Martin Seymour-Smith, poet, authorThe new Sony Reader is on sale for $49 with the Sony credit card. Retail price for the Sony Reader is about $300. Last month the promotion included a $50 voucher for commercial e-books from Sony’s e-book store.

And now here’s a question for all owners of Sony Readers: What did you spend your $50 store credit on? And what kinds of ebooks would you like to see at the Sony store?

Robert Nagle’s answers—and commentary—follow.

What I spent my $50 voucher on

  1. Andrew Weil’s Eight Weeks to Optimal Health (320 pages). $17.95 (CONNECT Discount 20% -$3.59), total price: $14.36 (This compares to the same title as a print book on for $6.95 + $3.99 shipping). I knew I would read this title from start to finish. Weil’s book are often handy reference guides, and I used to carry one of Weil’s previous books with me while shopping. I knew I’d derive value from reading this book. (Update: This is a great book!)
  2. Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies. (Print Pages 544). List Price $9.95 (Discounted 20%). Total $7.96. (This compares to $5 used copy + $3.49 shipping on I didn’t feel any burning desire to read Ebert’s book, but I knew I’d finish the whole thing. Plus, the product description says the book contained both Volume One and Two together, which would be a great deal. Oops–turns out the e-book description on the Sony site was wrong; it came from a review of both volumes; the e-book in fact only contained one volume–sorry consumer! (Update: After I wrote to Sony Connect, the store finally did remove the misleading information from the product description.) I have browsed through the title and find it as interesting as expected.
  3. Don Quixote (1056 pages). eBooks List Price $4.95, CONNECT Discount 20%), Total $3.96. The e-book description on the Sony site mentions that it is Edith Grossman’s highly acclaimed translation, but the print ISBN says it was the Walter Starkie translation. But no, if the Sony Connect store mentions Edith Grossman by name, then it’s her version. Oops, it turns out the edition was neither Grossman nor Starkie but the very out-of-date 1949 Samuel Putnam translation–sorry consumer! (Update: after I wrote to Sony Connect, the store replied, offer a store credit and removed the misleading information.) prices (plus $3.49/$3.99 shipping) .75$ for the Putnam edition, $4.59 for the Grossman translation, $2.80 for the Starkie translation. The reason I’m not interested in the Putnam translation is that I read it 20 years ago!
  4. Bill Bryson, Short History of Nearly Everything(560 pages). eBooks List Price $9.95 CONNECT Discount 20% = $7.96 total). (Compare to $5.95 + $3.49 shipping on Although Bill Bryson is one of my favorite writers, this encyclopedic work wasn’t considered his best. Nonetheless, it would be readable and easy to browse through, so I went ahead and bought it. (Update: I haven’t felt inclined to even browse through it yet).
  5. Paris Review book . (Print Pages 768). eBooks List Price $19.00 -20% CONNECT Discount = $15.20 total). (Compare to $3 + $3.99 shipping on Unfortunately, there are several different anthologies produced by the famous Paris Review literary magazine. I was looking for the Paris Review Interviews, and by double-checking the ISBN’s, I realized that the volume at Sony e-book store was in fact not that volume. This particular anthology was a recent grab bag full of poetry/essays/fiction and snippets from the interviews. Regardless, anything from Paris Review was worth reading, but why buy the e-book instead of the cheaper print version? I wanted a portable, browsable anthology of contemporary writing which I could keep at my fingertips. (Update: Although the Table of Contents has a strange hyperlinking problem, I am totally satisfied with this mammoth-sized anthology).

What’s Missing at Sony Connect Bookstore
Sony Connect has lots of titles (some of them even prize-winning), and multiple titles by the same author. So what’s the problem?

  1. The store carries hardly any e-books with graphics or complex table of contents or difficult-to-format information. No cookbooks or programming books, no dictionaries, no anthologies (except the Paris Review anthology mentioned above) (see note). No picture books, nearly zero reference guides, nearly zero travel guides, practically zero children’s books, almost no manga or mainstream comics, almost no poetry, practically no study guides, no cookbooks to speak of. The reason is simple: These kinds of e-books are challenges to format as e-books, and the big publishers have either decided it’s not worth the effort to convert or simply is a lower priority than digitalizing the latest Ann Coulter diatribe. Ann Coulter books, you see, are exactly what big publishers like: straightforward easy-to-format rants by a celebrity household name whose prose is often indistinguishable from Hitler’s. If you are looking for books by other media whores or Asian dictators, rest assured that Random House and Sony will be happy to sell them.
  2. Without fail, almost every title listed on the e-book store is cheaper to buy in the used print edition. If you are looking for ebooks cheaper than the print versions, forget it. This is especially true for bestsellers, novels and topical books. But this isn’t terribly important. Recent print titles plummet in price after a few years. Once it goes out of print, prices inch up slowly again and gradually become more expensive than the original selling price. I call this the “price boomerang” Ten years later, with paperback editions all gone, the backlisted titles of e-books will seem like bargains again. In fact, the fact that e-book titles “will never go out of print” means that the price boomerang for used books won’t occur.
  3. At the moment, Sony Connect e-book store is still a closed market. Only certain publishers have made agreements with Sony Connect. Unlike Mobipocket (which explicitly caters to independent publishers and authors), Sony Connect is primarily a service for the big houses. Why is that? My guesses (take your pick): Maybe the big houses are the only ones willing to support a DRM-protected format. Maybe they have the resources to bargain with Sony as an equal (and not as a subservient). Or maybe big publishing houses are the only ones with the technological sophistication to tailor their content to a new digital platform with relative ease.

A Modest Proposal: Martin Seymour-Smith’s New Guide to Modern Literature as an E-book

While browsing through titles at the Sony store, I asked myself, what book would I most like to see as an e-book on the Sony Reader?

The answer came to me immediately. The title is Martin Seymour-Smith’s New Guide to Modern World Literature.

It’s an obscure literary reference book printed in 1985 that went out of print long ago. One reason you never heard of it is that it’s the kind of book your local library would consider a reference guide for students and not allow for circulation. It’s 1300 pages and consists of annotations and commentary about every major writer of the 20th century in every language. Just for comparison’s sake, I examined the chapter on Albanian literature (a subject I know about as a result of my Peace Corps service in that country). In the mid eighties, the West lacked any information about Albanian authors, yet New Guide contained eight pages of informed commentary.

First, a little about Martin-Seymour Smith . Although Seymour-Smith wrote several literary biographies and books of literary criticism, he also prepared a lot of literary reference books for the general reader. He also wrote original poetry and –oddly– a book on astrology. For example, he authored the Bluffer’s Guide to Literature and the 100 Most Influential Books of All Time (scorned by intellectuals for their mass appeal). Robert Nye writes in an obituary of Martin Seymour-Smith:

C.H. Sisson has remarked that Seymour-Smith “is a poet of the kind, and sometimes of the quality, of Henry Vaughan. Yet he seems armed, by his sophistication, to do battle in the larger world of 20th-century illusions”. Those illusions took a battering in Seymour-Smith’s 1,200-page Guide to Modern World Literature (1973) and in his later Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature (1976), encyclopaedic works of erudition in which hundreds of authors are discussed. Anthony Burgess likened Seymour-Smith to Samuel Johnson because of these books, and certainly he resembled Johnson both in the breadth of his interests and the passionate audacity of his judements. But there was always a quiet side to his scholarship also, most evident in his fine old-spelling edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (much praised by William Empson) and in his monumental and authoritative biographies of Robert Graves (1982, revised edition 1995) and Thomas Hardy (1994).

Martin Seymour-Smith’s New Guide is and is not a reference book. Sections are well-organized and invite browsing. From the Table of Contents, you go to the chapter about the national literature which interests you. Each chapter is subdivided into poetry, fiction and drama, with a discussion of individual writers in chronological order. Some authors were covered in only a paragraph. More esteemed figures received several pages. The index in the back lets you look up by author and literary work.

When Seymour-Smith discusses one writer (for example), he writes a brief biographical sketch, plus a candid assessment of individual works by that author. Some of his verdicts are unsparing, while often he points out many neglected authors and works by famous writers which never received enough attention. See his judgment on Solzhenitsyn:

Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion was occasioned by the publication abroad of Gulag Archipelago (1973-5; tr. 1974-8), the first part of an account of the Soviet prison-camp system. This is patchy and not distinguished as literature, but is of immense historical importance. However, while there can be no reason to doubt Solzhenitsyn’s personal heroism, courage and devotion to truth –it is probably impudent to criticize him for vanity and obscurantism after what he has been through –it is important to recognize that he is politically naive–as his admirer, friend and fellow-dissident Sakharov (still in Russia) has, with great tact, pointed out. He is lost in the West, which he does not understand –since at heart he is a Slavophile Russian mystic, living angrily in the past. He is unlikely to produce any more interesting work, but is likely to annoy an increasing number of people by his fundamentally stupid remarks about Western affairs. These, however, should not be ignored — as should journalists’ cliche-ridden awe at his “greatness.” Others, more gifted, have suffered as much. His status in Russian literature is as the author of one minor classic — his first novel — and two semi-autobiographical works of great humor and generosity (Cancer Ward and First Circle). August 1914 is feeble documentary fiction, and its successor is not worth discussion except in terms of Solzhenitsyn’s own not very profound beliefs. His artistic standing is not as high as it has been made out to be; he is in the nineteenth-century tradition of critical realism, and is thus incompetent to deal with much twentieth-century experience.

This is classic Seymour-Smith: pontificating, dismissing certain works while elevating others, throwing in random gibes at literary fashion and popular culture. Yes, his opinions are absolutely infuriating! But always interesting. You would think literary people hate reading this kind of opinionated twaddle; on the contrary, I find Seymour-Smith’s candor refreshing (especially when so many of the literary works Smith mentions receive little mention on the web–much less critical judgment). I frequently consult my well-worn copy just to see “what Mr. Smartypants Seymour-Smith has to say” about a particular author. More notably, Seymour-Smith covered lots of authors publishing in the early part of the 20th century (and he diligently records not only the publication date, but also the date of the translation–a real godsend for people trying to track down public domain titles).

Trying to stump Seymour-Smith, I checked the index to see if he listed Menon’s Indulekha, the 1899 classic of Malayam literature (now available in Anitha Devasia’s excellent modern translation) . Sure enough, on page 736, he writes:

It is in the novel that Malayam literature is outstanding. French as well as British models influenced it from quite early on, and Tazaki (q.v.) is the only truly Zolasesque (q.v.) Indian novelist. The first novel of importance was Indulekha (1889, tr. 1890), by Oyyaratuu Cantu Meno (1847-99). The translator was Cantu’s British boss in the Madras civil service; a nice and unusual gesture. The plot of Indulekha was suggested by Disraeli’s Henrietta Temple ; it is about the different attitudes of a Kerala family to the impact of Western ideas; more important, this exceptionally intelligent book is perceptive about what one can only call feminist issues –it has even been described by an irate patriarch as a ‘feminist tract.’ Sarada , which was not finished, is even better. Cantu Menon’s premature death robbed Malayam literature of a potentially major writer, perhaps of a calibre of Premchand (q.v.).

(Personal note: I scanned the 1899 translation of this work and plan to submit it to Project Gutenberg relatively soon).

Note: Space limitations for this article prevent me from giving additional quotes. But if you are lucky enough to own a copy of this book, I recommend page 620 paragraphs 2-3, page 152 last paragraph (entertaining), p659 last paragraph (!!!) , p718, bottom paragraph, p496, 2nd paragraph (damning!), p 1005, last paragraph (insightful!), p904, top paragraph (damning!), p120, bottom paragraph (I agree), p133, 3rd paragraph (a little too dismissive), p217, 3rd paragraph (hilarious!), p147, 2nd paragraph (on-the-ball), p496 bottom paragraph to 497 top paragraph (a tad unfair!)

In the passage above, works were in boldface or italics and would probably be hyperlinks in an ebook version. This ebook would be ideal for browsing. Despite the internal hyperlinks, the content itself is not terribly structured, and there are no graphics. It would be relatively easy for a publisher to produce this work for layout. The hardest thing would be the index.

The book went out of print in 1985; copies now sell on the used market for $20-25. As good as Seymour-Smith can be, used copies are 20+ years old; they are heavy, falling apart and 1300+ pages long. In this age Wikipedia now provides background information on neglected authors (albeit using the NPOV rather than Seymour-Smith’s idiosyncratic voice). But as an ebook weighing nothing, owning this as an ebook would be a thrill –providing countless hours of entertainment. Would I pay $20 for it? Sure, because I bought it five years ago at $25. I also refer to it at least once or twice a week.

Now, how do we get it published on the Sony Connect store? It was published by Peter Bedrick Books in UK (and distributed in the US by Harper & Row). Probably the rights have reverted back to the author’s estate, or perhaps Harper & Row/Harper & Collins would take a chance on it again. Who knows?

But what about the Essential Listening Companion series of Classical Music, Jazz, etc? These volumes are to music what Seymour-Smith’s New Guide is to literature. The classical music edition compares and judges famous recordings of classical works, offering critical introductions to composers and their repertories. But Backbeat Books (the publisher) doesn’t publish any ebooks on the Sony site (or anywhere else). Suppose that Backbeat Books wanted to make an ebook version. What would they need to do to make their ebook available to the Sony Connect store? To me that is unclear.

The Sony Reader is a first-class device. I’m generally happy with it. But I wish that the e-book store were easier for smaller publishers to distribute with. Compare to Mobipocket, where you can buy the Mobipocket e-books from several different stores. Until now Sony has been following the iTunes model of selling content. Develop a DRM-protected platform, partner with media companies to distribute/sell content exclusively and then market the hell out of the device itself to consumers. That worked for a few years with Apple. Eventually media companies realize that the hardware maker wields too much leverage over e-commerce; eventually consumers find alternate ways to load content on a device (infringing or noninfringing). Then, when another device comes along with offers the possibility of buying content from more than one place, suddenly market share for the original device plummets.

Will Martin Seymour-Smith’s literary reference guide ever become an ebook? I keep my fingers crossed. The answer depends partly on how easy it is for consumers to buy content from a variety of publishers (and how easy it is for smaller publishers to sell Sony-friendly content). Until that day comes, Sony Connect will continue to sell ebooks that consumers have no need for.

Sept 8 Update: Fictionwise now sells and distributes ebooks for the Sony Reader without DRM. That makes a huge difference in available ebooks.

End Notes

Okay, I’m exaggerating somewhat. If you look under each of these categories, you will find something. But most of the e-books listed are lightweight, better suited to the general reader than someone looking for in-depth information. To illustrate what I mean, here’s the European travel section of Sony’s e-book store . At a typical bookstore (online or brick-and-mortar), you’d typically find dozens (if not hundreds) of titles. Here on the Sony store, we have 8 titles as of August 6, 2007. One is by Charles Dickens. The others are books of essays by writers which are also listed under Travel. The traveler/tourist would find nothing of value here.


  1. If rights do typically revert to an author’s estate, then the estate of any significant author who is unlikely to be republished (certainly true of most non-fiction) should consider giving worldwide, non-exclusive, rights to Project Gutenberg or even putting the works in the public domain.

  2. The comments about costs sound remarkably similar to my usual whinges about music downloads – why pay the same for a download as a printed book or a CD? Especially if DRM’ed and not portable. Sony seems also to have completely missed the point of digital publishing – it is much easier to distribute those academic and more obscure volumes this way, therefore avoiding large print runs which may take years to sell. Naxos Music do this with their vast classical catalog, and do it very well!
    The all time best sellers are books that keep on going for years (Dickens, Agatha Christie?) not necessarily the quick sell fashionable ones.

  3. Thanks for the post, Robert.

    Just an information bit on Sony vs. Mobipocket. Sony did actively solicit small publishers. Unfortunately, they require that all books be converted to their format by a third party conversion company that imposes significant fees. Many small publishers (including decided that these fees were prohibitive. In contrast, Mobipocket offers free software to create Mobipocket eBooks. I do understand Sony’s wish to be sure that their eBooks have a consistent high quality and truly don’t believe their strategy had the intent of excluding small publishers. It may have, however, had this effect.

    Rob Preece

  4. Great post! I really like your idea of an e-book version of Martin Seymour-Smith’s New Guide to Modern World Literature. I’m not familiar with that book, but I’ve often thought that I’d love to have an e-book of Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia.

    I looked at the Sony Reader, but I wouldn’t seriously consider buying one. It lacks two of the features I find most useful about e-books: (1) the ability to instantly look up words in outstanding dictionaries that would be too heavy to carry around and (2) the ability to search the e-book text (who was this character again?).

    Mobipocket’s features can’t be beat, and the Palm eReader is great for its simplicity. I’ve got the Concise Oxford and a slew of Spanish and French dictionaries for Mobipocket, and Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged for eReader. I can’t imagine why Sony marketed a reader without similar features, unless they’re planning to try to get today’s customers to upgrade to a more advanced model next year . . . would Sony do something like that? 🙂

  5. epress-online was one of the very small publishers accepted by Sony but we came to a halt when we got to the $200 per title conversion fee. But, Fictionwise is now adding the .lrf to their multi-format books. Yay! Not sure how they are ordering the conversions but I notice at least some of our books have been done.
    How good the conversions are is another question.

  6. The sony connect titles I downloaded didn’t seem particularly well formatted. I think the public domain titles on Mobileread’s upload section were formatted much better. Then again, a year has gone by and community tools have improved significantly since then.

    The problem has always been tailoring content to devices–that adds to the price of the ebook. BookDesigner has helped on that regard.

  7. MSS’s Guide to World Literature is one of my favourite books. It has influenced me probably more than any other book because it has lead me to some works I would never have thought to read (like the great Japanese novelists). I own a copy and it IS well thumbed and falling apart.

    Thanks for publicising this great work by this great (and underrated) man (who’s poetry is also fantastic)

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