Category Archives: Writing Web Fiction

On Getting Readers To Comment On Web Fiction

There’s a fairly interesting discussion on reader comments going on right now at the last Novelr guest post (by IsaKft on O’Reilly’s TOC conference). See, for instance, this comment by Bill:

Fluffy_seme is totally right, a frying pan doesn’t make one a better chef, just like a BMW doesn’t make someone a good driver.

I think that her observation applies to web fiction writers unnervingly well. A lot of weblit authors feverishly discuss the latest blog platforms, or the newest site designs. But many web fiction writers are still making the same mistakes that writers were making when the cutting edge technology was a Smith-Corona.

They’re writing cliched, underdeveloped characters in cliched, underdeveloped stories. It is the exception rather than the norm that authors actually keep to their update schedules. And frighteningly too many writers are rude and condescending to those who don’t gush over their work.

There’ll NEVER be any technology that will change that. That’s the responsibility of writers.

It just so happens that I think Bill’s right. When discussions pop up about reader interaction in web fiction, the majority of the solutions being bandied about are technological. And of course some of the solutions are technological. No-one would argue against the utility (and comparative ease!) of the like button vs the comment box, for instance, and you’re more likely to get ‘liked’ than you are to get a good long comment. Certainly the method of response affects the kinds of responses you get, to a certain degree.

But there are other factors to consider as well. Are readers not commenting because:

  • Your story sucks?
  • You don’t have enough readers?
  • Your story is good but it isn’t engaging.
  • Or perhaps you’ve been rude in the past?
  • Or you don’t respond to comments? (or you don’t have a mechanism that emails commenters when you’ve responded!)
  • Or you’re writing the kind of story that doesn’t encourage comments? (For example: I find that I don’t comment when reading literary web fiction, I tend to think it over and then shoot the author a thoughtful email at the end of the entire book; whereas I comment like a fanboy when reading superheroes).

I suppose what I’m trying to say is this: getting better reader interaction is a function of several different variables. And certainly, tech-related mechanisms are about half the solution. The other half is caused by story/response-related variables, and as an author your job is to test these things, to figure out which of those variables are the ones that are giving you the reader:comment ratio that you currently have.

Monday, 13 September, 2010

The State of The Web Fiction Community

Note: this is an edited version of the original post. Removed a number of paragraphs for tone, focus and clarity.

When you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. Your tastes only narrow and exclude people. So create.

Here’s a plan, and I’d love for you to hear me out: I want to get web fiction mentioned in the New York Times, in the space of a year.

No, scratch that. I will get web fiction mentioned in the New York Times, in the space of a year.

Maybe it’ll be on an NYT blog. Maybe not. I’ll leave this deliberately ambiguous because the goal in itself is big enough, and audacious enough to try to attempt – and when it’s done, I’ll write about it on Novelr. The results? We get publicity, we get attention, and – most importantly, we’d have proven to everyone in the Web Fiction community who wants to continue this effort – that anything, marketing wise – is possible, and that you should try. You should do it, you should talk to people, you should change things.

Right now.

What This Has To Do With The Web Fiction Community

I want to talk about a disease that has settled amongst us, as a community of writers. I don’t mean this as a bad thing. When I say that this is bad, I mean it in the same sort of way someone would say that being laid-back and relaxed (and maybe lazy) is okay, but being active is so, so much better.

And that disease begin with a question: what have we done in the past couple of months, in the past two years? What have we done that has fundamentally changed the way web fiction is read, the way it is written?

The answer: very little. And we have all had a part to play in this.

I believe that we have lost our culture of communal creation. We have stopped building things that make web fiction better for ourselves.

Things weren’t always this way. In the not-too-distant past we had some culture of creation. Quite a bit of it happened here at Novelr. And I know what you’re thinking – you’re probably saying that I’m biased this way, because I created Novelr. But I’m not. I’m not kidding when I say that the community – once clustered around this blog – got things done; I had to learn this the hard way.

The Nature of Getting Things Done

Ideas are a dime a dozen on Novelr. They always have been, and they always will be. There have been a crazy number of ideas that have graced the front page of this site for years now – many of them made as observations: ideas for publishing-related startups, ideas for community sites, ideas that writers can adopt in their writing, immediately. They come naturally from Novelr’s job of observing patterns in the digital publishing sphere, and then simplifying that for the use of any writer who so wishes to write and publish web fiction.

Friday, 27 August, 2010

Simple Rules for Writing Fulfilling Web Fiction

Looking back on the history of ideas covered at Novelr, I’ve come to realize that there’re only a few simple principles that you need to know to be able to write fulfilling web fiction. The trick is to distill through the majority of these ideas, so that you’re left with a small, useful core. Here are the most important ones.

Why Web Fiction?

There are two good reasons to write web fiction. The first is for the writing. You’re a writer, and it’s likely that you’re already scribbling in little notebooks on the side. Putting that on the web provides for you an external force to keep you writing.

The second reason is more visceral: write web fiction to find and talk to readers. The best online writing gets comments within the first few hours of a new chapter going live. It’s an amazing thing to have readers debating over characters – your characters – not too long after you’ve finished writing.

These are the two most important reasons to write web fiction. All the others will fade in comparison as time goes by. Getting noticed through web fiction is an untested model. Making money works for some people (who have to be just as good as building great web-reading experiences as they are at writing) and may not work for all.

These extras are nice bonuses to have, but will certainly not be true for everyone.

Writing Web Fiction

Stick to a regular posting schedule. Find a comfortable chapter length and use that. This isn’t too hard to do – you’ll figure this out, naturally, as you go along.

Some people recommend keeping a buffer of chapters so you have time to think ahead. This is fine, but there’s a better alternative: keep a loose plot skeleton in a separate document, and write once a week with the pressure of a waiting audience to keep you going. Things will be more fun that way.

Talking to Readers

Web fiction is only truly fulfilling when you have an audience to keep you going. Creating that audience is important if you truly want to enjoy all the medium has to offer.

The single most important principle to remember if you want to create a community around your work is to: respond to each and every single comment. I want to repeat that, because it’s so important: respond to each and every single comment.

The majority of your readers will never comment on your work. If and when they do, why not do the one thing that would keep them commenting? A quick response tells them that they’re valued. It keeps them coming back. Given enough time, they’ll begin debating with each other, and that’s the best metric possible for the quality of your community.

Keep a personal writing blog. Talk to readers on Twitter. Point to both on your web fiction site. The blog helps you talk to readers even when you’re not posting fiction. And blogs are much less work than a well curated forum, for the same benefits.

Don’t worry too much about finding readers (at least – not at the beginning). Keep writing good stories and the readers will find you.

Presenting web fiction

Good presentation in web fiction isn’t as important as the first three ideas. A beautifully designed site with bad writing habits and no audience is worth nothing to a web fiction author. And if you have unmanaged expectations for your online writing, you aren’t likely to have as much fun.

That said, if you’ve got the first three ideas down, you may find the general principles listed here useful.

Design matters. Designing for web fiction is simple: keep things readable. Stay away from electric-pink text.

Design affects how readers view your work. Colours set the mood and tone for your stories. It doesn’t hurt to hire a designer to do an identity for your site. But if you can’t afford to do that, read these Novelr articles here, here, and here.

I think this pretty much covers the core of what we’ve found out about web fiction, at Novelr. Probably these ideas work as a framework on which you may hang all the other ideas that you’ll find at this site. And that’s all there is to it – it’s that simple. Good luck.

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.

Saturday, 3 October, 2009

On Reviewers and Readers

Over the past couple of days we’ve seen some discussion in the web fiction sphere on reviewers, and how an elite breed of such reviewers can help online fiction. An unspoken but widely-held belief underlying this debate has been that more reviewers would equal more quality, and more quality would equal more readers. This argument is best summarized as: ‘the reviewing class sets the bar for online fiction. A good reviewing class equals a high bar, and a high bar elevates the medium.’ (Forgive me for the wordplay here, I’ll soften my argument in a bit).

I no longer believe this to be true. The quality of a medium has never been measured by the quality of its reviewers. As writers, this is intuitive: how often do you write to please your critics? I know I don’t. I write for myself, and I’m pretty sure that you too, write for reasons far more important than the next glowing review. Perhaps we’ve gotten the causal relationship wrong: the bar isn’t raised because of reviewers; instead, reviewers improve in scope and ability as the bar of quality in a medium rises. And the bar rises of its own accord, driven by writers who work to improve themselves, or by writers who attempt to experiment within (or even without) the boundaries of their chosen form.

When you think of it like this, WFG’s true value becomes clear: it isn’t valuable because of its reviewer integrity; it is valuable, rather, because it makes it very easy for one writer to look at another writer’s work, and to learn from that experience. I must admit that I used to believe in such an idea: that good reviewing would improve the quality of web fiction. But a year at WFG has proven me wrong: quality happens regardless of whether or not there are reviewers on hand to catalogue it. Writers are fantastic people, and they don’t need to be told to up their ante.

That is not to say that reviewers aren’t important. They’re just important for a different reason. In indie music, independent music blogs (usually curated by a team of music lovers) post tracks from their favourite artists on a weekly basis. This helps to spread word of mouth, from artist to blogger and finally to audiophile. Reviewers play the same role. They’re not important because they improve the quality of online fiction. They’re important because they attract attention, and attention in turn translates to more readers. The eFiction Book Club is one such ‘music blog’. We need more like them. But, more importantly, we need to be clear on the form and function of our reviewer class, and we shouldn’t get too presumptuous over what the reviewer can achieve. Reviewers don’t improve the quality of our medium. We do. Let’s not mix the two up.

Wednesday, 30 September, 2009

Why A Reviewer Class Is Important For Online Fiction

MCM is the author of several successful (and extremely addictive) web novels, which he publishes at his site, 1889.ca. His latest work is The Vector – which is also a business experiment in a fiction format he calls ‘Serial +’. Here he talks about how a multi-tiered, superstar class of reviewers can help online fiction. This post is part two of a two part series; the first part can be found at Alan Baxter’s blog.

In my previous post over at Alan Baxter’s site, I talked about why a reviewer class is vital to the overall health of the weblit community. But creating that class shouldn’t just be about copying what the Old Publishing industry does. We’ve got more potential, so we should use it.

This is all going to be based on the Long Tail:

Web Fiction's Long Tail

In a nutshell, the head (left) is where the hits are, and the tail (everything else) consists of niches of various shapes and sizes. Mainstream publishing tends to focus on the head, leaving the rest of the graph totally undiscovered. It’s done this way out of necessity: churning the tail would take more resources and split more attentions than anyone can afford. Or, at least in the old system it would.

On the web, we are a massive collection of niches… far more niches than you can possibly put tags to. From a distance, it looks too busy to comprehend, let alone assign a reviewer to. The problem many weblit authors have is that their work doesn’t fit into a genre very cleanly. If you write erotic werewolf scifi mysteries, you probably get ignored by most reviewers, because they have no idea what to do with you. But that’s the old paradigm… on the internet there are as many experts as there are niches. What we need to do is find these connoisseurs and give them the tools they need to be heard and taken seriously, and encourage their authority over their niche.

For this example, we’ll make up a reviewer named Bob. Bob specializes in erotic werewolf scifi mysteries. Don’t judge him. Bob is the one who separates the wheat from the chaff without punishing you for your genre. To the readers and writers in that niche, Bob is the one that you trust for the truth. He becomes a Super User, if only on a limited scale.

Bob's niche

Above him, we have an umbrella niche for werewolf stories, with Jen as one of the top reviewers. Dealing with a larger pool of books than Bob, Jen can’t possibly read everything. Instead, she saves herself time by reading the best-ranked books coming from her sub-niches. Bob loved “The Werewolf’s Wife”, so Jen can safely pick it up, knowing the baseline quality is there. If she thinks it will be a good fit for her larger, more diverse niche, she can review it too.

Jen's niche

Repeat the process up and up the chain, and at each level, we’re treading closer to the head of the tail. If “The Werewolf’s Wife” is a work of true genius, it will float into the realm of the higher-level reviewers… these aren’t reviewers who are BETTER than their lower niche counterparts, they’re just appealing to a broader base, giving them a bigger readership pool and more influence. Not every book will make it up the structure, but there will be more mobility than ever before.

Now let’s say “The Werewolf’s Wife” made it to the upper levels of the “mystery” niche, and had magnificent reviews. The next book by the same author should (theoretically) not need to start from the bottom anymore. It can premiere near the top, thus removing a lot of the clutter waiting to be discovered by the micro-niche reviewers.

The Reviewer Hierarchy in Web Fiction

So how do we create this system? It’s pretty simple: first, we need to have a set of standards for reviewers. It needs to include an attribution clause, so as books travel upwards, the reviewers who discovered them are given credit. The reviewers need to establish themselves in their niches, rather than aspiring to be generic. Sites like the Web Fiction Guide could promote this notion of rockstar reviewers.

Authors need to play a part as well: link back to your reviews, send your readers to check them out. Trust isn’t a finite resource, so don’t be stingy with it. The more you teach your audience to trust your reviewers, the more the more powerful those reviewers will become. By helping Bob become well-respected in his niche, you’re giving yourself a head start with all subsequent books. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and the more work you put into it, the healthier the whole system will be.

Making an efficient and dependable reviewer class in the weblit world will help give everyone more credibility, so that when the rest of the world notices what we’re doing here, they’ll feel like it’s fully developed and ready for use. Otherwise, we’re just a wild west of half-wit writers waiting for the established players to arrive and bring us civilization.

MCM is still heavily invested in the future of online fiction. Read one of his books here, or spar with him in the comments below. (Oh and, I read The Vector. It rocks.)

Thursday, 20 August, 2009

A Format For Online Fiction

When you go to a bookstore to buy a book you expect a number of things that the publisher – and the author – readily provide you with. You expect quality content – a good story or a good idea argued well, perhaps – but you also expect a number of things so rudimentary nobody actually thinks about them anymore. Consider the following:

  • you expect a cover
  • you expect soft pages you can flip
  • you expect binding of some sort
  • you expect book-smell (and this is a personal favourite of mine – I really really like the smell of new books) –
  • in short, you expect a standardised reading experience.

Compare this experience with that of online fiction. Granted, one of the main draws of the medium right now is that it is new, experimental, and that it doesn’t come with a set of preconceptions or constraints that may bind you if you so choose to write a dead-tree novel. But if you think about similar mediums that have matured, over the past few years, you’d realize that there exists a very particular growth pattern to which all these mediums follow before they became mainstream, one that we haven’t gotten to yet.

Clay Shirky best summed it up in his June 2009 TED talk:

What matters here isn’t technical capital. It’s social capital. These tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. It isn’t when the shiny new tools show up that their uses start permeating society. It’s when everybody is able to take them for granted.

And this is the truth. Nobody really paid attention to blogging until WordPress and Blogger came along and made the technology – or, more importantly, the concept – boring. But it’s interesting to note that while blogging is staple to us now, in 1997 it was chaotic, and less of a movement than a collection of fringe geeks. Early blogs were literally ‘web-logs’ – records of links found on a person’s travels throughout the world wide web (and, yes, I am aware of how old-fashioned that sentence just sounded) and there really was no defined idea of what – and how – a blog should look like.

This has, of course, changed, in so far that even fringe communities like ours now write our fiction in the blog format. We know what blogs look like. We know how they work, and we know how to read them. Somewhere in between 1997 and 2001 the blog morphed from a collection of links to a reverse-chronological order of posts, with comments, trackbacks, RSS feeds and what have you … and this change enabled the mass adoption and acceptance of blogs and blogging. The blog became standardized. When you go to a blog now, you expect a number of things that all blogs provide you with – things that are by now so rudimentary that nobody thinks about them anymore. And in this way blogs resemble books: they deliver content in exactly the way you expect them to.

The same cannot be said for the blook. Or blog fiction. Think about it: when we publish fiction on WordPress/Blogger/Drupal, we are taking a system that was designed for something else entirely, and adapting that for the delivery of fiction. There is a difference between text and prose, and I believe that WordPress, and Blogger, and Drupal fail to make this distinction. How the author displays the work is up to him or her. Sometimes this works. Most of the time it doesn’t.

And you don’t have to look very far for evidence of this! Take two random works, any of the 300+ you can find on Web Fiction Guide, and compare their presentation styles. Some will have their chapter listings on the right, some will have it in the footer. Some display a splash page, some just hit you with a reverse-chronological order of posts; still others give you a link to the first episode in the sidebar. Whenever you read web fiction you are literally taking a dive into the dark – you don’t know what you’ll find, and you don’t know the context you’ll find it presented in. Imagine going to a bookstore to see books of all possible formats – some read right to left, some packaged in scrolls, others propped up and sold in ring files. This is terrible. It is already a huge challenge to find good content within the confines of the book as we know it. Likewise for online fiction – the diversity of presentation styles is is a huge mental block, particularly for the reader, and it’s one that I think we should do away with.

So Who Should Do It?

Let’s go back to the story of the blog. I told you that somewhere along the way – around 1997 to 2001 – the blog was transformed from a ‘web-log’ to the written format we accept and know today. Now I believe that this change did not happen via collective community movement. Nobody decided anything together. And so I’m not going to suggest some cliched ‘let’s decide now, together, what we’re going to change about this’ as a solution to this problem. If we look at blogging, we see that the change happened not because of the old-timers, it happened in spite of them. A bunch of newcomers – programmers – came together and wrote b2, cafelog, and then later on Movable Type and WordPress. This changed the nature of the blog. WordPress and Movable Type were easy-to-install platforms that lowered the bar to entry for many. More importantly, however, it put blogging on the map. The more bloggers started using WordPress/Movable Type (and it didn’t matter which, for the format was essentially the same) the more people read them; the more people read them, the more they started clicking these interesting little ‘powered by blogging engine‘ links; the more they knew blogging, the more they were inclined to blog; the more bloggers there were using that particular blogging format … and on the cycle went.

I believe that the easiest way to have a standardized online fiction format is for somebody to actually sit down and develop the system himself. And yes, that does sound rather difficult (!) but note that blogs are actually rather simple applications to write – ask any programmer if this is so and he’s likely to go d’oh at you. So while WordPress and Drupal are too bloated for our purposes, the former – being open source – is actually a good starting point on which to built a system on. The crux of the change is this: this app – whatever it is, or how it looks like (and I’ve got quite a few ideas on how it should look like), it should be good enough, and simple enough, and intuitive enough to meet all possible online fiction needs. And if it is all these things, mass adoption should follow, sooner or later, allowing writers to do what they do best in an environment that currently throws so many obstacles in the good writer’s way.

I’d like to close now, but in case this sounds like a lot of charity work, here’s something to think about: there is now a large publishing industry shift across the digital divide, particularly where authors and novels are concerned. Consider how beneficial – and how desirable – designing a system for writers to tell their stories would be … not only for the community, but for whoever so decides to be a developer of just such an app. WordPress, is, after all, making more than enough money to survive.

Tuesday, 14 July, 2009

On Criticism and Online Fiction

I’m not sure if this is even a trend, but I’m beginning to think that online criticism follows rules and social norms that aren’t obvious in traditional, offline book criticism. This may not be a good thing. I’ve been actively looking around the blogosphere for the past couple of weeks, and I have to conclude that nobody criticizes via comments anymore. Consider: online works – be it novel, short story or photostream – are very rarely criticized on the creator’s own turf. I have yet to see a full blown review of a person’s writing on said person’s writing blog, nor have I seen a full-blown review of a blook (by a reader) on the blook’s actual site.

I believe the main reason for this to be that people now attribute ownership to a creator’s online channel. They don’t criticize you on your blog the same way they won’t comment on your (bad) taste when they’re visiting you at your home. Two photographers I follow – Olivia Bee and lightsongs receive  praise – and only praise – every time they release a photo on their Flickr photostream, and I must say that it gets pretty annoying after two or three months, to scroll down and see a whole heap of amazing! piled upon them – upload after upload after upload.

There’s also the possibility that these people filter out their comments, and only approve the positive ones – but I don’t believe that to be the case. I wonder, though – how likely is a reader to post a negative review in an overwhelmingly positive comment thread? A creator’s loyal community is the best defense against trolls, but it also a deterrent from negative commentary on the creator’s work. And – if this is true, and it’s true for all creators – then wouldn’t the Internet be the ideal home for the narcissistic writer?

Note that this trend doesn’t seem to apply to Novelr, nor to any of the non-fiction idea blogs you have out there. People have no problems with arguing against ideas they don’t agree with. It’s the fiction – the creative work – that suffers from this dearth of online critique, and this means that the writers who blog for improvement aren’t likely to find it … not unless they ask for it, and ask for it regularly. There is one exception, however, on the Internet: writing forums and communities not clustered around the writer are good places to ask for writing feedback. Which means, then, that the trick to getting C&C isn’t to ask for opinions from the community clustered around your blook, but to ask for it at other places – neutral ones – where people do not feel that they’re intruding on your digital turf.

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.

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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.

Friday, 1 May, 2009

Why Pay-Per-Chapter Sucks

I’m surprised at the number of people who still sell their fiction with a pay-by-installment model. The format is  pretty simple to understand: I’ll give you a free first chapter, and then you need to pay me small amounts of money to read the subsequent ones. Some variations, however, are a lot nastier than you’d suppose: the writer puts 30 out of 35 chapters online, and then they spring a nasty surprise on everyone at the very end of their project: you need to pay $1 per chapter for the last 5 chapters! The ending’s not free, you suckers!

And I hate this. I think it’s stupid, and it’s ignorant, and that it does little for both the writer’s reputation and the good reader’s trust. The truth is that the Internet simply cannot tolerate pay-by-installment methods … and the one or two writers who think otherwise better get used to that, and quick. It’s been 9 years since Stephen King failed to get his readers to pay for The Plant. It’s about time people stop thinking they can sell their work like this.

But what are the problems with this format, and why? Apart from the obvious arrogance (how good do you think you are, to deserve my money?) I’m beginning to think that this model is but a mistaken carry-over from the software world – you know, the one where you download a trial edition and you pay to unlock the full version. But let’s be honest, shall we? Nobody – and I really mean nobody – previews a novel for a 30 day period. The parallels between software and writing vanish when we’re talking about business model, because they simply don’t share the same preconceptions. We don’t bat an eyelid when we’re asked to fork out for an unlock key, especially when we’ve tried out our preview version and we like what we see. But ask the same question after a first chapter? Forget about it, pal – I’m more likely to close the window and roll my eyes than I am to pay you. The only thing such a request accomplishes is that it tells me just how web-savvy you are … and I’m not likely to respect you for it.

The strange thing about the Internet, however, is that the preview idea works when you release the whole book – for free – online. You can then ask for financial contributions, or sell them paper/pdf versions of your book, and you’ll find that people will pay up when you do. There’s a principle at work here, one that works only on the Internet: the more you’re willing to give things out for free, the more likely people are to reward you.

I am now sick of online writers emailing and offering me previews of their work … but only after a small payment. The last one who did had a Flash website – a Flash website! – and a badly designed one at that. It was bad enough to demand $1 payments for chapters 2 onwards … but to sell his work in Flash? That meant he didn’t trust me – or any of his potential readers – with copyable, piratable html. I closed his site within 30 seconds and deleted the email soon after.

The Internet’s an exciting place to write, really. You’ll meet amazing people, you’ll find new things to do, and there’s a boatload more new business models just waiting to be discovered. Just – please, you know? Don’t be selfish.

Note: if you want payment models that work, try reading up on MCM’s Novel+ format or John August’s Variant model.

Tuesday, 28 April, 2009

Rethinking 1000 True Fans

1000 True Fans is the idea that any creator on the Internet – be it writer, or artist, or musician, need only 1000 true (or obsessed) fans to make a living. When I first covered it back in 2008 I assumed that this rule would translate as easily to the realm of online literature the same way it had worked for Johnathan Coulton (music) and Jason Kottke (blogs) and Randall Munroe (webcomics), and for at least a dozen other people fortunate enough to have garnered sizable Internet followings around whatever it is that they create.

Late last year, however, some nine months after I first wrote that 1000 True Fans post, Alexandra Erin posted in her blog to say that she was in danger of shutting down. At that moment in time Erin had been making a living from her online fiction for about a year, living off donations and ad revenue from the four serials under her name and having a rather good time of it (for the most part). Her situation was dire. The purpose of that blogpost was to request contributions from her readership, and if you’d go take a look you’d realize that her fanbase responded – and responded beautifully. Together, they donated $5000 or so within the first 24 hours (Erin only required $3000 to get out of trouble); a few days later, she announced that the eventual amount was somewhere in the range of $6000-$7000. 

In one way, at least, this particular episode tells us that the 1000 True Fans hypothesis is correct: make an outright request to your fanbase, and if the fanbase is large enough they’re likely to fulfill that request for you. But look slightly beyond that and we’ll find that there’s a problem with the way the 1000 True Fans theory is applied to blooking. Put simply, there are less established ways to make money from online fiction as compared to blogging, or webcomics, or music.

The Problem With Fiction

The most obvious problem you’ll face as a blooker when you attempt to make money from your fiction writing is that of product. It takes far longer to write a novel than it does to produce a song, or to write a blog post, or even to publish a collection of webcomics. And even if you do, say, write two novels per year, and by some chance you manage to publish them on your website after an impeccable editing process, you still have to live with the fact that books – and in this context self-published books – do not command the same money-to-effort ratio that other types of web-powered media (e.g.: music, for instance) commands. Consider: a self-published book costs about $16.00. An mp3 from Coulton costs $1. At his prime Coulton churned out a song a week, so let’s say for the sake of argument that an mp3 takes him a week to finish. What have we, money-to-effort wise? If we take the number of hours needed to create that book/song, and we divide it by the price of purchase, we’ll find that a self-published book makes you $0.0037 per hour, while a song makes you $0.0060 per hour. Not a big difference, but remember that a song a week results in a lot more product than two books a year. Writing books and banking on book sales surely isn’t the way forward, not unless you’ve got an audience numbering in the thousands.

So the second source of income in your online operation that we have to talk about is that of site revenue – and that includes ads and themed t-shirts and other cutesy stuff like pillows and mugs that people sell through 3rd party websites. And there we have another problem – ads aren’t particularly effective, not in a fiction-based project, and even the small gains you make from selling ad space through programs like Project Wonderful would arguably be offset by the sheer uglyness those ads would bring to your blook (more on this later). Merchandise, on the other hand, does make sense, but I’ve yet to see any web writer take advantage of this by first creating a visual identity for his or her work, and then extending that established visual identity to pillows, mugs, t-shirts, and so on.

The Real Currency Of The Web

But perhaps we’ve been approaching the 1000 True Fans hypothesis all wrong. Perhaps it isn’t so much of getting those 1000 fans for money as it is getting those 1000 true fans in the first place. For the truth here is that the real currency of the Internet is human attention. No matter who you are, or what you do – if you’re on the Internet your first job would be to earn in the one currency that matters, before even thinking about converting that into real-world money. And the paradox is that you often don’t know how these conversions would take place. As Coulton says it:

But somewhere along the way the bottom line started improving, and I became less obsessed with tracking every little thing. Now I sort of think of the whole engine as a special genetically engineered cow who eats music and poops money – I have no idea what’s going on in its gut, and I have the luxury of not really caring that much about the particulars.

The real reason the cash-making cows (for want of a better name for this kind of business model) work is that you don’t really know how you’re going to earn your money in the near future. Productivity guru Merlin Mann remembers releasing a video on a presentation he made in Google called Inbox Zero, and he remembers releasing the whole thing for free instead of charging for it. The video got watched a gazillion times on Youtube, and not long after corporations began contacting him to do the same thing in their in-house workshops, with pay, of course. That simple act of releasing the video for free earned Mann human attention, which in turn converted to lots of real world money over the next few years, but in a way he didn’t expect. Coulton sums it up like this:

… extrapolate (…) across my entire catalog, across all the things sold that make up my income, across the past and present and future, across all the internet radio stations and file sharing networks and Facebook pages and Twitter posts and the whole wild and wooly internet – you will never know HOW it works, but I can tell you that for me it does. The state of the industry makes a lot more sense when you think of it this way, all these new business models rising and falling, internet radio choking on insanely high performance royalties, Radiohead and NIN giving stuff away and making a killing. This is the thing about the new landscape that drives everyone crazy: you can’t see inside the cow; you can only build one, feed it music, and wait for it to poop.

The real lesson you need to take away from the 1000 True Fans hypothesis isn’t that finding 1000 True Fans would guarantee you the ability to quit your day jobs and make a living writing online fiction. The real lesson in it is that human attention is the only measurement of wealth that matters on the Internet, and once you have it – once you’ve got a significant amount of it and you don’t do things to compromise it (like, say, ugly ads) – you’ve got to keep your mind open about how you’re going to convert that currency into real-world dollars and cents. And that open mindedness is the scary bit about the cash-cow business model – for how do you prepare for something that you don’t know? The answer is – you don’t. You find your fans, you write hard, and then you hope for the best.

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.