Category Archives: Publishing

The Publishing Support Layer

Shortly after the Internet ran a knife through the publishing process, I began thinking about how it would be like to work in a publishing company of the future. A ‘digital publishing house’, if you will. I must admit that I have been working on a idea for a digital publishing house over the past couple of years, and while a launch is imminent, I cannot talk about things that I have not yet done. But what of it? There are certain trends in publishing today, and I think it would be really cool to follow each of them to their logical conclusions. (See also: Dispatches from a Digital Publishing House)

Trend #1: Writers In Control

Say you’re an author and that you want to get published. A couple years back, this would mean the usual gamut of things new authors all over the world have come to know and dread: you find an agent, the agent finds a publisher, and depending on the circumstances – the quality of book and nature of the market, say – a protracted game of cat-and-mouse begins. We all know this, of course. If you survive the initial negotiations, the publisher signs you on, wins himself a whole damn chunk of your book’s profits; and you in turn gain access to a global distribution network the publisher readily provides all its authors with.

Thing is, that’s not how it works today. Publishers used to have complete control over the distribution network, and the only way for writers to reach readers would be through a contract with a major publishing house. This was the value proposition that the publishers brought to the table – they connected writers with readers. It was a good value proposition. A fair one. It was also, however, the value proposition that the publishers no longer have today. New writers don’t need a publisher to reach readers; they may simply take their writing online. Publishers, on the other hand, have no easy way out of a low-margin business, and as such are beginning to do certain things that reflect this shift in power.

Three quick examples? Harper Collins hopes to capture new material from online writers with Authonomy; Harlequinn gets yelled at for releasing titles under a self-publishing model (never a good idea with an old-boy network); and – earlier this week – an editor hires a publisher to do his dirty work for him.

Trend #2: Separation of Bits from Atoms

Trick question: which business is a publisher engaged in? The business of atoms (bound books) or the business of bits (content)?

I used to believe that publishers dealt in both, but the problem with this idea is that the economics of the two are worlds apart from each other. Businesses that deal with atoms aren’t nearly as affected by the Internet as businesses that deal with bits. Conversely, businesses that ship bits (e.g: ebooks) are able to keep their costs down, while businesses dealing in atoms (paper books) need to pay for the logistics of handling merchandise – be it bicycle or warehouse or plane or ship. These two paradoxes come to a spectacular clash in today’s publishing world, where many publishers seem trapped between the costly bloat of their atoms and the low prices of their bits. This is probably why you hear so many of them arguing for higher ebook prices. They are eager for a new revenue stream, but they do not realize that they may need to jettison the bloat to focus on one or the other, but not both.

Trend #3: Alternative Value Propositions

So the publishers have lost their status as the only gateway to the readers. But really – when you think about it, that isn’t as bad as it sounds. There are other value propositions that publishers may bring to the table. Existing publishing houses have been designing and promoting books for a far longer time than writers ever have. So yes, the Internet has gone out and made things easier for writers to reach readers. But when it comes down to actual marketing, fact remains that writers are not particularly good at it. And when you’re talking about artwork, and getting good book covers for your book, publishers are particularly experienced in finding people to do just that. (At the very least, they know who to go to for artwork/typography, and unlike writers, they don’t settle for vomit-flavoured book covers).

Trend #4 Loyal Audiences

Seth Godin argued recently that book publishers needed to start thinking like magazine publishers. In simple terms: that publishers needed to create passionate audiences for themselves, in the sense that when readers buy books, they do so because the publisher logo on the spine tells them something about that book. I think Godin’s on to something with this idea. To back it up, the two book publishers who already are thinking like magazine publishers seem to be doing well for themselves – I’m talking, of course, about publishing houses McSweeneys’ and O’Reilly, both of whom have loyal audiences built around their brand. Compare this with most other publishing houses: you may come across a J, K. Rowling fan, but it’s unlikely to find a member of the Cult of Bloomsbury (who was first to publish the Harry Potter books). If publishers want to prevent themselves from being commodity businesses, this is one way to do it, even if it’s terribly difficult in today’s level of imprint-shrimprint saturation.

Lots Of Profitable, Small Publishers

So what do these trends mean? I believe they all point to a future of many small, profitable publishers, most of them operating online. My belief is that it’s no longer particularly difficult to create and run a digital publishing house. If you start small, and keep your costs low, you should be able to do fine even as the publishing industry behemoths crumble around you. Keep your business model light and centered on bits. Printing presses expensive? Outsource them to POD companies. Don’t know who to go to for cover art? Scour deviantArt and build relationships with the artists your writers like. Want to find and publish new, original fiction? Last time I checked, there’s a heck lot of web fiction out there. You only have to reach out to find them.

But those are the benefits to the publishers; the business owners. What of the writers? What benefits would they have of signing up, voluntarily, with a digital publishing house? Just off the top of my head – the digital publishers would have to show writers that they’re good sources of readers; that they provide invaluable support in editing; that they know a thing or two about design, and who to find and what to do when a book is dealing with a specific genre or audience. If I were to sum up the publisher value-proposition today, I would call it the Publisher Support Layer.

The Publisher Support Layer

The Publisher Support Layer is this idea of mine that publishers exist to enable writers. I must admit that this is a rather stunning reversal from how writers have been thinking about publishers, say, from just ten years ago. But let’s be realistic about it. The first thing a small publisher can do – particularly so if the publisher is a digital one – is to recognize that it is the writers who now hold the power. If the writers don’t like you, there’s nothing to prevent them from packing up their bags and leaving the building. With this kind of power, we have no choice but to rethink the writer-publisher relationship. Publishers exist to enable writers. Publishing a book is a tough thing; and so it is within the publishers’ best interest, once they have some good writers to work with, to do everything possible to make it easy for the writers to do the one thing they’re good at – write.

Because you know what? Writers like to write. They don’t like to promote. They don’t like spamming writing forums every couple of weeks to post links to their fiction. They don’t enjoy surfing webcomics to decide on ads, and they don’t enjoy cross-promoting their work through Twitter. (Okay maybe some do, but that’s beside the point.) The point is this – given a choice, I’m pretty sure any web fiction writer will tell you that the most enjoyable bits about writing web fiction is a) the writing, and b) the interaction with the readers. And that’s all that matters. My contention is that a digital publishing house will succeed if it recognizes this fact, that if it goes out of its way to act as a support layer for the writers; taking care of everything else but the writing and the interaction, the writers would be happy, and the publishing house would be able to exchange this value for a slice of the writer’s profits.

Here’s another way of looking at it: I’ve shown you four trends that are shaping the publishing industry as we know it. Taken to their extremes, we may conclude that:

  1. The writers have power; publishers will need to compete with choice
  2. Publishers should deal with atoms or bits, but not both
  3. Publishers should offer writers things they cannot readily find on their own
  4. Publishers – digital publishers in particular – must find their own readers

The unifying idea here is that, if you’re a digital publisher, you are only good for the things that the writers cannot themselves get, easily, online. Writers don’t have good designers; publishing houses do. Writers don’t really know how to market their work; publishing houses should do this for them. If you want to take the idea of indie-publishing a step further, you may even say that publishers should exist to connect writers with readers and designers, for a fee.

Now I’m not sure if this idea – this publisher support layer – makes sense when seen from the birds-eye view of the publishers in London and New York. I doubt it will. But if you’re talking about independent publishers – small, net-based publishers with little history and no traditions, then yes, this should be something that makes sense.

And of course that isn’t easy. In fact, there is absolutely no empirical evidence to show that this is even possible. I haven’t talked about finding readers, and I’ve absolutely no idea how the business model would look like. But the truth is that I’ve been thinking about these things for close to two years now, and I’m coming close to launching a digital publishing house as a proof of concept, early in 2010. I hope to prove it to you, the same way that I hope this idea won’t crash and burn. Till then, these are some of the ideas that I’ve had about digital publishing houses. I hope you’ve found something useful in them.

Wednesday, 2 December, 2009

Please Don’t Pay Me: Dispatches from a Digital Publishing House

Isa is the president, founder, and all-around person in charge of digital publishing house fluffy-seme. Here she talks about the continued relevance of publishing houses to web fiction.

About four months ago I got an email from a writer asking if fluffy-seme would be interested in publishing her work. The timing couldn’t have been more wrong. Although fluffy-seme had been “publishing” for a few months, we’d only just decided to throw caution to the wind and just make it official and incorporate. We had started the pilot run of Hyperlocal (a scavenger hunt where players solve clues to collect pieces of an on-going story), and that program had just been featured in TimeOut New York under their 75 Things To Do Before Summer Ends cover story. The competitive environment of Hyperlocal turned out to be more competitive than I ever imagined it would be: clues were released at midnight and most of them were solved before 9am. On top of that, Split-Self had only just started publication and it needed a lot of tender love and care to help it find fans. On top of that I was also writing two other serials for a grand total of three serials at roughly 4,000 words each part … about 12,000 words a week.

Nevertheless, despite completely overcommitting myself … we were a publishing company and I was itching to start recruiting writers (mainly so that I did not have to write 12,000 words a week). So I said okay, send me something to look at.

What she sent me wasn’t going to win any Pulitzer’s, but it was serviceable and marketable. A little polishing and I could see it being a series that attracted an audience. There was just one problem…

“Unfortunately, we’re not in a position to pay writers right now.” I explained.

“Oh, that’s alright … you don’t have to pay me.”

At first I kind of assumed this was just naiveté, and so I explained to her that yes … in fact we do have to pay you. In order for us to publish you, you have to sign a contract giving us the right to reproduce your content and to profit from said content. You should never sign away those kind of rights without some compensation. So I suggested … “How about this? I can draw up a temporary three month contract at a low rate and then when it expires we’ll renegotiate.”

“Oh … no … really that’s okay, I really don’t feel comfortable getting paid for my work. It’s not that good.”

Negotiations actually stalled and inevitably fell apart over this unbelievable problem: she really didn’t want me to pay her for her writing.

Because to me when you’re selling something: $$ > $ and $ > free I assumed that this encounter was merely an anomaly … instead it foreshadowed the hair pulling frustration that was to come in October when fluffy-seme opened up for submissions and went about trying to recruit writers. Nearly every single time I started negotiations with a writer discussions would come to a dead stop as soon as the fact that I actually intended to pay them became clear. Once I spelled that out one of two things would happen: either the writer would suddenly have a crisis of confidence like the encounter described above, or the exact opposite, the writer would turn around and declare (some more subtly than others) that since I was willing to pay, then maybe a BETTER publishing company would also be willing to pay. Or better yet, maybe the author could go out on their own and get to keep 100% of the profits.

Tuesday, 3 November, 2009

A Format For Online Fiction, Part 2

It’s been some time since I last wrote on a format for online fiction. In that time, however, several members of the web fiction community have already started work on their respective visions for this format.  Some of them have chosen to develop an alternative system, coded from scratch; others have started work from the outside-in, choosing instead to build on a solid WordPress theme system. Diverse as these approaches are, all of the work being done at the moment are possible routes to a standard web fiction format, and for that I am thankful. This post is intended to be a follow-up to my original article on the format. I intend to discuss how such a format may look like, and then possibly convince you to adopt some of these elements into your own work today.

A Recap

Novelr’s been around for some time now, and in that time we’ve learnt quite a few things together. Let’s start off with a couple of things that we do know about presenting online fiction. Peel off that scalp and think back: what have we learnt together, exactly?

One of the first things we’ve got to remember is that reading online is crucially divided into two distinct stages. These stages exist in the offline, paper-book world as well, but they’re not as critical for the writer as they are on the Internet. The first stage is called the browsing stage. During this stage a potential reader skims content to determine if the work is worth reading or no. It isn’t just the opening text that the reader takes into account – in the browsing stage, it is everything from the subject matter to the included pictures to the size of the font to the weight of the book in the hands that goes into a reader’s evaluation. If the reader thinks the text is promising, he or she then moves into the second stage, the reading stage. You and I should know this – if you are a book lover, like I am, then you will recognize this stage as the one where you forget about the sun and the ocean and so get sunburnt with a shadow-image of a book burnt into your chest. The reading stage calls for complete attention on the text. Everything else – links, ads, sidebar text – are superfluous to the reading experience, and they fall to the periphery of a reader’s vision.

The second thing on presenting online fiction that we must remember is what I call the Picture Book Effect: credibility and perception of online content is shaped by the design/format in which that content is presented. In simpler terms: your readers judge your work by the visual cues you have on your site. There are deliberate differences between the New York Times and a celebrity gossip blog. Both appeal to different demographics, and so both have different visual cues. One is designed to be credible, the other is designed to be kinky. One is black and white, the other shocking pink. How readers view your site depends as much on the design of said site as it does on the text you have provided them with.

The third thing that we must recall are the basic principles of readable design. Large fonts, good contrast, clear colours. An intuitive site structure. What exactly these elements are and how you apply them is beyond the scope of this article – go read some of the previous Novelr posts on the topic, or pay a visit to the pros.

So what have we learnt? We have learnt that an ideal fiction format is designed around a browsing stage and a reading stage. We have learnt that the site must have a coherent visual identity, one that should – ideally, at least – complement the fiction. And thirdly, lastly, we have learnt that the site must be readable.

The Online Fiction Format

So what should an online fiction format look like? What elements should we include with it? In this we are faced with a complex task, and so it would be helpful to begin first by talking about what we wouldn’t need to include with the online fiction format.

The first thing we have no need to include is forcefully-readable text. This is simply pragmatic: it makes no sense to limit authors to one font over another, or to ban them from using font sizes below a certain cutoff-point. Neither can we stop writers from using electric pink or neon green in their prose. Most of us already know how to display our fiction in a readable manner. The ones who don’t will quickly learn from the lack of happy readers.

We don’t have to create distinct visual identities for each work. We also don’t have to adjust for all possible forms of presentation. Some writers will want innovative, highly experimental forms in which to present their fiction; this format does not serve them. It simple cannot: no format will attract or hold the interest of such mavericks for very long. This particular format will be for the majority of authors out there: the ones who want to write and who do not wish to worry too much about the underlying mechanics of code and presentation.

And so what should this format be like? At its most basic level, it should have two things:

  • It should be built to accommodate the two states: browsing and reading
  • It should be easy to customize, both visually and practically

We shall deal with these two elements in order.

Monday, 12 October, 2009

Why Collectives Need A Focus

Dan Holloway is a writer and thinker on e-fiction, and founder of two grassroots ebook initiatives: Free E-Day, and Year Zero Writers. Here he talks about how a manifesto is important for even a loose collective of online fiction writers.

The Internet provides a great opportunity for writers to meet up, and start working together. And the collective format offers some great economies of scale to writers – especially when it comes to marketing, where each person’s efforts benefit everyone (if you focus, as we think of it at Year Zero Writers, on replicable not duplicable activity). But it’s easy to think of collectives as a short cut. Aside from the whole question of how you get large numbers of independent-minded people who’ve never met to pull together, you need to make sure you have a niche.

One of the main points of having a collective is to create a single identity for you all. Rather, to allow you all to be who you are, but to let readers know that if they like one of your books, they will probably like the others as well. Your books need to appeal to the same market. And readers need to know that.

That’s easy when you’re writing non-fiction. If your books are “Orchid-growing in Queensland”, “Orchid Houses of new Zealand”, “1001 Orchids”, readers will soon get the hang of what you’re about.

With fiction it’s harder. You effectively have to create an imprint – something like Mills and Boon or Black Lace.

For the writers of Year Zero this was a real problem. The point about imprints like this is they come with strict rules of style, content, and format. And the thing that had driven us together in the forums of Authonomy and The Book Shed was our frustration at the editorial strictures the publishing industry put on writers. We wanted a place where we could be free of all that.

It was also clear, looking at our books, that there WAS a common thread. Whatever we wrote, we wrote it for an audience that didn’t want to be told what to think, that wasn’t frightened of a challenge, that wanted to look at the world in new ways. If we have a demographic it’s what we’d call “urban indie”.

So we had this anti-establishment readership, and we had a bunch of books we refused to edit to “be commercial” (a very different thing from refusing to edit them – some of our books have been edited to death: the point is we did it the way WE wanted to). And we had an angry, group mentality, and an almost political approach to the publishing industry.

So the answer was obvious. We needed a manifesto. THAT is our “imprint”, our rallying call, and the thing that draws our readers in. And it’s a very simple one – restoring the direct conversation between reader and writer. “Uncut prose” unsullied by arbiters of taste. It’s about a reader-writer relationship that’s mature enough to do without a chaperone.

So for us the manifesto has tied everything together. It’s given us focus; it differentiates our work from the mainstream and lets readers know what to expect; it makes a virtue of what some would see as a defect; and it’s the building block of a very simple strategy.

  1. Attract readers to us with our manifesto
  2. Make our work free in e-format so people can get to know us once we have their attention – from Brief Objects of Beauty and Despair, the sampler featuring original prose from 13 of us to the full versions of our novels
  3. Deliver the best books we possibly can to keep readers once they’re interested

So my advice if you’re looking at starting a collective and you can’t think what your niche is. Ask yourself what it is you all have in common – no matter how obscure or angry or negative that might seem to be. And make it your unifying strength, your rallying call.

Dan Holloway is co-founder of Year Zero Writers, a regular blogger on independent culture, and organiser of the Free-e-day festival. The first three novels form Year Zero Writers are: Benny Platonov by Oli Johns, Glimpses of a Floating World by Larry Harrison, and Songs from the Other Side of the Wall by Dan Holloway.

Thursday, 8 October, 2009

Utopia

An interlude, in which we find it helpful to imagine the future:

In the future of writing there are many websites. All the writers have one, like a new toy, or a fountain pen. They are easy to navigate, easy to read, nothing like the vacuous crap you sometimes find in the back-bowels of the present Internet. All the books are digital in this future, and all the books are published online (for free! – depending on author, the grouchy ones refuse, and so have less readers, and that serves them right -) or you can choose to buy them in Kindle/iPhone/pdf format. Some of these websites – design, tech and all, are run by the publishing houses. It doesn’t matter. The platform is intuitive and simple, and very transparent: new writers can set it up without reading even one line of code; they choose from a choice selection of basic web-fiction themes, all optimized to provide a unified, satisfying reading experience, and then they write. By golly they write! Gone are the days of the steep learning curve, the lonely writer piecing together the technology for publishing; gone is the code. There is no need for code, not in the future of writing. Everything is drag-and-drop. The barrier to entry for fiction publishing is effectively zero, the writer weeps for joy!

There are reader-centered communities in this future: review sites, filter sites; the interaction is instantaneous and warm and really neat. You can choose to chat about your favourite author (link to site included in discussion), and/or when you tire of conversation, you head over to the filter sites to choose from a list of editor’s picks. Everyone has a favourite. A favourite site; a favourite reviewer. You choose from the latest recommendations, and then you curl up in a corner of your sofa to read: laptop on pillow, head on hand. The hours go by. If it gets uncomfortable, and you have to go, you purchase the book for your phone and you grab the phone as you leave: for reading in the train.

Still later, you buy the book. The papers are crisp and fresh, and they smell good right out of the envelope, exactly like the old books of yore, of before Black Thursday – the publishing houses have converted the old printing presses into POD facilities. They’re very efficient now. Less paper is wasted. You customize the cover for your bookshelf – all your books look exactly the way you want them to, different covers, but embossed black spines. When you want to recommend a book, you shoot an email to your friends, or poke them in TheBigOnlineReadingRoom.com, and they say oh thank you we’ll see it later and they are happy because you send them books they like. Then you poke the author and write him/her a short note: thank you for that, it made my week so much better, and the author pokes you back, tells you that you’re welcomed, dear, it’s been a pleasure. And literacy programs are so much cheaper in the future of writing, your daughter buys all her books online, chooses her most loved ones for print, reads the rest on her phone, her PSP, her Kindle. One day, she tells you, she wants to be an author. And you smile now, you bring her to a computer, and you show her how.

Monday, 13 July, 2009

Why Free Isn’t Free – Or At Least, Not Really

Chris Anderson announced two days ago that his new book, Free, would be released free to the unwashed masses, beginning with an upload to the online document site Scribd. When I first linked to it two days ago the Scribd site worked fine and I was able to read it all the way through to page 23 on the site’s online reader. That experience is no longer possible. As of yesterday Free is no longer free for all: it is currently available in the US and to US citizens only; other people, like me, from countries outside the US will have to make-do with a most unwelcoming Free page from Scribd:

Free, by Chris Anderson, on Scribd

I don’t like this, of course, though I don’t think Anderson’s got any say in the matter: he blogged recently to confess that he’s limited by the way global book-rights work, and that there’s nothing he can do about it at the moment. Here’s a thought, though: why not publish the digital versions of Free under a Creative Commons license, distribute that through as many publisher-sanctioned channels as possible, and then reap the benefits this liberalization would bring to both him and his publisher? I cannot answer that question, nor can I profess to know the minds of the publishing people behind Hyperion … but it’s worked for several books published by (now defunct) The Friday Project, and I’m sure it can work for Free.

But … Why Publisher Sanctioned?

Notice that I suggested publisher sanctioned channels of distribution, and not JUST channels of distribution. This slight distinction brings us to the topic of today’s post, which is, namely: if you make something free, and you allow users access to downloaded copies of your work, should you encourage file sharing between users and prospective new readers? Should you mind, even if you’re not in this for the money?

The short answer to that is yes, you should; but the long answer is no, you shouldn’t. And I think it’s pretty obvious, what I’m going to tell you today, but the right answer to the above question also depends on why you’re writing and publishing on the Internet. Let’s begin with the basics: the first thing that springs to mind when we’re talking about file sharing is piracy, and recently Gavin Williams and John/RavenProject had a discussion on Novelr about whether sharing an already free file was considered piracy.

I didn’t have a good answer back then, but I do have one now – and the answer is yes. Let’s face it: why are things free on the Internet? Things are free on the Internet because people expect things to be free, and because they expect things to be free you get more eyeballs whenever you meet this expectation. This is a remarkably old economic truth, to be honest: people are attracted to free things regardless of whether you’re talking about baubles or condoms, and free things on the Internet are, quite frankly, irresistible. (I’ve lost track of the number of ebooks I’ve downloaded as a direct result of the writer making it a limited-time offer, so go figure).

But the thing about offering free products is that you’re not really expecting zero returns. Free downloads earn you human attention, and human attention is the real currency of the Internet. You may not consider it particularly valuable, nor may you consider it particularly helpful when the landlord comes knocking for the rent, but publishers and independent content producers would do well to sit up and take notice of this untapped resource – human attention usually leads to community, and community in turn leads to a captive audience … always a good thing to have on hand if and when you finally decide to monetize your online efforts.

If you’re a one-man show it would make sense to distribute things for free and remain ambivalent to torrenting/filesharing amongst your users. You will, after all, gain hopeful readers. But if you’re a publisher, or if you’re in this for the long-run – serious no shit I want to make money kinda long run – then controlling your free distribution matters as much as making your products free in the first place. File sharing builds no community. Stay away from it.

Tuesday, 30 June, 2009

The Novelr Guide To eBook Formats

Say you’ve finished a major arc of your online novel. You want to turn aforementioned arc into a download, and perhaps make that available for purchase from the store section of your site. From here on, however, you’re met with two problems: 1) you’ll have to convert your text to an appropriate ebook format; and, 2) which one?

The ebook format fiasco is sometimes called ‘the tower of eBabel’, and for good reason: there are too many of them. But because we deal in digital fiction, and because ebooks are fast becoming viable models of distribution, we need to consider the sticky question of which ebook format, and why. This post attempts to answer that question. (Note that this is quite difficult to answer without looking into the future, simply because it is unclear if there’s ever going to be a victor in the ebook format wars. But I’ll get back to that in a bit.)

Context

E-book formats are no longer created from scratch. In most cases, the ebook maker – regardless of whether it’s a vendor or an open-source project – will decide to adapt and use an existing format, or to have some underlying programming language to make coding the format easier. Today, that language is often XML, or eXtensible Markup Language. Before we talk about the various ebook formats in proper, it’ll be good to talk a little about XML, and why it’s so popular as an underlying language.

The answer to that lies in XML’s name. ‘Markup’ and ‘Language’ are pretty self-explanatory; it tells us that XML is a programming language that consists primarily of markup tags, much like HTML.[1] In fact, an XML document looks pretty much like any HTML page, the only difference being that XML is powerful enough to define and shape other languages [2]. But unlike HTML, XML is extensible. This means that XML allows you to define and create your own tags. For example, if I were an e-book-format creator, I can easily create and define <title> as a tag describing the title of an e-book. <title> doesn’t actually exist in XML. However, because XML is extensible, I can create what is effectively a whole new platform for my e-book format, and it’ll contain <title>, and whatever other tags I see fit to use. All I have to do is to define them, so that my ebook reader will understand which bits are which, and treat those sections accordingly.

You can tell that XML is useful precisely for this flexibility of form and function. The language is now used for many, many things – sometimes even as the foundation for web services to send requests and responses, behind the scenes, server-to-server. And if you take a look now at even the simplest of RSS feeds, you’ll find a language that is defined – and made possible – through XML.

Most of the major ebook formats today are all built upon some foundation of XML. The ePub format, widely tipped to become wide-spread, is built on a strong XML base. The Amazon Kindle format is built on a modified version of the Mobipocket ebook platform, which is in turn built on XHTML (with a dash of javascript/frame support). So is the format used by the new Sony Reader, though that’s known as the Sony BBeB. The conclusion you can take away from this is that sooner or later, XML will become a major part of your workflow regardless of which ebook format ends up as the eventual winner of eBabel. There’s no running away from it. The good news is, however, that XML is a remarkably convertible format. It’s going to be easier and easier to work with as most major software vendors make the jump to XML-based files; case in point: Microsoft Word’s new docx format is built on XML, and it’s not very hard to convert XML to other formats – say, PDFs, or HTML, or an XML-based ebook format of your choice.

The e-book Formats

So let’s get started. The following are the e-book formats in use today, ones that I believe still have a fighting chance of becoming the format of the known universe.

1. Amazon Kindle’s AZW. The Kindle uses Amazon’s proprietary AZW format, but can read unprotected Mobipocket e-books, HTML, Word documents and plain text (.txt) files. You convert to AZW using Amazon’s online Digital Text Platform, and you format your e-book using rudimentary HTML. AZW supports DRM (unfortunately) and is built around the Mobipocket format – though, confusingly, DRM-protected Mobipocket files cannot be read on the Kindle, because they’re not exactly one and the same. Is it worth it? Publishing your work in the AZW format grants you immediate access to the Amazon online store, where a number of online writers have been making a decent sum selling their work … some of which have been regularly hitting the top 10 bestseller lists for Kindle e-books. So … yes, it’s worth it.

2. Sony Reader’s BBeB, which stands for Broadband eBooks, is perplexing: Sony does not offer any tools to convert to the format, making the Sony Reader a closed medium to all but the biggest of publishers. In fact, the only way to publish for the Reader is via RTF or PDF … but XML to PDF conversions aren’t solid, not at the moment, and RTF limits your formatting options (it’s hardly better than a .txt file, to be honest). And there is at least one unofficial converter to BBeB, but Sony’s lack of support for writer releases is discouraging at best. Is it worth it? No.

3. Mobipocket (also known as mobi). The Mobipocket format was originally created by Mobipocket SA, a French company, in 2000, which was then bought over by Amazon in 2005. It’s been around for quite a bit, and it’s probably the only ebook-ish format at the moment that can claim full multi-platform compatibility. It runs on just about everything: the Kindle, the Palm OS, Symbian, Windows, Mac, and on the iPhone (the Stanza reader allows you to read Mobi books, though it was recently bought over by Amazon and is now in a vague sort of flux). It is, however, not very popular, and there doesn’t seem to be a captive audience or a community built around the format. A quick snoop around the official Mobipocket site confirms this. Why? I’m not sure, not at the moment (and I’m still looking for proper mobi-related numbers) – but a surprising amount of traditional publishers offer their ebooks in a mobi format. Is it worth it? This is hard to say. On one hand, the Mobipocket software suite is completely free, and it’s old enough to make conversion and formatting very easy on the writer. But the truth is that it’s not an exciting format to talk about, and this lack of excitement can probably be attributed to a lack of Mobipocket users … even with free software for just about every platform. And if you’re not likely to get serious ebook readers on Mobipocket (and you can’t sell mobi ebooks on Amazon for Kindle, anyway), then I guess it’s not worth it to spend so much time and energy on a format not many people would use in the first place.

4. ePub originally started off as the OEB (Open eBook) initiative. ePub is currently tipped to be the next big ebook format, if only because it’s backed by a loose consortium of publishers, writers, and programmers, who are tied together in the IDPF, or what is known as a ‘stardards and trade organization for the digital publishing industry’. As mentioned earlier in this article, ePub is built on XML, and so the IDPF leaders are currently trying to push it as a distribution standard for e-books. This means a couple of very interesting things. If the ePub people have their way, publishers will no longer have to produce e-books in different formats for different e-book vendors; they publish in just ePub, and demand that everyone else (say, Amazon) convert ePub to their own proprietary format. And it’s really simple to do that, primarily because ePub’s built on a nearly 100% XML base – itself a highly convertible format. Is it worth it? As of late 2008 Sony announced that their reader would now support the ePub format, and publishers (or at least, the ones who have vested interest in a digital book future) have been relatively supportive of ePub over others. If the IDPF people get their way and ePub becomes the industry standard (or even if it becomes just a distribution standard), ePub would well be worth it. I’m fairly optimistic that ePub will win – at the very least, I want it to win – but the road to that future is far from clear-cut: Amazon has yet to announce any plans about ePub compatibility. They’re the one major player who’s yet to come around to ePub, and for what it’s worth – I think that it’s going to take a bit of time, some elbow grease, and a lot of arm wrestling to get them to see things from the publisher’s point of view. But give it time. It should happen … eventually.

5. Adobe’s PDF format is probably the most known amongst the e-book formats I’ve discussed so far[3]. There’s not much to talk about: PDFs are simple, familiar, and easy to use regardless of medium, plus they’ve been around long enough for everyone to know, more or less, what a pdf file looks like. And because the PDF format is so old, it’s not likely that you’ll ever meet anyone with a computer that can’t read the PDF file format. Is it worth it? Hell, yes.

The Format That Wins

I want to make a case here that the primary ebook format we’re going to work with is probably going to be whichever ebook format wins on the iPhone. The Apple developer conference, WWDC, happened not very long ago, and several very interesting things became clear during that conference, most of it worrying news to the rest of the mobile phone industry, but good news for the rest of us. Here’s what Daring Fireball’s John Gruber has to say:

On the whole, there was a palpable sense that the iPhone is a peer to the Mac in Apple’s eyes. This isn’t about counting how many sessions were devoted to each. Nor is it an indication that the Mac as a platform is slowing. Quite the opposite in fact — Apple is selling more Macs than ever, and, knock on wood, there’s a strong consensus amongst developers that Snow Leopard is going to be the best release of Mac OS X yet. It’s simply that for however fast the Mac is growing, the iPhone is growing far faster.

But the two platforms are symbiotically intertwined. The Monday schedule at WWDC is static. In the morning comes the keynote, which the press attends and where all public announcements are made. After lunch, though, there comes what is effectively a second keynote, this time with material aimed squarely at developers. A technical keynote, as compared to the morning’s marketing keynote, if you will. This technical keynote has for as long as I can remember been titled “Mac OS X State of the Union”. This year the title changed to “Core OS State of the Union”.

Hence the symbiosis: Apple now has two full-fledged developer platforms, Mac OS X and iPhone OS, derived from one core system. Neither felt more important than the other this year at WWDC, which is remarkable considering that one of them hadn’t even shipped two years ago.

But look at their vectors — their relative rates of growth — and ponder how much longer until WWDC begins to feel like an iPhone developer conference with a Mac developer track. My answer: next year. In other words, I think it will have taken just three years for the iPhone to supplant the Mac as Apple’s primary platform. By 2011 it will be obvious.

It’s simply a matter of users. During Phil Schiller’s keynote, he showed a graph of the “OS X” user base over time, with steady growth over the first part of this decade followed by a sharp jump from 25 to 75 million over the past two years. This figure was widely mis-cited, however, as showing growth in “Mac OS X” users. It did not. The graph said “OS X”, not “Mac OS X”, and what Apple meant to show were the combined number of users of Mac OS X and iPhone OS. It was a very misleading and poorly-designed chart.

This doesn’t prove anything on its own, but stick with me for a bit. I’ve been seeing several articles arguing the point that AT&T isn’t providing immediate MMS and tethering support due to fear that their network would crash the very instant a million or so iPhone users decide to connect their devices. And I’ve noticed that the iPhone is itself a remarkably tactile platform, one perfect for reading books, and that we’ve already seen a number of apps showing us just that: that reading, and reading on your iPhone, is one hell of a revelatory experience. We’ve also been hearing rumours of an Apple tablet, with all the touchy goodness associated with their current multi-touch technology, and having that released in the not-too-distant-future would mean bringing the tactile interface to a fully-fledged operating system. And that, lastly, all those people connecting to an online network on such a small device will be a community of captive, fanatical users limited by the processing capabilities of their phones, but not by their phone’s features … making the iPhone all at once better than any ebook reader out there (cough the Kindle cough) but also perfect for reading text on the go.

But all of the above are small, fragmented pieces of information, hardly worth talking about, individually. It’s when you look at them from a broader perspective that things begin to become a lot more exciting, particularly from a digital-fiction point-of-view. Allow me to pull it all together for you: Apple sees the iPhone as a peer to their traditional Mac platform; the iPhone is a superior tactile device perfect for on-screen reading; the iPhone has a fanatical userbase that is connected to the Internet, one that downloads and consumes content through the iPhone itself; and Apple is a master at enabling 3rd-party (software) innovation. Put two and two together and you’d realize that this platform is ready for just the right ebook app[4] to come along, and whichever one it is – be it Amazon’s Kindle app, or an Eucalyptus-type reader, or even one that we’ve never heard about – whichever one that is, that app will be the turning point that defines our industry. Want to know which format you should end up supporting? Watch the iPhone, and watch it closely.

____________________________________________________
1. HTML isn’t really a programming language, but XML resembles it in the sense that both have very simple opening and closing tags as a foundation, like, say: <head></head> or <blockquote></blockquote>

2. Don’t worry too much about how XML works with other languages – that bit’s not relevent to this article

3. Though I must note here that the PDF is really more of a document format, not an ebook one.

4. This is dependent on one more factor: the app must have seamless integration with an online store, which in turn must be stocked with a good collection of ebook titles. In this aspect, at least, Amazon seems to have a clear lead, but no more so than if Apple decides to enter the ebook market themselves. If they do, or if some publishers decide to take things into their own hands and cobble together an online store/app combination, then I’m willing to bet that things will get very interesting, very fast.

Wednesday, 27 May, 2009

On Amazon, the Kindle, and Indie Publishing

If you are a hacker, and you own a startup company, you are likely to have have heard of a snazzy little outfit called Y-Combinator. YC was founded by technoprenuer and essayist Paul Graham in 2005, and it operates out of Mountain View, California. It is a startup incubator. Twice, every year, it selects 40 tiny startup companies to live in the Bay area, close to the YC headquarters. For the next three months these startups will run their businesses out of this small location, attend weekly dinners hosted by YC, and listen to select speakers that YC invites to talk on various tech/business/startup topics.

These startups do not complain, because it is from Y-Combinator that they get their seed money. More importantly, it is from YC that they get their business education.

But let’s face the truth: life sucks when you’re a startup. Your primary need in the first stage of a startup life-cycle is money – and just enough of it to survive. If we look at this from an economic perspective, we would say that the balance of power lies on the side of the investor, particularly in investor-startup relationships. You are at their mercy. You pace nervously outside VC offices. Your worst fear is to fumble your Keynote presentation in front of a bread-faced panel of execs and you pray hourly that they agree to invest in you. 

Strange, then, that Paul Graham and Y-Combinator think otherwise. YC only offers $5000 per founder for the three month period, though they do provide many other intangible benefits (like contacts, and protection, and legal advice) for the young founders they take under their wing. And what do they get in return? The answer may surprise you: 2-10% (usually 6) of  a startup’s stock. Which isn’t much. In fact, that’s a little like getting paid feathers for a day’s work at the chicken farm, because 6 out 10 of those startups die silent deaths in the years that follow. But the people at YC thinks it’s a good trade:

Why are we so flexible? Not (just) because we’re nice people. We realize that, as it gets cheaper to start a company, the balance of power is shifting from investors to hackers. We think the way of the future is simply to offer hackers the best possible deal.

The truth about starting companies today is that things have changed. The Internet, for reasons best explained in another article, is driving startup costs down. It takes far less to implement an idea than it used to be, 4-5 years ago, and with that comes a couple of implications that Graham himself explains in an essay on his site. But this is common knowledge: most of you do know this, especially if you’ve been following even a small amount of businesses online. It is the rule, not the exception, and the same factors that are now driving costs down for these startups enabled a small company in the summer of 1995 to take on the big boys of the publishing industry, and win – turning its financial-analyst-founder rich in the process. That company, along with its founder Jeff Bezos, was Amazon.com.

The Amazon Blog-Publishing Service

Novelr reader Jan Oda alerted me recently to the outcry against Amazon for its Kindle blog-publishing service.[1] Most of those critics were themselves writers, or publishers, or book industry watchers who had enough foresight (or nerdery – and I mean this in a good way) to read the Amazon vendor terms and conditions. And they didn’t like what they saw. 

In summary, the main arguments against the Kindle blog-publishing service are that

  • The terms and conditions allow Amazon a ‘nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right and license to distribute Publications as described in this Agreement’.
  • Bloggers only get 30% of the revenue.
  • Amazon sucks, for multiple reasons (i.e.: they’re big, they’re evil, they’ve got a nasty history, #amazonfail)

These arguments, and their writers (see: Eoin Purcell’s spot-on coverage) highlight a major problem with the initiative: Amazon seems to have forgotten how the power distribution falls in today’s digital economy. If even startup companies - traditionally at the shallow end of the bargaining pool – are finding themselves with more breathing room around deal makers … then independent writers, and musicians, and poets who do not even face the cost issues that startups do are at the opposite end of that spectrum … in the deep. The power to decide and dictate the terms of a business relationship fall heavily to them. Bloggers don’t need Amazon; conversely: Amazon, too, need not offer blog content. They can simply limit the Kindle’s marketplace to distraught publishers, where they have the power to set and decide who gets paid what, and how. They’re much like Apple and the iTunes store in that context, with but one big difference.

Waiting for a User Complaint

It’s funny that I’ve yet to see any complaint coming from a Kindle reader, amid all the commentary and noise you get from writers and publishers circa post-service-release. Where, I wonder, are the user complaints, or the unhappy tweets? Amazon’s got a stupid idea – I’m never going to read a blog through my Kindle! … we don’t see any of those now, do we? The complaints we do see today are primarily from the writers because these are the customers – or at least the potential customers – most affected by Amazon’s offering. I doubt many Kindle users would register and purchase blog-subscriptions, when they can get it for free, from, say their web browser. Amazon may have been aiming to increase Kindle usefulness, but by and large the Kindle is not a multimedia device – it’s an ebook reader, and any attempt on Amazon’s end to increase cross-medium usefulness is akin to adding extra fins to an already quick goldfish. This is the difference between the Kindle and the iPod: the iPod has a gigantic userbase loyal to the iTunes store; the Kindle does not. Their monopoly is built around the fact that they’re the largest online retailer for books, a fact that can change at the drop of a hat should another clever, competitive hardware/software company enter the market.

The crux of this issue is that this should not matter, or at least, not yet. The Kindle is hardly an alternate reading platform to the Internet, not when it comes to blogs. More importantly, the ebook market as we know it today is far too fractured for the Kindle to make any huge impact on the way blog fiction is consumed (if at all). The Kindle, is, after all, not even offered in the UK. Whatver screw-ups Amazon make with regard to the Kindle are just going to hinder them as the ebook market explodes around us; what remains to be seen is whether or not Amazon can remember the very principles that brought it to where it stands today. Will they remember the law of the Internet, the law of falling costs and the implications that result from these factors?

Y-Combinator remembers. This year they’re celebrating the recession by expanding their intake to 60 startups, as opposed to the usual 40. Paul Graham has his head screwed on right, and it shows in Y-Combinator and the results they’ve been delivering for the past 4, 5 years. Amazon was once a startup, taking on the world. The question here is: will they remember? I sure hope they will.

1.To recap, this service allows bloggers – or in our case, blookers – to publish their content directly to the Kindle platform, in the shape of a blog subscription.

Saturday, 23 May, 2009

The Variant: How Previews Can Work In Online Fiction

Yesterday screenwriter and director John August released a short story titled The Variant. It’s a spy thriller – 23 pages long, priced at 99 cents for download and available either as a pdf file or as a Kindle ebook. What I found curious about the whole affair was that August had released The Variant along with a 13-page pdf file preview … which was something I couldn’t understand. Not too long ago I talked about why fiction previews (or Pay-Per-Chapter) would not work for online fiction. Was Mr August a dinosaur, unaware of the arguments against this model? I headed over to his site to find out …

… and ended up buying a copy.

Something strange happened then and there. August got me – a person diametrically opposed to the idea of partial previews – to plonk down cash for a 23 page short story. This doesn’t make any sense, not from what we know of the indie online-fiction marketplace. I argued two weeks ago that selling fiction in small, bite-sized pieces did not work online, simply because much of the digital commerce that happens today rely on goodwill and trust between user and creator. In the comments to that same post Pete Tzinsky added the observation that reading fiction demands a significant emotional investment from the reader, and that most people aren’t prepared to make such an investment for an ending they might not even like. Readers don’t want to pay money for short epistolary updates, and even if they do, they certainly won’t pay money to an unknown scribe writing away in the dark corners of the Internet.

And yet … despite all that, despite even the fact that I hated having an ending held from me – John August got my money. And I loved him for it.

Why?

There are two differences between my prior argument and what happened with John August. The first was that August’s The Variant was just 23 pages long – the length of a typical New Yorker essay. I was indeed making an emotional investment, but it was considerably less than that of a novel. More importantly, this kind of length enabled me to anticipate the quality of the ending, and in that regard August completely bowed me over. The Variant is a brilliant short story. It is well written, beautifully executed, and entirely suited to on-screen reading. That last comment may not sound like a big compliment … but it is - within the first 13 pargraphs there are two meaty hooks cleverly written so as to compel you to continue reading, to find out what happens next. This is writing tailor-made for the flat screen monitor: fast, frenetic and full of unanswered curiousities, with the promise of answers lying tantalizingly beyond the horizon (or, in this case, the Paypal purchase). John August is one heck of a smart writer, with a deft gift for the grip and the run.

The 2nd difference was that The Variant was cheap. More than cheap, it was easy to buy. Consider: if you were a US citizen your entire transaction experience would be one-click on your iPhone, and in my case it took me less than a minute to have the pdf file delivered to my computer. I finished the story feeling satisfied with my purchase – The Variant was well worth the $.99 I chose to spend on it.

So what can we take away from this particular episode? First, that fiction previews can work, but only under two conditions:

  1. The work must be short
  2. The work must be appropriately priced

Second, that setting up shop by a steady stream of potential readers could be the best way of leveraging the Long Tail to your advantage. This is, after all, a textbook case of obscure writer finding a (paying) audience through the Internet. And that’s no small thing indeed.

So are there drawbacks to this business model? Sure they are. 99 cents for a short story is too little to live on, and I doubt many writers are willing to hop onto this bandwagon for so low a work/pay ratio. But it’s a start, and not a bad one … the only thing left to prove my last posts right would be for some Variant-loving kid to go upload a copy to a torrent site, and have everyone read that for free.

Tuesday, 19 May, 2009

Living with Piracy (Edited)

Note: this post has been edited. The ideas expressed here remain essentially the same as in the original post, though I’ve now rewritten several paragraphs for better clarity and structure. And, yes, I know – I’m a perfectionist, and this isn’t healthy. But we all have our OCD moments, no?

The New York Times’s got a funny little article about ebook pirating, published 11th May and online long enough to have garnered a respectable amount of blogosphere reactions. Of the authors interviewed for the article I like Stephen King’s the most, who says (in particularly King-ian fashion):

“The question is, how much time and energy do I want to spend chasing these guys (…) and to what end? My sense is that most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions and discount beer.”

You gotta love Mr. King for something like that. His comment underscores a bigger debate that’s beginning to pick up, particularly over the past two weeks: people are sitting up and talking about ebook piracy, especially now that ebooks have become viable merchandise. Reactions differ according to group: most traditionally-published authors see piracy as a threat; newer, younger authors (like old-time blogger Cory Doctorow) think that obscurity is a bigger problem. 

There are better people than me out there who are thinking and grappling with this issue, so let’s take a quick look at who’s saying what in the wild web before we go on:

1. Readers apparently revolted against David Baldacci’s latest novel, after Amazon announced that it would charge $15.00 for the digital version. Reason for the revolt? They thought it was too expensive. Most people, apparently, think that since you no longer need to spend money on printing, marketing, and distributing ebooks you can afford to sell them at cheaper prices. Some publishers are now worried that these reader expectations will ruin them; the others believe that making ebooks cheap will increase the number of purchases, therefore enabling publishers to continue making reasonable money. 

2. So what happens if publishers refuse to lower their prices? The Freakonomics people weigh in

When digital music fans were confronted with this problem, they just made illegal copies. If Amazon keeps prices above $10, might we soon see a spate of e-book piracy? Or perhaps people simply don’t care enough about books to steal them.

3. Textbook author Peter Wayner confesses in a Nytimes blog post that he’s not sure what he should do, after discovering a pirated copy of one of his books online. He also talked about the issue in his personal blog, where he appears bemused by the whole episode. What I find particularly interesting here isn’t the post itself … it’s the reader reactions to Wayner’s predicament. Here are some choice responses:

“It’s not piracy. It’s re-tweeting.” -DH94114

“Sorry you feel the need to be paid for your ideas. I write poems and share them all the time, like most every poet I’ve known, with little hope or expectation of payment.” – Jed Brandt

Why not stop calling these people ‘pirates’? There’s nothing romantic about them — they are just thieves. – SB

“Personally, I am happy to pay for music and books, or if not I don’t buy them. I like that the Beatles sold enough records to stop performing and produce work like “Sgt Pepper’s.” I like reading books that clearly took a long time to write. I like The New York Times. Yes, we need a new revenue model. But only because technology and greed have made it newly easy to steal with low likelihood of prosecution, not because there’s been some marvelous and freeing change in the philosophy of information.” – Josh

Piracy Makes Sense … And It Can’t Be Killed

Digital piracy is as old as the Internet itself, and I’m pretty certain we’ve all come across piracy in some form or another in all the time we’ve spent online. If you’re like me, you’ve probably touched or used something counterfeit in your life, at least once – whether it’s a cracked copy of Halo or a bootlegged version of Word, or even a burnt CD of favourite songs passed from friend to friend. The truth about piracy is that we’ve all grown used to it. We may not agree with it, and we may not download illegal copies of books, movies or music. But most of us do recognize that pirated work is but a Google search away, and so we carry out our Internet activities around this the same way pedestrians on their way to work may avert their eyes from the homeless inebriate sleeping on a bench by the coffee shop.

I believe that it is wrong to steal, particularly when the work you’re stealing is the result of so much effort by the author concerned. But while I think that, I also believe that piracy is not preventable; and that it cannot be stopped. I say that any effort to destroy piracy on the Internet is doomed to failure simply because piracy – on the Internet, at least - makes so much sense. And so it does – to the students and the USENET users; to the fans and the media bloggers – piracy is a way of life. It is a logical end-point of the democracy and the anonymity of the web, two things that today’s Internet citizenry have grown up with. I believe that it’s not so much a result of human failure as it is a result of the systems that power the web: systems that just coincidentally fit the requirements for a good pirating operation to a tee. Stopping piracy would mean changing the very way the Internet works – which is absolutely crazy, not to mention entirely impossible. Till that (or some external change) happens we’ll have to live with semi-anonymous downloaders, with torrent files, and with an ubiquitous network of USENET servers.

But living with piracy isn’t as bad as you might suppose. Let’s indulge in a thought experiment: suppose we have to prove that piracy is a bad thing, but instead of making it a matter of ownership and principle, let us say that piracy is only bad if there is a proven harm effect. So then the next question to ask would be: what percentage of sales is lost to piracy? This is the only quantifiable measurement that hurts producers, frankly, and it is unfortunate that this very measurement is impossibly difficult to record. A certain portion of book/album sales may well be lost to piracy, but over time these lost sales usually contribute to something equally important in the online sphere – human attention. People who might not have otherwise heard of you would now be able to sample your work, if only through the bootlegged copies of your work floating around the Internet, and there’s a possibility that a portion of them later become fans and evangelists.[1] Similarly, people who are happy to ‘steal’ from you are likely to be equally happy with buying t-shirts and attending concerts and helping out with financial contributions over the same period of time … all this resulting in you eventually making money from your work.

The proactive approach to piracy

Piracy isn’t all bad. Quite a number of people in more matured online marketplaces (i.e., software and music) have survived and profited in an environment that favours piracy. The first step to dealing with it – as an online writer – is to take piracy as a given. If you’re producing content on the Internet, expect some piracy, particularly so if you’re good. The second step, however, is harder: you’ll have to walk a fine line between what you’re willing to give away and what you’d like your readers to pay for. How you communicate this is tricky. Let’ s take a look at two examples (both of which have appeared on Novelr before):

Johnathan Coulton, the web musician, is up-front about piracy: on his site, above his store, is the following note:

Lots of (music) is freely available depending on how technical you are – you can get all of it for free if you really try. But please remember I do make a living this way, so you like what you hear I’d certainly appreciate you throwing a little payment or donation my way. If you can’t afford it, for goodness sake please send copies of everything to all of your friends.

He also has a ‘Already Stole It?’ subheader above his mp3 page, which says:

No problem. If you’d like to donate some cash, you can do so through Amazon or Paypal. Or for something slightly more fun, purchase a robot, monkey or banana that will be displayed here with your message.

The second example I’d like to talk about is that of Panic, the makers of ‘shockingly good Mac software’. They’ve been doing it for the good part of 10 years now, and the best way they’ve found to tackle piracy has been to pop up a gentle reminder whenever a user enters a pirated product code, explaining to them that a) their code is from a pirated source, and b) Panic is a small, independent company, and it’d help them very much if you head over to the site and purchase one of your own. 

Most of the time, they say, the user does just that.

1.Incidentally, some forward-thinking publishers have learnt to boost book sales by releasing a digital version for free, online. These promotions only happen for select titles, however, and for select periods (plus they’re usually for genre fiction and genre fiction only). The logic is that people getting free books online will buy paper versions because paper is more preferable (they last longer, they don’t suffer from battery issues and they’re easier to read). And indeed this has proven to be true, at least for the time being.

Wednesday, 29 April, 2009

(My) Problem With Vook

VookThere’s been some hype lately about Vook.tv and the new ebook format they’re putting out (i.e.: vook, as in I’m reading a good vook today … yes I know, the backlash over this name would probably suck). A vook is supposed to be a mixture of video, pictures, text, social media and community features. And while I can’t say that I’ve seen the actual implementation of the platform, I’d like to raise a few questions about the now recurring  idea that ebook formats can and should bring together multiple experiential mediums.

First, however: I’d like to point out that the Vook concept sounds vaguely similar to that of the Sophie project (first covered here and here) – which was originally conceived and produced by the fine people over at the Institute for the Future of the Book. Note the difference: Sophie is currently being developed by a private contractor for the University of South Carolina; Vook is a startup by entrepreneur Bradley Inman. 

There are two reasons why I think Sophie makes sense, and Vook does not. The first is that of reach. Sophie was originally made for educational purposes, with the idea that students in developing countries would be able to benefit from multimedia ‘books’ in easily transferrable, non-OS-specific form. Vook, on the other hand, appears to be aimed at a completely different audience – the about page on the admittedly snazzy Vook site tells us that ‘Authors and Publishers will directly benefit from this new distribution platform’, and that they aim to do everything from ‘creating new sources of revenue’ to providing a ‘turnkey media solution’. (A solution to what they don’t say, though we can assume that it’ll be to the current problems the publishing industry’s got at their doorsteps.)

The chief difference between the two is that the multimedia approach to ebook design only makes sense when you’re talking about education. I won’t mind my kids learning from Sophie ebooks in the future, probably because I think it’s pretty cool to watch a video on polar bears right after you’ve read a bit of text on the North Pole. But Vook is a commercial format, and it’ll be a hard sell convincing book buyers that they have to purchase a multi-sensory product as opposed to their traditional formatted text ebook. I don’t intend to watch video when I’m reading, the same way I don’t like listening to music when I’m curled up with a good non-fiction volume. And even if Vook says it’ll be just like reading blogs (and watching/listening to video/podcasts on said blogs), there is the added problem of perception associated with the ebook tag. Vook will have to single-handedly change the way the world sees digital books for the format to work, and that’s no small task for any company, even one as ambitious and as well-funded as this one appears to be.

The topic of funding brings us to the second problem with Vook: they are, in the end, trying to make money from this. Now leaving aside the obvious question of business model, let’s ask ourselves: how many publishers are willing to opt in to this format, dispensing in the process the traditional way they format and sell ebooks?[1] There aren’t likely to be many, I’d say. The one thing that Sophie has got going for it that Vook doesn’t is that Sophie doesn’t rely on commercial success to last – all they need is mainstream acceptance in educational programs a couple of years down the road – like, say, the One Notebook per Child initiative, and they’re good to go. Vook, on the other hand, would require a user-base and a marketplace for them to be sustainable in the long run, and while they fashion themselves to be the answer to the book-future, I’d rather think that Sophie has a better chance of being the format of choice for multimedia ebooks and for the publishing world at large.

In the end, what I’m trying to say here is that the amount of innovation in the current ebook market is exciting on a good day and crazy on a bad one. But whenever a new startup, like Vook, comes along and announces that the way forward is to combine video and music and whatever into the ebook format … I tend to get skeptical. I think the future of the book is tied to the future of written literature. And I’m inclined to believe that both futures depend largely on the way text is treated today – on the Internet, in our cellphones, and within our ebook readers.

1. i.e.: make digital copies of existing paper books, package them and then sell them to users who want multiple novels in their cellphone, mobile device, etc.

Saturday, 28 March, 2009

Software, The Internet, and The One Man Show

Panic Software ProductsBefore the Internet, software companies plied their wares through brick-and-mortar stores, in handy little diskette drives the size of folded pocket-handkerchiefs. It was a smaller industry, back then – Microsoft was still getting a start in IBM’s god-forsaken armpit, Apple had yet to discover the GUI, and almost everyone was working with a command line interface. It was also a simpler time. It wasn’t too hard for a well-placed, lone programmer to whip up some fancy app and pass it on – via diskettes, perhaps, with a healthy dose of door-to-door spit – and land himself a nice contract at some new-fangled, pre-bubble Valley startup. And that was, for a few years, enough to live by.

But then time passed. The little software companies consolidated, grew bigger, and swallowed up all the lone hobby programmers. It was harder to find individuals writing software and passing around diskette drives – it was much easier, in fact, to buy software from the big companies, with their cubicles and identical workstations and well-oiled distribution channels. So when the Internet came along, and the individual hobby programmers came out of the woodwork to begin selling their software, just like old times, they found themselves going up against huge, established companies – giants like Microsoft and Adobe and Macromedia, with their advertising budgets and their PR people and their customer support floors, all of which – if the prospective hobby programmer stopped long enough to swallow – amounted to overwhelming, mind-boggling competition. You wouldn’t have liked the odds if you were an outside spectator when that happened, and I know that had I been a hobbyist, I would have thought twice before leaving my desk job to write code for myself.

But then something interesting happened. The hobby programmers didn’t die out. The small software companies – startups in the aftermath of the dotcom bubble – took to the Internet like so many ducks to water. They launched little websites, bought modest amounts of office space, and began competing with the corporations. And they did well.

Software and Books

It doesn’t take a genius, really, to see the parallels between the scenario I just described and what we’re trying to do here, with publishing our stories independently, and on the Interent. The small-time software writer had to compete against well-established,  financially richer competitors, in a market that didn’t make any disctinctions between geographical boundaries. Also, software and books are similar products, particularly in the context of the Internet – both are propietary, both suffer from piracy, both come from companies with a long history in marketing and distribution know-how. And so, assuming that the giants of both fields are going to start-off with an advantage, how do small content producers compete, survive, and eventually get ahead?

Before we go into specifics, let’s talk about the current bevy of independent software developers. I’m not sure what you call them – but for some time now I’ve been noticing these little sites, some of them powered by a 1 man team – selling software, primarily for the Mac. I suppose you can consider them boutique shops. Tuck away into little corners, with a bonsai next to the cash register and the velvet curtains; with only one or two kinds of product sitting on the shelves. They’re small, very focused, and they usually have cool, clever names like Panic or 2d boy or Potion Factory.

They’re also usually well designed. I don’t know if there’s a correlation between their aesthetics and their popularity, but most of the small software companies I’ve seen sell their software in very well-packaged, beautifully constructed sites. In a way, it makes sense – their main (and possibly only) selling point is the web, and it’s within their best interests to make sure you come away with a favourable first impression. 

The second thing you’ll notice about these little software producers is the kind of products they sell. They’re useful, and they come with snazzy icons, but you’ll realize that not many challenge the bigwigs in their own fields. Nobody has challenged Word, the same way nobody has really challenged Photoshop. They’re smart, in this aspect – beat the big companies in the little niche areas they don’t care about … business isn’t a zero sum game, after all. Ironically enough, there are app makers out there who are putting out e-books in the iPhone and the iPod Touch – for instance, see: Benjamin Button and the Classics App.

But I think the most surprising thing about these little software producers are that some of them are really, really successful. I think the one thing we can all take away from this is the inherent flexibility of the Internet’s marketplace. As long as your distribution channel is online, and you’re putting out reasonably good stuff, then you’re certain to enjoy the benefits of the Long Tail – people will find you, people will pay you attention, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll make enough to buy a whole new HQ of your own.

The Ecologist Model Of Seeing The Future

To answer the question of why these little software companies matter to us, I turn to notable writer and speaker Steven Berlin Johnson, who gave a talk recently about the future of news (and newspapers) at South By Southwest. In it, he presented an idea that I now find myself constantly going to bed with. He says, and I quote:

… I think it’s much more instructive to anticipate the future of investigative journalism by looking at the past of technology journalism. When ecologists go into the field to research natural ecosystems, they seek out the old-growth forests, the places where nature has had the longest amount of time to evolve and diversify and interconnect. They don’t study the Brazilian rain forest by looking at a field that was clear cut two years ago.

That’s why the ecosystem of technology news is so crucial. It is the old-growth forest of the web. It is the sub-genre of news that has had the longest time to evolve. The Web doesn’t have some kind intrinsic aptitude for covering technology better than other fields. It just has an intrinsic tendency to cover technology first, because the first people that used the web were far more interested in technology than they were in, say, school board meetings or the NFL. But that has changed, and is continuing to change.

Now let’s be clear on the distinctions, shall we? Johnson was talking about journalism – something completely different from book publishing – and he was looking through a prism of the current Tech sector. But if we append that idea, and we bend it to fit the current shift in book publishing, I think we’ll find it to be a first indicator of how a mature digital publishing industry would look like. On one hand you can have beautiful, standalone sites by independent writers, and on the other you have collective, publisher-managed projects, like the Tor supersite and Authonomy. 

In the end what I’m trying to say is that it’ll do for us to sometimes think like a small software producer. Face it: they’re making a name for themselves, by leveraging the Internet’s (small) economies of scale, by targeting areas the bigwigs don’t care for, and by presenting themselves in very careful, very beautiful packages. If they can establish themselves in an industry that is mostly known for their behemoths, and if we take this to be an indicator of how a mature digital book-future would look like, then I suppose that we can, too.