Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why Can't I Be An Ordinary Consumer: Bento Review

For many years I was the database expert in our department at Motorola. I fell in love with SQL (Structured Query Language), and although I never had the home budget for my own copy of Oracle, I made do, first with shql which made a valiant effort at making an SQL compatible database out of shell scripts and text files. Of course I later moved everything over to the free Mysql. I still have my writing and submission database running there, with a home-brew perl cgi interface. But as I began actively becoming a publisher, there was new data I had to track, like inventory and bookstore visits and such. When Apple came out with their new consumer-level database, Bento, I wanted to give it a whirl. The advertising seemed to hint at relational abilities, maybe I could move to a turn-key consumer product and not have to spend my vanishing time coding up a new web front-end to yet another mysql database.

Still, I put it off until Mary Ann complained that she really needed a database to keep track of her photo submissions. She's a whiz at spreadsheets and has an absolute phobia about databases after so many of my failed attempts to get her to use them. So last March, I bought her a copy and turned her loose. After all, all the advertisements and reviews said it was easy to use and learn.

Here in late June, she asked for help. Everything she'd tried had failed and will all the photos she was sending out to the magazines and other markets, she had to have a tracking database.

So, a couple of days ago, I downloaded myself the 30-day trial copy and set out to make myself a database to track books I'd left at bookstores on consignment. It took me about four hours, and most of that was because I just couldn't believe Bento's database. It ain't SQL. It's sorta relational, I guess. But it takes a completely different mental model to get good results.

Okay, starting simple. It's dead easy to put together a plain table with a handful of nice data types like text and currency and date and even media. You can easily make spreadsheet-like tables and nice forms with any subset of the data you want. This was particularly nice for Mary Ann's table of photos since it let her put thumbnails of the photo right there on the page so she didn't have to remember just which owl picture was which. (Believe me, she has many owl pictures!) However, there is something I should warn you about. I was thinking the images were converted to thumbnails when you drag the photo file onto the form. No. It stores the whole image file. That's great for some usages, but some of Mary Ann's tiff files are 100+ megabytes. Her Bento database was quickly 3 GB and I had to go back and convert them all to thumbnails manually (with a little help from Automator).

Searching for data in Bento is very simple, using the search box method, or dropping you into an advanced search mode where you can search by multiple fields if you wish. The table view also has Sum and Count modes so you can get summary data of the records selected. It's simple and easily understandable, and nothing at all like composing a SQL query.

It's when you want to connect two or more tables that things get wonky. There are no table joins, or the like. As far as I can see, the only thing you can do is put a little baby table image of the related table into a form for the other. Click on the image to see it full size. In this example, I have a bookstore list, which is actually from my address book, as a "Related Records List" field type. It's like the form does the linking. I'm sure there is actual database table somewhere invisible in the background that handles all the grunt work, but the consumer isn't supposed to see them. Also, you can easily do "many-to-many" linkages through these forms, and the little related record views are fully editable. That makes it easy to Mary Ann to add all the data for a photo submission from just one form view, rather than switching back and forth between forms for different tables.

However, the spreadsheet view is prohibited from viewing the linkage. Take a look at the "Table" view of the same library as the form above. Notice that the "Bookstores" field is grayed out. You can't view it in table form, no matter what you want.
I can actually understand the design choice there. In SQL join, if I had two bookstores connected to two book titles, it would return four records in the table. That might just freak out the consumer-level database user. The problem is my mind has been grown into one database model, and I have trouble accepting this alternate way of doing things.

As a database designer back in the day, you sketched out the tables and joins and keys on paper and built one or more applications around it. With Bento, the database is nothing without the application. It's a valid way of solving the problem, and yes, I'll spend the $50 to buy it before the 30-day trial runs out.

But it still ain't SQL.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Corporate Bookscanners

If you've been following my blogs, you know that I've been sending my novels to Google Books and Amazon's Search Inside system. Yesterday I finished adding the latest one, Extreme Makeover, to the system. Anything for more exposure. Google Books takes some time before they put it on line, so I keep checking. Certainly Emperor Dad and Roswell or Bust are both active.

I debated with myself about adding Microsoft's Live system to the mix, but I didn't like the taste of their contract. Luckily I declined, because Microsoft bailed out and dropped their effort to be a big corporate book scanner.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Release Date?

When you set up a book for publication, one of the mandatory fields you enter is the release date of the book. This is an important date, for all your PR efforts and for the pre-release reviewers like Publisher's Weekly. You have to get a copy of the book to them months before that magic date.

However, from printing side, it's not magic at all. It goes into their database. It shows up on the indexes. But as soon as the book as ready and you approve that final proof, it's out. I just noticed that Amazon already has Extreme Makeover listed in their system. You can order it now, even though the release date is July 1. And, indeed, I've ordered a few boxes already for my PR efforts. I suppose I could have held off approving that last proof until midnight June 30th, but that would mean I wouldn't have any books on hand once it was released, which doesn't make any sense for me.

So, today, I'm hurriedly making changes to my websites and adding links and pretending I had all this planned out in advance.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Double Impact

I am now in Breckenridge, the fourth stop on the current trip, and a have a little time to stop and think. Travel this year has been hit by a double-whammy; a lower travel budget, and much higher gas prices. In previous years, we might have done this trip in the RV, but my first calculations showed I'd have to spend at least an extra thousand dollars just for the gas if we took the RV, so instead we're in the Trailblazer.

I've thought about getting a high gas mileage vehicle to make things easier, but it's just not that simple. Yes, they make plug-in hybrids and such with really wonderful numbers, but those are commuter cars. For Mary Ann and I, a commuter car would just be a toy. She's a nature photographer with multiple cameras, huge lenses, several tripods, not to mention her computer and crate of external hard drives and DVD burner to collect, process and archive her images. We're just lucky we didn't bring her large-format printer that had accompanied us on other trips. I have to take my computer gear, plus an ever growing collection of books for making my visits to all the local book stores. Add in luggage for a trip this long and the Trailblazer is none too large for the job.

One more thing. We require four wheel drive and decent ground clearance. We do take the mountain jeep roads and the wild animals aren't likely to line up next to the smoothly paved roads for our convenience.

So whenever I read about someone proclaiming the "Death of the SUV", I have to chuckle. Utility vehicles have been here as along as there's been roads and just because some New York Editor doesn't like his neighbors driving them around town, doesn't mean there won't be a market for them for a long time to come.

Sadly, the commuter cars are the ones getting first crack at the new technologies, so I'll have to live with 20 miles per gallon for many years. The only thing I can do is make those miles count. I have to double up the activities. This trip is a case in point. I can't help the thousands of miles I'll travel, but within in this route, I'll visit my aging mother a couple of times, Mary Ann has attended her NANPA event and taken a zillion photos of wild animals on Mt. Evans. I am visiting bookstores to make contacts and show my books. We're in Breckenridge to take care of property maintenance and give Mary Ann the chance to take pictures of the bark beetle infestation. And we haven't yet decided what additional areas we'll visit in this part of the world.

There will even be trips where the RV, with it's 6 mpg will be the logical vehicle to take. If there's a vehicle I'd love to retrofit with a baby nuclear power plant, that would be the one. Ah, someday.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Mt. Evans

Just to keep you up to date, Mary Ann and I are in Colorado and for the past few days we've been visiting Mt. Evans daily so she can take pictures of the animals and trees. It's worth your while to pop over to her blog at http://maryannmelton.blogspot.com/ and see some of the pictures she's taking.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Extreme Makeover Coming Soon

The final proof copy has arrived and been approved and a few boxes have been ordered, primarily destined for book reviewers and contests. I'm currently on the road, but the instant I get back, I'll be packing up bundles to send out. Extreme Makeover's official publication date is July 1, so probably a couple of weeks after that the most aggressive of the online bookstores will have it, and I'll begin the long laborious process of getting them onto book and mortar bookstores. Until then, I'll be updating the website and adding the necessary pages.

If you write book reviews–blogs, websites, newspapers, etc. I have a limited number of copies I can send out. Let me know.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Struck by a Scene

While driving in to visit my mother, I saw a tornado siren...common things up here in the panhandle of Texas. I chuckled and Mary Ann asked what was up. I explained; I had just been struck by a scene. Churning away in the back of my mind, a new story is slowly, slowly coming into shape. It is still too vague to explain. I don't have the characters. I don't have a plot. Just a location, here in Amarillo, the small town where I grew up. Maybe it's not such a small town any more. Somehow a story is coming together. It's like a jigsaw puzzle with just a few pieces of the picture on the table. That flash of 'scene' connected a few random pieces into a vivid moment. A few more flashes like this and a plot will begin to form. I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Book Price Change

It took me long enough to make the decision, but I've finally changed the price and discount rate on my books to $14.95. The change will hit the distrubitor database at the end of the month, and it will gradually work its way through the systems, so if you have been putting off buying one or more of them, you might want to go ahead with it. I will be changing my Webstore page on the. HenryMelton.com site when Extreme Makeover is released at the first of July.

For everyone who requests the "Old Price" via email for the next twelve months, I'll honor it. In addition, my revamped Webstore will sell the books without shipping charges after the July revamp. The difference in price and the shipping charges are just a few cents different so I feel comfortable about the change.

I just hope that this will make it easier to get my books on all those shelves.

Friday, June 06, 2008

iPhone, Post Swimming Pool

Yesterday morning, I was following my normal routine, checking my email and syncing my iPhone before going out and monkeying with the swimming pool's chemistry. As you can see from previous posts, I had let the pool get very green and I had to drain it and shovel out the muck and leaves that covered the bottom before I had a hope of using it again. Refilling the water means lots of chemical treatments. There is the obvious chlorine, but I had to get the water's alkalinity under control. That means that I have to add gallons of hydrochloric acid to the pool, in small quantities over time. Yesterday, I poured in a half-gallon, and then noticed that some must have splashed on my leg, because it began to burn. I was wearing my cut-off jeans that I frequently use when working on the pool, so I waded into the shallow end and took a couple of minutes to empty the skimmer basket of collected leaves. I changed clothes and went back to the computer.

The iPhone wasn't in the cradle where I'd thought it was. Like a flash, I got up and raced to the bathroom where my wet cut-offs were dripping onto the tile. In the pocket was my iPhone, a very dead and unresponsive iPhone. I dried it off, and removed the little memory card. It had water on it, not a good sign. Until that instant, I'd hoped the tight fitting design of the iPhone had protected it. But even with the outside dry, and shaking it in hopes there was any water that could be removed that way, there appeared no hope. I set the iPhone between two routers where the heat would gently bake it and went to confess what I'd done to Mary Ann.

The day before had been a lovely day, a road trip to celebrate our anniversary, but Thursday was a bit depressing. I worked on getting my third book ready for submission to the printer, but I would intermittently check on the iPhone. All day long, there was no sign of life. I began planning how to survive the days until the next generation iPhone would arrive. Even if I couldn't afford it, it's arrival would lower the price of replacement originals.

But after sunset, I tried again, and there was a flash of life. The boot up apple appeared, several times in a row, and there was a few minutes where, when I put it in the dock, the charging battery sign would show up, showing a drained battery. There were also diagonal lines, across the screen, almost like scan lines. Overnight I put it back between the ISDN router and the ethernet hub to bake some more.

Morning came, and there was only a few seconds of white apple, and then no sign of life. I lost hope. Surely it would have gotten better overnight. Maybe water had finally corroded something critical. I put it aside and thought about ordering a cheap throwaway phone to use for a few weeks.

But this evening, as the kids came over to use the pool, I pushed the buttons, and it booted up! I couldn't believe it. I tried to flip the unlock slide, but no response. The phone showed it was December 31st, and it turned on or off using the hardware buttons, but that was it. Still, signs of life. Then the screen changed. "Sync in Progress". Yes, it was sitting in the dock and iTunes began backing up the phone. I was tempted to abort it, rather than risk a corrupted back up, but I had already taken the precaution of backing up the iPhone's backups, so I let it run. As far as the laptop was concerned, the phone was fine. I brought up iPhoto and extracted the ten photos of the snakes in the pool that I hadn't gotten around to saving before and everything went smoothly.

Step by step, functionality returned. I saw the wi-fi status show bars. Then the cell signal showed phone activity and a couple of SMS messages from earlier in the day appeared. The date changed to June 6th and superficially, all seemed well.

But the touchscreen was unresponsive and the diagonal lines (upper left to lower right) still showed. After playing with it for several more minutes, the unlock slide jumped as I touched it. A minute later I actually got it to unlock. With maybe 5% touch screen responsiveness, I tested out feature by feature. I made a couple of telephone calls, and was afraid I'd never be able to hang up without pushing the power button. I took a photo.

I started a video, and was afraid something was wrong when the video frame showed tearing at the top, but I checked it on the laptop and saw the same defect. I'd captured the movie with EyeTV and must have recorded it wrong.

So, that's where I sit. It's barely usable, if I have lots of patience. I'm sure the keyboard would be useless. But as I run it, the visible diagonal lines are slowly disappearing (it will take hours at this rate). I just hope that the touchscreen will return to usability as well. At least I won't have to buy a throw-away phone.

Fingers crossed.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Making All the Mistakes

One of the great things about getting your book published by an established publisher is that they've already made all the mistakes and corrected them by the time they get to work on your title. At least I hope that's the case. Either way, by publishing books myself, I get to make all the mistakes myself. I'm dealing with a couple of them today.

The little one is the ISBN barcode on the back of the cover. When I pushed a cover change through on Emperor Dad to put the Darrell Award starburst on the front, the Lightning Source quality control people didn't like my barcode and re-did it. That's fine, but to avoid making the same mistake again, I am learning how to make cover images that match LSI's template. It's a minor thing, but it does take time, adjusting little positions all over the cover.

The other mistake is bigger, more painful. I misunderstood how LSI's discounts work. When you set up a title, you fill in the list price and the discount at which LSI sells the books to distributors (Amazon, Ingram, B&N-online, etc.) My mistake was thinking that this was the same as a bookstore's discount. I was originally pleased that I could set a 40% discount just like the bookstores wanted, and yet set my list price at $12.95 which was a couple of dollars cheaper than the other books I found on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. I should have realized I was mistaken.

But blind to the reality that I should have set the discount to 55% so Ingram could take their cut and pass 40% on the the bookstores, I started churning out books and distributing my advertising materials with the $12.95 list price. It was disturbing and embarrassing when talking to bookstore people in New Mexico when they told me that Ingram was only going to give them 20%.

So after several emails to LSI and finally getting the real information, I am faced with the distasteful reality that I need to raise the price...after advertising the books at the cheaper rate.

It is tempting to stick with my existing rate, and give up on bookstore shelves – maybe just give the 40% to stores that deal with me directly rather than going through Ingram. But that would give mean fewer people (a lot fewer people) who would ever discover the books in the first place. Nothing online matches browsing a bookstore shelf.

But if I raise the price and offer the industry standard discount, then I have to find ways to make things right for everyone who saw the cheaper price. And I need to make my changes soon. Extreme Makeover is due out in one month. Better to have the price right from the beginning if I can.