Trawling the Archives

One of the things I lost in the move from self-hosted to wordpress.com was my custom snippet post type.  It was an attempt to create a Tumblr-esque quick post mechanism, and it worked.  But the way the links were stored meant they didn’t get exported, so every thing in the snippets category lost its link to the source material and some where just orphaned headlines with no link or description.

So I’ve manually gone through and added source links and, in many cases, some information about the original article (some made no sense so out of context).

The process of adding the links doing forced me to re-read many of those articles and my predictions and comments and it made some interesting reading, so I thought I would sum a few of them up (some will make it to their own posts).

Tablet Computers

Back in 2008 I posted about the TechCrunch tablet, which evolved, through bitter dispute, into the JooJoo or whatever it was called, and promptly died a death.  I think the concept is still valid (a simpler tablet to the iPad) and the iPad has obviously proved we were on to something. Continue reading

Information Overload

I used to read the various blogs and sites I’m subscribed to every day, but at the start of the year I decided to change my strategy and just do a massive read-through once a week. I was spending probably an hour or two a night just to catch up.

We I logged in to Google Reader to check out my feeds yesterday I found over a 1,000 entries to trawl through, looking for anything interesting. Assuming an average of 5 seconds per headline (some I can dismiss immediately, some I need to read a bit of the article to decide) that means it would take me nearly an hour and a half just to decide which articles I want to read more of, nevermind reading the articles themselves!

As it stands it’s taken me the better part of a day each week to read them. And I only subscribe to a relative few (although one is a meta-blog) on a relatively narrow range of topics. What it shows is the huge amount of data we are now bombarded with each day. Continue reading

Ebooks and Hocking

No, not that Hocking. I’m talking about Ian Hocking.  He’s a science-fiction writer, when he’s not a psychology lecturer.  He nearly gave it all up though (you can read about it here).  After years in the wilderness on the ‘submit-and-reject merry-go-round’ he was ready to call time and focus on his day job.  Ian had managed to get one of his novels, Deja Vu, accepted by a small publisher in 2005, unfortunately this was far from a guarantee of success and he spent much of his own time trying to convince book shops to even stock it.  It disappeared in the sea of novels released each year.

I keep quoting it as Cory Doctorow, but it looks like it was Tim O’Reilly who said: “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.”  I think Ian is very familiar with that sentiment.  Before walking away entirely, Ian was convinced to try self-publishing in ebook format.

He’s has written about his experience, giving some advice on the technical points of publishing via the Kindle store, he’s also written about what he feels he did right and wrong and provided some sales figures and earnings.  After the warm reception of his first novel he decided to release the sequel (which he had been sitting on for a number of years, unable to get published) the same way and talks through getting it properly edited and a professional designer to do his cover.  He’s also started to branch out into Smashwords and iBooks, as well as Lulu, as additional publishing channels, all the while providing more details about sales and returns (on investment).  He’s working on preparing his third novel for release and all seems to be going well.  The story of his journey is a fascinating insight into how self-publishing has provided an avenue for a writer who previously couldn’t get past the gatekeepers of the publishing world.  Success is maybe overstating it, but any author wants to be read and Ian has managed that, even though it may be on a relatively small (but growing) scale.

Ian’s not the only one who has found some success via self-publishing.  Obscurity is something David Moody is familiar with too, having first been published in 1995 via a traditional deal, he found much more success in the very early days of self-publishing via the internet (we’re talking 10 years ago).  Using it to build a readership and gain exposure, Moody eventually landed a deal with a US publisher as well as selling movie rights to some of his novels; far more than he had achieved with his initial release via traditional channels.

It’s interesting to read about how, away from the headlines of authors achieving millions of unit sales and previously published authors going electronic there are success stories of a different, more personal kind.  The sort of success that is only possible because technology has blown the doors off an industry that had, intentionally or not, formed a semi-permeable barrier to entry, keeping most people out.  That industry now needs to understand they’re not just competing with each other, but with every author, published or not.

Abolishing VAT on Ebooks

This is a bit of a selfish post. For those who didn’t know, in the UK books are VAT (tax) exempt. Ebooks, however, are classed as digital downloads, so get charged a full rate of 20% VAT. There have been some changes to the E.U. rules to allow governments to remove tax on books, but so far no one seems to have done so.

This is one of the reasons (given, anyway) ebooks are more expensive than print.

If you’re a UK resident, you can add your name to a petition to change this.

The petition introductory page probably makes a better argument:

Paper books are free from VAT despite their impact on the environment yet e-books carry 20% VAT. Paper books need oil based inks and glues, high energy use for paper production and printing, oil fuel for distribution and large land use for warehousing. At the end of their lives many find their way to landfill. E-books are far more environmentally friendly using a tiny fraction of the energy of a paper book for production, distribution and storage and at the end its life it is simply deleted. A book should be defined by what it provides not the material that is used to produce it and the more environmentally friendly version should be encouraged and not discouraged by VAT.

You can sign the petition here.

Book Recommendations are Rubbish

I’ve been thinking for a while that we need a better way to allow people to find similar books.  Authors obviously can’t write them as fast as you can read them, so finding a similar book is something most avid readers are constantly on the search for.  Reading Lifehackers’ guide to creating an ‘awesome summer reading list’ I thought I would check some of the recommended sites and give them a try.

I decided to try a search for a popular book, so went with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone in the UK).  I’d like to think most people would be able to find the other books in the series, so they didn’t count.  I know some of the relevant books here, so I knew my topic well enough, let’s see what they returned.

Taste Kid
The site allows you to search for things other than books, but the results for books where:

  • All the sequels
  • The Tales of Beedle the Bard
  • The Fellowship of the Ring
  • Prince Caspian
  • The Return of the King
  • The Last Olympian
  • The Two Towers
  • The Silver Chair
  • The Battle of the Labyrinth
  • The Sea of Monsters
  • The Titan’s Curse

Results: A few Percy Jackson novels, which I’ll allow, though not the first in the series strangely, the rest are useless.

What Should I Read Next?
Too many results to list, none of which looked appropriate and none of the ones I expected.

Results: Useless.

Your Next Read
I stuck with the US version of the site, as I tried to keep as consistent as possible.  For some reason I could only find the 10th anniversary edition.

The only non-Harry Potter book on the first page was Percy Jackson and the Olympians (not the first in series).  Hitting more book threw up The Hobbit, Eragon and The Deed.  Eragon I’ll accept on the outside, but the rest are rubbish.

Result: Useless.

LibraryThing
Under the relevant page, there were LibraryThing recommendations, which didn’t really hit the spot.  Under the member recommendations we hit gold though. 

The top 10 were:

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  • The Lightning Thief
  • Artemis Fowl
  • A Wizard of Earthsea
  • The Lives of Christopher Chant
  • The Golden Compass
  • The Dark is Rising
  • The Amulet of Samarkand
  • The Chronicles of Chrestomanci
  • The Lord of the Rings

Points for Percy Jackson, the first mention of Artemis Fowl and The Amulet or Samarkand.  I’m familar enough with the The Dark is Rising to say OK.  Extra points for listing Magyk at number 12, possibly the closest thing I’ve read to Harry Potter yet.

Result: Not perfect, but a pretty good (for the members).

Good Reads
This doesn’t really have a recommended books part, just a ‘Readers also enjoyed’ area, consisting of:

  • Ptolemy’s Gate
  • Searching for Dragons
  • In the Hand of the Goddess
  • Abhorsen
  • The Battle of the Labyrinth

Ptolemy’s Gate is the follow up to The Amulet of Samarkand, not really the same.  Again, Abhorsen, not bad, but not right, OK if you’re looking for something older.  The others I’m not too familiar with, but none of the favourites feature.

Result: Next to useless.

Shelfari
Under the ‘More Books Like This’ heading were:

  • Kestrel’s Midnight Song
  • The Books of Magic
  • Fabelhaven
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Midnight for Charlie Bone

I’ll give them Charlie Bone, no on the rest.

Result: Useless.

The Book Explorer
It returned a lot of results, including the rest of the HP series, Percy Jackson and some of the Eragon series (not Eragon itself).  There were plenty of irrelevant ones.

Results: Useless.

Get Glue
Gets ignored for requiring a registration and working out your likes/dislikes first.  It may be more accurate (I don’t know) but it’s a pain in the arse.

Result: Unknown.

Final Results

Well, by and large, completely useless.  The best seems to have been LibraryThing, although only because the members did a good job.  Manual processing, it seems, is the key, none of the automated services can tell you.  They seem to work on genre, so you’re likely to get anything in the same genre.  Better than nothing, but far from right.

To be honest, it’s not the first time I’ve mentioned this.  I still think there’s space for a community to help build a better recommendation engine.

Rowling’s Book Platform

In the last few days, J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, has announced a new website which will create a whole new way to engage with the Potterverse.  Pottermore, which launches in beta at the end of July before going on general release in October, will offer a place for fans to read new material, both from when Rowling was writing the books and some written since.  In addition it will also offer games, social networking and an online store with audiobooks and, for the first time, ebooks.

In the introductory video on the website, Rowling says the site will change and develop with input from fans, a community she has always courted very well.

While it’s an exciting time for Potter fans, who now have a new fix with the last film rapidly approaching and Rowling categorically stating she will not be writing any more books, it’s also interesting for the publishing industry.  I’ve wondered before why a big name author hasn’t gone this route, and some authors have, but Rowling is by far the biggest.  This new project is a little more like the recent deals announced by the Catherine Cookson estate and the Ian Fleming estate than an established author selling direct to the consumers in that she is releasing books which were previously released via the traditional route, rather than releasing new works solely this way.

I don’t suspect for a second Rowling is releasing the site to make money, I think she’s still pretty comfortable from the profits of the books, movies and merchandise.  I suspect she, like many other people, is just having difficulty letting Harry go and wants to give something back to all her loyal fans.

Aside from selling audiobooks and ebooks direct, what’s interesting is the desire to create a community around her work.  Although no one’s exactly sure what it will entail, pulling an audience together and providing a platform for them to interact and enjoy your work shows how authors could finance future works or expand their revenue sources from the relatively few that currently exist (essentially selling the book in various formats and licencing the rights for adaptations into other mediums).

Make community access free but sell advertising, or offer premium accounts with early access to new features, sell app versions of the online games, allow people to buy things to use in the games (upgrades, etc), offer a wide range of merchandise via the online store, sell items that you can’t find anywhere else, open the platform up to third-party developers and take a cut of any money.  Maybe we’ll see a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) version of the Harry Potter games.  Maybe book sites are going to become the Facebook equivalent of MMORPGs, with huge communities.

I imagine we’ll start to see more authors do things like this (some already do) and, over the coming years it will be interesting to see if the book itself gets relegated to just another revenue stream amongst many others (it could be that authors end up making more money from other products/merchandise than the book itself).  Not that it will happen overnight of course.

Making Money from Ebooks

After all the complaints that ebooks are going to be the death of the publishing industry it’s nice to hear a story of success, even if it’s not one most publishers want to read about.  That’s what I thought when I stumbled across the story of Amanda Hocking, a self-published author who sells her ebooks via Amazon’s Kindle store and who is estimated to have made $2 million over the last 12 months (how it happened in her own words).  A publisher has (apparently, privately) stated that there is no traditional publisher in the world who could offer her a better deal than she’s receiving right now on the Kindle store.  Having said that, Hocking has recently signed a $2 million four-book deal with traditional publisher St. Martin’s Press for a new series, the reason:

“I want to be a writer,” she said. “I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation.”

Hocking is certainly not alone in this either, looking at the Kindle sales chart quite a few authors sell more than enough volume to earn a living while only making $1-2 (or less) a copy.  What’s interesting is the pricing.  Hocking’s books retailed for either 99 cents or $2.99, with Amazon taking a 30% cut.  That price point is important.  At that figure people are prepared to gamble on an unknown and you open yourself up to impulse buys.

So does that mean that if you want to make money as a writer, just self-publish at the right price point?  Well, no.  The number of people making a living from self-published books, electronic or otherwise, is tiny, as are the number of traditional authors who make a living (though a larger number I suspect).  Hocking writes ‘paranormal romance’ (think Twilight), which is a popular area read by a lot of people, one that has a strong appetite, which means they will try new authors to fill it as no one writes fast enough to keep up with consumption.  Add this to the price point, and a lot of self-promotion and you start to see why Hocking’s books were a success (Hocking was certainly aware of writing for a market, see her describe her success on video).

Hocking has also proved that publishers still have a place.  One reason is to help do the things writers don’t want to (editing, formatting, distributing, promoting), another is to help authors reach a wider audience (the market for physical books is still much larger than ebooks and publishers networks are therefore invaluable).  What it also proves is that writers have an alternate route to publishing and that publishers have a way to pick up authors who can prove their track record, rather than taking a gamble on an unknown.  It could also be a cheap testing ground.

Some traditionally published authors have gone the other way though, and ebooks are proving a good way to offer an author’s back catalogue (the so-called long tail).  It should mean no author need ever be out-of-print again.  It also shows the power of a platform, like Amazon, to allow people direct access to a market (something that is working in other markets too).  Equally it highlights the need for people to be able to discover you and the power of promotion, services I think will start to grow as a separate industry and which traditional publishers may take a lead in. 

Rather than be afraid of ebooks and self-publishing, I think they offer great opportunities to publishers if they learn how to embrace them.  I don’t think there will be a ‘best way’ to use ebooks, but they certainly signal a shake-up for writers and publishers and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.