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.