hours, lost in reading. Now I’m lucky if I can make myself sit in a chair and read a book for an hour or even thirty minutes. After years of digital reading, I’m craving old fashion books again.

reading in a digital age

How and what I read has changed in these digital times. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or the digital technology is changing me. Other factors come into play too, like having more content and greater variety. Or different ways to read – the printed page, the digital screen, or the audiobook.

I actually spend many hours reading every day, but it’s mostly off my PC, iPhone, iPad or Kindle. And most of those words aren’t from books. When I was younger, I was never much of a newspaper reader. I loved books and magazines. I could read for hours. I still read books, but I often don’t finish them, and I rarely read a magazine anymore. My mind has developed an impatience that leaves me too fidgety for books. Newspapers have long ago disappeared from my life, and magazines have almost faded into nonexistence. I don’t want books to go too.

Every day I spend at least an hour, maybe more reading the New York Times and Flipbook from my iPhone. Flipbook does gather content from magazines, newspapers, and websites from all over the world, so I’m actually reading articles that used to be presented in paper newspapers and magazines. But the experience is different.

In pre-digital times, my days had a smaller selection of articles to read. I would find something that interested me and generally read the entire piece. For some of my favorite magazines, I’d spend hours reading the whole issue. Now I flip past dozens of articles, maybe even a hundred, skim read ten to twenty, and hardly ever finish one. I usually add a few to Instapaper every day telling myself I’m going to go back and study them, but I seldom do.

I’ve become a vacuum cleaner of words rather than a reader. At least not in the old sense of reading. I still finish three or four books a month, but mostly via audio. I’m currently listening to Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. It’s 26 hours and 20 minutes. The action is extremely slow paced, but I’m enjoying it very much. I’m not sure if I’d have the patience to read it. I did eyeball read Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit on my Kindle this week, but it was a mere 130 pages.

I finished Solnit’s book aching both to hear it, and to read a paper copy. Psychologically, I felt I wasn’t getting all of what Solnit had to say from the Kindle. I need to hear someone read it with the proper pacing, cadence, and inflections, plus I wanted to see the words on actual paper. I wanted to squeeze every idea out of her book, make notes, and distill all the points into one concise outline. I doubt I’ll ever take the time to do so. I did highlight passages in my Kindle and printed those out so I could discuss them with my friend Linda during our two-person book club. We discussed Men Explain Things To Me twice, but that wasn’t enough. What Solnit had to say was something I wanted to memorize, but sadly, the modern way we read means rushing on to something new.

With audio listening, I can get through very long books, including nonfiction and classic novels I never had the patience to read before. Plus I enjoy them far more. If I read Doomsday Book with my eyes I’d miss so much of its richness, especially all her work with middle English (it’s a time travel story). However, I recently discovered I was missing other aspects of novels by not reading with my eyes.

PBS is running a series now called The Great American Read. Each weekly episode has readers explain why they love their favorite books. I’ve listened to Jane Eyre, a book I would never have read with my eyes. The audiobook had a lush dramatic reading, and I admired the writing and story but didn’t really care for the characters. But when its fans were interviewed on PBS, they read a segment from the book, highlighting the words, and I realized why those fans identified and loved Jane Eyre the character.

I also saw that other readers like to savor sentences in fiction, something I don’t take the time to do. I love audiobooks because they are slow. When I was young I’d speed read through books anxious to find out what happens. I missed a lot. The slowness of audiobooks allows me to get so much more. But seeing the words of Jane Eyre on TV highlighted as a reader read them, I understood to get deeper into a book I needed to read with my eyes and go even slower.

Our technology allows us to feel we’re reading more, giving us the illusion that we’re learning more, but are we? Part of my problem is I buy far more books than I can ever read, and find far more articles each day than I can ever finish. The pressure to consume them all makes me rush by their words. Reading off the computer screen, iPhone screen, iPad screen, the Kindle screen allows me to feel like I’m mass-consuming information, but I’m not sure I’d call that reading anymore.

I love computers and technology. I have no doubts that it has enhanced my life greatly. But I’m realizing my brain can only process so much data per day. Sometimes I feel my aging brain is slowing down, but I’m not so sure. I feel much wiser at 66 than I did at 26. I know I’ve always been a skimmer over knowledge, that I’m a dilettante of learning. Digital technology gives us the illusion we’re more productive, but I don’t think it’s true.

I’m struggling with the psychology of reading. I’m discovering I need to read with both my eyes and ears and on paper, screen and headphones. That there isn’t one way to read. I’m beginning to buy my favorite books on Kindle, Audible and paper and feel the need to process the best books three times. Most books only need one “reading” but some need two or three. I’m also learning that I probably shouldn’t waste my reading hours on those one-time books anyway.

For fiction, I feel the first reading should be audio. Audio has the greatest impact if it’s read by a skilled dramatic narrator. The second reading should be on the Kindle so I can highlight passages, especially if I want to write about the book or discuss it with friends. But for longterm enjoyment, I feel I need to bond with a printed copy of the book, one that I actually admire for its cover, design, fonts, and paper.

For nonfiction, I feel it’s best to start with the Kindle edition, and then go to audio. I like a physical book to flip through randomly. I’ve always loved hardbacks, but I’m starting to think smaller trade paperbacks are nicer for flipping.

I don’t like big heavy books or books with tiny print. So any book that’s hard to hold or requires squinty-eyes to read I leave to audio or Kindle. The other day I almost bought a beautiful hardback edition of Poe’s complete works. It looked new but was only $3 used. But I realized I wouldn’t like holding it. I still regret not buying it, but it was the right decision.

For years now I’ve been buying my favorite books on audio and Kindle, but now I’m also wanting a copy to hold. The hold-in-my-hands copy must have a kind of charm, either a beautiful cover or a unique character. I’m thinking of thinning out my library so the books I keep are ones I loved to hold and read with my eyes. (Thank you Marie Kondo.)

I don’t know why this craving to read books has returned to me now. I don’t feel anti-technology. I would never give up audiobooks or Kindle reading. I guess what I’m learning is no matter how carefully I read a book, with whatever technology, I never get all it has to offer.

JWH

 

 

Kindle Tip – Saving 40%

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 4, 2018

I don’t know why, but sometimes Amazon tells me I have a promotional credit. I never know what they mean. The other day I bought a $1.99 sale ebook and was told I had a promotional credit that would last 60 days on my next Kindle purchase. I just ignored it. Then I bought a $1.99 sale book today and got another promotional credit. This time I read the email more closely.

Sense of Wonder - A Century of Science Fiction edited by Leigh Ronald GrossmanIt said I’d get 40% of my next Kindle purchase. Well, there’s a $40 Kindle book I’ve been wanting but wouldn’t buy because of the high price. It’s a textbook for teaching science fiction. Well, I checked, and it was now priced at $24, 40% less. I quickly bought it. I still think $24 is way too much of an ebook, but I’ve been wanting this book for some time now, and have almost paid the $40 for it a couple of times.

I don’t even know if this involved my promotional credit. It could just be coincidence and this book had a 40% price drop. (Tell me what price you see.)

I’ve researched these credits at Amazon and they seem rather unexplainable. I wonder if they’re just a gimmick to get us to buy more. Or Amazon’s way of justifying to publishers for offering extra discounting.

Does anyone know how these promotional credits work? They’re a mystery to me.

If you buy bargain Kindle books, keep an eye out for your promotional credit. Then go shopping for that ebook you wanted that was priced too high.

JWH

Cleaning Up My Kindle Library

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 23, 2016

I had 501 ebooks in my Kindle library when I started this essay. I have 401 now. After reading an article that said 40-45% of all ebooks bought are never opened, I loaded up Kindle for PC, put it in cover view, and scanned my books. Damn, they were right. I’ve been acquiring Kindle books since 2007, and many of those books I had gotten for free in promotions, downloaded for free because they were in the public domain, or ones I bought on the cheap because their authors were anxious for me to try their work. Most I had never opened. Psychologically I assume, I’m buying books for a future, for when I have 72 hours in a day for reading.

This made me contemplate my Kindle library. I love shopping for used books every week and I also love snapping up ebook bargains. But scrolling through the cover images I saw several books I thought I wanted to buy that I already own. Damn! My Kindle library has gotten completely out of hand. I’m constantly buying $1.99 specials because of BookBub, Kindle Daily Deal, Book Riot Deals, or Early Bird Books.

SF Books On Kindle

I spent a couple of hours this afternoon and permanently deleted 100 books I knew I’d never read. This has proven to me that free ebooks aren’t something I actually want. From studying the dates purchased, I had already stopped adding free books years ago. However, I switched to compulsive buying. I bought 146 Kindle ebooks in 2015, probably three-fourths of them for $1.99. Since I average reading one book a week, I’m buying three years worth of reading every year. That’s illogical! You’ll think I’m even more insane when I tell you two-thirds of the books I “read” each year are with my ears, so I’m actually buying about seven years worth of ebooks each year. (I’m not sure if that fractional math works out—haha, a word problem for you.)

It would be a huge help if Amazon created some way to mark books read or unread. I need some method of reminding myself of how many books are waiting patiently for me to spend a week with them. I’m guessing I have a decade’s worth of unread Kindle books in my library. (I need to stop buying those sale ebook!!! It’s an addiction.)

When I scroll through the Kindle library now, I see only books I want to read, or have read and want to keep. But it’s in one big jumble, ordered by title, author or recent (date last accessed). I wish Amazon would let us permanently classify books in their “Manage Your Content and Devices” web application. I can create subject collections, but only for a device, like for Kindle for PC, and sometimes it seems, when the software gets updated, I lose those collections. The photo above is part of my “SF Novels” collection.

In recent years I’ve been buying classic science fiction book when they go on sale for $1.99, and have 70 novels, and 48 short story collections and anthologies. Today, I realized that I need to browse my collection at least weekly, to remember what I own, and inspire me to read rather than shop. Between hundreds of printed books, a thousand audio books, and these 401 Kindle ebooks, I have 30-40 years worth of reading queued up. Since I’m 64, I’m covered for the rest of my life. I should stop buying books. I won’t, but I should. At least, I should browse the covers as often as possible, to remind myself of all those books waiting to be consumed, and at least stop me from buying duplicates. That might slow me down some.

Spending the afternoon working with my Kindle for PC app has shown me the value of looking through my collection. Especially in cover view mode. I wish I had similar software for viewing my Audible books, or even wish the Kindle for PC could manage my Audible collection too. Amazon does own Audible. It would also be nice if I could enter my physical books into the same system, so I’d only need one program to browse my entire collection. I like seeing the covers. There’s software for the PC, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS that allows this, but it would mean maintaining two databases, and that would be a pain-in-the-ass.

Since I buy most of my books from Amazon, it would seem they should be responsible for helping me manage my library.

JWH

Rethinking Magazines on the iPad 2 and Kindle 3

Since I’m a gadget freak I wanted to love reading magazines on the iPad and Kindle.  It wasn’t love at first sight though.  Reading a digital magazine takes different skills than reading a paper magazine, and at 60 it’s not always easy to teach an old dog new tricks.  However, I’m an old dog that’s become very near sighted, and having a tablet is like having a handicap device that helps me with my physical failings.

Because I can make the font larger, and the photos larger and brighter, the experience of reading on a tablet wins out over paper, but I’m not saying it’s magical.  Zite, a reading app for the iPad, is magical.  Think Pandora for articles instead of playing songs, because I can’t show you what Zite looks like.  Zite isn’t on the web, it’s only for iOS, Android and webOS mobile devices.  But even Zite is just a start.

We need a new paradigm for magazine reading.

Right now publishers are working hard to make magazines look identical to their printed versions on the tablet screen, but that’s ignoring the power of the computer built into the tablet.  And I’ve got to wonder why I have to page through ads when I pay more for the iPad version of magazine than I do for a printed subscription.  For example I could get Rolling Stone for $20 on paper, but I’m paying $36 for the digital.  WTF? 

If I’m going to pay more, why not make reading easier and forget the printed layout and ads?  But I doubt that will happen.  Zite usually jettisons the ads, and its free.  So, how does that business model work?  It won’t for long.  What’s needed is a paid Zite subscription.

I get The New Yorker on my Kindle 3 and it does leave out the printed formatting and ads.  It’s pure text reading.  The Kindle 3 is much lighter and easier to hold than the iPad, so reading The New Yorker is a pleasure, but not visually exciting.  A step backward, although it’s much easier on the eyes.

When I’m reading just words, whether for a book or magazine, I much prefer reading them on the Kindle e-ink screen, or the retinal display of my iPod touch.  The damn iPad is a pain to hold.  But if I want to see photos I need the iPad.  This is probably why the Kindle Fire is a 7” tablet.  But none of these devices are perfect.  In fact, reading nirvana is nowhere to be seen.

It’s like that new ad on TV for the Microsoft phone that claims up till now all smart phones have been beta devices.  Well, we’re still in beta when it come to tablets and magazine reading.

In fact, I’m ready to give up magazines altogether, either print or digital.  Zite has taught me that, as well as the Best American series of anthologies that come out each year collecting the best magazine magazine writing into ebooks to read on the Kindle.

Magazines have a lot of content I just don’t want to read or look at.  When I could flip through a paper copy it was easy to ignore the crap, but with a digital edition the easiest way to read a magazine is to start at the beginning and flip pages till the end.  That just reminds me of how much content I don’t want to see.

How often have you paid several dollars to read one article in a magazine?  How often have you paid several dollars for a magazine and read none of the articles, just flip through the pages, reading snatches here and there and looked at some pictures?  Magazines are like cable TV, 200 channels when you really only want 8.

What we need is magazine article singles, like buying songs at iTunes.  Articles should be 99 cents for long meaty ones, and less for shorter ones.

Like I said, this transition from paper to digital is making me rethink magazines.  Either digital magazines need to become a whole lot better at providing just what I want for a fair price, or I’m going to either give up on reading magazines altogether, or just go back to paper editions that I only buy with very cheapo subscription deals.

I’m not sure the iPad is the wonder gadget that I thought it was.  Except for Words with Friends and Zite, most of my dozens of app icons go untapped.  I’ve bought some of those fancy multimedia books and never read them.  They are neat for a few minutes, but not for hours.  Most of the digital magazines I’ve bought haven’t been read.  In fact, my New Yorker issues pile up in my Kindle 3 just like how the paper copies used to pile up unread.

JWH – 5/2/12   

The Strange Pricing of Digital Goods

I buy a lot of digital goods and services but I’ve noticed that there is no consistency in pricing.  For example I subscribe to Rdio.com and pay $4.99 a month for access to millions of songs and albums.  Yet, The New York Times wants $15-$35 a month for access to just one newspaper.  $60 a year for 15,000,000 songs versus $180 for 365 issues of one newspaper – can you spot the obvious bargain?

Yet for $7.99 a month, or $96 a year I get access to 75,000 movies and TV shows at Netflix.  $7.99 a month is also the price Hulu Plus charges for thousands of shows too.  So why does one newspaper cost $15 a month, especially since it was free for years.  I love reading The New York Times, but I can’t make myself pay $15 a month for it when I get so much music for $4.99 a month, and so many movies and TV shows for $7.99 a month.  If I was getting access to several great papers for $7.99 a month I’d consider it a fair deal.  But for one title, I think it should be much less.

This makes The New York Times appear to be very expensive.  However, The Wall Street Journal is $3.99 a week, or $207.48 a year. Strangely, The Economist, a weekly is $126.99 a year for print and digital, or $126.99 for just digital. Go figure.

I also get digital audio books from Audible.com.  I pay $229.50 for a 24 pack, which is $9.56 per book, but they often have sales for $7.95 and $4.95 a book.  I can get two books from Audible for what I’d pay for 30 daily papers, but I actually spend way more time listening to books than I’d spend reading the paper online. 

I subscribe to several digital magazines through the Kindle store.  Right now I’m getting a month of The New Yorker for $2.99, but that’s suppose to go up to $5.99 soon.  (What is it about stuff from New York being more expensive?)  Most of the magazines I get from Amazon are $1.99 a month, way under the cost for a printed copy at the newsstand.  The Rolling Stone is $2.99 and I usually get two issues in a month.  So for $15 a month, the price of The New York Times, I get 11 magazines (4 New Yorkers, 2 Rolling Stones, Discover, Maximum PC, National Geographic, Home Theater and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction).  That’s a lot of reading for $15 a month, and a lot of variety.

However, I also subscribe to Zite, an app on my iPad where I do the most of my news reading, and that’s free.  I get free articles from those magazines above and who knows how many more, all for free.  In fact, I spend so much time reading Zite, because it’s customized to my interests, that I’m thinking of cancelling my magazine subscriptions.  But that’s another issue.  Like when I subscribed to paper copies of magazines I mostly let them go unread.

Even if I paid $15 a month for The New York Times I’m not sure how many articles I would read above the 10 articles a month they offer now for free.  I don’t expect everything to be free on the internet, but sadly, paid content has to compete with free.  Zite, which is free, is actually worth $15 a month, because I get access to zillions of magazine articles, newspaper stories, and web blogs.

I’m also a subscriber to Safari Books Online, a subscription library to technical books.  I pay $9.99 a month and get to have 5 books a month “checked out” to read.  I can keep them longer, but I have to keep them at least one month.  So for $120 a year I get to read as many as 60 books, which means the price could be as low as $2 a book.  That’s a bargain when most computer books are $40-50.

And I’m a member of Amazon Prime.  For $79 a year I get unlimited 2-day shipping, access to 12 ebooks (1 a month from their library of 100,000 titles) and unlimited access to thousands of movies and TV shows.  This is another tremendous bargain.  I also buy ebooks for my Kindle and iPad from Amazon.  Costs run from free to $9.99.  On very rare occasions I’ll pay more, but it hurts.  Digital books just seem less valuable than physical books.  I don’t feel like I collect digital books like I do with hardcovers.  I don’t even feel I own ebooks.

Next Issue Media is now offering a library of digital magazines Netflix style for $9.99-$14.99 a month, but only one of the magazines I currently subscribe to, The New Yorker, is part of the deal.  If all of my regular magazines and The New York Times were part of the deal, then I’d go for it.  However, Zite with it’s intelligent reading system would still dominate my reading.  Flipping through magazines is just too time consuming.  What I want is a Zite Plus, a service that provides access to all the free and paid content I like to read.

Can you spot the trend in all of this?

I think most people on the net are willing to pay for digital goods if they get a bargain, especially if it’s part of a library of goods like Netflix, Rdio, Rhapsody, Spotify, Hulu Plus, Safari Online, Amazon Prime, etc.

And there is another issue about buying digital goods.  Some companies charge extra if you use their content on a smartphone.  Rdio and Spotify are $4.99 a month for listening on your computer but $9.99 a month to also listen on your smartphone.  The New York Times is $15/month for reading online and smartphone, $20 for online and tablet, and $35 for online, smartphone and tablet.  Why the heck is that?  It’s the same damn words.  Why would they care where you read their paper.

Netflix charges $7.99 a month and you can watch it on a whole array of possible devices.

JWH – 4/24/12

What is the Kindle Doing to the Science Fiction Genre?

Here is the Kindle Best Sellers in Science Fiction showing two lists, Top 100 Paid and Top 100 Free.

The #1 book on the paid list is A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin.  Okay, that’s natural, it tops other bestseller lists too.

#2 is five John Carter novels bundled together for 99 cents.  I can see that, the movie is getting people to read the old ERB books.

#3 is Ender’s Game – another natural, but it’s old.  I guess people with a new reading gadget are rereading their old favorites.  Cool.

#4 is Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey.  WTF?  Who is Hugh Howey?  And he’s got 277 customer reviews!  In fact, Hugh Howey has several Kindle books in the Top 100 paid.  How did this unknown writer get in the Top 100 Kindle SF books?

Going down this Kindle Top 100 list for Science Fiction I realize that unknown authors are grabbing many positions on both the paid and free Top 100 lists.  There’s a smattering of old time favorite SF writers, Heinlein has two titles, Asimov, one, and a few modern SF writers of note like Dan Simmons and Orson Scott Card have a few more, but for the most part the these best sellers are books I haven’t heard of before, by authors unknown to me.

Is the Kindle changing the reading habits of science fiction readers?  And other genres as well?

My favorite science fiction writer is Robert A. Heinlein, but then I’m 60 and my reading tastes are as old as I am.  When I started reading science fiction in the 1960s Heinlein-Clarke-Asimov were the big three of the genre.  Most of the SF authors I’ve discovered in the last 50 years don’t have books on this list.   Why?  Are they out of fashion, or has Kindle reading habits changed things dramatically?

How are low cost and free Kindle books going to affect professional writers?  Also, notice the name of the publishers of these books – they are unknown to me, so I have to wonder if they aren’t self-published.

Supposedly, Kindle books are outselling all other forms of books, so is this what people are really reading in the SF genre today?

Many of Heinlein’s books are available for the Kindle, but only two are in the Top 100, and one of those is there because Amazon put it on sale last month.  There are many Kurt Vonnegut books in the Top 100 Paid listing, but again, they are on sale this month.  Amazon uses the technique of lowering the price of a book for a few days to get attention and then upping the price.  New, unknown writers, are using the same technique with their self-published books, and evidently its working very well.  Better than book reviews, better than word of mouth reviews.  Establish writers are now using that trick too.  That trick only works with Kindle ebooks.  It would be interesting to see if it worked with printed books.

If you look at Locus Bestsellers for March 2012, many of their books aren’t on the Kindle bestseller list.  If you look at Amazon’s Best Sellers in Science Fiction general list that includes printed books and Kindle books, the makeup of this list is different, but the Kindle books are having a huge impact.  Here is the Science Fiction Book Club Top 100 Bestsellers.  Notice how it’s dominated by series, media tie-ins and non-science fiction titles.   The SFBC has little science fiction.  Not so for the Kindle list.  Evidently would-be writers are very anxious to write science fiction and readers are finding it on Amazon to consume in mass quantities on their Kindles.

There’s more new science fiction, and dare I say, more exciting sounding science fiction by the unknown authors at the Kindle store.  Big publishers push blockbusters and name authors, and media related books, so the unknown writer doesn’t have much of a chance, but that’s not true in the wild west gold rush of self-published ebooks.  Something is happening here, and we don’t know what it is.

The press has been full of stories for the last two years about how ebooks are impacting traditional publishing, but I don’t think they imagined the paradigm change that self-publishing is making on bookselling.  Self-published ebooks are becoming the  universal slush pile for all readers to work through to find that gem they want to make a success.  Discovering a new author and promoting her can become a new form of social networking.

Think about that.  In the old days assistant editors would cull the slush pile for worthy books to show editors.  Getting a book published was a long slow process that winnowed out the bad.  Now Amazon has made free ebooks the slush pile anybody can read.  If it gets a lot of downloads they put a price on it, if it sells, they promote it.  If it keeps selling, they publish paper copies.  If it keeps selling, a big name publisher will grab up the author.

But do we really want to be slush pile readers?  I’m old, and have little time, so I usually go with the definitive classic now, but young people with lots of time seem to have no problem trying an unknown writer.  Those people are pushing Hugh Howey forward.

I’ve thought science fiction has lost most of its vitality in recent years.  Writers have become obsessed with series, trying to build their book sales by pushing a popular character.  That’s comfortable for some readers, but I liked when science fiction writers were always trying to top each other with far out ideas.  I don’t know if the self-publishing revolution will bring back those days, but maybe.

Finally, does it mean if you don’t own a Kindle you’ll be out of touch with the popular reading reality?  Yes!

SF Signal is a good site to keep up with free SF.  They feature almost a daily roundup of free science fiction.  Today Chasing Vegas by Tad Vezner caught my attention.  The customer reviews at Amazon are very encouraging and it has a great cover.  The old saying is you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I don’t know if that’s completely true.  It seems to me, the best of the self-published books have nice covers.  I don’t know if that’s a real indicator or not.  But in this new paradigm of reading from the slush pile I’m not willing to try just any book.  I look for customer reviews and a good cover.  I hope self publishing authors will do two things.  Hire an editor and buy a cover.

JWH – 3/24/12