Evil Genius Chronicles Podcast for February 18 2016 – Sculpting My Personality

In this episode, I play a song from Cheap Trick; I talk about my recent business trip and whether I am an extrovert and making myself be the person I want to be over the course of decades; I tell a fugazi tale of losing my Kindle and getting another.

Here is the direct MP3 download for the Evil Genius Chronicles podcast, February 18 2015

Links mentioned in this episode:

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Kindle Fun

Who knew that a 3 year old fiddling with a Kindle Paperwhite for 90 seconds could not only purchase some ebooks but also order a 2 amp charger? Now I do.

Kindle Spanish to English Dictionary Source Files

For approaching two years, people have been asking for the source files to my free Kindle Spanish to English dictionary. I have been stalling because those files are a non-understandable mess and I didn’t have the bandwidth to get them in releasable shape. Well, I decided to just put them up in unreleasable shape. You can find them in my repository at github.

In the years since I first did this, my hack of consuming the JSON files directly from the Google Translate ajax handler no longer works. Someone at Google got wise to that trick. There are now Google Translate APIs and they are sadly some of the non-free ones. I need to update the scripts to use those APIs, to generalize them so one can easily create any translation dictionary from any language to any other. With luck, I might have some time over the holidays. I’m accepting patches if someone wants to go nuts and do that work themselves.

People have been asking at a steady clip for these files ever since I first published my dictionary. Now they are there. Knock yourselves out, kids.

Digital Vs. Physical Goods

Not long ago, I posted about how paper books are now the deprecated choice in my household. Recently, as my daughter began crawling and pulling up, she wreaked havoc on our CD rack, throwing disks all over the place. Cleaning them up and moving them to somewhere safe, I was struck with how many of them I couldn’t remember playing in the last decade. I was even more struck with the desire to get a number of these out of my house.

I am forming a new three-tiered approach on how to deal with goods that I could just as easily have in physical or digital form. This is still a work in progress but looks to be something like the following:

  1. Goods that I for sure want to own physically

    These are items that have been autographed, items that are collectible, items that have sentimental value such as heirlooms or gifts.

  2. Goods that I for sure want to own digitally

    These are the things I now buy (or download for free) to my Kindle or for my MP3 player. This is the category of things that I actively don’t want a physical copy in my living space, even if I get it for free.

  3. Goods that I am ambivalent about their physical vs digital ownership

    This is the new category that I realized shlepping CDs around. Many of these CDs are ones that I should do what many of my friends did 10 years ago, which is to rip them digitally, put them on a safe backup drive somewhere (or the cloud) and get the hell rid of the physical disk. If and when Ion Audio ever releases their book scanner, many of the books that are in my house would also fit in this category. These are goods that I currently own in physical form that if and when I could convert that do a digital form, I’d gladly get rid of the artifact. I’m going to take a wild stab and say for either books or music, between 30 and 50% of what I own would fall inside this category.

I love the idea of the DIY Book Scanner project and godspeed to them, but I’m not handy enough to build on myself. That’s why I’d rather trade $150 to Ion Audio to get a prebuilt production model of something that appears to be based off the open design. If I get one, I will go on a spree of digitizing books, putting them on a backup drive and my Kindle and either listing on eBay or donating to my local library’s book sale.

Interestingly, when I get a Kindle Fire and install the Comixology app, [Update: I’m told Comixology comes pre-installed on the Fire] I’ll have a new category of entertainment that is governed by these three tiers. I can totally see the books I currently buy one copy of issue #1 at my local comic shop to try out migrating over to Comixology. If it turns out I don’t like the book, I’ve figured that out more cheaply. For the books I do like, I’ll add them to my pull list and possibly go back and get the earlier issues in paper if I care.

One of the aspects of myself I like the least and most would like to change is my pack rat behavior. Whatever in my life I can move from a pile in my messy office to a file on a hard drive or a device, that is a positive trade to me. Dear digital world, help save me from myself.

Chronicles of Lost Ebook Sales

Since this week I made some waves about ebook pricing, I wanted to blog while it was fresh another example of exactly what I was talking about, how money I was willing to toss a publisher’s way stayed in my pocket.

Chronicles of Lost Ebook Sales

This morning I listened to Edward Champion’s Bat Segundo Show #367, on which he interviewed Susan Straight. Her new book is Take One Candle Light a Room. From hearing this very interesting interview, I learned the novel is set in and around New Orleans before and after Katrina, and deals with troubled people trying not to screw up their lives. If you know my life history, my interests and taste in reading, you know this is basically a made sale. I spent a few years in Lafayette LA going to graduate school, visited New Orleans frequently and have a great affection for the region. Also, as a barely functioning fuck up myself I love stories about fuck ups. OK, let’s light this candle.

I went to Amazon, searched on her name and pulled up the novel. The price for the hardcover is $17.13, the (not yet published) paperback is $15.00 and the Kindle edition is $14.27. Oh boy. I was so willing to buy this book and now I won’t. The odds of me ever remembering to check back later when the price is more reasonable (if ever) are so small you can assume it is zero. Pantheon Books could have gotten some money out of me but the $14.27 is just too ridiculous.

At the time of this writing, the sales rank for the hardcover edition is #184,115 and the Kindle edition is #38,665. I don’t know what expectations were for this book and how it has performed for them in the 3 months it has been published but I think you can safely assume this is under the blockbuster level. For promotion that was to them effectively free – a podcast interview – they could have made a sale to me on a book that is not burning up the Amazon charts. Because of the pricing policy, they didn’t. There’s money that fails to go to Pantheon Books and Ms. Straight. Sorry, y’all.

Chronicles of Lost Ebook Sales

“Would you like to buy a box of Thin Mints from the Girl Scouts?”
“OK, that will be $8.25.”
“Ummm …”

I can afford $14.27 for the Kindle novel and I could afford $8.25 for a box of cookies. Will I pay that? Barring some freakish external circumstances, no, not either. If I were desperate for either, maybe my perceived value would rise. As the 200th novel bought on a whim on a Kindle chocked full of stuff to read – no thank you.

After the thought that went into this weeks previous pricing blog post, as well as the comment thread on Teleread’s republishing of it, I realized there is an important flip side to my data argument. If I don’t like the pricing policies of electronic books, it’s really incumbent on me not to pay them. Otherwise, I become one of those data points on the higher end and I become part of the reason justifying the higher prices. I spent a lot of time and words telling publishers they should analyze that data. If I want to like the conclusion they reach, I have to make my tiny portion of the data match that conclusion. So, rather than loosening up I’m clamping down on the perceived value argument.

Ms. Straight, your books sounds wonderful. I wish your publisher did better by you. Good luck out there.

PS – Want to read a really great book that is reasonably priced? Try by Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge. You’ll be glad you did.

Ebook Pricing vs Revenue

Konrath Data Ebook Sales Curve

It’s amazing how often I see some variant of the phrase “We can’t afford to price our ebooks lower because we have costs to recoup.” 10 minutes ago I saw that in the current Locus magazine interview with John Picacio. He in general seems like someone who gets it, both here and in the Sidebar podcast interview with him that coincidentally I listened to last week. This is not to single him out, he is maybe the 10,000th person I’ve seen say this, only the most recent before I type this up. In his interview he says:

If pricepoints for e-books are forced down, do publishers simply slash budgets to achieve their margins? Does that inevitably mean a dramatic slash in quality of experience for the reading audience in terms of things like cover art, copyediting, and other services that readers take for granted?

This reflects a point of view so common in the publishing world that is received wisdom. No one questions whether or not lowering the prices of ebooks will make them more money in the end. They all know it makes less money.

I’m attaching to this post some graphs I generated. I did this early in 2010, based on then recent data that J. A. Konrath had posted to his blog. He’s a decent test bed for these numbers, as he had a number of ebooks out, some self-published and some published by a major publisher. These were priced all over the board. At the time, he was pricing his self-published books at $1.99, and the major publisher books were as high as the $8 vicinity. The commonality here is that none of them were getting much of a promotional push. There was no book tour, no advertising campaign so these numbers should be a realistic look at how price affects unit sales. It must be noted that I dropped two data points. He had two self-published books at $1.99 that sold so anamolously well that they blew out the chart. I dropped data to make the curve fit but the data I dropped would have biased this even farther to the low end of the curve. At the time, even Joe had no real explanation for why those books sold so well. He has since raised his price to $2.99 which is the same conclusion my data would lead you to. He’s a savvy cat, I’m guessing that sometime between then and now he also ran these numbers and raised his prices accordingly. (Update: yes, he did raise prices based on his observation of data.)

Konrath Data Ebook Revenue Curve

Let me disclaim my analysis by saying I am not an MBA or a business guy. I am however a scientist, once a chemist and now a computer scientist. I know a little bit about numbers. If you think I have a flaw in my analysis, please tell me where you think I’m wrong in comments. Civilly. Don’t bother flaming for I have a hard heart and admin rights.

Every single time I’ve heard anyone defend higher ebook prices, they cite the fact that “just because the publication is electronic, that doesn’t eliminate costs.” This fact is what I like to call “true but useless.” Yes there are costs associated, but all costs in ebooks are fixed. The publisher does whatever they need to do editorially, formatting wise, etc. When that is done, they push a file to Amazon/B&N/Smashwords et al and that is that. Whether there is 1 sale or 1,000,000 unit sales, the costs are identical. I’m treating promotion as a fixed cost although I can be argued on that. Regardless, the costs of promotion do not rise as a function of sales. They may drive sales, but if you sell 10x what you estimate, your promotion costs don’t expand ten-fold.

Since all costs that go into creating the publication ready file are fixed and there are no variable costs associated with providing copies to the market (from the publisher – Amazon et al are paying them) by my understanding the only factor that should be important is total revenue. If you lower the price of the book, you run the risk of pricing lower than a purchaser might have been willing to pay. That is an opportunity cost but not a hard cost. It’s not like in the paper world when publishers sell the remaindered book at less than the hard costs associated with the manufacture and shipping costs of those copies. That’s not possible in the digital world. Instead what is important is pricing the books so that the total revenue is maximized.

I took the Konrath data and did a logarithmic regression. You’ll see that the R^2 = 0.96, which is a pretty darned good fit. Then I used that equation to plot out the line that predicts the sales at any price point interpolated or extrapolated across the range and a little higher. I then made a second graph of the price multiplied by the unit sales (aka gross revenue) against the price. What you’ll see from the graph is that just a little over $3 per copy is where revenue maximizes. When you get under that, the per unit sales rise exponentially, but the price is low enough that the revenue drops. Around $3 is the sweet spot, again which I stress is for the data set that I have.

Now, I acknowledge the limits of the data I used for this analysis. Even better would be if I could get all of Konrath’s data for his history but a publisher or e-retailer could do much much better. Let’s suppose the standard price for a given Kindle book is $9.99. Have Amazon show 55% of the users that look at that page the $9.99 price. Randomly assigned, 5% of users each would see a price from $0.99 to $8.99 in $1 increments. Analyze that data for the conversion rate to sales at each price and you could generate much better statistics than I have because all of those numbers will be for the same book at the same time. This is ultimately my larger point – in digital sales, this kind of experiment is possible. If the major publishers haven’t done this and don’t understand what this curve looks like for their books then they really have no excuse for stating definitively why they can’t lower prices.

The assumption under all those statements is that the demand for these books is inelastic. If you price it at $14.99 you’ll get about the same sales figures at $9.99 or $6.99 or $2.99 so pricing it high maximizes revenue. For certain well known marquee writers this might be true but my suspicion is that the market is far more elastic than any publisher would like to think. I think that’s the root of this mindset. Publishers and authors ultimately have a worldview that is the opposite of this analysis. They don’t want to believe that they have a commodity product that is price sensitive. No one sits down to spend a few months or years writing a novel thinking “wow, if this book is priced too high the Kindle readers will just move on to another book priced more reasonably with which they’ll be just as happy.” I feel for them as a person who has tried to write fiction and will do it again. That’s a hard fact to face but I think accepting it would make everyone more money.

Let me state this one more time: I don’t think lowering ebook prices costs anyone money unless and until they drop under that magic point. I think authors and publishers would make more money if they’d understand these principles, experiment to determine the revenue maximizing points and then price accordingly.

Here’s a real world example from my life on how this principle worked for me and how I hypothesize it works for more of my fellow Kindle and Nook readers. I am interested in Greg Graffin’s book Anarchy Evolution. I heard the interview on Skepticality and went to buy it for my Kindle. At the time I looked, it was priced at $14.99. I came, looked at that and said “Well, screw this. That’s more than the book is worth to me. Pass.” I closed the tab in my browser and never thought about it again until today. When I needed a book I had previously passed on for high price for this anecdote, I thought of this one. Until assembling this post, I hadn’t even realized the price has been lowered to $9.99 for the Kindle version. HarperCollins had my attention months ago, got me to the page to purchase it but an excessively high price kept me from buying it. Iif the average book is priced above my impulse buy threshold, the purchase ain’t happening. If it were not for writing this post right now, I wouldn’t have ever thought about the book again so the one and only chance to flip me to a paying customer would have passed without conversion.

Publishers seem to fail to understand the low friction digital marketplace for ebooks. This is an impulse-buy driven mode. I am a reader of books and a lover of books but my wife has threatened physical violence if I bring in any more paper books without getting rid of some of the thousands that fill every available bookshelf in a house too big for two people. You will not sell me paper books except for those very few novels by special writers I must have in paper. On the Kindle, though, it’s fair game. The sad truth is that for my whole life, in any given time period I have always purchased more books than I read. Even though my physical capacity is exhausted, I still want to buy them. Even though I have every single Anthony Trollope novel you can get from Project Gutenberg on my Kindle, I still want more books. I’m a hoarder. Publishers have a chance to get my money even though I have more paper books and ebooks than I can reasonably expect to read in this lifetime. They have one and only one way to blow this, when I come to look at the page and there is a price above my impulse buy threshold for that item.

Publishers and authors continue to try to make this a moral argument. “What, you cheap bastard ebook readers don’t think we should get paid for our work?” I think if they suppress the ego driven umbrage reaction and instead get down to the realities of the market they are in, everyone can make more money and be more happy. The artistic goodness of the work isn’t tied to the price point, so don’t be offended if you make more money at $2.99 than $9.99. Instead, shut up and cash the check, friend.

I listened back to the first few minutes of a panel I moderated at Balticon 2010, and in my introduction I used the phrase “I’m done begging people to get in the lifeboats. If they don’t want in, that’s on them.” I’m not beating my head trying to evangelize to publishers why they should price appropriately. Some are and some aren’t; some will and some won’t. I have enough faith in the marketplace that in the long term it will all shake out. The question is, how much money are you leaving on the table while you get your shit together?

There are people who understand the dynamic of this marketplace, J.A. Konrath being one of many. He periodically posts about some of the other self-published authors who are following the same path, pricing reasonably and moving thousands of units per month. (Side note: the Nathan Lowell mentioned in that Konrath post was also on that Baltcon panel with me. He’s a talented, hard working guy.) That translates to thousands of dollars per month in the pockets of these writers, since they are keeping the full 70% of the retail price by self-publishing. These people are out there, they are filling niches in the marketplace. Established writers, you could be doing this. Existing publishers, you can be pricing to fulfill this demand and bringing in more money. There will be a day in the future where I will be one of those self-published authors. Will my book be as good and successful as Joe’s and Nate’s novels? I hope so. I’m willing to fill that niche at that end of the pricing scale. Are you?

Updates: Paul Biba at Teleread asked for permission to reprint this post, which I happily granted and that is online here.

It’s a failure of clarity in my original article, but I’m not advocated for $2.99 as the perfect One True Price for all ebooks forever. That was true for this data set, which is already a year old. This might well change over time, differ from author to author, genre to genre or publisher to publisher. What I do want injected into the thinking is that these numbers are calculable and measurable. No one needs to say – as did Lou Anders later in the Locus Magazine I reference above – “We can’t lower prices because we still have costs.” How do you know you don’t gross more money if you lower prices?

The other big point is that unless your price is so low as to be left of the curve, you lower your total revenue by raising prices. J.A. Konrath was to the left of that curve at $1.99. I highly doubt HarperCollins is left of that curve with any $11.99 books.

My Kindle Spanish to English Dictionary in the Wild

Early this year, I made available to the internet for free the Kindle formatted dictionary that does Spanish to English translation. I know that people continue to use it and that post still gets comments after nine months. Today I found a reference to Bill Ferguson’s blog about his efforts to learn Spanish. In it he credits the availability of my dictionary as the reason he finally bought a Kindle 3, and he includes some screenshots of his experience. It’s nice to see this kind of detail about the use to which people are putting the dictionary. This was always the principle but it’s good to see some concrete examples.

As an addenda, people ask me if I’m going to make this available in other languages. I have no plans to do that because I’m not interested in reading in any other languages. I will make my scripts available to anyone who wants them as-is to hack them into something that will do other languages (or the English to Spanish as others have asked for.) It’s not plug and play and will require some fiddling, so it isn’t for the faint of heart but you can have them.

Reading List for my Social Media Vacation

I have purchased a few books on my Kindle recently that I’m going to read during my “social media vacation.” Like almost every Kindle purchase I’ve ever made both of these were impulse buys. I still need to write up my big post about how big publishers are completely missing the impulse buy potential of the ebook platforms but that is for a later time.

It wasn’t intentional but both of these books are consistent with the theme of slowing down social media, stepping back, focusing more on creative output. The first is Jaron Laneir’s book You Are Not a Gadget. I’m a few chapters in to this one and it is exactly what I was already thinking about, an examination of what the effects of adapting humanity to their machines can do to us. Not only am I stepping back but at the same time I am completely and totally perplexed by the iPad fever of people I know. I’m reading this book with an eye to understand what is it we are trying to gain as we search around these technological spaces.

The other book is Jeff VanderMeer’s book Booklife. It was recommended by Mur Lafferty at last week’s CREATE South and so I impulse bought it and will check it out. I met Jeff 15 years ago when he was riding along to the WREK studios on a day when I interviewed his now wife Ann for Reality Break. He’s a great guy and a great writer so I have no doubt reading this book will be a mystically introspective experience. More about it later after I’ve read it. Dobbs help me, I hope it straightens me out a little in my creative life.

PS – before those who want to hoist me on the irony petard about reading You are Not a Gadget on the Kindle, the thing I like best about the Kindle is that it is the anti-gadget piece of consumer electronics. I keep reading reviews saying the iPad will take over as the book reader because it is so much sexier than the Kindle. I like the Kindle because it is not sexy! I use it to read books, and nothing much besides. That is a selling point. I want less distraction, less flashiness. It’s a boring little thing that does one job well and that’s why I use it.

Publishing 2010: The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning?

This post is my attempt to distill together many different threads into a common tapestry. There is a lot of turbidity in the publishing, podcasting, music, film, television worlds right now. I have these feeling that every bit of this is all part of a larger whole and I’m going to take a stab at defining it. This post will either be awesome because it succeeds or a miserable failure. There is no middle ground. Off in to it. This will be long, you have been warned.

First, let me inventory the raw materials that got me thinking this way. Recently JC Hutchins posted that he had been dropped as an author by St. Martins Press and that they would not be publishing the 7th Son sequels. The post lives between a gut-check and a crisis of faith from one of the pioneering new media creator/ novelist hybrid guys. He also posted about monetary realities of writers pubishing via ebooks. Not that long before this, I had listened to JC’s Hey Everybody interview with Pablo Defendini and Ami Greko from The New Sleekness blog. It’s a really interesting discussion about the future of book publishing by industry professionals young enough in their careers to be less invested in the status quo and more willing to help a new future emerge. (Side note 1: I met Pablo and Ami at last year’s Dragon*Con in the classic SF con fashion – I wanted to meet them, saw them in a hotel bar, asked if I could sit with them, introduced myself and hung out for an hour. Try it, it works! ) Much in my thinking was informed over the last month by the Amazon/Macmillan ebook pricing wars of far too large a trail to link to anything. In that debate I did first run across Joe Konrath, his fiction and some of his posts with amazingly open and detailed statistics of what he sells and what he makes from digital publishing. (Side note 2: I bought, read and enjoyed his book Whiskey Sour as fallout from the debate).

There are many other bits of thought in the mix, such as my feelings about beginning my own novel during NaNoWriMo and thinking about hiring my friends at Sterling Editing to work on it and what I might choose to do with such a book when)it is finished. That’s enough of a prelude, though. Time to hit it.

JC Hutchins struck a nerve when he basically waved the white flag on his current way of working.

Creating podcast fiction does does not generate direct revenue for me. Based on anecdotal and statistical data, very few people are willing to pay for general podcast content, much less podcast fiction. Since my goal is to make a living wage with my words, the current monetization models — including in-show advertisements — will not deliver this. Dedicating time and effort to my non-fiction podcast projects will deliver equally underwhelming monetary results.

It is also apparent to me that using the Free model to promote a tangible product, such as I did with 7th Son: Descent and Personal Effects: Dark Art, does not deliver sustainable sales results. I have friends — some of whom are my best friends, the most talented people I’ve had the privilege to know and work with – who have absolute faith in this model. I treasure their trailblazing efforts and enthusiasm. My faith, however, has been fundamentally rattled.

Put simply: The new media model viably supports only the most blessed and talented of authors. The time, effort and money I invest in entertaining you for free pulls my attention and talent away from projects that can generate revenue. While podcasting, podcast fiction, and — most importantly — your support and evangelism has positively impacted my life and career in ways I’ll never be able to fully express, I cannot continue to release free audiofiction if I wish to make a living wage with my words.

This is pretty big stuff in the world of podcast fiction. Hutch was one of the pioneers of the form and his getting picked up by St. Martins was considered a watershed and a validation for the medium. So if he can’t make it in this world, what does that say about all the other podcast novelists who are less engaged, have less of a fan base, less sheer horsepower? Does it mean this medium is screwed?

I am positing that Hutch had a terrible misfortune of timing, that he arose as a viable author at exactly the wrong moment in publishing history. As he started down his path it seemed like the end game was to get a book deal with a major publisher. For writers of the last 100 years, this was the reasonable career success path for authors, and practically the only one. In the last few years though a sea change has happened so rapidly and thoroughly to flip that Hutch got his boat capsized in the process and he will be far from the only one. As crazy as it may sound, for a certain kind of author at this point I think a major publishing contract may seem like winning the game but is in fact losing it.

The red flags I got from the JC Hutchins post started here:

Examining the lead up to, and release of, the novel, I cannot see how I could have promoted it any better than I did. I literally went broke promoting this book and Personal Effects: Dark Art (another novel that will not have a sequel; it also underperformed). I conceived numerous brand-new online marketing campaigns that dazzled you and others. I asked you to purchase the novel, and many of you did.

If JC is literally going broke promoting 7th Son and Personal Effects book, I think a reasonable question to ask is “What is St. Martins Press’ role in this?” If JC is willing and able to put so much of his own time and money into the promotion of the books, what value is he getting from the big publisher that is worth giving away 90% of the sale of the book to them? 50 years ago, and 20 years ago and 2 years ago, this made sense. It was pretty much impossible to get a book published and into the hands of the world in any significant way – especially in a way that a writer could make a full-time living – without a major publisher contract, especially one paying advances at a level to be a livable wage. Nowadays, especially due to the markeplace enabled by the Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader et al, that’s a different equation.

Joe Konrath’s post about the money he makes from the Kindle store shows a really clear pattern that he summarizes with:

My five Hyperion ebooks (the sixth one came out in July so no royalties yet) each earn an average of $803 per year on Kindle.

My four self-pubbed Kindle novels each earn an average of $3430 per year.

If I had the rights to all six of my Hyperion books, and sold them on Kindle for $1.99, I’d be making $20,580 per year off of them, total, rather than $4818 a year off of them, total.

So, in other words, because Hyperion has my ebook rights, I’m losing $15,762 per year.

For a writer with an engaged audience, like JA Konrath has and like JC Hutchins has, there may well be more money in their books self-published primarily through the Kindle and other ebook stores. An interesting bit from the Konrath numbers above, that’s from making 35% of the sales price for his direct books. When it changes to 70%, he’ll be making twice as much per book as he posted above for the self-published ones.

Let me say it again: for a writer who is engaged with their audience and reasonably prolific (because you need new books to keep this engine turning), we may be at the turning point where a better living is available through self-publishing than a big New York publisher book deal.

There are certainly authors that this model will not work for. During my preparation for last year’s “Podcasting for Working Writers” panel at Dragon*Con I talked to both James Patrick Kelly and Kelley Eskridge on this topic and they both raised the point that for a number of old school writers, the idea of engaging at the level of podcasting and doing large parts of their own publicity is anathema. A reasonable chunk of authors don’t want to get out in the limelight and picked this career specifically so they don’t have to engage. They write their books, maybe do a few conventions a year, do some bookstore events and that’s it. Back to the keyboard where the serious work happens. That’s fair enough and those writers will always need a publisher to do the parts of this business that would make them unhappy to pursue.

I think of the classic big publisher and big record label model as basically serving the function of the bank or maybe as VC. The manufacturing and distribution of the creative work was too capital intensive for an individual so this company would lend that money to the process, make the books or records show up in the store, do some publicity and keep most of the money. They insulate the creator from the process and from the retailers and fans. What publicity efforts exist, the big media company acts as a semi-permeable membrane to let a little of the public through, but not a lot. Ultimately in this model, the relationship with the fans of the buying public is owned mostly by the retailer and the publisher or label, very little by the writer or musician. For the author that doesn’t want to feed and water that relationship, that’s perfect.

For the other kind of author, a JC Hutchins or Mur Lafferty or Scott Sigler, going with a major publisher outsources to a third party a relationship with their fans that these writers are really really good at maintaining. When Hutch is paying his own money to publicize his books and his his own direct line into his own fanbase, what can the big publishers do for him? They could give him large enough advances to keep his bills paid while future books are written, but obviously they aren’t willing to do that because sales aren’t high enough. JC’s books earn money, but not enough money to keep him in that system. For me, the real question is “Did St. Martins Press do 9 times the work than JC did to get the work promoted?” If not, what did they do to deserve a 90/10 split?

Last November for NaNoWriMo I began a novel that I have literally been thinking about since 1991 when I was 23. While I came nowhere near finishing it that month and am nowhere near finished now, I have a goal to finish this novel in 2010. I’ve already been thinking about what happens when I finish the book. Do I try to find an agent and then try to have them place it with a major publisher? Since I don’t have any plans beyond that one book and thus don’t necessarily have a writing career in mind, how does that affect my decision making? At the moment I’m leaning towards not bothering to place the book with any publisher at all. I’ll pay Nicola and Kelley at Sterling Editing to work with me to get it publishable and hire a book designer and/or artist to hone the final product and then publish it to the Kindle store, Smashwords, the Nook store and whatever else seems reasonable at the time. I’ll probably release it via Podiobooks.com at the the same time, do my publicity via that and the other usual online suspects and let it ride. The key point to me is that the energy I could spend in placing my book at a big publisher could be spent selling the book to readers and I’ll probably make more money that way in the long run. This isn’t the way things worked for the 19th and 20th century and it may not be the way it works in the future, but March 2010 it is the way it looks to me now. The validation of having a “major publisher” decide I’m their sort of writer doesn’t do anything for me. I don’t need the book contract to pay my living, I’d end up doing mostly my own publicity anyway so what the hell does the publisher have to offer me anymore? Rather than have them put out a $15 Kindle book that I see a buck or two from and no one buys with a print version that is on and off the shelves in head-swimming time on a death march to the warehouse remainder store, I’d rather put out a $5.99 ebook version that I see $4 from each one and more people buy. I have a whole rant on how the true function of ebook platforms is to enable impulse buys, but this current post is already too long. That must come later.

When I interviewed Cory Doctorow in 2006, one of the things he said is that the generation coming of age now is the first one to arise “without a stigma attached to self-publication.” Since I’ve been paying attention to the world of science fiction and writers in general, a giant shift has happened. When I joined GEnie in 1992, the notion of self-publishing your work meant that it was unreadable tripe and the very thought of it was risible to any serious author. Nowadays, it might well be the most rational economic choice available. If you aren’t already in the system and earning livable wages from advances on your books, and you are the sort of writer and person with that drive – a JC Hutchins, a Scott Sigler, a Tee Morris, a Mur Lafferty, an Alec Longstreth, someone willing to do more than thrown the manuscript over the wall and wait for finished copies to return – it might be time to take the reins yourself and just do this. The costs are low which means the cost of failing is low. The traditional publishers aren’t paying that much anyway so the opportunity costs are low. Just do it. Lynne Abbey, CJ Cherryh and Jane Fancher did. The writers at Book View Cafe did. I will. Don’t pin your hopes on a big publisher with economic drivers that are different than yours. Just do it yourself, work the people yourself and keep as much of the money as you can.

Using Calibre to Fetch Instapaper Documents

Today I was listening to Episode #81 of the Kindle Chronicles. It was especially interesting to me for three reasons:

  1. James McQuivey’s analysis of the Amazon/Macmillan dispute
  2. Len gave tips about using the great Instapaper service with one’s Kindle and
  3. Len mentioned me by name to reference this post on my thought experiment.

In the show, Len discussed the options in Instapaper to email documents to a Kindle but there is another way I’ll discuss shortly.

To back up, Instapaper is a great service that lets you mark long form articles to be read later. I have a bookmarklet in all my browsers that with a single click and mark any page as such. The service is good and seems to handle multipage articles pretty well.

If you are already a user of Calibre (and I suggest everyone serious about using e-reader devices should be), there is another option. Calibre already has functionality under the “Fetch News” option to pull down and create documents with a simple scripting language. There are a few hundred built in sources and the ability for you to create our own pretty simply, and then a scheduler to set up how often this news source is fetched.

Click the “Fetch News” button in the toolbar of Calibre. You can either type “Instapaper” in the search box, or navigate to the “Unknown” category at the bottom of the list and select “Instapaper.com”. Click the “Scheduled for Downloads” checkbox, select the frequency or schedule that you want to have it fetched. Below, enter your username (email address) and your password on the service. It’s that simple. Now, when Calibre fetches the news from Instapaper, it will assemble all of your “Unread” items into a document and also tell Instapaper to move those articles into the “Read” category so you don’t repeatedly fetch them.

I’ve had it set up this way for a few months now and really like it. If I see a blog post or link to an article that I’d like to read but is longer than I have time for currently, I hit the Instapaper “Read Later” bookmarklet and forget about it. At a future time, Calibre will fetch it and then it will automatically get moved to my Kindle and I’ll have it there to read – typically on the orbital trainer at the gym. It’s a nice, seamless way to keep from letting these longer articles drop through the cracks.

Update: I can see Len Edgerly has kindly linked to this blog post from the most recent Kindle Chronicles and will use this tip on a future show. Via email, he asked me a few days ago what the advantage is to this over having Instapaper just email it directly to you Kindle. My response in part was that I’m not sure I’d consider it an advantage per se. It’s just a different mode of interaction. I almost never email anything to my Kindle, and I do use Calibre as the central point in my book management, equivalently how you might use iTunes with music. All books from here on go into Calibre first for me, and from there to my Kindle or whatever future device I might have. Whether Gutenberg or any other DRM free source, I tend to get ePub and convert from there.

After I emailed Len I did think of some more explicit advantages. If one has a few different devices (like Len does) that you use interchangeably, whichever device you connect will automatically get the newest news content transferred to it. This means that you could hook your Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader et al to it shortly before you walk out the door and you’ll get the Instapaper document. It removes the Kindle specificity and makes it more of a total ecosystem tool.

In my case, I’m such a cheapskate that I’m not going to pay $0.15 per Instapaper push. I have to plug the Kindle up to charge it, so I just get the news when that happens. Different strokes for different folks.

My Take on Amazon Vs Macmillan

I really honestly didn’t want to write one more consecutive Kindle related post but current events conspired against me with the current dispute between Amazon and Macmillan. I am seeing a lot of analysis from my compatriots in the science fiction tribe, such as Tobias Buckell, Jay Lake, this thread at Making Light. I completely understand all these people being pissed off when their livelihood blips off the map. It sucks but this sort of thing happens when corporate giants clash. It’s the dude who runs the diner by the stadium who is the true victim of a sports strike, and the writers and customers are the victims of the Amazon and Macmillan dispute.

Allow me to lay out a thought experiment I’ve seen nowhere else:

Imagine I am the executive of a large publishing concern. Some proportion of my company’s income flows through ebooks and the majority of that is through the Kindle at the moment. However, I as an executive in my heart of hearts don’t like ebooks. It’s not why I got into publishing, it’s weird and has different market dynamics from what I am used to. Even though I am making some money and the amount is growing, I fear that this is eroding and canibalizing the print sales I consider my real business. What I really wish is that ebooks would go away, but I can’t just pull them from retailers or explicitly state that.

Instead, what I want to do is to find a defensible price to raise end consumer prices that will effectively mean that no one much will buy it. Some hardcore fans will, but the fears about cannibalization will go away because the prices are so close to parity with paper that no one wants the ebook version anymore.

Now, imagine that the retailer won’t play ball with that. They are already willing to eat a loss per unit on sales, and even if I were to raise the wholesale price to them they’d be willing to eat that larger unit loss. What I really want is to change the basis of our business relationship that prevents them from setting the customer’s final price The retailer opposes this, even though this means that instead of taking a small loss they are going to make a $4.50 profit on each of the higher priced ebooks. They know that there will be a customer revolt and the backlash will take a market they’ve spent years nurturing and put a big hurt on it.

Now, suppose after negotiations reach an impasse, the retailer wants to signal seriousness to me, the publishing executing. They could choose to delist my firm’s ebooks as retaliation except that would give me exactly what I want. In this particular thought experiment, if the retailer were to try to apply coercive leverage to me, it would require them to also delist electronic and paper copies of books to have any effect on me, because my real end goal is to get ebooks delisted while keeping my hands completely clean.

::End though experiment::

Most of the commentary of my tribe seems to focus on how uncalled for the delisting of print books was. What I’m trying to present – without any knowledge of motivations of any players involved – a scenario in which Amazon could consider themselves justified in delisting the print books. I don’t want to alienate my friends, but they seem to all see Macmillan as the undisputed good guy and Amazon as the obvious bad guy here and I’m not sure I buy that. Between the two, the company looking out for my particular interests as a customer is Amazon. As RichSPK tweeted earlier today “How does increased competition (Apple’s iBooks to Amazon) result in higher prices to consumers?” That, sir, is an excellent question and one worth thinking about.

More Kindle Stuff

I’m aware that most of what little I’ve blogged in calendar year 2010 is Kindle related. What can I say? It’s what I’ve been most interested in lately, which corresponds with me also not having a whole lot to say on much else. C’est la blog.

I got some nice traction on my Spanish to English dictionary, getting links from Teleread, Kindle World as well as assorted fora and other places.There appears to have been a few people with technical glitches but that were able to get them sorted out. I assumed correctly that a reasonable chunk of the feedback would be “Can you do another version for Language X to Language Y”. The answer there is “No”, as the only other language I care about at this moment is Spanish. What I did was not rocket science and anyone with minimal scripting and Google skills could easily duplicate the efforts in other languages if they desired.

I also got some traction in my head to head comparison between the Kindle and the Nook. I still am wiling to love future versions of the Nook, particularly the screen contrast. The hardware is quite nice and if they ever fix the lagginess of the UI and the weird counterintuitive menuing system, it has a whole lot of potential.

I personally am excited about the upcoming release of a Kindle Development Kit that allows for putting apps on there. I and a lot of my kindred spirits had two immediate thoughts on hearing this news: 1) I’m not sure this is a good idea because the strength of the Kindle is that you don’t have much going on but reading books and 2) I’m signing up to join the developer program anyway. I’ve been wracking my brain to think of ideas that would use little or no bandwidth and would also play into the strengths of the Kindle. These fall into two classes: apps that one might want to spend a lot of time immersed with that don’t require huge amounts of screen refreshing and plugins that extend the existing functionality of the device. If one is allowed to do things like add extra menu options such that you can leave a GoodReads or LibraryThing review from inside a book, for example, that could be a hot bit of functionality to extend the device. I’m looking forward to seeing the KDK once it is available.

I’m an AAPL shareholder who has done awfully well with my stock, and as such I love whenever people get excited about mythical upcoming products. However, I’m completely sick of iTablet speculation and will consider it a sweet relief tomorrow when whatever announcement is finally made. I think most of the “Kindle killer” talk is by gadget headed techno-insiders who consistently fail to understand how ordinary consumers actually use devices. Like I said above, I think the affordance of the Kindle actually make it better for reading than an iTablet will be. When I sit down on the couch with the Kindle, books are not competing with videos, email, Skype or the panoply of distractions offered by your average online laptop. I’m looking for less distraction in my life and more time with words, and I think that key bit is beneath the notice of tech pundits who evaluate from every angle except for how a non-early adopter might actually incorporate this stuff in their lives.

This is a random half-baked thought that I’ve been wanting to blog about but am still ruminating over, so I’ll stick it on the bottom of this post like a tail that isn’t quite pinned on the donkey. With the coming of Kindle apps, the possibility of Nook apps, and the very real present of much money moving through the iTunes App store it occurs to me that in a large part these devices – an object with an account/open wallet attached to them – is a working manifestation of the dream of micropayments. Even though BitPass and other parts of the Scott McCloud-ian vision never worked or came to fruition, in their own way these apps represent a way micropayments can actually work. As I think about what things I could develop for Kindle apps, it’s never far out of my head how to tap into that. Assuming developers are given a way to invoke additional purchases from in app it could be very direct, but even having an app on a subscription is still a form of that. I have no walloping insight on this, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Kindle Vs Nook: My Experience

Nook and Kindle

Update: Since this post seems to have gotten a lot of traction and still gets hits and comments, I should point out that whether you choose the Kindle or the Nook, my new project Ebooks from TV is great for either!

I am blogging this from a Barnes and Noble cafe (specifically, the one at Market Commons in Myrtle Beach.) I meant to come in and do a final head to head comparison between my Kindle 2 and the new B&N Nook. I have previously done tests where I set the two of them side by side and done the same operations to get as close to a controlled test as possible. I can’t do that today because at the customer service desk where the Nook has been, there is now an empty anti-theft cable dangling. I’ll do what I can without the refresher. (Update: They put it back, and I did do another few minutes of fiddling and took this photo with my camera phone. Unfortunately, the photo doesn’t show the screen differences well.)

As ground rules, because this kind of post is always a lightning rod for haters: I took the time to gather data and am posting dispassionately my first-hand experiences with both devices. Any comments of the form of “Device X sucks, you are stupid” will be summarily deleted. I brought data and science to the table, knee-jerk comments without them are valueless. I am very far from an Kindle fanboy and advocate. I did this comparison because one day my Kindle will die and if the Nook impresses me it could well be the next device. I did not approach this with a foregone conclusion and then gathered data to support my prejudice. My experience thus far is that talking to the very few Nook fans is a lot like arguing theology with a Branch Davidian. It doesn’t matter how much sense you make, the conversation is going the same way every time. Nook fans, rise up and be reasonable please. You have a stereotype to overcome, with me at least.

Now the results: When I first did this a week ago, every single operation on the Nook was slower. The opening of a book was very slow on the Nook (15-30 seconds), compared to less than a second on the Kindle. Turning pages in an already open book was slower on the Nook. I’d hit the button on both simultaneously, and the Kindle page would have been finished refreshing before the Nook started. Interestingly on the Nook, paging backwards was faster than paging forward. Both operations were slower than on the Kindle, but compared to itself, the Nook can page backwards more quickly.

Changing fonts between the two is radically different. In the Nook’s favor, it allows the choice of different fonts where on the Kindle there is no choice. In the downside, because of the increased complexity of the menuing and the very long refresh time of the book itself when you do change fonts, it is between 20 and 40 seconds between deciding to change fonts on the Nook and looking at the changed fonts. This is the same whether changing the font itself or just the size. On the Kindle 2, there is a dedicated button for the font menu. One can hit the button, use the 5-way controller to select a new font size, select it and looked at the refreshed page in about a second, two if slow. With the 2.3 software update, you can do the same for changing between portrait and landscape modes. I just timed myself and that was about 3 seconds total, which includes having to navigate a few rows down on the menu.

I’ll have to say that I find the menuing and the controls on the Nook pretty unsatisfying and significantly harder to use. The Nook is trying for a dive with a higher degree of difficulty here, it is true. However they aren’t executing on it. I found the touch screen very difficult to select the correct thing consistently, the swiping of the book covers to not work very well, and the menu structure organization to be convoluted. In March 2009 when I took my Kindle out of the box, it took maybe a minute to figure out every common operation and bit of navigation. I’ve spent half an hour over several trips fiddling with the Nook and still am not always certain where I should be navigating to. It completely perplexes me when at any list screen, such as the library management page (equivalent to the Kindle’s “Home” screen”) that one can only move up and down the list from the touch screen. The page up and down controls do nothing in that case. You are looking in one spot but the controls require you to manipulate from a different spot, one on a touch screen with a target narrow enough that me with my fat fingers must pay attention to exactly where I’m trying to click. It is not a good experience.

It felt this way from isolated tests, but setting the two devices makes it clear that the Nook has better contrast on the screen. The “print” is darker and the background is lighter. That is the one aspect that I think is clearly in its favor. The devices are of very similar weight and dimensions. The Nook is slightly shorter, and barely thicker. I think for most real users, you wouldn’t notice any difference in size or heft. For myself who occasionally likes to Tweet from the device (having no iPhone and using my Kindle as my own ubiquitous connection) the keyboard is awesome and even if the Nook adds a web browser then it will be a soft keyboard at best to type in URLs, which seems like it would be a drag.

In the final analysis, I’d recommend against buying the Nook 1.0. This is not a final, durable recommendation. I didn’t buy a Kindle 1.0 or any other Gadget 1.0 either. I find it best to let other people break in the worst problems and I’ll swoop in later when those are fixed. For the identical money and with the differences in usability, I don’t think $259 today is a good investment for a Nook 1.0. The good thing for Nook users is that most of my problems with the device are potentially fixable in software (B&N demo I used had 1.1.0 version on it.) Just like the Kindle’s 2.3.0 update made the device significantly better, a future software update could make the Nook much better. If I were an undecided consumer, I’d make B&N fix it before I gave them my money.

Let me finish with one point beyond the head to head comparison. A lot of talk is floating around with the possibility of an Apple iTable or future apps going on the Nook because of the Android operating system. One thing that gets lost in all this talk is that I consider it a strength not a failing of the Kindle and Sony Reader and Nook that they are not general purpose devices. Even with the web browser on the Kindle, this whole thing only really does one thing well, and that’s display text for you to read. It’s about sitting down and reading. You can tweet or check email in a pinch, but it will never be your first choice to do it on the Kindle the way you would on a laptop or iPhone/Blackberry. It’s possible but not fun. What it is best at is being a device you can sit down with on a couch or a beach or the middle seat of an airplane and read. And read and read. I have enough reading material on mine today that I could read for 2 solid months before I exhausted it, and there is still 1.1 Gigabyte free. A tablet, or adding more apps on these devices is the wrong direction in my life. I say I’m a reader and that I enjoy reading, but if you look at my actions the last 10 years I don’t actually read for pleasure that much anymore. Haivng a device that enables reading but doesn’t enable much else is a plus for me, and being an e-ink version of a laptop or an iPhone isn’t good for my particular needs. Milage varies, but for what is important to me today, that’s it.

Final score: I prefer the Kindle 2, but I’d love it to have the better contrast of the Nook. The Nook has a lot of potential but I’d seriously recommend that at the very least, you make the software get better before you give B&N $259 of your dollars.

Update: Since this post seems to have gotten a lot of traction and still gets hits and comments, I should point out that whether you choose the Kindle or the Nook, my new project Ebooks from TV is great for either!

My Free and Open Kindle Formatted Spanish to English Dictionary

Over the holidays, I took upon myself a challenge. I’ve been fiddling around creating a Mobipocket format dictionary consisting of Spanish words and their English translations. I wanted to be able to set it as my primary dictionary on the Kindle and then use it for on-demand word translation as I gut through trying to read documents in Spanish. A few months back, I couldn’t find any unencrypted ones for sale although now apparently some do exist.

This seemed straightforward enough, so I did a little Ruby scripting (getting a crash course in Unicode characters in the process). I found these lists of Spanish word frequencies and wrote a script to parse them into one word per line. I then wrote a script to take lists of words from STDIN, check to see if they existed in the map and if not look them up from various online sources and add it, and then save it as a YAML file. It was most of a week including false starts and do-overs to finally run the whole list against online translating tools. From there, I created another script to take the YAML file and rewrite it as a (roughly) alphabetically sorted and tab delimited text file. With that done, I used these already available tools to take that file and create files suitable for Mobipocket Creator.

The upshot is that this Kindle formatted Spanish to English translation dictionary is available now to download, for free. [Update 2012/05/11 – I’d recommend you use Marc Sturm’s version as of today.] In order to use it, place it on your Kindle via USB or emailling it to your device. Go to “Home->Menu->Settings”, then “Menu->Change Primary Dictionary.” From that point, moving the cursor over a word will work like the dictionary used to with definitions, but with English translations of Spanish words.

I offer this to the world, for free, no strings attached. In fact, because of the Creative Commons license on it (described below) you are free to take the files and do whatever you want with them as long as you comply. Be aware of the following caveats with this dictionary:

1: This is a machine generated translation from various online sources. There is no guarantee of correctness for any given term. I did find and scrub some bogus racist translations that have been put into some online repositories, and there may be other erroneous or malicious terms submitted that have ended up in this dictionary. I warrantee nothing and can pretty much say there are some translations or source words that can offend delicate sensibilities. Over time I might try to find ways to improve this file, continue to fill out the dictionary word list and maybe even improve the translations that are already there. Keep watching this blog for future revisions.

2: There are still formatting issues for the dictionary popup lookup. While you will see your term first in the list, it will not stop at the following term. Any feedback on how to engineer the source files to make this work correctly can be sent to dave@evilgeniuschronicles.org or left as a comment on this post.

3: This book is offered with a Creative Commons license: BY-NC-SA For the required attribution, please provide a link to http://www.evilgeniuschronicles.org

4: This is a word-by-word dictionary, so you won’t get a translation for idiomatic phrases. That’s a downside. An upside is that because this was done word by word from frequency lists, conjugated Spanish verbs get their own entry and each get translated individually.

I’m glad to get any feedback on this dictionary, particularly on point #2. If anyone can describe how to reformat the HTML input files to make the dictionary popups not run together, I’d be highly appreciative. Beyond that, roll and have fun with it and let me know how it works for you. If someone can point me to directions on how to turn these source files into the equivalent version for the Nook, I’d be happy to publish that as well, although I’ll need volunteers to help me test it.

For me, I’m off to take another crack at Don Quixote.

[Update 2011/12/01] The long asked for source files have been committed to this repository at github. I don’t blame you if you can’t make heads nor tails of that as it stands, I certainly couldn’t. At my next available opportunity, I will document the process and try to improve the scripts. No timetable is promised nor implied, mileage may vary, secure your own mask before helping others.

Also, if you want to say thank you for this I ask for nothing other than clicking the Amazon ad in the upper right corner of this blog before you make a purchase sometime. It costs you nothing and kicks a few affiliate percentage points back my way. Thank you.

[Update 2012/05/11] Marc Sturm is the first person I know of to make a modification to this dictionary. He figured out how to make it work with the newer Kindles and has published his version. If you have a Kindle 3 or greater, I’d recommend using his version.

Kindle Tools I Am Using

I got my Kindle in March 2009 and shortly after that I installed Calibre, mostly to test out its ability to convert PDFs and other documents into Mobi format. It wasn’t until the holidays that I really worked with it a lot and realized what a sophisticated library management tool it is. I’m too lazy to look at the release history to see if a lot of this functionality is new or I just missed it last spring. It doesn’t matter, I’m using it now.

A really cool bit of functionality is the news fetching and conversion functionality. I had experimented with subscribing to some of the Kindle blogs via Amazon but to be honest, none of them excited me enough to pay $1/month for them. The news fetching is cool and Calibre converts to very readable books. You have the option to configure the program to email the converted books to your Kindle but that’s really not necessary. I have it configured to automatically move the news books to my device and then delete them from the library on the laptop. It works really well, and then when I read them on the Kindle I just delete them.

Because the conversion is so good, I changed my strategy in how I deal with Project Gutenberg books. I used to download those books in MOBI format but I’ve started defaulting to getting them in EPUB. SInce EPUB is an open format with rich metadata it converts well so I’m treating it as my “lingua franca” format. Should I ever end up with a Nook (unlikely as that seems today), it’s a matter of one sync and I’ve got the same library of books on the new device.

Calibre is now the center of my Kindle experience. I don’t move documents to the device via file copy anymore. I add them to Calibre and let it be the transport mechanism, the catalog and format manager, and in the case of the news the RSS fetcher. It truly rocks and I’m very happy with it.

Another tool I found (via Teleread) is Neotake, an ebook search engine. I followed the link from my Teleread news ebook (as per above), and it took me to the mobile version of Neotake in the Kindle’s web browser. I searched for “George Eliot”, which gave me a very easily readable list of results. I followed the link to The Mill on the Floss and downloaded the MOBI version from the browser. In a few seconds the book showed up in my list in the home screen. It was basically about as easy to use as the Amazon store. I made sure to add Neotake to my bookmark list. It looks to be a valuable tool in the Kindle and other e-reader toolkit.

Seth Harwood Bum Rushes the Kindle Charts

I stepped up and joined hands with many members of my podcasting community to support Seth Harwood’s Amazon shenanigans. Seth has set up Kindle Commando Sunday where he is encouraging people to buy the Kindle version of his book A Long Way From Disney, which to add to the occasion is only $0.99. I bought it just now and it is whispernetting it’s way to my Kindle as I type. I encourage all Kindlers, especially those of you who just got one for the holidays, to join in and purchase. Not only is it cheap, but you get to use your powers of Amazon chart manipulation for good. What can be better?

PS – It’s working. When I bought it, the book was #642 overall in the Kindle store and now it is #403. Rocket to the top, my friend.

Kindle Software Update 2.3

I’ve had my Kindle 2 for about eight months at this point. It has easily crossed the point of being able to justify the purchase. I’ve read a dozen books in their entirety and parts of many more. I use it as my Twitter/web interface when I’m out of the house, and I even in a pinch use it to maintain my comic book inventory and wish list for when I’m shopping for comic bargains at conventions.

Last week Amazon announced an upgrade to the Kindle software, from 2.0.4 to 2.3. I had previously had the Unicode Fonts hack installed and only a few days prior realized that prevents automatic upgrades from happening and had removed the hack. I also had a misapprehension about how quickly the automatic update was supposed to happen (it might take weeks for all Kindles to get it over the air) and when 24 hours had elapsed without me getting it, I downloaded it and installed it manually.

There are three main features announced as part of this upgrade.

  1. Improved battery life, even when wireless is left on.
  2. Built in PDF reader
  3. Manual screen rotation

Here is my quick review of these features. For battery life, I completely charged my Kindle 2 on Tuesday night, turned the wireless on and left it. I’ve used it about the same as any time period, possibly a little less because of the holiday. It’s been five days in this experiment and the battery indicator is still around 2/3 full. Tomorrow I should do some reading in the gym and other routine uses through the week, so I should get a good feeling for how long this charge lasts. Thus far, it looks like it will easily make the one week mark.

For the built in PDF reader, I took all the documents I had on my Kindle that had been converted from PDF and removed them, and just put the original PDFs on my device. This experiment didn’t work so great. For pretty much all of the PDFs I tried, the typeface was too small for my old eyes to read. The one that I did find reasonable and readable was the PDF of Conversations with ADD by Alan David Doane. Unlike normal books, there is no way to increase the font on PDFs so in almost every case, no matter how screwed up the PDF to Kindle conversion was, the converted version was better.

Feature #3 I do love. The ability to on the fly change the screen rotation from portrait to landscape or vice versa is very nice. The same menu that allows for changing the font size also allows you to change the screen orientation. This used to be possible but was cumberson to do. Putting this in the menu (accessible by the button to the right of the space bar) is a very nice usability increase, and works well with the PDF reader. Since that reader auto-sizes based on the width of the PDF, being able to rotate makes the document display larger.

So, while the experiment isn’t quite conclusive yet for battery life, I’m going to score that one a success. That makes the battery life a clear win, the PDF reader mostly a wash as something that will occasionally be useful but mostly useless, and the screen orientation much better. That’s 2 for 3, not bad. I already was happy with the Kindle but all these improvements make the experience better. Had I been less of a spazz I’d have gotten this upgrade automatically over the air. That Amazon continues to work to improve the user experience of devices they’ve already sold is a good sign.

Big Day in the eReader World

I missed it yesterday when Paul Biba at Teleread picked up on my ‘Kindle is not closed’ post from the weekend, which is gratifying and predictably brought out pushback in the form of comments including this one from Mitch Ratcliffe and a contrary response post from David Rothman. Some people agreed with me, some didn’t but in all the dissents they are talking about the Kindle store lacking openness. I agree with that but that’s not what I said. I very specifically was talking about the device, not the store or the upstream ecosystem. I stand by my post – the idea that one must purchase every book on the Kindle from Amazon is a misconception that needs clearing up. Less than 5% of the books on my Kindle were purchased from Amazon’s Kindle store.

Today came out with the news of the Barnes and Noble Nook e-reader. My very first reaction was “Really, B&N? You spend however much money to build, design, roll out and market this device and the best you can do on naming is ‘Nookie Reader’?” Like I tweeted within a minute of hearing the brand for the first time, that’s a name that is derision ready.

I’m looking forward to the point when the Nook is available for hands on fiddling at my local Barnes and Noble. My initial thoughts on reading the specs and looking at the feature comparison chart is that not a lot of the differences on their matter to me. Having wifi sounds great at first thought, but I’ve never once failed to get a Whispernet connection so what is the advantage there unless it is filling in gaps and jankiness in the AT&T data connection? When I turn on wireless on the Kindle, the job gets done. What would be different if that was wifi rather than Whispernet? The sharing sounds great, just like the Zune sharing does on paper. How many Zune users ever find themselves in the room with another Zune user? Very seldom have I seen other Kindles when I use mine, and that has a 2 year headstart in market share. If the Kindle had this functionality, I wouldn’t have used it once in the 7 months I have owned mine. The first time someone I know gets a Nook file shared with them I’ll care about this feature, until then it’s purely a theoretical curiosity.

The SD card expansion up to 16 GB seems useful, particularly if one wanted to put lots of graphic heavy books on there. The lower screen LCD touchscreen seems to make sense for browsing the library but other than that, what is it other than a battery drain? Swiping a touchscreen to change a page is not easier than clicking a button. The only reason that would seem to matter is if everyone’s iPhone muscle memory tells them to do that. The two worst parts of the Kindle 2 I have are the library management and the off-whiteness of the screen background. It looks like the Nook screen is the same one as the Kindle, so that’s a wash and the library management looks better. Being able to read PDF natively (without a conversion step) on the Nook is better than what I have, although it is available on the Kindle DX.

Overall this doesn’t look like the predictably named “Kindle Killer”. It looks like a rough Kindle equivalent with slightly different affordances. I am delighted that it exists though, because it will put pressure on Amazon in all the aspects I want them to have some pressure. I want to see them improve the sucky bookshelf management in some future system update. The contrast of the screen is what it is on the model I have. It’s acceptable but any device I buy in the future needs to be better. I probably would never buy a future one until the color e-ink technology comes along.

Whenever they hit the brick and mortar Barnes and Noble stores, I’ll play with a Nook. Anyone who wants to make a bet with me on when the Nook install base exceeds that of the Kindle, you set the line and I’ll take the over/under action. Chances are for any line you set, I’ll take the over.

The Kindle is NOT a Closed System

I want to address one of the biggest bits of spurious push back I see on the Amazon Kindle. I see people over and over saying they don’t want one because it is a “closed system.” This is not the truth and I’ll get to that after a little prelude.

I’ve had mine for about seven months now and really enjoy it. It’s worked in to being a reasonable part of my daily life. About 80% of the non-comic book pleasure reading I’ve done in the last six months has been on this Kindle. When I do cardio at the gym I take it. When I need to be able to use Twitter or the the web in a mobile situation, I take it. When I shop the cheapo comic bins at a comic convention and need easy access to my collection inventory, I take it. This started as a luxury splurge for me, but it has become a daily tool of my life.

The counter argument I see over and over, in blog posts, in Facebook or FriendFeed comments when someone talks about the Kindle is something of the form: “I don’t want one because it is closed. I don’t want to have to buy all my books from Amazon.” I’ll give folks credit for not deliberately telling falsehoods, but that type of statement is not factual. You aren’t required to buy all your books from Amazon. You can put arbitrary documents on there from a variety of sources. I certainly do, and I’d imagine that practically every person that owns a Kindle has something on there that they didn’t purchase from Amazon.

I justified my Kindle purchase because in preparing for Reality Break interviews I get electronic copies of books. Sometimes these are prerelease manuscripts the author sends me, or electronic copies of a released book or in the case of Baen Books sometimes it is just temporary access to their Webscription catalog. Regardless of the path, I get ebook versions of a book I need to read to conduct an interview. Previously this required either reading on my laptop or printing out the book. I went to Dragon*Con 2008 with a giant stack of loose page printouts of books from Mur Lafferty and Tobias Buckell. It was a huge drag trying to read these things while standing in line or sitting in a restaurant with pages spilling everywhere. At that con, I thought “This would be so much easier with a Kindle.” Before the next year’s con, I did in fact own a Kindle.

In my seven months as a Kindle user, I have purchased exactly five books from Amazon for it: Gus Hansen’s Every Hand Revealed, Anthony Artis’ The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide, Scott Kirsner’s Fans, Friends And Followers , Paul Melko’s The Walls of the Universe and Douglas Rushkoff’s Life Inc. In each case, the purchase process was simple and downright pleasant. I bought most of those from the regular Amazon web page but the Artis book I made a point of buying it from the Kindle itself as an experiment. Both ways of purchasing were equally easy and without issue.

I’ve paid Amazon around $60 (not all of these were the $9.99 price). However, I have hundreds of books on my Kindle. How did I get them? The first day after I bought it, I downloaded my entire library from Fictionwise and transferred it to the device. Because with Fictionwise you can choose a preferred format of books, I changed mine to MOBI and in 5 minutes had every book, short story and magazine that I had ever purchased with Fictionwise on my Kindle, in native format at that. Very sweet and easy.

It doesn’t stop there. I did an experiment where I took the first page of my recommendation list from the newly revived AlexLit site (I’ve had an account on there for 12 years!) and for every book that is in the public domain, I went and downloaded it from Project Gutenberg. That put another few dozen books on there, all for no cost and without any intervention from Amazon. I put them on via USB so I’m not paying the $0.10 per document to have them transferred. Even if I had transferred them at a dime apiece, that would have been $2.50 or so.

Add to this, I keep on my Kindle two text files related to my comic book collection. I take the data dump of my collection and my wishlist from ComicBookDB, run them through a formatting program and put the resulting text file on my Kindle. At Heroes Con, Dragon*Con and XCon, when I dug through the 3/$1 bins I had my electronic wishlist at the ready. If I wasn’t sure whether I had a specific issue, I’d switch over to my collection inventory to double check. It has a geeky irony to be using an ebook reader to handle my purchasing of paper comic books but it works out well.

These are just a couple of sources of books that one can use to get books for Kindle without paying Amazon. There is no definition of a “closed system” that this fits. One can argue that if such a proportion of my reading is non-Amazon why didn’t I get a different device? Fair enough question. In my case, I fiddled with a Sony Reader and just didn’t like it that much. I considered waiting for some cheaper Korean knockoffs but if my cheapo MP3 players are any indication, the spec sheets will tell one story while the actually usability is a whole different thing. I like the wireless access and I use it a little, for mobile tweeting and yelping and the like. It’s not good enough to do that iPhone/Blackberry thing of ignoring everyone else at the table but it is good enough to use Twitter to find parties at a SF convention. That’s good enough for me. It might be enough for you too. I’m not asking people to love the Kindle – everyone makes this decision for themselves. I am asking people to use valid and factual arguments when making the case for or against the device.

And while I’m on it, let me point to a dishonorable mention in Kindle criticism, here is a piece at Suvudu by Joe Schreiber, which includes this risible line:

If you own a Sony Reader or a Kindle, and you are able to use this amazing device to read hundreds of pages while its soft blue glow exhales into your eyes, well, big ups. I’m very glad for you.

That’s a clear indicator that Joe has determined these devices won’t work for him without ever actually being in the room with one. They don’t glow. That’s kind of the whole point of e-ink, my friend. It doesn’t glow, is opaque and easier on the eyes. It’s why we pay a premium for black and white e-ink devices when LCD are easy and cheap – it uses less power and is easier on the eyes for long haul reading. It’s OK to not like the device, but you should criticize it on aspects it actually has.

Update: I forgot a few other sources of books on my Kindle, all non-Amazon. I purchased the amazing King Dog by Ursula K. Le Guin from Book View Cafe, which is another up and coming source of electronic texts. I also purchased The Definitive ANTLR Reference from Pragmatic Programmers, which was more than a standard Kindle book at $24 but also cheaper than the paper version and allows me to download in MOBI, PDF or ePub but also tells me when the book has been updated so I can get an updated copy. That’s using the low friction distribution to good effect there.