Monday, April 27, 2009

Rubble and Diamonds

A couple of weeks ago, Mena, Arkansas had a tornado blow through town and since I'd visited the place several times (it's the Arkansas entry to the Talimena Parkway) I had at least a tenuous connection to the place. With the convention overwith and no great desire to rush back home through the uncertain weather, I headed east to get an eyeball on the damage. I checked the maps at first, hoping to get a hint on where the damage occurred.
You see, after my experience with news reporting on Hurricane Ike in Galveston, I knew that a news crew's first order of business was to find the most sensational damage and park the camera right in front of it to get the best impact for their on-the-scene report. It might be live and on the scene, but the camera is not going to be pointing towards the intact building. So as I approached the town, I was prepared to go hunt for where the damaged section of town was actually located. I had no problem. I barely got into town before I pulled over and snapped these two shots with my iPhone camera. (Compare this spot with Google Earth's Street View at 282 Mena Street. Click my photos to expand.) Driving around town, there were blue tarps on the roofs, yellow police tape, and piles of rubble everywhere. The place wasn't leveled, but it's going to take a lot of work to get life back to normal in Mena. I talked to a postman who worked in Umpire, and the stories he told about many people relating their close calls was dramatic. The death count, by rights, ought to have been much greater than it was.

Then I moved on. I was close to another spot in Arkansas that I had never seen, but that was on my to-do list. I wanted to visit Crater of Diamonds State Park. There is an old volcanic pipe in these mountains that contain diamonds. If I read the history correct, there were attempts to make a commercial mining operation there, but they were abandoned and instead, it's now a tourist enterprise.

For a $7 ticket, you can wander over the plowed soil and hunt for newly exposed diamonds and any you find, you can keep. About 600 per year are reported and the visitor center there will grade them for you. Some are low grade, but there have been some very nice gems come out of that place over time.

I didn't actually dig. I don't buy lottery tickets either. It was muddy and I didn't bring any tools or appropriate clothes. But maybe some day, I will.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Greetings to My Chicago Fans

I've just learned that Henry Melton has been drafted by the Chicago Bears, and some curious people are hunting around on the internet for information about him. However, since I've been on the net since the dark ages, a lot of those Google hits are about me, and I'm getting comments on Facebook, YouTube, etc, everywhere I've left an imprint.

So as a public service, if you search for Henry Melton the writer, you'll likely get me, (although there's another Henry Melton who writes about Hotel Management). If you hunt for reference to football, it's about the recent NFL draft pick.

But, as long as you're here, I would like you to know I've got some great young adult science fiction books, just waiting to hook up with new readers. Regular adults love them too.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Droopy Eyelids and Beautiful Steel

I'm having a lot of fun here at Conestoga. Cons are always fun places to talk to people, and this hotel has great mirrored elevators, but constant dealer room duty plus the panels is wearing me down. I don't see how people like Scott Cupp can do it. Oh, well. One more day and then I'll maybe sleep late Monday. One more day of table sitting and one more panel–something about selling funny–and I can relax. But maybe at the panel I can learn how to get more laughs. A recent review said of my Emperor Dad, "There were no real belly laughs, but there were quite a lot of chuckles." Maybe I can learn to do better.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my time at my table. My position is right next to the Ziggy's West, the sword people, and I've learned a lot about both the business of selling swords, and about the various qualities of the pieces. For one thing, I've always been impressed by small knives made of stainless steel, but long blades made of it lack the flexibility for real use. For another, Damascus steel, which I'd always hear of but never seen before, is beautiful, with tree-ring like patterns in the metal as an artifact of its manufacture. People even make fake damascus steel by using laser etching to emulate that patterning. There are costume-quality swords, wall-hanging swords, and then there's the real thing. And there's a market for all of those qualities. Fascinating.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Getting Ready for Saturday

Saturday looks busy to me. In addition to the 10am to 7pm dealer room duties, I've got a book signing at 11am, A panel on how Harry Potter changed the YA market, and maybe an event for newly released books. I'm not sure about that one. I'll have to check.

Today, Friday was fun, not only for the panels, but of the lady that asked to browse through a copy of Extreme Makeover. She went quiet for a couple of chapters and then handed over cash for it. She was hooked. Before closing time there in the dealer room, she read through the whole thing, occasionally laughing out loud. "Once you get on that roller coaster, you can't stop." I've never actually watched anyone read one of my books before. It was fun.

Last Minute Preparations

The Conestoga dealer room is open for setup, which means I need to start loading my boxes of books from the car into the room. I have a table towards the back, which probably means less traffic, but I had an opportunity to request a location and I didn't take it back when I signed up. I have three events today, I believe.

2 PM. A panel on writing science fiction in a science fiction age. The title is "Diminishing Returns"

4PM. A panel on social networking. "The Facebook Phenomenon"

6PM. Opening Ceremonies.

All other times I'm likely to be in the dealer room.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On the Road to Conestoga (Day One)

This year has been travel-light, so it was very welcome to get on the road this morning. I didn't even wait for breakfast, just stopping at the Hutto Donut shop to grab something on the way out. And because I allocated an extra day for the travel, I could take my time. I didn't choose the Interstate, instead I wandered the small two-lane roads winding back and forth, generally north, but taking turns and shifting highways on a whim. I visited the storm-damaged Mother Neff State Park and stopped to see what was there at Meridian State Park. I didn't really accomplish anything other than chat about my books with the lady ranger at MSP, but that's okay. I'll be visiting book stores this trip, but the only time today I actively hunted for them, I chased a lot of dead ends in Temple.

I was just enjoying the scenery and feeling the freedom of the road. Once I crossed the Red River into Oklahoma, the wandering was a little different. The Texas Hill Country was far behind and I was dealing with flat terrain. I stopped at a park in Comanche, and took a look at my iPhone's map. One of my favorite spots was up ahead and to the left, Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. I tried to navigate by bearing to the northwest, but there was really no highway to follow. Instead, once I got close enough to see the mountains in the distance, I was driving the dirt section roads, getting closer by the mile. (A section is one square mile, 640 acres, and around here, the roads made a gridwork of one mile squares, with farmland inside.)

Eventually, I crossed highway 62 and entered the parkland. And it does feel more like a park than most NWR's. The visitor center was large and fancy, but I headed for Mt. Scott, where I took the picture above, and lots of others. I've been here a couple of times before, so the only difference was the wind power farm off to the north. It's a lovely place to look around, especially in a place where most land is flat.

I stopped for the day early, finding the lone motel in Apache and began to catch up on my email/twitter/RSS reading etc. Once I finish this blog, it's off to sleep.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Packing for Conestoga

Finally, I'm packing for my trip to the Conestoga 2009 science fiction convention in Tulsa. This will be an odd one, because Mary Ann has a conflicting schedule and I'll be going it alone. First, step, clean out the Trailblazer and pack up books to sell. Yes, that looks like a lot, especially since there are only 5 titles, but the last convention I mis-packed and ran out of my most recent book. So, since I don't have to make room for a ton of photographic gear and monster tripods, I'm just making sure I have enough, even if sales exceed my wildest expectations. What am I going to do as even more titles come out? Buy a trailer I guess. I miss that Suburban.

The first glitch is that as soon as Mary Ann came back from her Photographic event that she ran last weekend (NANPA Regional Event), she took the car to wash off all the mud, and discovered that there was a headlight out. After our problems with the headlight just a couple of months ago, I had a sinking feeling that this was just a recurring problem, but an inspection showed that this was the right headlight. Our other problems were with the left one. I have my fingers crossed that this is just a simple bulb replacement.

If I can get off early enough, I'll take a winding route up to Tulsa and visit a few bookstores on the way. Let's see how that works out.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Too Many Kindle Books

Like any writer, I'm addicted to checking my Amazon page rankings. A page rank is a number that gives you a sloppy guide to your sales, since you don't have any way of checking actual sales. But when I went to Sales Rank Express for a one-click look at all my books, I noticed something strange.

Linked Versions (3): #1 Paperback (0980225361, this listing) • #2 Kindle Edition (B0024NP3GW) • #3 Kindle Edition (B001ULBTX0)

There appeared to be two different Kindle Editions for my recent book Falling Bakward. I looked at the linked pages and they certainly looked the same. The only difference was the 'B'-code. All of my other books have codes that start with 'B001'. What did 'B002' mean? At first, I just chalked it up to a database glitch. They both had my name on it. What was the harm?

However, after reading Joshua Tellent's article on TeleRead, the pieces clicked. I am also selling mobi-format ebooks through the Mobipocket system. Amazon bought Mobipocket. I remember filling out some form that allowed Amazon to pay me for reselling mobi-formatted ebooks. I had thought at the time that somewhere on the huge Amazon site, there might be a Mobi category. I was obviously wrong. Kindle is mobi. Letting Amazon resell Mobipocket submitted books is a shortcut for some publishers, but I had been feeding in my books to the Kindle store through their regular DTP (Digital Text Platform) site. That was my preferred method.

Is this dual entry a problem? Yes. After reading the above article, I realized that my B001 books, having been built with the DTP webpage, were probably DRM-free and the B002 one probably had the mobi DRM on it, since it was slurped into the system from the DRM only mobi system. Most Kindle readers probably won't care, but the anti-DRM users do.

Next stop was to switch over to Windows mode and fire up the MobiPocket Creator,
go to the eBookBase website and locate the Retailers List in the Account Information column. Clicking there, and you'll see dozens and dozens of ebook sellers who use the eBookBase database of mobi titles to sell under their own storefront. Normally, I'd just let it default to everyone, but if I wanted to prevent the DRM encumbered titles from showing up as a Kindle book, I'd have scroll down into the middle of the list and find the Amazon entry and uncheck it.

Well, I did that, and now it's just a waiting game to see if the behemoth reacts to my removal of that permission. It hasn't happened yet.

Friday, April 17, 2009

DRM is for Children

When we had little children, we had beds with railings so they wouldn't fall out, playpens to keep them from crawling away, and the electric outlets were plugged with plastic stoppers so they wouldn't try to stick a fork into the slots (that didn't always work). The whole idea was that when they were too young to know better, careful parents would use technological barriers to keep the little ones from hurting themselves.

It's an imperfect analogy for DRM-encumbered songs, movies and ebooks, because the immature ones won't inadvertently hurt themselves, they will carelessly hurt others by damaging the ethical marketplace.

In an adult world, people would buy, or otherwise ethically acquire, the digital media they want and then have no DRM to manage what they do with it because they would be wise enough to understand the economics of media production. In their own self interest, they wouldn't participate in the unethical secondary duplication arena. Neither would they, while walking through a farmer's market, swipe an apple off the table and eat it without paying. Five finger discount is something kids do, until they learn better.

When I was young, a buddy would occasionally come out of a store with something he'd swiped, and didn't quite understand why I was so set against it. (I've always been something of a stick in the mud.) It is an interesting twist of fate that he is now a shop owner, and sells a number of easily pocketable items in his store. I'd bet his opinion of shop lifting has changed considerably over the years.

The economics of nearly-free duplication has to be learned, and it's not obvious to everyone. Back when I first attempted to write and sell software, it was with the understanding that everybody shared. These computer things were new and everyone was eager to help each other out. The idea that software could be a product was missing at first. But that changed. What had been a hobby became an industry, and to enable the vast resources it took to make computing ubiquitous, rules had to change. Copyright, which had proven its worth over hundreds of years by setting the guidelines of how money is to be made from intellectual property, became the new way sharing was defined. There was authorized sharing, and unauthorized, or piracy.

People change, but not overnight. Gradually, there is a more widespread understanding that just because you can give it away, the rules say you should stick to the license. The digital market is maturing. In spite of the widespread warez culture, most people understand that there is a legal issue, and don't think twice about going to a store to buy the software that they need. They may gripe about the price, but they gripe about gas prices too.

Digital music has been fascinating to watch. The legal markets for it never caught on until iTunes' painless DRM and instant gratification made the authorized sale easy. People like me jumped on the bandwagon – mainstream stick in the mud people like me who were overjoyed to have a quick and legal way to pick up songs. It reached the point where the DRM was just too much trouble and the numbers said they didn't need it anymore.

That's the future I see. When people are quick to grab an unauthorized copy, there will be producers pushing for ever more restrictive DRM. When the market is mature and it's quick and easy to buy what you want, the DRM fades away.

It's all a numbers game. Every time someone strips DRM from a product and shares it around, that's more data telling the producers that stronger DRM is needed. As soon as the marketplace matures enough so that cultural rules alone are strong enough, then the technological padlocks will go away. All it takes is for the customers to mature a little. It's slow, but it's happening.

So what can I, a publisher who sells e-books, do to make this maturity happen faster? Probably not much, but I'll try. As a small publisher, my choices are limited to what the Kindle Store and Mobipocket offer. My Kindle books are probably DRM-free already, if what I read is true. My mobi books are not. The form won't allow the non-DRM book to be uploaded to the various markets. But here's my private offer. Starting now, anyone who bought one of my ebooks, regardless of format and DRM, can email me a proof of purchase and I'll give you a DRM-free copy of the same title, just a grateful acknowledgment for people who have demonstrated their maturity. Currently I have mobi, pdf and epub formats.

Hey, it's not much, but when I can do more, I will.

It's an Economy

With the announcement today of the conviction of the Pirate Bay crew, various news blogs carried the news, and as usual, the angry chorus of righteous indignation by the file-sharing fans in the comments below each news article. I declined to participate, because there's not much chance my words would be heard.

However, there were some memorable comments that I can only chuckle about, sadly.

"I support creative commons but I'm against IP." I've seen this one time and again. It's a sad result that an agreement built on top of copyright is seen as a counter to copyright. It's the same way with the GPL, the GNU General Public License that is the basis of much of open source software. CCC and GPL are copyright licenses. They are successful because they have leveraged the strong (and getting stronger) protections for Intellectual Property, to the ends their supporters want.

The howls of the angry mobs that can be seen in today's comment sections of the Pirate Bay news are the 21st century version of the 19th century Luddites (wiki link). The economy has shifted and the people who don't understand it want to break the textile machines (or DRM) and insist that manufacturers do it their way.

We are shifting from an economy that makes physical objects to one that buys and sells IP. The rules about theft that applied for apples and bolts of cloth have had to change rapidly to allow for nano-cost duplication of digital objects of value; songs, movies, ebooks, etc. It's not strange that many people don't realize that yet. It's sad that the Pirate Bay people, and a lot more like them, will go to jail because they don't get it.

This shifted 21st century economy, what is it? Pretty simple. The Basics:

Pattern Cost + ( Unit Volume x Unit Production Cost)

must be equal to or less than

Other Income + (Unit Volume x Unit Consumer Price)

or else the creator of the product will go out of business.

Other Income is startup funding or a Patron of the Arts gift or the artist's dwindling bank account. Where the product is free to the consumer, this has to come from somewhere. Sometimes advertising can make up it up, sometimes people burn up their life savings.

In traditional manufacturing, the Pattern Cost is divided up among all the sold units and becomes part of the difference between Unit Production Cost and Unit Consumer Price. The link between UPCost and UCPrice is obvious to everybody, and the popular myth is that, because digital duplication costs are miniscule, the price should go to zero. The reality is, that pesky Pattern Cost won't go away, and because of the history of old-style manufacturing, most consumers have no idea how big it actually is. It was always hidden before.

An ethical marketplace can exist with digital distribution. The various music stores are proof that it can be done. Now it's just a matter of trial and error finding the correct mix of prices that can sustain the artists and the merchants without souring the customers.

What's really not ethical are the downstream duplicators, leeching off the ethical markets. Whether CD bootleggers lining their own pockets or the thriving torrent websites, whether done free by gift culture people gaining their own cred or the commercial sites selling advertising–none of them feeding anything back up to cover that Pattern Cost problem.

To misquote a politician, "It's an economy, stupid!" The people who don't understand that are likely to get a few bruises before it's all done.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Kindle Upload, Take 2

When I submitted my first novel to the Kindle Store, I was working blind. The forms were fairly simple. Upload the text. Fill out the description and other meta-data. Add a cover image. Set a price. Click publish and wait a week or so before it went active on the Amazon site. But even when it was Live, I still had no real visibility, no way to proof my work other than with the Kindle emulator on their website. I have yet to see a Kindle in real life, and I don't know anyone who has one.

It changed when Kindle on iPhone showed up on the iTunes App Store. I snapped it up instantly and started sampling the books I had uploaded. There was one big gotcha. Although I had uploaded a cover for each of my novels, it wasn't included in the ebook. The cover image I had uploaded was purely for the Amazon web site, not for the book itself.

But now I was caught in a bind. The delay from upload and clicking publish to having an active book for sale was long, at least a week, and by some reports getting longer. Would I have to take the book offline for that long, just to fix an error no one had complained about?

Well, last night, I opened the Kindle app on my iPhone and saw the thumbnail for one of my novels, showing, not my cover, but the map image I had included in the book. It was irritating. The itch came back stronger and I went back to my source files for Emperor Dad. This was the first novel I had uploaded to Kindle, and the one with the most primitive markup. I fired up Dreamweaver and went to work. I added the cover as the first page of the book, added a table of contents, cleaned out the horrible markup that had been inserted by the original ebook converter software and tidied everything up. I even pulled out the list of typos that readers had sent me and fixed those.

By the time I was done, it was well past midnight and I was pleased with the new version, so clenching my teeth, I uploaded the new improved model and clicked publish. At least, I thought, I'll get a datapoint about how long an update takes.

This morning, in less than the 12 hours they claimed as the minimum update time, it was live. Instantly, I clicked over to the right page and downloaded the sample. Amazingly, it was there, with the cover, and the table of contents and everything. I couldn't believe it. An update is fast? What is the world coming to? I clicked down the list and in a few minutes, I had uploaded a corrected version of my second novel, Roswell or Bust. Let's see how long this one takes. (Update: Less than an hour.)

Now, I think, due to the way Amazon works their Kindle accounts, someone who has the original ebook sitting in their Kindle or Kindle for iPhone should be able to delete that version and reload the improved version. It certainly works that way with the samples. If a Kindle user would kindly let me know for sure, I'd appreciate it. On my Kindle App, it actually kicked out the old version and updated the sample without me having to manually delete it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Checking My Memory

I was just reading the Wired article on memory altering drugs when I had to stop and deliberately recall which of my stories with similar drugs, and similar ethical issues, were already published. Hmm, yes, Roswell or Bust with the MIB's rollback drug was published last year, as was Extreme Makeover, with the characters debating whether to remove a friend's memory of torture. Good. While I can't claim that I predicted the future, because my versions were simply rehashes of themes others had used long ago, I still hate to appear to be someone that jumps on a bandwagon.

It is interesting to observe real-world versions of something you wrote about in a fictional context. And it's definitely better when you did it years ago. The worst kind of prediction is in an unpublished manuscript. Then you're faced with the question, do I re-write it to make it closer to what's in the news, or do I abandon the whole thing? If it's published, then you get Writer Bonus Points for futurism, but even if you wrote it twenty years ago, unpublished predictions don't count.

There's no big official scoring system for making good science fiction predictions, and even if there were, I'd never be able to compete with Clarke's geostationary satellites or Heinlein's waterbed, but is fun to be right. I've had my share. Catacomb, a short story published in Dragon magazine back in 1985 racked up a few WRB's for real-world money in online games, and Forget It! from 1977 was all about PDA's and copyright issues. You can go read these on my website. They're free.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

I Need an iPhone Tree Guide

One of the great things about iPhone (and other smart phones as well to be fair) is the ability to have great references with you at all times. This is why I bought the $20 iBird Plus program. It's huge, with a library of practically every bird I'm likely to see in North America, complete with descriptions, range, birdcalls, etc. I'm not a 'serious birder', but I do enjoy identifying birds on occasion and I always have my iPhone with me.

With that in mind, I wanted to have a tree identification reference with me as well. So I looked, both for iPhone Apps and on the Kindle store for paper reference books that had been converted for Kindle use. I'm sad to say I didn't find anything that would work for me.

There were a couple of iPhone Apps, but they were too limited for what I had in mind. Maybe the North Woods tree identifier would work every now and then, but not down here in Texas.

On the Kindle store, I browsed on the web and clicked the 'send a sample' link for a couple of them. Unfortunately, I mostly got academic texts with long introductions. If there were useful tree identification pages in those books, I couldn't tell it from the sample section, and they were too expensive for me to risk buying sight unseen.

I think there's a real market here that seems unfilled. Tree books, flower books, field and meadow guides of all kinds–but designed as ebooks with a good index up front to help someone standing in the mud to make an identification quickly and move on. I'd even buy a well-designed iPhone App to serve that purpose, but please make it as easy to use as iBird.

Now, if I've just overlooked the perfect solution for my problem, be sure to drop me a comment and point me in the right direction.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Geocache Fun Using My iPhone

I've been using a GPS since the dark ages when they didn't have built-in maps, and I love them, but there's a new game for me, using my iPhone 3G with its built-in GPS. Geocaching has been around for some time. I've read about it and thought it would be fun, but I never took the time to track down the website and actually give it a try.

Well, things changed when I saw the Geocaching iPhone App. Yes, it's $10, but something clicked and I had to have it. The combination of GPS, mapping, and automatic download of the geocache information makes it so easy. Well as easy as a treasure hunt ever it.

You see, geocaching is exactly that, a treasure hunt, only with a bit of high-tech thrown in. Someone takes a container (hopefully waterproof) and puts in it a logbook and a few trinkets, hides it and posts the GPS coordinates and a few hints onto the central website. The hunter (you), downloads that info and tries to find it. Classically, you track it down, take one item from the stash and replace it with something else and enter your name onto the log.

Well, after several years, there have come variations. Some, like this one I located after lunch today, are very tiny, a film canister (can you see it under the rock?), and there's room for nothing inside but the logbook. Most of the ones I see locally are listed as small. But that's okay. Finding the geocache is the game, not getting goodies.

There are other variations. The one that fascinates me the most are the trackables. Those are tagged coins or tokens that you find in one cache and leave in another, entering their movement in the central database. I haven't found one of those yet.

You can do all of this without the iPhone App, of course. You can even do it without a GPS, but it would be very hard. Go to the website at and take a look, with nearly 800,000 caches out there, the chances are good there are some very close to where you are right now. And it's fun.