The Troubling Dual Nature of Books and Websites

Baldur Bjarnason wrote a really long essay two days ago on interactivity and ebooks, one that I think is worth reading in its entirety. While not entirely related to his central thesis, I’d like to point to a specific section near the end and talk about that instead:

I’m beginning to worry that ebooks won’t have any place in the future of interactive media. Interactive non-fiction will grow to encompass the markets that today are served by print non-fiction and it won’t look anything like a book.

In a way this has already happened. Reference books and cookbooks are being pushed out by reference websites and recipe blogs (emphasis mine). In a few years, non-fiction as a genre will be dominated by apps and websites, the exceptions being the fields that legitimately require long-form text to deliver their message properly.

I can’t think what those fields might be, but I’m sure they exist.
One exception might be textbooks and other fields that are bound by archaic institutional requirements.

Publishing is on a crossroads. It’s not just a question of how the form will develop but also who we want as an audience. As books lose their real-world presence, do we really want to just cater to a minority of voracious expert readers? A casual reader is never going to buy a bespoke reading device, but will buy an iPhone or iPad, where ebooks are competing with games, apps, websites, and comics.

Pretending you aren’t competing with other media on price, accessibility, and value, is a surefire way to kill off long-form reading.

At Books in Browsers 2011, Joseph Pearson of Booki.sh made the rather controversial remark that ebooks are simply ‘websites that are better paginated’. Everything else was better off remaining as a website.

Like many present at the time, I reacted rather negatively to his view. Then I stopped, thought for a bit, and realized that there was nothing I could think of that could be used as a counter example.

Pearson and Bjarnason have a valid point: dictionaries, recipe books and encyclopedias are not better paginated; they have little reason for existing as ebooks. Better that they remain as websites, where they are linkable, searchable, and editable. It is no coincidence that Wikipedia lives on as Encyclopedia Britannica dies.

Pearson’s remark makes more sense when you understand how ebooks work: the prevailing ebook formats are essentially bastardized HTML. And HTML, as we should know by now, is the stuff that websites are made of. If ebooks are but one conversion step away from websites, and the form of the website offers more benefits than the form of the book, why should anyone still publish such books?

(Let’s be clear, though: we’re not talking about fiction here. Fiction is — rather ironically — protected from this change, because the benefits of presenting fiction on a website aren’t as numerous as the benefits of presenting the contents of a cookbook as a searchable recipe site.)

Monday, 26 March, 2012

Word Needs To Die

I was working on a eBook conversion workflow for a small publishing house last week, as a favour to the owners. I thought I could get away with a couple hours of work: maybe write a few scripts, chain a couple of existing libraries together, and then email them my code. I was dead wrong. I gave up after two days of work.

The problem was with Word. Word’s doc and docx formats are proprietary, clunky to work with, and incredibly hard to convert to ePub and mobi without weird artifacts and edge cases. It doesn’t help that the standard publishing workflow is in Word — many writers, editors, and publishers use Word source files in their daily lives.

The challenges of working with Word are not new. Smashword’s MeatGrinder engine requires authors to tediously format their doc files; other guides warn authors against using Word to ebook conversions. The Outsell-Gilbane report on Publishing Transformation advises publishers to switch to XML-first workflows ‘as soon as possible.’

There are two likely solutions for this:

1) Write a perfect converter from Word to X, where X is any other text-based markup format. This is a technological problem, and is incredibly hard.

2) Get writers to write in non-Word formats. This is a social problem, and is incredibly hard.

The comparison between the two solutions above is, of course, a little unfair. The truth is that the second problem is easier than the first … but only in the sense that nobody has really tried taking a crack at it. There have been many attempts at writing a good Word conversion library, but all attempts have failed for various edge cases. There have not been strong attempts at creating a beautiful writer-focused tool, save perhaps Scrivener. But Scrivener isn’t popular the way Word is – ideally, you’d want something so pervasive writers would be crazy not to use it.

(I could, by the way, be wrong on the first issue – if you know of a good library to use, please hit me up in the comments).

I’m very tempted to take a stab at both problems over the Summer. No promises, but these are huge problems I wish someone would solve. The alternative to a Word-first workflow is a greatly simplified publishing process, one that is accessible to both writers and publishers alike.

Here’s a taste of that alternative world: Matt Neuburg wrote an essay on his book publishing process for O’Reilly Books. It is, admittedly, very technical, and it demands some programming knowledge. But his process is this: he writes chapters in a text-based format; generates HTML for quick previewing (ebook formats are HTML-based, after all) and then, when he’s ready, types a single command to send his source files directly to the O’Reilly server.

Here’s the really cool bit: because he writes all his chapters in a conversion-friendly format, O’Reilly is able to instantly generate a PDF – all properly type-set with fonts and layout as in an actual O’Reilly book. Neuburg then gets a copy of this PDF to preview, walking around his house with the book loaded up on his iPad. If he so wishes, Neuburg may run another one-line command, and all the readers who have subscribed to O’Reilly’s Early Release program for his book gets a copy of the updated book – in PDF, EPUB, or web form (at Safari Books Online). Naturally, his editor is able to plug into this process from the O’Reilly side of things, and every change is backed up in a Subversion repository.

In Neuburg’s own words:

  • I’m working in plain text, lightly formatted; so my writing and editing and revising are easy and nimble.
  • I’m using TextMate, a text editor that makes my use of lightly formatted text easy.
  • I can preview my work as HTML, which makes me a better proofreader.
  • I can “chunk” my book into nice-looking HTML chapter files for public consumption, so the rest of the world can watch me work.
  • Thanks to the O’Reilly commit hook, I automatically get a PDF version of my work. This is fun and encouraging as the book grows, and makes me an even better proofreader.
  • We’re using Subversion, so my editor and I have an easy time communicating changes back and forth to each other.
  • Without any trees being killed, readers can purchase an electronic Early Release edition of my book, and they are kept up-to-date as I continue to write and revise.

My point: moving away from Word enables writers and publishers saner publishing workflows. It doesn’t make sense for the writing/editing process to be done in a format separate from the ones used in the publishing process.

Word is a curse on digital publishing workflows. The sooner we move away from it, the better.

Wednesday, 21 December, 2011

What We Have To Learn From Fashion’s Free Culture

This is a rather old video (mid-2010 according to ted.com’s timestamp) but it’s made me think rather hard about copyright, books, and the publishing industry:

The gist of the talk is in this graph:

Gross Sales Of Goods IP

(Point: that whole industries do just fine without Intellectual Property protection.)

Now, I do question one of the assumptions behind this: while it is true that fashion, food and furniture cannot be copyrighted, and that these industries are still highly innovative, we should also remember that they are more necessary than music, films, and books. Gross sales is an oversimplification of the effects of copyright: certainly more people would buy clothes than they would books!

But, that said, her primary example holds true. High fashion is indeed still very lucrative (and creative!) without IP protection. Would publishing be in a similar environment if books were not copyrightable? It doesn’t take much to imagine a world in which fan-fiction is sanctioned, where riffing on the books you love is a norm.

So here’s a thought experiment: if for one year all copyright were to be revoked (or demoted to a Creative Commons-like attribution-only license) would innovation increase worldwide, or would the opposite happen? Would this be good for society?

Writers like Nicholas Carr have argued that our digital culture values mashups over source material. I disagree with that (I believe both are equally valued, and equally valuable, though we should perhaps leave that argument for another day); I suspect that the world would benefit as the rate of innovation increases in response to these freedoms.

What I’m not certain about is how this would affect the creators. Would they benefit, if at all? Or would the benefits only show themselves after the industry has had to make do without copyright, like how the fashion industry has had to do?

I will admit, though: a future where Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can then be combined with Twilight and Buffy The Vampire Slayer sounds like a very fun world indeed.

Thursday, 15 December, 2011

Date A Girl Who Reads

I’ve been rather late on this, but a lovely little essay has been making rounds on the Internet, apparently in response to Charles Warnke’s You Should Date An Illiterate Girl. Rosemarie Urquico writes:

You should date a girl who reads.

Date a girl who reads. Date a girl who spends her money on books instead of clothes, who has problems with closet space because she has too many books. Date a girl who has a list of books she wants to read, who has had a library card since she was twelve.

Find a girl who reads. You’ll know that she does because she will always have an unread book in her bag. She’s the one lovingly looking over the shelves in the bookstore, the one who quietly cries out when she has found the book she wants. You see that weird chick sniffing the pages of an old book in a secondhand book shop? That’s the reader. They can never resist smelling the pages, especially when they are yellow and worn.

She’s the girl reading while waiting in that coffee shop down the street. If you take a peek at her mug, the non-dairy creamer is floating on top because she’s kind of engrossed already. Lost in a world of the author’s making. Sit down. She might give you a glare, as most girls who read do not like to be interrupted. Ask her if she likes the book.

Buy her another cup of coffee.

Let her know what you really think of Murakami. See if she got through the first chapter of Fellowship. Understand that if she says she understood James Joyce’s Ulysses she’s just saying that to sound intelligent. Ask her if she loves Alice or she would like to be Alice.

It’s easy to date a girl who reads. Give her books for her birthday, for Christmas, for anniversaries. Give her the gift of words, in poetry and in song. Give her Neruda, Pound, Sexton, Cummings. Let her know that you understand that words are love. Understand that she knows the difference between books and reality but by god, she’s going to try to make her life a little like her favorite book. It will never be your fault if she does.

She has to give it a shot somehow.

Lie to her. If she understands syntax, she will understand your need to lie. Behind words are other things: motivation, value, nuance, dialogue. It will not be the end of the world.

Fail her. Because a girl who reads knows that failure always leads up to the climax. Because girls who read understand that all things must come to end, but that you can always write a sequel. That you can begin again and again and still be the hero. That life is meant to have a villain or two.

Why be frightened of everything that you are not? Girls who read understand that people, like characters, develop. Except in the Twilight series.

If you find a girl who reads, keep her close. When you find her up at 2 AM clutching a book to her chest and weeping, make her a cup of tea and hold her. You may lose her for a couple of hours but she will always come back to you. She’ll talk as if the characters in the book are real, because for a while, they always are.

You will propose on a hot air balloon. Or during a rock concert. Or very casually next time she’s sick. Over Skype.

You will smile so hard you will wonder why your heart hasn’t burst and bled out all over your chest yet. You will write the story of your lives, have kids with strange names and even stranger tastes. She will introduce your children to the Cat in the Hat and Aslan, maybe in the same day. You will walk the winters of your old age together and she will recite Keats under her breath while you shake the snow off your boots.

Date a girl who reads because you deserve it. You deserve a girl who can give you the most colorful life imaginable. If you can only give her monotony, and stale hours and half-baked proposals, then you’re better off alone. If you want the world and the worlds beyond it, date a girl who reads.

Or better yet, date a girl who writes.

You may find Rosemarie Urquico, a writer from the Philippines, over at Goodreads, and on Facebook. Here’s the full story of how she came to write this piece.

Sunday, 9 October, 2011

Music, Books, and Formats

Here’s a thought I had a couple months back: the music industry has gone to hell (and by hell I mean the chaos of digital) a lot faster than the publishing industry has. What was different? And how have things changed? In this essay, I’d like to explore the difference in degree of change in these two industries, and hopefully discover a few things about the current change we’re seeing in publishing.

Devices

The first reason for publishing’s comparatively slow change is obvious: there were no good reading devices before Amazon got into the hardware business. It won’t be much of an exaggeration to say that the Kindle singlehandedly jumpstarted the ebook industry — it showed, amongst other things, what was possible given E Ink technology and a persistent link to a rich ebook store. In the meantime, the music industry had a bunch of companies building mp3 players, long before Apple entered that market with the iPod. Innovation was certainly not lacking in music.

(There’s a remarkable story here, if you’re interested in such things. Amazon really struggled to build the first Kindle. Businessweek reports:

The effort to develop the first Kindle ended up taking more than three years. Nearly everything went wrong. The black-and-white displays from E Ink, an offshoot of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab that makes screens resembling the printed page and requiring very little power, would look good for one month and then degrade alarmingly. Qualcomm, which was set to provide the wireless chips, was sued by a competitor, Broadcom, and for months was enjoined by a judge from selling its wares in the U.S. The Lab126 team repeatedly urged Bezos to make their project easier by considering a Wi-Fi-only connection for the Kindle. He rejected the idea, constantly suggesting new ones for complicated features, like the notion that customers’ annotations of books should be backed up on Amazon’s servers.

Looking back, it’s remarkable that Amazon — a retail company — even considered making the leap into hardware. Writers have a lot to thank Amazon for.)

Industry attraction

The lack of innovation in E-Reading devices is symptomatic of a larger fact: that music, as an industry, is more attractive than publishing. Dalton Caldwell of music startup imeem has said that people keep trying to do music startups because they love music. In comparison, publishing startups are few and far between.

Now I’m not saying that it’s easy to innovate in the music industry today. In fact, Caldwell’s speech is an argument against doing music startups, given the industry’s love of lawsuits. What I am saying is that the lawsuits are a result of the early innovations that so quickly changed the music industry.

We don’t know if publishers would turn to lawsuits in response to increasing levels of ebook piracy. I’m inclined to think not: a good side-effect of publishing’s comparatively slow change is that publishers have more time to cope with the disruption.

Sunday, 4 September, 2011

Be the Future?

Be the Monkey: Ebooks and Self-Publishing, a Conversation Between Authors Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath, by Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath. Reviewed by John Patrick Tormey.

No question: there’s a revolution going on here.—Barry Eisler

Best-selling spy novelist Barry Eisler and successful thriller novelist and self-publishing advocate Joe Konrath’s ebook Be the Monkey is a sprawling discussion as recorded on GoogleDocs; a loud cheer for what they call “indie-publishing”, and an autopsy of the publishing industry as it transitions from a paper-based model to one dominated by digital texts.

Indie-publishing is an umbrella title for everything from self-publishing to new publishing companies working outside the model established by the “Big 6/Legacy” institutions that have dominated the industry for decades, and how that may be coming to an end.

In the part one, the authors pivot off Eisler’s announcement that he passed on a half-a-million dollar advance from a big name publisher in favor of self publishing, claiming he made the decision for monetary as well as creative reasons, and was inspired in part by Konrath’s move away the world of legacy publishing and his proselytizing to other writers to make the same choice.

Konrath and Eisler argue that the paper book is now on the road to becoming a “niche market,” and writers and readers will be better off in the new world of the ebook. It is a convincing theory, one reinforced by Amazon’s announcement that in 2010 the company sold more books for the Kindle ereader than paper copies, along with the popularity of the Kindle, the Nook and the iPad, a point Eisler highlights early on. This means that writers will make more money while readers will pay less and enjoy access to a wider range of content. The numbers used to support the claim are pretty convincing:

Joe: …the 25% royalty on ebooks [legacy publishers] offer is actually 14.9% after everyone gets their cut. 14.9% on a price the publisher sets.

Barry: …a 25% royalty on the net revenue produced by an ebook equals 17.5% of the retail price after Amazon takes its 30% cut, and 14.9% after the agents takes 15% of the 17.5%.

Think of it this way: by publishing a novel or story collection as an ebook on Smashwords or B&N or Amazon, the author retains 70% of the profit from the sales of his or her work. That is a margin too wide to ignore, or as Konrath puts it, “…in the long run a 70% royalty wins.”

The benefits of circumventing the legacy publishers don’t stop there. From the shortened time between when a book is finished to when it reaches the market, to the unprecedented level of creative control, plus a healthy—and growing—list of the indie-published authors enjoying healthy sales, Be the Monkey does, at times, make a very convincing case for going it alone.

Or as alone as possible. In some of the most informative and forward-thinking sections of the discussion, Konrath and Eisler muse on what the digital revolution in book-making will mean for the industry at large, beyond the realm of writers and readers.  They refuse to glorify or gloss over the substantial workload an author is shouldering by avoiding legacy route. The self-published author assumes the role of writer, editor, and copyeditor. They become responsible for cover art, front and back cover copy, the writer’s biography, formatting text, marketing and promotion…the list goes on.  Konrath believes this space may be filled by what he calls “E-stributors…a combination of publisher and manager…” that will take over these tasks for a one-time fee or a percentage of the book’s profits, leaving the author to concentrate on what is his most important job: writing.

When I used the word “sprawling” to describe Be the Monkey, understand that what Eisler and Konrath have written isn’t an actual book; it is a series of conversations recorded over a long stretch of time that covered a wide swath of subjects.

Thursday, 4 August, 2011

The New Nook

This guest post is written by Jim Zoetewey, author of The Legion Of Nothing (my favourite long-running web fiction work). When I posted about the upcoming Nook, Jim contacted me and said that he’d probably get one. I asked him for a review, and here it is:

So first off, so you know where I’m coming from, I’m a web developer. I do some programming, and a minimal amount of graphic design. I’ve got a long term interest in user-interfaces, and did some coursework in designing and testing them in graduate school.

I’m no expert in usability, however, and so I’ll mostly be coming at this from a reader’s perspective.

The new nook is obviously an attempt at taking a bite out of the cheapest Kindle. While most nooks are $200 and above, the new nook is $139, just above the cost of the Kindle. Unlike other nooks, it’s black and white, Wi-Fi only, can’t be used as a web browser, and can’t use Android apps. In its favor, it’s got a touchscreen, a total of two buttons on the entire device, claims of a two month battery life, and e-ink screen technology.

The Kindle Vs The New Nook Touch

In short, the new nook is built to do only one thing well — read books.

I think it does that. This is mostly because of the touchscreen. All you have to do is click on the right side of the page to go forward, and the left side to go backward. Doing anything other than going forward or backward is done by either clicking on the bottom of the page, or by clicking the “n” below the screen.

Clicking the bottom of the page allows you to go to a book’s table of contents, find bookmarks, or get information about a book. Clicking the “n” allows you to go to your library, change the nook’s settings, or shop for books and magazines.

In short, it’s fairly simple and straightforward. The only complaint I have about readbility of the nook is that when you click the page, there’s a moment where you simultaneously see the last page you read and the next one simultaneously. That’s brief, however, and I only noticed it when I was poking around the device, learning where everything was. I barely noticed it at all when actually reading.

Outside of reading, there are a couple other things to consider about it–portability and ease of getting books to read.

It is portable. It’s small enough to fit in the front pocket of some of my pants. I assume it would fit in a purse though I don’t own one. Turning it on to read isn’t hard (click the “n” and then draw your finger across the bottom of the screen), but it does require enough deliberation that random objects in your pockets or purse probably won’t turn it on and lose your place.

Wednesday, 3 August, 2011

Genre as Indicator

Michael Stackpole recently posted this great blog post titled Price Isn’t The Point — an argument that pricing isn’t the most important variable for book sales.

Hidden in that post, however, is an idea that I think is worth examining:

Another monster variable is genre. Romance outsells mystery/thrillers, and mystery/thrillers outsell SF and Fantasy—with huge gaps between them. I know of no pricing experiment that has tried to control for this variable. Heck, if you look at print books, Romance readers are willing to pay full price for a 50,000 novel; whereas an SF/Fantasy reader would get 2-4 times that much wordage for the same price.

Let’s tie that in with this Washington Post article — about romance authors, ebooks, and the same, valuable observation:

E-readers have been around in early formats for nearly two decades, but they have been drastically dropping in price and improving in quality during the past 36 months.

One of the first groups to embrace them were readers of romance fiction. These books were part of larger genre-based markets, such as thrillers and horror, that were populated by avid readers who chain-read books. They were avid fans, communicating with one another in any number of ways, including blogs and book clubs. Romance was tailor-made for the webs of social media.

“Romance novels are leading the way in e-publishing because romance readers are incredibly prolific,” says Malle Vallik, Harlequin’s director of digital publishing. “They understood [e-readers] immediately: ‘Oh, my God, in my purse, I can have 50 books.’ You like one writer, you can get their complete backlist immediately.” [Emphasis mine]

New marketing patterns of lower online prices and impulse buying created a perfect dynamic for authors like Belleville: Genre authors who were prolific but who had not been too successful. This peculiar level of accomplishment meant they had written books for print publishers, seen sales vanish and had the rights revert back to them, and even had completed manuscripts that publishers had rejected.

This left with the writers with just the right recipe: a small but devout core audience; a readily available backlist for new readers to discover; a knack for writing fast; and an inherent appeal to a fan base that read voraciously. [Emphasis mine]

What this means is that genre determines the median (and I suppose the upper-bound) of sales that any one writer might have. This does not mean that you have to switch genres; I wouldn’t be so silly as to propose that. What it does mean, however, is that when you next look at the sales figures of a hotshot indie writer, you should pause to take note of what genre he or she’s writing in.

Amanda Hocking sells thousands of ebooks every month. She also happens to be writing romance.

J.A. Konrath sells a little less. He writes thrillers.

The two demographics are rather different. They exist at different parts of the early-adopter spectrum — and ironically enough, romance readers are ahead.

But there’s another way of looking at this: if you’re in the publishing startup space, like I am, this bit of information implies that it would do to have some part of your service focussed on romance. I’m not exactly sure how I would do it, or how any digital publishing house would do it (have a romance-only spinoff, perhaps?) But it does make sense: romance readers are ahead of the curve with regard to ebooks. They were early-adopters, a result of the embarrassing semi-naked-man-on-book-cover problem, plus their buying habits — buying an entire backlog with one click — are factors worth thinking about.

Sidenote: I realized I haven’t been blogging here for the past 3 months. I’ve been spending that time working on Pandamian. We’ve got free ebook conversions up and running, along with a whole bunch of other features, and I’m eager to talk about them once the new redesign is up. Till then, consider this post an apology, and a signal that I’m back. Sorry about the break, folks. More publishing-related news in a bit.

Saturday, 23 April, 2011

Writers Are The New Publishers

In my last post I talked about $0.99 eBooks in the context of industry disruption. Today, I want to talk about what looks like a corollary to that trend: the writer-as-publisher.

Tim O’Reilly said recently that he believed a small group of successful indie writers will soon create their own publishing outfits. He has some authority on the matter: O’Reilly, after all, started out as a self-publisher, before he began doing it for other people. Today, O’Reilly Media, Inc is a multi-million dollar publishing outfit, one of the few successfully adapting to a digital shift.

I think this makes sense, and I’m not going to spend too much time on the obvious advantages:

1) Successful independent writers have ‘been there and done that’. If you were a writer you would probably be attracted to the idea of having an accomplished indie writer (say, J.A. Konrath?) help you with your ebook. Think: is it a good trade to give away the difficulties of designing, marketing, and selling your ebook to indie-writers who are well-experienced in the matter? They get to take a small cut of your ebook sales, you get to focus on writing. I think it’s a good trade.

2) The margins for a small, writer-as-publisher startup makes a lot of sense. You’re not likely to make much per book, but thanks to the economics of the digital bookstore, you are likely to make a sizable amount — so long as you gather a small team of editors and designers, and focus on releasing as many ebooks as possible. The long tail of digital economics would ensure that you’ll make money for about as long as your ebooks are online (which can be forever, if they’re on the Kindle store).

We’re already seeing several web fiction writers turn to publishing. Last week I linked to Alexandra Erin’s new outfit, LitSnacks. This week I spent some time browsing through web fiction author MCM’s catalog, over at his 1889.ca website. He’s lent his ebook and design expertise to a small (but growing!) number of authors, under the 1889 Labs label.

We’ll soon see more of these publishers, I bet. And — yes — these outfits will still be in the margins of the publishing industry. But they will be profitable, and they will grow as the market grows.

Writing this article has made me realize that there are really two barriers to publishing at the moment: one bit of it is technological, which we’re trying to solve with the software we’re writing at Pandamian; the other bit is process — the very human effort of taking a book from manuscript to market. These small publishing outfits are likely to be the solution to the process problem, and I look forward to seeing how they solve the intricacies of editing, design, and ebook production in a low-margin, high-output context.

Note: I’d love to hear from you, if you are (or you know of) a writer-turned-publisher. Just leave a link to your outfit in the comments, and I’ll include you in a roundup post next week.

Thursday, 14 April, 2011

Disruption and that 99c eBook Thing

This post is the first in Novelr’s Interesting Problems in Publishing series. Read more about that here.

Innovator's Dilemma

Disrupted industries tend to follow a common pattern. I spent the last month or so reading Clayton M. Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, and realized, at the end of it, that the $0.99 ebook is really a part of one such pattern. But in order to understand that, we need to know how a disrupted industry looks like. So let’s begin by talking about hard disk drives.

The first hard drives were developed between 1952 and 1956. They were horrendously large (in physical size) and ridiculously small (in memory). But what followed this initial innovation is instructive when thinking about pricing, technology, and industry-wide disruption.

The first harddisk

In 1978 the dominant hard disk drives on the market were 14-inch drives, at 300 to 400 MB of memory. They were used in large mainframe computers.

In the same year, the first 8-inch drives hit the market, built and sold by startups at the margins of the hard drive industry. Nobody wanted them. The models weren’t taken seriously. The drives themselves were small — at 20, 30, 40 MB capacity — which meant that they were of no use to any mainframe computer maker.

So what do you do when the mainstream computer manufacturers reject your product? The new 8-inch drive makers turned their attentions to the smaller (and therefore less profitable) minicomputer market. This market didn’t mind paying for less capacity; they prized other attributes such as the smaller size of the new hard drives.

And so the minicomputer market exploded. The startups found that they could increase the capacity of their small drives at a rate far faster than that of the 14-inch drive makers. When they became good enough — that is, when the new 8-inch drives had enough memory to be of use to the mainframe computer manufacturers, the mainframe companies began to take a closer look at the 8-inch drives. They discovered that the smaller models had several other valuable attributes: lower mechanical vibration, for instance. The new drives began to invade the mainframe computer market, and the incumbents were driven out of business.

Fast forward 3 years. Seagate Technology introduces a 5.25-inch hard drive. At capacities of 5 & 10 MB, these new drives were of no use to the minicomputer market. And so the new startups turned to the PC market.

When the 5.25 inch drives became large enough for minicomputers to use, other attributes became more important. The wide adoption of personal computers meant that it made sense for many mainframe and minicomputer manufacturers to switch over to 5.25-inch drives. All the older companies (with the exception of Micropolis) were wiped out.

(Incidentally, this cycle is repeated for the next two waves of hard drives! 2.5 inch drives, for instance, were poo-pooed, but were used in laptops and eventually became large enough to invade the market categories above them. The attribute that mattered, in this case, was the fact that 2.5-inch drives were more rugged than their bigger cousins).

Friday, 1 April, 2011

Interesting Problems in Publishing, A Series

It’s 1am over here, so I’m keeping this short.

About a week ago, I was talking to writer Lee L. Lowe about publishing, eBooks, quality (perhaps just as important: perceived quality) and style. A couple of things leapt at me from the conversation: that 1) we are at a exciting, slight frightening crossroads for publishing. 2) I don’t have good answer to half the questions a normal person would ask me about the publishing industry anymore. Lee isn’t a normal person, but some of the things she brought up gave me pause.

(Note: I will admit that an increasing number of people have asked me about the publishing industry, in part due to our work at Pandamian. And I’m not very good at answering some of those questions.)

Today, I’m announcing a new series of posts on Novelr: Interesting Problems in Publishing (or, #IPiP), as a way to think through some of the issues that affect all of us in this digital shift. Some of these issues would have a technical bent to them (I am, after all, a technical person), but a good number of them would also be about more general, equally-worrisome things.

I’ll be honest: some of these posts will be slightly rough around the edges. Others would have half-formed ideas. I’m welcome to comments, of course – I find that the best ideas emerge when there’s a good amount of conversation going on at Novelr.

I’m not sure how often I’ll be updating this series, in addition to the normal posts on Novelr, but I’ll try to keep up a weekly schedule. I’m also not sure if this series of posts would interest you, but my hope is that we could perhaps work out some solutions as we go along.

You’re welcomed to join me for the ride.

Monday, 28 March, 2011

To Diana

Dear Diana,

I’ve always struggled to put the (often dark) joy of reading your books into words. You aren’t as easy to describe as some of the other authors: “Do you read Diana Wynn Jones?” I’d ask my friends, in my childhood, and they’d shake their heads. “Well go read her. Go read the Chrestomanci series.” But they wouldn’t.

Your books, I realize, aren’t the teenage wildfires that the Hunger Games or the Twilight books are. They’re … different. Darker. Witty. More realistic, I feel. More difficult, too.

Tor.com had a call for letters late last year, when the editors found out that you stopped chemo. I considered sending a letter. I never did, and I regret that now.

I realize – in the wake of your passing – that I loved your books more fiercely than I did any other writer; if Stephanie Mayer or Rowling died I wouldn’t have felt as terrible as when Gaiman reported your death.

I found my first Chrestomanci book when I was 11; in the children’s section of the Sarawak Club library. It was on a bottom shelf by the large picture-windows facing the hallway, all of them HarperCollins reprints of your catalog. I didn’t borrow any other writer for quite a bit after my discovery. My sister and I fought over the only copy of Howl’s Moving Castle.

When the Sarawak Club burned down my mind leapt, almost immediately, to their collection of your books.

In my first semester in NUS, shortly after finishing Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, I took a chance and searched for your name in the NUS library’s cataloging system. There were only three books of yours in the catalog that I’d not read. I finished all three in three days, during the reading week, procrastinating when I should’ve been studying for my theatre exam.

I gave my youngest sister a copy of Wilkin’s Tooth as a 12th birthday present. It’s lost now, and I feel a little bad about that.

I don’t really know how to talk about your writing. I suppose I should, but I can’t. Too many layers. Cruel protagonists and unbelieving parents. Sulky dragons and self-absorbed enchanters. Broken marriages and young, vain lovers. I feel a bit better knowing that bits of you live on in writers like Neil Gaiman (whom you dedicated Hexwood to, how dare he!), John Scalzi, and Rowling (though she has not admitted it!).

I miss you already.

Rest in peace, Diana Wynn Jones. I promise you – when I have kids, your books will be amongst the first they read. Thank you for such a wonderful childhood.

Diana Wynn Jones, 19 August 1934 – 26 March 2011


PS: More tributes here, here and here. In particular, I loved this bit by Emma Bull:

She was passionate about what children want and deserve from their literature. Adults would approach her at signings, wanting to know why she wrote such difficult books. In one case, when a woman protested, the woman’s young son spoke up and assured Diana, “Don’t worry. I understood it.”

She had such faith in us.