Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Revisiting TV

For a number of years now, I've been collecting videos.  This is hardly unusual, most people do.  Over time, however, I had collected nearly three terabytes of movies, tv shows, and home movies, nicely converted and organized as an iTunes library.  As the library grew, my media database grew out of a single hard drive, on to a raid, and then to a Drobo array.  In the back of my mind, I worried about backing this all up.  That's part of the reason it was hosted on the Drobo, so that a single hard drive failure wouldn't wipe it all out.  It was much too large for a duplicate drive, and although some of it was backed up to DVDs, my iTunes library was continually growing and changing, and enough DVD's had failed on me that I didn't have confidence in them anymore.  Certainly I wasn't about to go back to tape.

Now, I have extensive backups on everything else.  My photos are duplicated on different drives, my writing files are duplicated so many different ways it'd make your head spin.  I have a large TimeMachine backup of my laptop, and some things (like the writing files) are being daily copied off to the cloud backup services.  But I never quite took the extra step to backup the video library.  Too expensive, too time consuming, too lazy.

So, of course, (you saw it coming), an obscure glitch trashed the data on my Drobo.  The directory structure was damaged some how, probably by the common power failures that happen out here in the country.  I didn't notice it immediately, but I was running out of space on the Drobo, so I swapped in a bigger drive and waited the week or so for it to reorganize the data.  Superficially, it looked good, so I swapped in a second bigger drive.

Then it was time to head off for a six week vacation/book-tour.  I would occasionally log back in to my home system to see how things were going.  Half-way through the trip, something looked very wrong, but I had to just shut it down until I returned home.  A week or so of debugging, once I had hands-on time to work with it gave me the bad news.  Drobo wasn't going to recover itself.  Even bringing it up in raw mode so that Disk Utility and Diskwarror could work on it wouldn't work.  Within a minute of booting it up, the unit was caught in a loop and slowed to nothing.

I had a choice, turn it over to one of those pricy disk recovery firms and cross my fingers, or format the drives and start all over with an empty library.  It was a painful decision.  My video library was mostly items purchased from iTunes, so with the new rules, I could re-download all of that for free.  The rest consisted of Beta and VHS tapes digitized, a number of things pulled from DVDs, and a few TV shows captured from my Directv via Eyetv.  I still have the home movie tapes, and I can recapture those, but there would be quite a few things I would have to do without.

I formatted the drives.  There was never any hardware problem with the Drobo, so it came back up.  I wrote a custom Perl program to scan through my TimeMachine archive and pull all the videos.  I loaded those and started the process of running iTunes re-downloads.  I figure it will take about a year to get everything back -- I have slow DSL.  What with my backups and a month or so of downloading, I have 1.1TB recovered.  I also have a 3TB drive connected with nightly CCC backups running.  Backup drives have gotten cheap.  Or at least it feels like it now.

One interesting benefit of this process is that I'm re-visiting a lot of shows I saw once and then forgot.  Of course there was Firefly, Angel and Buffy, but I'm also enjoying some of the one-season wonders that came and vanished, like Haven, Cupid, Fallen, Raines, MiddleMan, etc.  I'm sure I'll need to purchase some of the things that I had captured before, but with today's better quality, and with the built-in cloud backup, it's a nice upgrade.

But... I'm going to keep that backup drive spinning!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Apple Map Updates

I was amused by the recent Australian map problem, where a city was marked in the wrong location.  A one or two day flash of bad PR and the issue was fixed.  I'm jealous.

You see, I've been trying to get a nearly identical issue fixed for the last couple of months.  One of my towns, the locale of The Copper Room, is Canton Missouri.  When you search for that town, up pops a red pin at a rural location, while the real town, which I've marked with a blue pin in this image is way over there on the river.

Now, I'm a big fan of the new Apple Maps, and I still like it better than anything else out there, but I just wish it was easier to correct errors that I encounter. There are a number of buttons built into the app that where one can "Report a problem".  I systematically tried them all.  There's the one under the turned up corner, where one can report general problems.  There's the one where you highlight the pin and report the error there.  I even went to www.apple.com/feedback and tried to report it there.  Still, the days tick by and the false Canton pin hasn't moved.

I was willing to give Apple some slack because they get their data from third parties and I suspected that maybe the delay had to do with the long lead time of feeding the error data back to TomTom or whoever and waiting for it to ripple through the system.  Obviously, there's a quicker way, as evidenced by the Australian issue.

It's the PR, obviously.  Now I know my little blog is minor.  Goggle won't even let me put adverts on it because it's so inconsequential.  But I've had some visibility on other issues in the past.  Maybe someone will notice.  I can alway hope.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Enchantment of Sail

This week my sailing novel is out, Breaking Anchor.  Yes, it is science fiction.  That's how my brain is wired, but sailing has found a place in my imagination. I grew up with an outboard powered fishing boat my father saved up to buy.  I like the water, but by the time I did a little sailing on Town Lake, the lure of sail had crept into my soul.  Unfortunately, I've never bought a sailboat, nor been able to indulge my fantasy of renting and sailing the Caribbean islands.

Some years ago, my wife and I took a cruise from Barbados and visited a number of islands on a large sailing vessel.  It was a 100 passenger cruise ship, and I have many fond memories of that trip, but this was really too large for my ideal vessel.  I wanted something large enough to live in, for months at a time, but something I could handle.  I wanted to handle the sails, and to set the course, and feel the wind and adjust the wheel in response.

When I was writing the novel, or shorting before then, I was listening to all of the Furled Sails podcasts.  There were many inspiring tales of sailors, from the weekend sailors to the ones who had sold everything and lived their lives on the seas.

On one of my California trips, my wife, daughter and I took a little sail around the Santa Barbara area in a 40-foot sailboat.  It was perfect.  If anyone wants to know what I want for Christmas, look no farther.  Properly outfitted, one person can sail a boat this sized, and yet there's no limit on where you could go.  *Sigh*

Maybe someday.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The New Apple Maps

I loved the old Maps program, based on the Google database, but I love the new one so much more.  At the time I'm writing this, I'm on the road, visiting book stores and doing book signings half-way across the country from home.  I downloaded the IOS 6 update with motel wifi and updated my phone and iPad when it came out.  Almost before the update completed, there were a flood of articles bad-mouthing the new Maps.  I even made the bookmark to the Google maps web-app, like people suggested.

However, once I started using the Apple Maps, I never was even tempted to use the Google link, or the Navigon full featured app that I spent good money for a long time ago.  The Apple Maps is just too easy to use.

I've used Navigon once -- just to try it out.  It works fine, but choosing a destination was difficult.  I never bothered.  On the Maps app, I can say "Route me to Chamberlain, South Dakota" and I can have spoken turn by turn directions with no other input.  Or I can scroll through the maps and type "Books" in the search field to have pins pop up for all the bookstores.  I select one of the pins and tap the crooked arrow icon to get my directions.  This is how I hop-scotched up the coast from California to Seattle, stopping at any bookstores I could find.

Most of the gripes about the app are with the database of locations driving it.  Yes, I saw a couple of errors.  Usually one location and a duplicate from the Yelp database for the same store.  If I'd have been on top of things I should have tapped the "Report a Problem" button to flag the bad ones to improve the database, but I didn't notice that option.

But the thing is, ALL maps have errors.  Even the glorified Google Maps.  Up until a few weeks ago, Google insisted that My House was a retail bookstore.  I received any number of phone calls by people calling me, looking for books.  I had to go report the issue and get the bad listing scrubbed.  That has to happen with all databases.

So, aware there might be errors, I happily continue my trip, using Apple Maps, because no other app works as well.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Backing up Beartooth

I almost wrote "Backing up Bluetooth" which would have been an entirely different article.

In preparation for this cross country trip, iOS 6 compatibility and the opportunity to give my son-in-law my workhorse original iPad, I upgraded to the new iPad. The question at the moment of purchase was whether to go with AT&T or Verizon.

I wanted the Personal Hotspot feature that wasn't available on my unlimited AT&T data plans, and I finally chose Verizon. This gave me an iPhone 4S on AT&T and the new device on Verizon. I'd be traveling in areas with limited coverage, so if one service failed, hopefully the other one would be available.

Today, I'm one week into the trip and I have been disappointed in the Verizon coverage. Traveling up to Yellowstone, and spending the night in Santa Clara NM and Pinedale WY, not to mention various gas stations on the way, the iPad showed no coverage. Certainly AT&T is light as well, but if there is any signal to be had it'll be on my 4S.

Here in Yellowstone, cell coverage is limited to about four towers in the whole park. As I type this in Canyon Village, I have 4 bars of 4G on the iPhone and one bar intermittently of Verizon 3G on the iPad. It was fairly solid at Mammoth Hot Springs, but in general AT&T wins here.

This morning, realizing we needed to make a phone call in Silver Gate Montana, we drove up the Beartooth Highway, searching for a remembered signal from previous years. Outside of Cook City, there was a flicker of signal and as I watched a deer grazing beside the road, Mary Ann had me turn around, and then back up on the Beartooth Highway, hoping to pick up something usable, but it wasn't to be had on any device. This is the area none of the cell companies bother with.

I expressed my disappointment on twitter and quite soon got this response from Verizon: @HenryMelton We want to make sure that you have reliable service. Where did you travel? Are you still there? I can check on coverage. ^LA

I replied giving details. I was in Yellowstone.

They replied: @HenryMelton Ahh I see! There are certain areas that do not have coverage. Go to http://t.co/nWW2n6v3 to view coverage. ^LA

Thanks Verizon. Yes, I know there is limited coverage here, my post was comparing the two services, where AT&T was a clear winner.

I have often thought that the tech journalist coverage of AT&T vs Verizon was based purely on the San Francisco cell service area where those reporters all live and gave AT&T a bad rep that it can't seem to shake.

Who knows? The trip has just begun and the situation may well reverse when I'm on the west coast. We'll see.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dreams, Lucid and Otherwise

One of my most useful writing tools is the lucid dream. It's a halfway state between wakefulness and random dreaming, where I can set the stage, place the characters in motion, and even stop and rewind the action. It's great for working through scenes and seeing how the characters will act, all before touching the keyboard.

This happens for me before finally drifting off into snore mode at night, in the dawn light of the morning, and occasionally in those in between times between deep sleep and wakefulness.

I'm having trouble using lucid dreaming at all this week. We're in Yellowstone National Park for a week of touring the great loop and watching animals. Mary Ann is a nature photographer, and so our typical day is up at five to be at the wolf observation sites before dawn, then tour the park, stopping for buffalo, elk, coyotes, and bear. Come sunset, we will be in a photogenic location for her sunset shots. Of course, at that time, we are halfway across the huge park from out room in Cook City on the far eastern edge of the park. So, I drive (I do all the driving) back that direction, until we stop for another photo shoot of star trails or the milky way.

Eventually, we drag in near midnight and collapse, with the clock set for five again just a few short hours away.
Now, I do dream under these conditions, but it's hardly the leisurely set up and monitoring useful for my writing. It's the random mis-mash of people and events I can barely remember when waking, and forget soon after. It's the processing type of dream scientists think is necessary maintenance to memory development.

I can't gripe too much about the lack of dream-writing time, not when it's just part of being in Yellowstone. But the same dynamic probably happens with other dawn to midnight days when I'm trying to get a lot of activity done in too few hours. Lucid dreaming, for me, takes time. Time to drift off to sleep, not just crash. (Oops. I had to go run take a picture of a wolf watching us. Now where was I?) Time to wake up gently, rather than jumping up to silence the alarm.

It all takes time, doesn't it? Time to plot, time to compose, time to edit, and lots not even speak of the time it takes to market. It's all a trade off. And sometimes we just have to take some extra time to live.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Memories Come First

Writing fiction, like I do, is process of revelation. We’ve all heard it asked, either as writers ourselves, or listening to the fans approach the Famous Author, “Where do you get your ideas?”

There’s rarely a good answer to that, because ideas are everywhere, there for writers and non-writers to pluck out of the air and play with. What I want to talk about here is instead the evolution of story. At this instant, I’m taking a short break in a story that I’ve been working on for a few days. From the beginning, I knew a few ideas. I knew who the main two characters were, and what had to be resolved. That was about it. I could write it out in one sentence, if you allow a few commas.

But that isn’t a story.

There are times I write an outline, often it approaches first draft status by its own word-count. A really good outline, with the characters developed and the side plots spelled out, can make the writing very straightforward: Take sub-point 2.a.5 and flesh it out in a sensory-engaging set of paragraphs. Repeat with next sub-point.

Today’s story isn’t like that either. I don’t have an outline for this one. I began with an introductory scene, to get a taste for the main character. Not for the reader to get that taste, but for me, the writer, to turn a name into a person.

In stories like this, the real plotting happens in bed, lights out, before I go to sleep, or when I’m swimming laps, with my goggles and snorkel, staring at the featureless white of the pool bottom, oblivious to the outside world. A scene has just been written, what needs to come next?

The character and her recent actions are fresh in my mind. Vague ideas about where the story should go begin to appear like memories. Sometimes it’s the very next thing that must happen, often not. Events appear in whatever order they please, just as if I’m remembering the scenes from times past. I am simultaneously experiencing the story, and judging it. Minor characters appear, with their backstories. They’ll spill their life stories, sometimes, and I shake my authorial head and simplify the scene, saving all that detail for later, or maybe just leaving remnants in the look in a character’s eyes or the hesitation in her voice.

I’m up in the morning or dried off from the pool and sit down at the keyboard. The next chronological scene, visualized maybe a dozen times before, gets set down in words and paragraphs, and then when it’s time, I’m off to swim or go to bed the next day.

Again, memories from future events appear, changed and colored by what has been marked down in black and white. Events get re-arranged. More important memories come to the fore. I experience the next events again, and judge what to keep -- what is real -- and what is not. Like closing a zipper, all those potential visions are stabilized into one.

The cycle repeats over and over. The memories of what will happen come first, and then fingers fix them into firm reality.

As an experience, it’s wonderful -- much more fulfilling than watching a scene on the TV. In the end, I have a first draft. Editing is rewarding too, seeing sloppy prose become crisp, but that’s a different process entirely.

I’ve been told that my writing is visual, that “they ought to make it into a movie” and I suspect that comes from experiencing, visually, these memories of the future projected on my eyelids, or on the bottom of the pool, before the words ever line up on the page.

Take this for what it is, one writer’s experience in helping a story come to life. It’s not true for all, and it’s not even true for all my writing, but when it works, it’s wonderful.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why I Wrote “Emperor Dad”

My life changed. Taking a risk, I had accepted an early retirement offer from the company where I had worked for twenty-some years. The company had changed, and my children were grown. The numbers seemed reasonable. I could quit writing database code that seemed increasingly irrelevant to me, and I feared, to the company.

So one day I brought home a cardboard box of awards plaques and file folders of my training, personnel records, etc. and set it in the corner of my home office. My intent was to spend more time writing.

But what to write? I had written and had published a number of science fiction short stories. I had also written some novels, but none of them had attracted the attention of publishers or agents.

With the newfound freedom of working at my own pace, rather than fitting it in between testing SQL statements and writing Perl modules, I let my mind drift a little. How about pick a topic and write -- short fiction or longer, let the story set the length?

With no idea more than teleportation as overlapping three-dimensional spheres, I started writing, vaguely autobiographically. The setting was my house. The character was a younger, smarter version of myself. I developed the idea of the teleportation. I worked out some details about how it might be discovered.

But the narrative dragged. It was far too easy to lecture. I set the story aside for awhile.

I had been attending a number of science fiction conventions and writing conferences. A lot of the advice didn’t seem to fit me, but one panel about Young Adult fiction had a question for the authors that resonated with me. What is your internal age? How old are you inside?

A lot of my writing had been with characters a lot younger than my calendar age. Some of them had been about right for the YA label. I’d even been told that before by people who had read my work, but it hadn’t stuck.

Maybe I was a YA author, and didn’t know it.

I went back to my stalled out manuscript and took a good hard look at a secondary character, the teenage son of the inventor. What if I took his viewpoint?

I trashed most of what I’d written and tried again, only with the son James (my middle name) as the main character. Part of it had to be written from the father’s perspective, but most of it flowed well as the story of James, who hacked into his dad’s computer to run computer games and discovered the controls to his father’s teleportation system. James had to figure out how everything worked, and just why his father had taken such elaborate measures to hide everything -- not just from him, but from his mother as well, and the world.

I plucked a number of episodes from the life of my son Thomas, as he grew up in Hutto, Texas. James wasn’t Thomas, but there were a number of places where they overlapped.

Writing was easy and experimental. I chose to write very short numbered chapters, over a hundred of them, and it was only in the final stages that I divided the story into nine named sections.

By the time I was done, I had a novel that was slightly shorter than the novels I had written before. But this was what I had decided -- let the story pick the length, and this was what came out.

From 2003 through 2005, I circulated the novel to agents and publishers, but it was gradually seeping into my skull that the nature of publishing had changed. This story didn’t match the checklist demanded by New York publishers.

Rather than shelve the story, as I had several other novels, I put my toe into the self-publishing arena by making a PDF and selling it directly from my website. A few people bought it -- friends and relatives, but it never took off. Still, the idea had caught root. By 2007, I had done some homework and published a trade paperback copy through Lulu. It was a learning experience. Lulu’s costs plus the discount necessary to sell to a bookstore meant it was priced much too high. I had also gotten some painful assessments of its layout and formatting. As it was, the book would never sell.

But that was just the bad news. People liked the story. Someone had gotten a copy of the book and submitted it to the Mid-South-Con’s Darrell Award contest. While I wasn’t sure it was eligible, it won, and Emperor Dad was now an award-winning novel. It was just the right push at the right moment.

I established a publisher’s account through Lightningsource to make books at a lower price-point and promptly produced the second edition, with some typo corrections, a better layout, and a starburst on the cover proclaiming its award.

While there’s still a stash of first-edition copies in a corner of my office for people who request them, the second-edition is out on my table, selling well (for me) and continually gaining new fans.

This is still my experimental novel. It’s the only one with a 99¢ price tag on the ebook stores (for now) and the first novel I serialized for my Henry’s Stories online magazine. I don’t think I’ll ever let it go out of print.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Making Sell Sheets for My Books

I was updating my sell sheets, in preparation for some more face time with book store people, when it occurred to me that maybe I hadn't mentioned sell sheets in this blog.  A quick search came up empty, so Sell Sheets are today's topic.

What's a sell sheet?  As a book consumer, it probably doesn't make much difference to you, but for a bookstore person, it's a useful, one-stop info sheet for a book.  Here's a quick look at one of mine. Click to expand.

Now, this format is one of a thousand possible ways to do it, but the basics are there, one sheet per book.  The cover, the book blurb, something about the author, and that right hand column should have contact info, the ISBN number of the book and enough information so that the bookstore can order more.  Print out several.  I've had salesmen eager to get them so that they can have something to promote the books.  If you make it easy enough, so all they have to do is thumbtack the sheet to the shelf, you can sometimes get prime attention for your book.

I also fold them in half and insert them into any books I send out for review to magazines and bloggers.  It saves them having to make notes, and since the back is blank, they can use it as a place for their own notes and ideas.

The whole idea is to make it easy for people to sell your book, and it's easy enough to do.  I've got an accordion folder with a pocket for each book, with enough space left over for a printed bio sheet and a one-sheet catalog of all my books.  I use it frequently.  It's about time I bought another.  That one is wearing out.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Star Time Book Trailer

Seeing Bill Crider's latest book trailer inspired me to go tackle making one myself.  This is for Star Time.  It's really in HD, but Blogger likes these narrow columns.  Feel free to try the Youtube link.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Movie Comments: Paul

I had gotten a couple of comments from people wondering if my novel Roswell or Bust was like the movie Paul.  Since I had not seen the movie, I was curious to see, especially since ROB was published in 2008 and the movie was out in 2011, if someone had seen my book and made a movie of it without telling me.

Well, now that I've seen it, I don't think it's likely.  There are common features, especially personable gray aliens riding around the southwest in an RV chased by the MIB, but that's about it.  If they read my book first, they would have had to throw out all the plot and all the characters and pour in a ton of crude humor.  While the movie has its own charm, I really don't care to be associated with it.  Not my style at all.

However, reality being what it is, I'll probably get those comments forever.  There's enough similarity for a good lawyer to make some money, but that's not my style either.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

International Prices for My E-books

I had considered dropping support for some of the ebook marketplaces as I released my latest book. Amazon Kindle and B&N Pubit are easy to use and don't take much effort, once I have the ebook masters generated.  It's all over and done with in less than an hour.  The ebooks are available for sale in a day or so.  Easy, smooth, and satisfying.

But Apple's iBookstore has gotten even more difficult lately.  The restrictions are tighter and sometimes it requires a customized master file, just to make sure I don't accidentally mention the Kindle edition.  There is also the problem of setting prices internationally.  As Apple expands its marketplaces, there is more opportunity to find English readers across the world, but it also means I have to set the price for each and every one of those countries.

So, for each title, I have to fill out this screen for each of the (currently) 32 different countries.  And, since these markets have been added over time, I have to go back to each of my previous books, and add the markets that have come on-line since I released that book.

It's a chore, but it's an opportunity as well.  I've got writer buddies who are more popular in other countries than the US.  It could happen.  So I decided to work through the stack of books and add all those markets.  I learned a few things as well. I found a website http://www.exchangerate.com/ where I could find the exchange rates for all the countries I needed.  I made a spreadsheet where my paper-edition price and likely ebook prices were calculated, so I could have an idea just how much Euros, and Swiss francs, and the various kronas were worth.  Then it was just a matter of watching a TV show (old Lois and Clark episodes) while filling in the forms.

I was a little worried the first time I submitted the updated package for an older book, fearing the multi-day delay that is common before a book actually comes on-line in the Apple system.  I was very pleased to see that a simple meta-data change like this only takes about an hour before everything was live.  At the same time, my newest book hasn't been approved in nearly a week now. 

The same sort of task was waiting for me at Google Editions.  This time, there are nine countries to deal with, and Google lets you download a spreadsheet, where you can change all the prices in one operation.

In another couple of days, I'll have all my books available for sale in far flung places, as long as the reader is looking for English language books.  Maybe it'll be worth it, maybe not.  Time will tell.

UPDATE:  7/26/12 : I just received an email from Apple stating that 'based on your feedback', they had made changes in the software to allow quick population of all the international markets based on exchange rates.  The next time I add a book, I'll try that out.  Hmm.  I wonder if they read my blog or if that 'based on  your feedback' thing is boilerplate for all users.  I suspect they got quite a few official feedback messages.

Friday, June 08, 2012

My Venus Transit Event

My older brother Roger had a telescope, a six-inch Newtonian he built himself.  I have fond memories of hauling it out and projecting the sun onto a screen on eclipse days.  So, when the Transit of Venus approached, I decided to do the same thing.
 I carried my telescope, a little 4-incher over to Hutto Lake Park and set up the projection screen where it would be shaded by stone pillar.  Then it was just a matter of aiming the eyepiece in the right direction and keeping the telescope tracking the sun.

I had many people come and look at the rare event.  Quite a few people had heard about it on the news but weren't aware that it was going on right then.  I waved at all the people who came by telling them to come see Venus and it was their last chance in 105 years.

 I also invited all everyone by Twitter and Facebook to come by.  Graham Perks came with his kids and his binoculars to set up a similar projection system.  It was a successful few hours until the sun moved behind a cloud bank in the west and it was time to pack it all up.

Once I got home, I took one of the photos I took of the screen and dropped it into photoshop to enhance the contrast and make the Venus more visible, there beside the sunspots.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Aperture 3.2.4 and swap space overflow

This is a just a technical note about the photo processing program Aperture, version 3.2.4, which at the time of this posting is the latest update.

I have been importing two large collections of photos into Aperture over the past few days.  The first one took a while, but eventually, everything was imported and all the background processing took place.

Then the update to version 3.2.4 happened, and my nature is to always keep software up to date, so I installed it.  Then I imported the second library.  The imports happened smoothly and all 102,000 masters imported.  Then the background tasks began, which were making preview files.  I had the faces recognition turned off.

After a few thousand images were processed, my Mac filled up.  The swap files were growing out of control and consuming all available space (over 60GB).  I had to reboot the computer.  It happened several times before I tracked the problem down to Aperture and its background processing.  Doing my research, I saw that the same thing had happened before back when Aperture 3.0 came out.  A later update fixed the problem, but now it's back.  Using advice from 2010, I turned on the "Open in 32-bit mode" option and ran it that way.  Now, all the background processing is happening smoothly, with hardly any swap space used.  It runs a little slower, but it runs.

Surely there will be another update which will fix the problem, but for now, there's this work-around.

UPDATE 20,000 photos later.
A different type of error occurred after processing about 20,000 photos in 32-bit mode.  This time Aperture crashed, with a crashlog that indicated various malloc errors.  Starting it up again caused another crash, the instant it started processing again.  The fix?  Switch back to 64-bit mode.  Now it's working fine, chugging away through the process queue.

I suspect there are two bugs, triggered by two different kinds of source files.  I'll just switch back and forth until the all the preview files are generated.

UPDATE 2: 10,000 photos later, a photoshop file crashed Aperture in 32-bit mode AND caused the swap-space inflation in 64-bit mode.  Restarting in 64-bit mode after a forced quit, I was able to watch the progress and learn the name of the file when the swap-space started growing rapidly.  Quitting Aperture and investigation with finder, I found that this particular file (200+ MB) didn't have a thumbnail and quicklook wouldn't show its content either.  Since the RAW file, another version of the photoshop file and a couple of JPG's were all there and appeared perfect, I moved the bad file and restarted Aperture.  Everything is working fine now.  I trashed the Aperture version.  It's pretty obvious some damaged or just odd image files can crash Aperture.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Topology of the Project Saga

I had always supposed that when I wrote a series of books, that they would be a series, that is, one book after the other in chronological order.  It hasn’t worked out that way for me.  In fact, it never has.

My most populated series, Small Towns, Big Ideas, is more a collection than a series.  Each book is independent and stand-alone.  STBI is more a marketing label than the name of a broader story.  The stories, all starting in the ‘current day’ are hardly in chronological order either.  Maybe some of them, someday, will have sequels, but only when a strong demand arises.
The Project Saga is chronological. It starts in the ‘current day’ and ends up some thousands of years in the future.  While a few of the characters appear in more than one book, you’re much more likely to see recurring family names. Time moves on and immortality isn’t very common.
However, the narrative splits.  Many of the books have a diverse cast.  The first of the books Star Time, tells the story of the collapse of the Techno civilization under the light of a supernova from the viewpoints of people in Texas and Australia, and in an alien space ship near the moon.  By the end of that story, the cast has split into two very isolated groups -- the humans on Earth, and the U’tanse on the Cerik home world.  This schism is highlighted with two add-on short stories in the pages after the official close of the Star Time novel.  
Thus we have this situation:
The Project Saga
Star Time
| --------------------------------------------- |
Tales of the U’tanse                 Post Techno-Age Earth

Now from a story-telling viewpoint, I happy with this.  Each branch has its own stories and themes, and they don’t interact for a long, long time.  From a marketing standpoint, it’s a nightmare.
Everything from Bowkers, where the ISBN numbers are logged, to Amazon, B&N, Google, and all the other book-selling marketplaces have software with a place for the book title, the series title, and the number of the book in the series.  Star Time is book 1 of The Project Saga.  I’m putting Kingdom of the Hill Country as book 2 of The Project Saga.
But where do I put the first collection of the Tales of the U’tanse?  Is that book 3?  Or do I split it off as a companion series and number them independently? While I might be happy to have book 2A and 3B, the software in all those systems I mentioned last paragraph would not be happy about it.
I could arbitrarily stick a Tales of the U’tanse book in the stream of books building a new history of humanity on Earth, but these are very different books, with different kinds of characters.  If someone picked up a book off the shelf, they would get very confused.
If I set up two different series names, The Project Saga for close to home and Tales of the U’tanse for across the stars, then I run the risk of a reader only discovering one of the two branches.  I’ll need to make sure there are advertising sheets before and after the text to make sure people know where to find the whole story.  A separate problem for the U’tanse stories is the status of Star Time and any Project stories after the U’tanse rejoin the human race.  Will Star Time be book zero of the series, even though I can’t make it part of that series in the databases?
Ah, the trials of not following the rules!  I’ll just have to make do.  Having written this little exercise, I’m confident that two different series names is the way to go -- with lot’s of pointers back and forth.  Thanks for letting me work this out.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Ebook Marketplaces from an Indie Publisher’s View

With the DOJ’s efforts to remake the ebook marketplace, I thought it would be a good idea for me to take a good look at the marketplaces I do business with and document how it’s going right now.  In a year or two, maybe I’ll take another look and see what, if anything, has changed.  These reviews are subjective, my opinions after having dealt with them for years now.
I’m Wire Rim Books, my own publisher, publishing my own books.  I do everything myself, from writing, to book design, to marketing -- with a couple of exceptions.  I often buy artwork for interior or cover purposes, and I have a wonderful set of friends who provide invaluable editing advice.  I produce trade paperbacks and ebooks in ePub and Kindle formats.
My workflow is designed around producing a good quality trade paperback, and then taking the same source files and generating customized ebook versions.  While that workflow may be interesting, it’s not the focus of this review.  Just consider that on publication day, I have paper books being shipped and master copies in Kindle and ePub formats.
Kindle - Amazon
Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing site is a high quality web site where I can upload my kindle-formatted ebook, a copy of the cover jpeg, and fill out all the metadata blanks, like ISBN number, the description, age range, BISAC categories (like fiction/adventure, etc.) and pricing. It is relatively easy to use.  You can easily request books free of DRM with a simple checkmark.
Disadvantages are Amazon’s constant advertisements of its extra features, like KDP Select, all of which are designed to lock you into an exclusive arrangement, forbidding you from dealing with any of the other marketplaces.  If you see anything in bold print with fancy graphics, be careful or you may find yourself locked into Amazon alone.  In fact, the very first checkmark, before you even think about uploading your book or title, is KDP select.  Watch out.
Amazon also claims price matching.  If it detects any other marketplace selling ebooks with the same title and author, but at a lower price, it will lower your price on the Kindle store.  There is a well-known example where Amazon’s automated price checkers made a mistake and reduced one author’s books to free.  You should also know that the contract you make with Amazon absolves them from any mistakes.  They won’t make it good if they mess up.
In my history with Amazon, it’s been simple and straightforward and I have had no problems with books I have entered on the KDP site.
There was a recurring problem when I was also selling mobi formatted books through Ebookbase.  Kindle was making their own Kindle versions from my mobi books contrary to my direction on the Ebookbase site.  I had to email them to get the bogus versions, which did have DRM, removed.  This is documented here.  However, Amazon has absorbed and shut down Ebookbase, so that is no longer an issue.
There doesn’t appear to be any direct customer service contacts.  It’s all web, with an occasional email when they had to double check that I had the rights to sell my own books.
Pubit - Barnes & Noble
Pubit is a very similar website to Amazon.  You upload your ePub version ebook and the cover art and all the meta data.  After a couple of days, the books appear on the B&N Pubit site.
For a number of months, there was a glitch in their website that rejected some of my books for no obvious reason -- it failed with a 'technical difficulties' message when I clicked the button.  With no customer service contacts, I had no way to make contact with them to request a resolution.  However, they did respond to my twitter complaint, but they didn’t fix the issue then.  Over time, the site has improved and all of my books are accepted fine.
I have no issues with Pubit at the current time.
Kobo is a different animal.  Once the account is set up, you have an FTP site to upload the ebook, optional cover art, and an Excel spreadsheet template which you fill in all the meta-data.  When a new book is uploaded, you can’t even see it ( a write-only FTP site) and only recently have they added an email notification that the files have been received.  While I do have real people at real email addresses to query about problems, I may be too small a publisher to get much attention.  There is a chronic problem with DRM that I can’t seem to get resolved.  In spite of always requesting DRM-free in the spreadsheet, and emails confirming that I want all my ebooks to be DRM-free, some of them consistently show up with DRM added.  I have also had problems in the past with the cover art not showing up on the marketplace site.
Apple iBookstore
Apple does not use a website either.  You download a Mac application called  iTunes Producer which collects the same data -- ebook, cover art, metadata and pricing.  The application does a number of pre-flight checks to insure that the ePub file matches both the technical specs of the ePub format and makes sure your pricing fits Apple’s tier levels.  It also handles the uploading of the data and saves the ‘package’ so that you can revisit it to change pricing or other data.
While some complain about having to have a Mac to run the application, I had the same problem with eBookbase, which only ran on Windows.
Apple is very strict about adherence to their guidelines and the specs.  They are also not very forthcoming when a rejection happens.  I currently have one book that I cannot get uploaded, and I still don’t know what is causing the rejection.  Although Pubit, Kobo, Google, and Apple all take ePub, I frequently have to create a customized ePub just for the Apple site to get it through their rules.  One problem I have recently run up against was the rejection because there were URL’s to places to buy other titles.
There does not appear to be any customer service contacts.  I will get a reject email, but those appear automated.
There are two layers to the Google book site, the books sampling part, and the ebook part.  At the beginning, I was uploading the PDF of my trade paperback books so that Google would serve as a way for people to sample my books before they made a purchase.  The Google website allows the author/publisher to set limits what percentage of the book will be made available.  While I wasn’t really looking for more work to do, keeping this site updated, I found that if I didn’t supply a PDF of the book, Google would just go scan a copy anyway, and I might not like either the quality or the available percentage of the book made public.
After a while, Google got into the ePub book selling business as well, and was going to blithely sell copies of ePubs that they auto-generated from my PDFs, regardless of the quality.  When I signed up to supply the ePubs myself, and make sure that I got paid, some money showed up in my account -- I guess from sales they had made without prior permission.
That’s the story with Google.  You have to stay on top of everything, or they’ll just go ahead without you.  If I’m late getting official copies of my books on their site, they’ll have poor ones there already.  If they add a new ‘feature’, the default choice may not be what you want.  I always have to double-check all the options on my books, and have to go back and clear some of the permission grabs that have occurred.
When adding a new book, I have to add the PDF first, and then once they process it, I have to go back and add the ePub some random number of days later.  When mistakes happen, there is no customer service to handle the issue.  For some time now, Google has displayed the back cover of one of my novels as the front, and even with re-uploads, nothing has changed, and I’ve given up on it.  The Google Books site is also morphing into the Android Marketplace for books, trying to become something like Apple's iBookstore.  They were also offering to be an ebook marketplace for indie bookstores, but I have recently heard that they are dropping that service.
This is obsolete, but I ought to mention it.  They were bought out by Amazon when Amazon acquired the mobi ebook format and made it into the Kindle format.  I had problems with Amazon grabbing mobi format copies of my books and making their own Kindle versions, but that’s all shut down now.
In summary, I am feeding my ebooks out through a number of marketplaces, this means that I’m left out of the Kindle Select program, but I’d rather serve more of the customer base.  None of the sites is perfect, but none of them has quite reached the point where I’ve given up in disgust either.  Because of Amazon’s and Apple’s price policies, I list the prices identically to all the marketplaces (some discount, some don't), although I wonder of that will change in the future.
On the worst of days, I wonder if I should have gone with Smashwords which feed most or all of these marketplaces from a single input, but I’m too picky with my formatting to put up with their automated process.  I could hope for some cheap assistant to enter all that metadata over and over again, but I can live with that as well.  On the best of days, I see all those direct deposits showing up in my bank account.  I hope that keeps happening!
That’s it for now, my 2012 review of ebook marketplaces.  I hope it’s helpful to someone out there.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Google Glass vs The 'Goggles' from The Copper Room

As Google makes a media splash about a potential new product, a augmented reality headset that could shine Google information into your eyes as you walk about, I couldn't help but compare their offering to the googles that appeared in my recent time travel novel, The Copper Room.

Google's product is firmly rooted in current tech, and as seen in their promo image, it rides like an augmented glasses frame with a bundle of stuff clamped on the side.  Google's promo video gives an idea of what it might be capable of doing.

I find the demo amusing.  Where's the advertisements?

In the novel, the googles were handed out free, and were simple wrap around googles with a non-reflective surface that tended to make them nearly invisible in everyday use -- I get to cheat and use tech from 2000 years in the future.  While the goggles were free, the instant you put them on, advertisements customized to you are displayed on every flat surface.

This is one important difference between Google Glass and the goggles.  The goggles cover both eyes and are thus able to provide 3D displays, laying out information on top of real surfaces, just like the computer enhanced line of scrimmage on football fields on TV, and the fake advertisements around telecast baseball diamonds.  In this future world, the walls are blank, until you put on the goggles.

Take a look at how Goggle Glass does it.  Simple iconic displays appear between you and the real world.  Since it appears to be shining the info into one eye, the 3D effects are unavailable.

Poor people get blasted with thousands of images.  Once you enter your banking information, the adverts get more sophisticated, and if you pay, you can clean away most of the clutter and can concentrate on more valuable information.  Rather than video conferencing with a face in a window, in addition, the 3D images could create a transparent, full-sized avatar to talk to.  When talking face to face with real people, surface effects something like seeing someone's aura could provide additional information like biometric cues to their mood or truthfulness.  Eye tracking and audio information through the earpieces could provide a universal translator.

So, I guess my opinion of the Google Glass project is that it is an interesting first step.  I want one that looks invisible rather than making me look like part of the Borg, and that provides a rich spectrum of information rather than a handful of Google products.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The new iPad's Name

Now, I know I'm not a tech blogger, but I was following the blogs covering the recent event where Apple revealed the newest version of the iPad.  What I found interesting was the reactions of the reporters.  They were panicking because Apple wasn't giving the device a new name, like iPad 3, or iPad HD.  If they are still on-line take a look at this one. They were actually ignoring the reporting task, frantic for a new label.

And today, as more reporting comes out about the device in all the tech and Mac-centric sites, the name is being debated, almost more than the new features of the device.

It occurred to me that what I was seeing was an observer effect.  Those reporters had copy to write, deadlines to meet.  They were probably writing their articles even as they added their comments to the live blog.  I'd bet some of them even had the article all pre-written, ready to add or delete a paragraph or so before posting.  And they were stuck on the name.  If they posted their as-it-happens article and Apple later on called it the 'iPad Super' or something, they would have to go back and correct everything.  And considering just how many typo's show up every day in the articles, even in the titles of the articles, I know they just hate to go back to fix anything.

The lack of a new name threw the reporters for a loop, and some of them haven't quite gotten over it yet.

The customers?  I doubt many will care.  The new iPad is what they would have called it no matter what the official name.  "I want a new iPad."  That's how we'll say it.  At least that's how I say it.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Henry's Stories Anthology

Just out in Amazon, and shortly in B&N, Kobo, iBookstore, Google Editions, etc, and of course available from Ingram, is my first attempt at a book-sized anthology of short fiction.  Notice the qualifications.  I still have a few chapbooks left that I produced in 2006 that contained three short stories, and an e-book only collection of four time-travel themed stories that I made in 2009 at the same time as my Golden Girl time travel novel.

But this one, Henry's Stories: Volume 1 is much fatter, containing ten stories at about 73,000 words -- about the size of a smaller novel.  As far as the publishing side, I'm treating it like I do the novels, simultaneous publication in trader paperback and ebook versions.  I call it "Volume 1" because I already have all the stories of "Volume 2" picked out and ready.  I just need to wait until the right moment in time to publish it (Probably six to nine months from now).

As many of you know Henry's Stories is my on-line magazine, where I publish stories in chapter-sized chunks every MWF.  The magazine is targeted to people who tend to read only on the web, and not books and paper magazines.  I know there are a lot of people who fit that classification.

It was a welcome home for some of my earlier stories that had been published in magazines now long gone.  Maybe I had a wrinkled and worn copy, but the stories weren't available to the general public.  Luckily, I had made it a long habit of keeping my copyrights in order and had all the rights to republish them myself.

So I did.  Here, at last, is a more permanent home for some of my favorites.

First published in 1985, in Dragon magazine.  This story of a teenage girl trying to make some cash playing in the computer game Catacomb was nothing out of the order when I wrote it.  I had friends playing D&D at my house and got the taste of it, although I was never a player myself.  I wrote the story and sent it off to various science fiction and fantasy magazines. George Scithers of Amazing didn't take it himself, but routed it over to Dragon, which I would never have thought to contact myself.  It was a lucky move.  They bought it and made it available for just the right people.

Over the years, I have collected more fan mail from this one story than all my other works to date.  Some of them told me that this story got them into the gaming industry.  Some of them are significant people in that industry -- so I'm told.  It's amazing to me, the impact this story seems to have caused.  And I'm grateful for every one of those letters and emails.  Sometimes that's all that keeps a writer going.

Everybody Knows Bob
First published in Henry's Stories.  As I was preparing this collection, there were a number of scientific papers being published about new techniques for altering or removing memories.  While this story is clearly a fantasy, the concept of the impermanence of memory is a significant thread, and something worth thinking about.

First published in my ebook collection Time Quadrants in 2009.  This story always brings a smile.  Back when superconductors were just invented that could be active at liquid nitrogen temperatures, I had friends who knew the inventors, so I managed to see a demonstration of a magnet floating over a frosty bed of superconductor.  That's what sparked this story, and since the train derailment between Hutto and Round Rock Texas was recent history, all the pieces came together nicely.  It was first written before I realized that I could write YA science fiction, but clearly, this story is in that category.

First published for Henry's Stories.  This story of a boy genius hiding his capabilities was the first story in the online magazine, and I have every intention of writing more episodes.  Some of the events in Ted's life such as being held upside down in the school yard by the class bully and fighting back with silence were straight out of my own experience, although Ted is certainly much smarter than I ever was.

The One
First published for Henry's Stories.  This is one of the longer stories in the collection, and if things had gone another way, I could have made this into one of my YA novels.  Instead, I wrote a little tale of destiny and the girl who haunted his dreams.  When I finished and typed the final period, I had to firmly put the next chapter off on the to-do list rather than dive into an entirely different stage of their lives.

Bad Blood
First published in 1990 in New Pathways.  This short little idea story actually belongs in the events of The Project Saga, the new series of novels that are currently coming out.  In fact quite a few of my short stories belong to that time line.  One little side note; about a decade after I wrote this, I came down with diabetes myself.  In fact, I just stuck my finger for a blood test as I was writing this.

First published for Henry's Stories.  For decades, I lived in the Austin area and made regular trips to Amarillo to visit my folks.  On my favorite route, I passed through the canyon where this story takes place, and while the editors who saw this story thought the desertificiation of the Texas Panhandle was unbelievable, they all lived in NY and had no clue. You should see the sand dunes that are already there.  As far as the hydrogen collector in the story goes, if I had just the slightest ability to build it myself, I'd do it.

Forget It!
First published in 1977 for the short-lived computer magazine ROM. After I published a little article about computers and science fiction in BYTE magazine, the editor of ROM called me up and asked for a story on the theme of 'memory'.  Being young and unknown at the time, I wrote this story in about a day and sent it off.  It's been popular.  Now, while I got so much of the future technology wrong, I still have a fondness for the wristwatch.  Imagine something the size of an iPod Nano 6 with the capabilities of an enhanced iPhone.  Since the day I wrote it, I've been on the look out for the perfect 'personal' computer.  It's not here yet.  But, as an added bonus.  I've never forgotten my wife's birthday.

Far Exile
First published in my ebook collection Time Quadrants in 2009. This was written to try out new techniques of writing, after I had been exposed to Dashiell Hammett's style.  Of course, I can't write hard-boiled detective, I do science fiction.  But since this was an exercise, I ended up with a 1950's plot in a 1930's style.  Still, after it was written, I was pleased with how it had turned out.

Making It Fit
First published in my ebook collection Time Quadrants in 2009. Ah, time travel.  It's an addictive storytelling method, but there are so many options.  Do you change the past and deal with the paradoxes?  Do you struggle, and fail, to change a past that has been written and cannot change?  I concentrated on a different theme -- if the past cannot be changed, what is time travel good for?  If I had to rank my favorite short stories, this one would certainly be high on that list.

In all, I think these are a fine start for the series.  All of the stories can be read for free on the magazine site, if you like to click through links.  Paper and ebook now gives other people access, and probably within a few days, you can even get an autographed copy from me.  I'll post a link when they're here.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Confession: I Love My Own Stories.

In case you don't know, I have a second blogspot site called Henry's Stories. For over a year now, I've been putting my stories out on that site, serialized in chunks.  There are short stories, middle-sized ones, and novels.  I'm currently in the middle of the second novel, Extreme Makeover which starts at this page. Of course, you could buy it on Amazon like all my other books, but here it's free, if you don't mind reading it a chapter at a time.

The thing is...I'm getting engrossed in the story myself.  I wrote it.  I've been through the text over a dozen times, or more.  Preparing it for the serialization, I read through it again twice. And yet, each MWF as the next chapter comes out and it shows up in my RSS reader, I pause and read the chapter, getting caught up in the story all over again.

Now, marketing is supposed to be telling everyone how great your own stuff is, but I've never been able to do that properly.  I was raised to be modest and avoid bragging.  It's a hard process to get around.  I'll just say it.  I've got some great stories here.  I'd prefer you go buy them all, but if you want free, I can handle that too.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Things I Never Would of Thought: Septic Tank Lids

Out of sight, out of mind.  We bought this house when it was about two years old, nearly twenty-five years ago.  For the most part, the septic system works, so I don't pay any attention to it.  But in December, there was an occasional whiff in the air.  Indoors.  So being promptly on the spot, a month later I called in the specialist, thinking it might need to be pumped, like we had done many years before.

He walked around, poking a metal probe into the ground, locating the dimensions of the tank that had long been completely buried.  His face showed increasing unease as he puzzled it out.  In one place, the probe had gone through deeper than it should have.  He pulled out the shovel and exposed the two access ports on the top.  One side was 'rotting' away.  The concrete was easily a third thinner on the outflow side of the tank than the intake side.  The concrete crumbled in his hand.

What had been a simple pumping job now became ten times more expensive.  First off, I was warned most strenuously not to drive my tractor over the area.  He had seen these situations before and even riding mowers were too heavy in many cases, and you do not want to have to fish your tractor out of the septic tank.

It was clear to me that the lid had to be replaced, although he was struggling to come up with cheaper solutions.  Unfortunately all of those just were just delays, not fixes.  As he dug more and exposed the surface of the lid, it was clear that the formerly flat slab was bowing down in the middle.  The concrete's strength was fading away and it was only held in shape by the internal rebar steel rods.

Decades old septic tank lids aren't an off the shelf item.  He took dimensions and some company somewhere poured and cast a new one.  Wait two weeks.  Don't walk on the septic tank.

Then came the day.  It had to be Monday because rain was in the forecast Tuesday and the heavy trucks couldn't get across the yard without bogging down if the ground was wet.  Carefully tensioning the chains, the crane operator lifted the old lid off and transferred it to the trailer.  Everybody was holding their breath, hoping it wouldn't crumble and fall into the tank.  Nobody wanted that clean-up job.  Up in the air, the distorted, sagging of the concrete was plain to see.

Then, they put a gasket down around the edge and lowered the new, flat, and thicker septic tank lid in place.  Now, a couple of days later, there's just a slight mound that needs reseeding and some ruts in the grass where the trucks passed.  But its fixed, at least for a few more decades.

I asked why the concrete decayed like that.  The guy with the experience wasn't sure.  Perhaps water softening.  Perhaps the chemicals given off in the air gap.  All he knew was that the corrosion always happened on the outflow side of the tank. I'm just happy to forget about it.  Out of sight, out of mind.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Beta Reader Copies

Not too long ago, I wrote about the process of creating comb-bound copies of an early draft of a novel to allow beta-test readers the chance to find errors and mark it up.  Well, this book, I'm trying something a little different.  It's a gamble and I don't know how it will play out.

Instead of buying a few reams of paper and a new toner cartridge, and then queuing up multiple copies of the full book to print, I uploaded the book to Lulu and printed out private-access copies.  Now, these aren't what the final copy will look like.  For one thing, I just slapped a handy snapshot there as a fake cover image.  For another, this is 8.5 x 11 inches.  Inside, the pages are regular 6 x 9 inch pages with great big margins around them so people can make notes.  These will never be sold.  Once this beta-reader review is complete, I'll go back to Lulu and delete the project.

Why Lulu?  Well, for one thing, this process has been a whole lot easier than filling my office with the smell of ozone for hours or days as I print out all the copies.  No aching back from bending over the comb binder as I assemble them.  And finally, no fretting over the binding coming loose and people scrambling the pages as they are shipped back and forth through the mail.

This may have cost me slightly more.  I'm not sure.  I've never done a detailed print cost analysis for when I print them myself.  But given that I always have to buy a new toner cartridge in the middle of the process, the costs are probably equivalent.  Besides, the printing cost isn't the most expensive part of the process.  The mailing cost is.  Given that I'm sending these to people all across the country, I send them in flat rate priority mail envelopes with a self-addressed stamped flat rate envelope included, it costs more than $10 each just for the mailing.  Even with the shipping costs from Lulu added in, that's less than it cost to print them.

Now, I hate to spend the money, but I really need these people looking over my shoulder and pointing out typos and misspellings and really horrible sentences.  A writer can't see his own dumb mistakes.

My biggest fear is that since this is a perfect-bound book, it may inhibit these book-loving people from being as ruthless as they need to be in marking it up.  Like I said, it's a gamble. I'll find out when they come back.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Disappointing iBooks Author App

I think from the beginning, I wasn't expecting much.  I didn't watch the streaming video of the launch.  Without Steve Jobs, it wasn't as entertaining, so I bailed out before they got into the product announcement, and I didn't download the free app the instant it appeared.  That gave me exposure to the bad press before I had my own hands-on experience.

There are two pieces of the problem.  The tool is too limited, and the terms-of-use is impossible.  Let's deal with the legal stuff first.

iBooks Author is a tool designed to create output for an iPad.  That's it.  Nothing more.  I can't even get it to work with my iPhone.  While potentially it could create and edit industry standard ePub files, it doesn't.  The output is specifically targeted to the iPad and the iBooks app.  While the file might work on some similar platform, like some other vendor's iPad look-alike, you violate the contract if you try to sell it anywhere else.  iBooks Author is part of the iBookstore just like iTunes Connect -- it's all part of the store.  While it has export to text and export to PDF, those are crippled so badly (stripping out formatting for text and pasting a big ugly Apple logo on the PDF pages) that they can't really be used.  From my personal experience, iBookstore is a horrible marketplace. It's a bookstore that you can only buy the books they put in the store-front windows, not a place to browse.  For a small producer like me, that's deadly.  My sales at the iBookstore have made be consider dropping them, and spending my efforts on Kindle, and Pubit, and Kobo, and Google Editions and my own site.  For me, it is not worth it creating a separate version with a separate tool, just for Apple.

I am not the target user for this app.  I write novels -- flowing words that can exist just as happily on paper as on the screen of an off-brand cell phone.  iBooks Author is for dazzle-heavy multi-media 'books' with a heavy layout component.  The target author for this tool is someone with a book like this that never thinks about selling it anywhere but to iPad users.  For them, it could work.

Looking at the app strictly as a tool to get the job done, I can't use it.  Just like Pages and iWeb, everything is built on templates.  Unfortunately, they didn't seem to include a bare-bones empty template that I could drop one of my novels into.  I tried. I took their Basic template and took out the pictures and dropped in a novel from a Pages document.  What I have left, after a long bout of tinkering, is an ugly looking book with one chapter that contains the whole novel.  It seems there's a menu item for importing a chapter at a time, but that would require that I go back to my Pages document and split it into 40 sections and import them one at a time.  I can't seem to find a way to select a chapter heading and 'elevate' it to something that the App can recognize as a new chapter.

Thinking about the App's features, it looks like Pages, but with a lot of iPad specific formatting strapped on.  The working page is iPad sized.  The formatting styles are loaded with a couple of dozen presets. Pages has an Import Styles that lets me copy my custom styles from document to document.  I don't see anything like that in this App.  I guess you would have to create new styles and save them, for every style you use, for every document.

The result is a Pages with some multi-media widgets thrown in, with limited formatting capabilities, and with reduced output possibilities.  It's a no-brainer for me.  Pages wins.

My current workflow is this:  Creation in Pages. Formatting for the paper edition in Adobe InDesign.  Export to ePub from InDesign.  Cleanup the ePub in Sigil.  Convert to Kindle with Calibre.  Four programs to produce my e-books that I can put in all the major marketplaces that can reach almost all available e-readers including the iPad.

I will not be spending the time to learn this App to the fullest so that I can create a special flashy version for the iPad but that doesn't go anywhere else. Doesn't fit my needs.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Writing Tools, Today's Version

I've been writing for decades, and much of my life, I've been hunting for the right tools and the right workflow to let me write effortlessly.  I've progressed from school brad binders and lined paper, to typewriters and home-built dedicated word-processors.  I've built computers from scratch and written software in assembly code.  For a big double-handful of years, I used Microsoft Word.  When I shifted to InDesign for book layout, I began the process of abandoning Word.

Here's what I'm using today.  This is Apple's Pages software on my Mac, in full screen mode.  Note that I'm not writing in standard manuscript format any longer.  I've chosen a more comfortable standard for the writing phase, all controlled by about a half-dozen styles, bound to the function keys.  Most of the writing is styled as shown above in simple Times.  The section breaks (###) are marked with a centered style.  There is another style for block quotes, another for chapter titles, and when I need computer text, like tweets and texting, there's still another style.

Everything is styled text and I don't make any exceptions.

With the autosave and versioning supplied by the operating system, I really don't have to worry about that stuff.  Occasionally, I'll do a Command-S to save, but that's mainly habit. I leave a project up on a screen by itself for days and weeks.  Even if the machine reboots, I don't lose anything.  Writing is simple.  The uncluttered page is there with a couple of swipes to the side.  Reference pages from the web browser, or another document, or a map are also up as full pages.

The reason I've moved away from writing in manuscript format is that the standard double-spaced format is ideal for editors, but not for the composing.  For the writing phase, there's a trade-off between more words on the page and big, legible text.  I don't need to force double-spacing on myself as well.

If I need manuscript format, it's easy to convert.  Everything is styled text.  A handful of search and replace commands will convert my writing format to manuscript format.  It's so easy I have never gotten around to automating it.

If I need to move the text into InDesign for a book layout, I save the document as a .doc formatted file, place it into my layout, and do the same search and replace on styles to shape the text into nicely positioned and book-styled text.

If I need to edit the document on my iPhone or iPad, I drag the file over to Dropbox and import it into Pages on the i-devices.  The styles are preserved.  I can move it back to the Mac with no loss of changes.  For simpler purposes, I can even just cut and paste the text from Pages on the Mac to Notes in Mac Mail and the text will be synced automatically to Notes on my phone.

Old documents that I wrote in Word can be easily imported into Pages.  I could even go the other way, but my most recent version of Word no longer runs on the Mac.  I haven't missed it.

And there you have it.  My current writing workflow, using standard tools by big companies.