This column is all about trying to write about new ideas. So much writing about digital online, and trying to say something that no one else has said is tough. But this week is an easy one. One big gaping hole that I have seen under-reported, and for Australia, unreported.
Why is the AppleiBookstore so utterly devoid of books? And in Australia, it is even worse?
I’ve covered the idea of “paperless” before, but what about the nuts and bolts of the ebook market as it stands today? And in Australia?
iPads are expensive, but the cost can be better justified if you were going to put a couple of hundred towards an ebook reader. And despite a lovely reading experience – the is NOTHING to read.
Well, not nothing. But pretty close.
For the last few months, I have had dozens of books I’ve been looking to read. And absolutely none are available on iBooks. We are not talking obscure ones either.
The new Tina Fey memoir (although it seems to be up now)
Street Gang – the new book about Sesame Street
That last Woody Allen book.
The Sondheim biography.
That Tom Waits bio….
…and so on.
Not particularly obscure books. But the point is this –
I’m WANTING to buy my first ebook, and so far I haven’t been able to. I am waving my credit card at you, begging for you to take it. Why don’t you want my money?
Let’s do a quick compare – iBooks Top 10 vs Dymocks Top 10. Only one – Charlaine Harris’s Dead Reckoning – appears in both lists. The rest of it is filled up by 99c books. Repurposed classics like 1984. Not to mention a huge collection of Free books.
iBooks are developing a different audience than a bookshop. The demographics are vastly different. The e-reader base in Australia is miniscule.
But they don’t come close to replicating a bookshop experience. Where I would say iTunes covers off 90% of what you can find in a regular Sanity store – what would you say for books? 20%? 10%?
But there is a bigger story here – which is some types of books have not become digital. Specifically – anything designed for a coffee table. How is an iPad supposed to replicate that? Of those cute little novelty books at the counter.
Other types are better suited to apps. Cookbooks, travel guides and dictionaries can be bought in the App Store, not iBooks.
So iBookstore is little more than a store for novels. And there is a gap for it to expand. Magazines. Comics. Newspapers. An e-reader can handle any text. Why restrict it to one type – novels?
But even for novels, iBookstore is shockingly lacking. No Harry Potter! No JD Salinger. No “To Kill A Mockingbird”. Genre stuff like Star Wars novels. Not even Da Vinci Code. Surely if any ebook will sell, it would be evergreen sellers like the ones above?
So where the bloody hell are they?
I don’t know – but my guess is they are crippled by the same fears we saw in the music industry a decade ago.
Digitising, en masse, costs time and money.
– Red tape
New formats come new rights, royalties and deals. Some bigger authors could be squeezing more money. Some publishers may not be able to report digital sales. There are contracts to consider.
– Fear of supporting a format that makes less money
An odd one, but big at the time for music. Why support digital, when the money is in CDs? (The reason is CDs are dying and to not be left behind, and to make more money out of fewer people)
– Artistic stand offs
Like AC/DC and Metallica, some authors might be making a stand.
– Territory rights
A big one for Australia. A book could be cleared for e-sale in the US, but they haven’t investigated Australian rights (or anyone else outside of the US), so to play it safe they don’t allow AU sales.
All this is very frustrating for the people who pay for the people making these decisions – the readers. We don’t care about that stuff. I want to buy a book for my iPad. LET ME.
Why can’t I see the iBookstore on the web? You can only access it via an iOS device. What is the point of that? Kindle’s store is online and easy.
Why is it not just part of the bigger iTunes store? Why not attract those 50 million customers you have?
And why are ebooks not much cheaper? Most new releases seem to be $20, more than an iTunes album. Looking at Fifth Witness – $23 on Dymocks, $20 at iBookstore. Bossypants – $25/$20. Seems as though it should be cheaper no? At least around the same as an album.
I’m not usually cynical, but this time, I think perhaps Apple doesn’t want people to be able to see just how awful iBookstore is. How expensive it all is. And how bad the range is.
I did finish my first ever eBook the other day. I found a digital, pirated copy of the Tina Fey memoir. I couldn’t buy it anywhere (although it’s out now).
And it was great. I got over the fear of taking out the iPad on the train. I read the end of it in a park. Readability and navigation was all fine.
One thing that did annoy me was I couldn’t do anything else with the iBooks app. Searching for new books, looking at other books, would take me out of Tina’s. Closing the program meant I needed to actually search for the Tina Fey book just to pick up where I left off.
The other problem is, once again, I have nothing to read. I am now carrying a Charlie Brooker hardcover with me everywhere I go. Didn’t I get an iPad to prevent this?
I can be forgiving. The ebook market, especially is Australia, is just terrible for everyone – not just Apple. There are so many challenges ahead.
– Sorting out rights to international books.
– Sorting out a format that can hold all kinds of book content
– Think harder about the pricing
– Building excellent stores with good selections
– Building a reader base that uses e-readers
Because right now it is horrid. To the point where there kind of is no ebook market in Australia.
And it was very, very easy for me to find a pirated copy of Tina Fey’s book. I’m sure I could find more. And once again, industry will be racing against piracy.
And if it’s anything like music, it’s the Australian book industry has to wake up fast and embrace ebooks.
30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.
4. JD SALINGER
I love the works of JD Salinger. He is best known for writing TheCatcher In the Rye, but also a series of short stories, many of which used the same characters. He died earlier this year, prompting me to revisit his work. It hasn’t lost any of it’s power on me.
I can’t remember her name.
But I can remember what happened. Clearly, like it was yesterday.
It was in the last years of high school, and I attended an all-boy’s school. But, thanks to lack of funding in the public school system, the music class for our school was merged with the music class from the local all-girl’s school.
It was cancelled entirely in my year (I mean, schools cancelling music. No wonder I’m such a left winger)…but the year below me was the first to take this new merged class. And Tristan, the bass player in our first band, was in that class. So thanks to rock ‘n’ roll, we got to visit the girl’s school.
O, that weird place known as the girl’s school! Such wonders. Such promise. Such mystery. We would exit those gates, watched by other jealous boys. And be greeted by suspicious looks of other girls, wondering what we were doing there.
Girls with guitars are so sexy, and there was one really excellent band from the girl’s school. They played late 90s radio rock – Hole, Blur etc. They’d play at, you know, school fetes and stuff. As would our band. But, we never really hung out with them. Thanks to Trist, there was another bunch of girls we hung out with. But those girls – they were the BAND.
Being in a band in a school in Nowhere, Sydney wasn’t actually very cool. And it didn’t help break down the gender boundary. Seeing a girl from the BAND at the train platform – they would be surrounded by their friends anyway. Even though we shared this bond of both playing in bands, I was not making it easier to go up to them and chat.
So one afternoon, I was visiting mum at her work, which was close to school. I got distracted and so it was about 5pm that I finally got to that train platform, to head home. The platform that is usually full of teenagers in uniforms mucking about – that exact thing that I can’t stand now.
Of course at 5pm, there was no one there. Regular life had set it, and those trains that are full of students had well and truly passed. In fact, the platform was pretty much abandoned, except for one girl.
The singer from the BAND.
It was the one and only time we ever spoke, alone. She was cute as a button and, of course, I had a massive crush on her. She was the singer and guitar player – just like me. I always figured we’d get along. In my mind, there was no one cooler than us two. Maybe if we got together, we’d be like the Damon Albarn and Justine Frischmann of our schools. That was the thought anyway.
She was reading a book when I got there – The Catcher In the Rye.
I’m not sure if we have ever been properly introduced but we knew who eachother were. And we talked; we talked about mutual friends. Some guitar stuff (like reaching those troublesome 14th and over frets). And we talked about Catcher In the Rye.
My clearest memory is saying how I thought it was such a boy’s book. It’s about a teenage boy, and all those silly boy-feelings of being a teenager. I asked her what she got out of it, and she said it was good to see how boys think.
By all this, our train had come and we reached my stop. I said goodbye, and saw eachother around, but we never really spoke again. I have no idea what happened to that girl. She was smart, confident, musical and cute. I still remember her, and I remember what she said about The Catcher In the Rye.
And I can’t even remember her name.
The Catcher In the Rye was given to us to read in high school. It takes the honour of being the only book I ever finished in high school. And English was my best subject.
So how did I get through school without finishing a book? It was easy. And once I figured out the trick, I never looked back.
You see, they don’t TEST you on the ending. They test you on the themes, the characters, etc. And any book worth studying, well the characters make themselves known at the start and the middle. As for what happens at the end – the teacher will always tell you about it in class. Or someone else will.
Take Great Expectations. I still don’t like that book, and I’ve never finished it. But I know about the rich vs. poor thing, how Ms Haversham’s wedding dress is a symbol, blah blah blah. Pull out a few quotes, that were probably discussed in class anyway, and you are off.
And Great Expectations sux in the exact way that The Catcher In the Rye doesn’t. It isn’t obvious. The author isn’t trying to say “look at how smart I am”.
I was pretty hooked from the beginning and finished the thing easily. So it was kind of crap that the mark for my Catcher essay was worse than my Great Expectations one.
Guess you can’t explain love.
One last story about Catcher from my teenage years. There was another girl – a girl I deliberately wont name. I knew her from around.
It was a different sort of crush. And she was a very different sort of girl. She was my age but she wasn’t in school. Problems in her family meant she was living with some guy. But she slept around, did drugs, and got through life a day at a time.
She loved music though. She loved Oasis. She loved Supergrass. And like all girls that age, she loved Ash. She dreamt of moving to London, as most music fans did in 1997. And I was that music guy in her life. I would make her tapes, lend her NMEs and Q mags, and we would listen to records and smoke. Sometimes, we would kiss, but it was mainly me trying, and her forgetting to not let me.
It occurred to me, even then, that her dreams were so unrealistic. I wanted to probably draw comic books or play in a band – and I had plans on how to do both. Impossible plans, but plans none the less. But her – she just sat there, in this guy’s apartment, occasionally having sex with him, smoking her years away.
I thought she was beautiful. I can still see her face. I can still see it as it was sad, and then I’d tell her something like I have the new Blur single in my bag, and her whole face would smile. Not just her mouth, but her face – eyes lit up, eyebrows stretched high. Maybe those smile muscles had been waiting for a reason to come to life for a while.
My copy of The Catcher In the Rye at this time was stolen from the local library. It was a nice old, almost pocket sized hardcover. Battered to bits. Light blue cover with only writing on the spine. It looked so cool I had to have it.
She had never read a proper fiction book, and I guess I was raving about it. I figured it was the perfect book for a beautiful, broken teenager. So that copy of Catcher I had, I lent it to her. I’d ask her if she’d read it every time we saw eachother, but she never did.
She disappeared sometimes for weeks on end, but she vanished altogether shortly after that. What mutual friends we had never saw her again either. I was too scared to go to her place on my own, and by the time I thought I should, months had passed. I figured she’d moved on to a new life, and to leave her too it.
She took that copy of The Catcher In the Rye with her, and I wonder where it is. Is it in a police lock up somewhere? Or a bin? Or did she finally meet some guy, one who took her to London?
Maybe she read it on the plane there, and loved every word.
So I haven’t even talked about Salinger yet – but girls is one of the many things I love about JD Salinger. He wrote some of the best female characters.
There is kind of a stock female character that Salinger writes about, and it’s the pollyanna. The bright, sunshiney, curious gal. And so many of his stories are about what happens when someone who hates life meets someone who loves it.
In ‘For Esme, In Love And Squalor’, it’s a young soldier who meets a girl, before he goes into war. He promises to write to her. Then, in the second part, he writes to her, after having been through the most terrible experience in his life. The contrast between the two shows us what war has done to this young man.
But there is also women as a destructive force. It’s most powerful in the “The Laughing Man”. The Laughing Man is a fictional some superhero type, and his story is being told to some kids by Chief, the head of this boy scouts kind of thing. The boys love the story, and they love Chief. Chief meets a woman and the stories get more exciting. Chief’s girl comes and meets the boys – but one day she isn’t there. Laughing Man’s adventures dwindle, and Chief…Chief is never the same again.
That’s just two of many stories he wrote. And these amazing stories and characters I still know by heart.
I wish they would finally publish all his short stories properly.
The reason they don’t is because Salinger – the man – was a recluse. Most biographies conjecture that he was also a racist, a health freak, a Mormon and god knows what else. We don’t know what’s true and what’s lies – but we do know that shortly after The Catcher In the Rye came out, his first and only novel, he moved his family out of New York and was barely seen or heard from again.
He did make himself known in the control over his work. He had strict rules for everything – from book jackets to people wanting write books about him. A lot of the work he had done for journals like New Yorker, have never been collected.
I found all this out and did some hunting around. I discovered the wonderful Bananafish website. And all those unreleased or under-published works were all online anyway. I printed out several hundred pages on A4 and started to make my way through this hidden stuff. I got a nice folder for it and I still have these print outs.
It’s a bit like hearing a band’s demos actually.
He’s probably the most famous recluse in the world – up to his death earlier this year. There is something about recluses that fascinates me, and adds to my Salinger fandom. There are almost no photos of him. In this world of over information, a mystery is so seductive.
But now that he’s dead, I figure the flood will come. All the stuff that was around but trapped from before Catcher, to almost 50 years of writing since. I’m excited but scared at the same time. I hope it’s good.
So what does The Catcher In the Rye mean to me?
If I ever fell in love with language, it was here. Holden’s voice was so engaging – “all that David Copperfield crap”, “phonies”, “swear to god” etc. It wasn’t a story being told AT you. It was a kid telling you his story, and sounding like he doesn’t want to be there at all.
It’s the doom and gloom too. Holden feels trapped. He sees the worse in everything, but people around him are actually awful. The teacher who tells him he has to conform. The prostitutes, the phoney jazz musician, and people clapping at all the wrong times.
It helped define how I saw the world. How I treated people. Made me realise that adults can be idiots and to look out for that. And if people can be idiots, then maybe I’m not wrong about the world, and screw everyone else. I’ll be me then, not them.
But the most important lesson for me is the one that Mr Antolini tells Holden. To write things down. Because someday someone might find it, and it might help them. Part of the reason this bit of writing exists is because of that advice.
Although my fandom has died down, it still simmers lightly all the time. I bought yet another copy of Nine Stories when in France (because “For Esme” is set in France). I am always delighted to meet someone named Zooey because it’s likely from Franny And Zooey. My first stop in New York was Central Park – I wanted to see where the ducks go.
I made Karen see Finding Forrester, a kind of terrible film but was a homage to Salinger. She hated it. (Next time, on her choice, we saw Jurassic Park 3). Karen’s favourite Old 97’s song was Roller-Skate Skinny – a term that comes from Catcher.
I finally found a nice edition – a hardcover reprint with a replica of the original dust jacket – a few years back. When I saw it, I knew it was the way I wanted to own that book. Problem solved.
I’m still excited to meet people who love his work. And I still meet people who I think could be helped by reading Catcher. I haven’t read it in years but maybe it’s time again.
If you’ve never read one of those ‘classic’ novels, this is the place to start. If you have and don’t know anything else, I recommend Nine Stories. You’ll love it. I swear to god.