Thursday, April 10, 2014

Kindle ComiX: An Amazon Kompany

Amazon announced today the acquisition of digital comics leader Comixology in what amounts to a major bid to add traction to its own weak comic offerings. While Amazon lists 25,000 titles under "Comics & Graphic Novels," Comixology boasts twice that number, and an exclusive on Marvel and DC digital editions.

Additionally, the Kindle's "Panel View" option for fixed layout illustrated ebooks was clearly an attempt by Amazon to emulate Comixology's far superior "Guided View" for comics, which zooms each panel sequentially with each page swipe.

Unfortunately, very few publishers seem to have bothered to use Amazon's rendition, opting instead to simply upload a PDF or series of image scans and let the end users deal with its inevitable tiny text and low resolution art. This has made reading comics on the Kindle a less than stellar experience to say the least. Though is must be pointed out that this is not entirely the fault of the Kindle format, but of content creators who have not bothered to learn how best to use it.

With the inevitable integration of Comixology's technology into the Kindle ecosystem, it is hoped that some of the former's status will rub off on the latter, and KF8 will receive some thorough updates to bring the two more closely in line. The Kindle HDX devices are, after all, an ideal medium for viewing comic pages, with their bright high saturation colors and impressive pixel depth.

Unfortunately, Amazon has shot themselves in the foot by disallowing high resolution images in KF8 FXL files - unless the recent changes to the Kindle Publishing Guidelines mentioned in my prior posts comes to fruition and results in a significant upgrade to the current woeful standards. What use is a high resolution display if you can't embed high resolution images into its native ebook format?

Details of the acquisition have not yet been released, so it is not known at present whether Comixology will remain a separate app on the Kindle system, or whether it will ultimately be integrated within the Kindle e-reading software itself. I would put my money on the latter, as it only stands to reason that Amazon would want to increase the value of the Kindle brand rather than dilute it with competing software.

In his announcement of the deal, Comixology's CEO David Steinberger said that "ComiXology will retain its identity as an Amazon subsidiary," so one might assume it will be treated much as Amazon has done with Audible and Goodreads. But neither of these offered a competing product or platform such as Comixology's app does, so the comparison is all but moot.

Moreover, just last year Comixology launched its own self-publishing portal for comic creators, which is almost certain to be absorbed into the KDP platform, since it makes little sense logistically to maintain two separate distribution and disbursement divisions for what amounts to a single service. At the very least it's an encumbrance for content creators, who would otherwise have to decide between the two, or produce two source files to meet each platform's requirements, as well as pursuing an innately divided marketing strategy, none of which is efficient for anyone involved.

In the end, keeping them separate can only work to Comixology's advantage, with an adverse effect on the Kindle fixed layout format. Because of that, my bet is that Comixology is scrapped within a year or two and fully integrated into the Kindle ecosystem, with the "Guided View" code replacing the current "Panel View" feature. After all, why wouldn't Amazon want this as a key feature only the Kindle has?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Kindle Publishing Guidelines Update 2014.1.1

Amazon has quietly released a new revision of the Kindle Publishing Guidelines which makes just one change, and that is the removal of the questionable image limit previously mentioned in Section 5.2, as noted my previous discussion.

The following is the sentence as it read in the last edition, with the portion that has been removed italicized and highlighted in bold:
Images must be in JPEG format and must be smaller than 800 KB in size. Image files larger than 800 KB greatly increase download time for the book and require more space on the device
The line now simply reads "Images must be in JPEG format," with the image size restriction removed. This lends credence to my assertion that Amazon has an update to KindleGen pending, since the current version still compresses image files during conversion, regardless of the compression setting. The last KindleGen revision was 7-31-13.

More importantly, a test upload I did today shows that KDP is also still compressing images during conversion, so the statement (or lack thereof) regarding image size is currently irrelevant. All these recent changes may simply be Amazon attempting to clean up some confusing passages relating to images sizes, by removing them or any references to image limits that might be contradictory. Or, as Aaron Shepard has pointed out in private correspondence, it might only be the input size from which the image limits have been removed, while the output is still compressed. However, I have never experienced any restrictions on input sizes to KindleGen in the past, only to the final output size of individual images.

Either way, there is nothing content creators can do about it at this point, except to wait, and deal with these imposing restrictions in the meantime. The one small ray of hope in all this is that these recent changes to the Guidelines show that Amazon is at least giving some thought to the matter of image file size limits. With any luck they will remove them (or substantially increase them at any rate) and let the authors and illustrators decide for themselves how best to present their work.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Image Size Limit Increased in Kindle eBooks (Finally!!!)

Although Amazon has not yet announced it publicly, there is an updated version of the Kindle Publishing Guidelines available from the link on the KF8 page that includes some very significant changes. Foremost among these is the long-awaited removal of the highly restrictive image file size allowances, and their relation to the booktype value.

To be clear, there is still technically a limit for image file size, but it has been (or will be) increased to 5MB per image, regardless of booktype. This effectively removes any restriction on image size, since virtually any image file can fit within this limit easily, even at high resolution, and adding images of even this size will increase the overall file size dramatically. But more on that in a minute.

First, I have highlighted and annotated the changes in my copy of the Guidelines, which you can download here. Or just get a clean version from the link above, since the first change you'll notice is the addition of a Revision History:

This is a seriously welcome addition that makes the task of finding out just what exactly has been altered from one edition to the next far easier. Still, for your benefit, I will share with you here some of the details.
  • KindleGen Messages
This section received some editorial clarification to distinguish between Errors and Warnings in the KindleGen message logs, and their respective results. Nothing technically has changed, but it is made much clearer that Errors result in an abort of the conversion, while KindleGen will attempt to fix issues with Warnings, but this may or may not work, or work to satisfaction, for which Amazon disclaims all responsibility.
  • 3.2.1 Cover Image Guideline #1: Marketing Cover Image Is Mandatory
The recommendation for the "marketing" cover image size (the one you upload to KDP) is now 2560 x 1600 pixels, with 350 dpi resolution "to insure image clarity on Kindle HDX devices." This is altered from the last edition from a 2500 pixel recommendation for the longest side, with a minimum of 1000 pixels, but no specs given for the short side. An additional note is given stating that you will now receive a "reminder message" during upload if this image is smaller than the recommended size. The absolute minimum is still 500 pixels on the smallest side, so the warning can be safely (though not wisely) ignored if displayed.

Incidentally, the dpi resolution is essentially irrelevant on digital displays, since it is the total number of pixels that determines what is displayed onscreen. Amazon has previously always recommended 300 ppi, but with the Fire HDX 8.9" packing in 339 ppi they apparently felt obligated to add the higher dpi value, even though it doesn't matter in the least, especially since the marketing image is only used for the book's web page.

Lastly, here is where we are presented with the first indication that image file size has been given some consideration by the powers that be behind the scenes, as it states that "the image file size should be 5MB or smaller," which is a new addition.
  • 3.6.2 Image Guideline #2: KindleGen Performs Automatic Image Conversions
Now we get to the crux of the matter. The entire section relating the various image files size allowances for the various booktypes (i.e. 127, 256, or 800 KB for flowing, childrens, and comics, respectively) has been removed. In its place we get this:
"The maximum size of an individual image file is 5 MB. The maximum size of an epub is 650 MB."
Moreover, while the header to this section still references "Automatic Image Conversions", the portion that formerly detailed the manner in which KindleGen handles "quality factor reduction" (i.e. image compression) has been removed. Apparently this will no longer be the case.

Now, with that said, bear in mind that the current version of KindleGen is still the 2.9 build that was released last September, so we will need to wait until the (presumably impending) release of the newest iteration (2.91? 3.0?) for any of this to take place. In addition, the posted Release Notes, as well as the relevant KDP Help section, still list the older version and lower size limits (although the KDP Help has never even been updated from the original 127 KB image limit for all Kindle ebooks, so I wouldn't put much stock in it as far as accuracy is concerned).

At any rate, we will presumably see an update to the Kindle Publishing Tools quite soon, if these changes are any indication. A few other entries add additional support to this supposition, as well as offering a further update in Amazon's outlook on image size:
  • 4.3.3 Recommendation #3: Optimizing Content for Full Screen
Here (as well as Section 5) the reference to the original Kindle Fire's 1024x600 resolution has been altered to the newer Kindle Fire HD 8.9" display's 1920x1200 pixel depth. This not only increases the recommended image size, but alters its aspect ratio from the prior 17:10 to the newer HD models' 16:10 ratio, now apparently the preferred format (and a step in the right direction, although I'm still a strong advocate of 4:3 on e-readers for the sake of two-page spreads in illustrated works).

Additionally, the previously laughable statement that in order to "support 2X magnification with high quality" in children's books, image pixel dimensions should be "at least 2048x1200" - an utterly unwieldy resolution for a 256 KB file if quality is a concern - has now been increased even further to a recommended 3820x2400! There is no way in this world or any other that an image that size will look even reasonably decent at less than 256 KB.
  • 5.2 Asset Requirements
This is the section that gives the breakdown for "Zoom Factor" values for region magnification, which again have been increased to accommodate the HD displays:
100% - 1920 x 1200
125% - 2400 x 1500
150% - 2880 x 1800
250% - 4800 x 3000 [!!!]
Curiously, this section still states that images must be smaller than 800 KB in size, but I chalk that up to Amazon's standard sloppy editorial practices, since this sort of thing has happened before (and often) throughout the various editions over the years (as is still the case on the KDP Help page mentioned above). [SEE UPDATE BELOW]

Again, these "recommended" image sizes are simply unattainable at the previous (or rather, still current) file size limits. 4800 x 3000 is simply comic in this respect. But at 5 MB I can give my readers glistening crisp and brilliant detail even when zoomed to the highest value. Overall file size, of course, will still be an issue, which brings up a point I sort of glossed over in the earlier section, and that is the mention of a 650 MB file size limit for epubs.

This could possibly mean that the heretofore consistent KDP portal limit of 50 MB for file uploads might be increased (although I doubt it). Since this is not a well documented limit, only a test will determine the truth, and I haven't done one yet. The KDP Help page referenced above still lists the 50 MB limit (which is, as far as I know, the only place it's actually given), but again, it still lists 127 KB as the image size limit too, so don't put too much faith in that.

However, we should remember that even though flowable Kindle files have had the ability to contain audio/video files of up to 600MB for some time now, the portal limit has not changed because of it.

What this really refers to is the maximum input file size for KindleGen itself, as mentioned in Section 6.13 on audio/video file size, where it explicitly states that "the total maximum audio/video file size that can be converted from EPUB via KindleGen is 650 MB." This apparently now applies to fixed layouts in general now as well, and not just audio/video content.
  • 3.6.11 Image Guidelines #11: Use Supported SVG Tags and Elements
A few other sections should be mentioned, of which this one is entirely new. This two page entry provides a list of Supported SVG Elements, along with an example and notes on tag usage. Also included is a link to the SVG specification for reference.
  • 3.12 External Link Guidelines
And speaking of links, this is another new section laying down some laws regarding proper hyperlink behavior. Most are standard "no offensive content" warnings, but it is also made explicit that links to other online retailers are forbidden, and that Amazon "reserves the right to remove links in its sole discretion," a significant stipulation in legal terms.
  • Dictionary Overview
There are no functional changes to this section, but I mention it because it contains what appear to be the very first indications that Amazon has actually acquired an editor, since all of the several alterations here are purely for the sake of phrasing. Changes, for example, from "quickly search" to "search quickly" or "the entry they want" to "the desired entry" are entirely aesthetic in nature, and bear no substantive difference. 

That said, it is made more clear that dictionary functionality is for "in-book search and lookup" and that they must be marked as such, and with the correct language tag(s) applied, for what that's worth.
  • 11.1 Appendix A: HTML Tags... / 11.2: Appendix B: CSS Selectors...
Although these are each listed in the Revision History, I cannot see any changes made here. All the "No's" are still "No" (i.e. no audio/video support in KF8; no max-width/height attributes, etc.) and there are no additions or deletions that I can discern. If anybody spots them, let me know!

*  *  *

With the release of the HDX displays and resolutions reaching the limits of human perception, the Kindle format is long past due for a major update in this respect, and I can't express how pleased I am to see the changes to the Guidelines. I have been waiting as patiently as possible for technology to reach the point where e-readers can accurately replicate the full size print experience in pristine image quality, since it is clear that digital is the future of the reading experience, or at least a very large part of it. Unfortunately, illustrated content has been sadly left behind in this regard (aside from iBooks on the iPad, which is superior as a graphic format, if not in terms of sales and store support).

With this update (when it inevitably occurs) Amazon's Kindle platform will once again have a chance to truly shine where visual ebooks are concerned.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Fantasy Castle Books Redesign & (Re-)Re-Launch

After months of revamping and re-design, my publishing homepage was officially "re-launched" today. It's still a work-in-progress, and many sections have yet to be rebuilt, but the core foundation of the bookstore is up and running smoothly (so far). You can purchase and download all of my titles via the bookstore portal, including the ebook templates, all of which come in a zip archive containing several formats for one price (some of which are free!)

There is now a "View Cart" button in the main header menu at the top of every page, and you can "pick" a book up off the shelf and click its cover to view the product page. Most of the titles have sample downloads, and additional bonus content in the Archives section.

Currently the Archives contains only the artwork gallery pages for the various editions of The Saga of Beowulf, but I will continue to add back the old content, as well as new material, as I find the time. Updates will be posted in the "Latest Updates" section on the home page, with the bigger additions also getting a post here.

I have also slightly redesigned this blog and added some additional links to the menu bar below the new header. These lead to the primary sections of the main site, of which this blog is now a part. I've been wanting to incorporate it for some time, so this is phase one. I plan to create an internal content management system to replace this blog if I ever find the time. For now this is a stop-gap solution.

The main website has been built and hosted over the years by a number of third-party utilities, none of which have proven entirely satisfactory. The last iteration was built on a Wordpress foundation, which proved to be abysmally slow and unstable. I finally broke down and built the entire thing from scratch myself in Dreamweaver, so that I now have complete control over its functionality and design. I'm using e-Junkie for my file host and PayPal for the payment processor (Google Checkout having gone defunct), with contact forms and newsletter subscription by MailChimp and FoxyForm (even though I never send out newsletters - another thing I plan to do some day).

This is one of the burdens of doing everything yourself. From the very first I have undertaken every aspect of this journey on my own, from writing the first word of my first novel to creating all the artwork to support it, to formatting both the print layouts and ebooks, to establishing my own publishing house, to setting up an online store and building my own website. The single exception has been the cover Dustin Neff did for the first volume of The Saga of Beowulf - everything else I've done myself. I just like to learn how things are done and see if I can do them, too.

This may or may not have been the wisest choice, or always produced in the best result (by not hiring an editor, for example), and has caused much grief and extra work along the way (such as having to rebuild my website time and again). The benefit is that I can say with utter conviction that what I create is mine and mine alone, a reflection of who I am and what I'm capable of at any given time.

I hope you'll continue to tag along on this adventure, wherever it may go. I plan to continue posting news that is relevant to self-publishing, although there are many far better sources of both general and in-depth information, so I'll likely curtail it to what is useful to those like myself who are working on producing fixed layout content. Kindle formatting, for example, is something that has needed covering (or un-covering, as the case may be), as it was not (and is still not) being dealt with well enough elsewhere. I'll also be doing some further tutorials on creating iBooks content, focusing on interactive JavaScript elements. With my recent formatting excursion more or less sorted out I will be diving back into my creative endeavors heavily, so expect to see some new content soon.