Saturday, November 26, 2011

Diatribe on "Book: A Futurist's Manifesto"

As the title states, this "Book" from the O'Reilly collection is a compendium of dissertations covering some of the challenges and changes facing the publishing industry today, with commentary on how those changes might (or should) take place, ranging from overall conceptual shifts to specific issues of implementation.

The book itself was produced using (and as a test platform for) the new PressBooks utility, an online ebook creation and conversion tool that allows for outputting to multiple formats, including ePub, Kindle, HTML, InDesign-ready XML and print-ready PDF. While this efficient workflow is admirable in principle (and is discussed in both theory and detail in the book itself), the ebook editions I downloaded each suffer from some inconsistent (or just poor) formatting, broken external links, and at least one garbled graphic on the Kindle Fire (double tapping to zoom produced an image with full width but squashed to just a few pixels in height). I viewed the book in ePub format in iBooks (on the iPad2) and Adobe Digital Editions (PC), as well as Mobi format on both Kindle 3 and the Kindle Fire.

Currently the book contains only the first of three parts, with the next two said to be forthcoming as free "updates" for anyone who purchases part one. As each part is added the initial price will increase from its current $7.95, so getting in now guarantees the best value. However, you can also read the entire thing online for free. A print edition will be forthcoming once the book is finished.

Part 1: The Setup

As with most collections of essays, this one is a mixed bag, being aimed for the most part at medium to large scale publishing houses whose outmoded production model is currently in flux. While much of the content is of little use to indie authors and other content creators, the overall discussion of the changing landscape of publishing is informative and enlightening (if often pedantic and heavy-handed).

The opening essay in particular - "Context, Not Container" - while conceptually interesting, is nearly unreadable due to the utter tedium of its writing style and lack of a clearly stated thesis. It's a typically long-winded academic dissertation aimed at an unspecified target audience, filled with repetitive arguments and undefined terminology, which could have been said more clearly in a fraction of the space. Ultimately, it's as if we're reading an extract from a conversation for which we are not privy to the beginning, and in which a large number of us ultimately do not belong, since the subject applies only to a subset of content creators (a distinction made far more relevant and interesting in the final essay of this section by Craig Mod).

The overall concept of a broader content ecosystem that exists beyond the confines of its container makes great sense and is highly relevant to the future evolution of electronic texts; but the essay seems to place the content author at the bottom of an infinite pile, forgetting that without an artist's vision there can be no art at all. While the elements of the author's palette now extend far beyond the borders of the visible canvas, one must remember that these are all tools for the artist to use, and constitute a broader new "container," rather than the lack of one. The interconnected world is the new container.

To my mind this is an underlying flaw in the focus of the whole collection, which is aimed not so much at what can be done by content creators, but how e-production houses and aggregators can gain the most by implementing a workflow which creates the greatest efficiency and widest possible distribution to all platforms. Certainly this is a valid goal for all content, and is particularly relevant with respect to content that reflows easily, as much content does. But one of the foremost challenges facing content creators on the "bleeding edge" is in the areas where this is either undesirable, or simply not possible without destroying what the content is (i.e. as a work of art); some content simply requires a fixed state to retain its essential nature. Rethinking the container (or the canvas, as I prefer to think of it) is a fundamental shift which will be far more difficult for some than others.

However, that fundamental shift in perception is one we all will need to make, from seeing ebooks as a re-creation of what print books have been, to what ebooks can be in their new environment: the interconnected, interactive world without borders. The idea of an "infinite canvas" that stretches out endlessly in all directions from the e-reader viewport was a great revelation. Imagine, for example, the screen as a magnifying glass positioned over a giant globe - like Google Earth - that can travel in any direction endlessly, both horizontally and vertically, as well as in and out, with links like transportation hubs between distant points (this might be a great concept for an adventure novel, for example, with directional travel "paths" like an Indiana Jones vignette rather than mono-directional page turns). And those dimensions of travel are not limited in time or space: the reader's own input and interaction can effect the outcome, and alter the content itself by, for example, adding commentary or participating in an interconnected network of readers who each input information in a Wikipedia-like way. It's in ways like this that the "container" has been shattered.

These are just examples of what an ebook can be. But it's not necessarily what they should be (certainly not in all cases, at any rate). Just because the borders of the canvas can be transcended doesn't mean they must be. The iPad, for example, is a device with a specific dimension and resolution, a canvas with a frame if you will, and that in itself is a medium many artists will make great art on (and are with fixed layout epubs), entirely within those boundaries. Just because you can morph the Mona Lisa's nose doesn't make it better art than what daVinci created. And I can't imagine he would appreciate it much in any case, or think it an improvement.

So even though the lid is off, there must still be a "box" where the core content resides. Otherwise, there is no longer an author or artist, and the readers themselves become the content creators, a conceit which is flawed in its very nature, since there is no longer a place for individual authors and artists in that world, and content without a guiding creative force can only become dissipated and, ultimately, forgotten. Great works are created by great minds, not by common consensus or collating the voices of the multitudes. Art by committee is not art but socialism. By the laws of the bell chart this can only result in reduction to the average.

As for the remainder of the essays in this section of the book, most of them were only relevant to large production houses facing a major restructuring of their workflow in the digital age. There are chapters covering topics from aggregated distribution to the history of metadata and the usual concerns with DRM. Interesting, and useful to know, but nothing that hasn't been written and discussed elsewhere already.

Of most value and interest to my mind (as an author and independent publisher) were Liza Daly's essay on 'What We Can Do with "Books",' which discusses the malleable nature of the digital medium and how interactive elements can give readers a chance to participate and explore a more immersive text in a real and focused way. The idea of a book as a living document, for example, that can be updated automatically in revised editions like software upgrades is intriguing. This very book is an example of that, with additions coming later this year. I recently read about an author who is selling the first chapter of her book for .99 cents, with additional chapters to be added as completed for no additional charge, simply by updating the retailer-hosted file. This not only gives her an income during the writing process (sort of an advance for the self-pub ebook era), but also allows her readers to offer feedback that she can incorporate into the story as it progresses. That's very much the idea I had in mind as I've posted up the pages and completed chapters of my current Ring Saga project for readers to peruse (albeit without any real feedback aside from friends so far, so at this point it's pretty much a failed experiment, but it may yet grow as time goes on).

Very much related to this is Craig Mod's insightful analysis of the "post-artifact" landscape of content creation. As mentioned earlier, I found this of particular value, with its discussion of the more direct interaction that can now be had between the author and the reader (theoretically at least, although he mentions more successful examples than mine), due to the narrowing and overlap of creation and distribution phases of content creation itself. The book is worth purchasing (or reading online at any rate) for this essay alone. It is a well-crafted piece of analysis with clearly defined concepts, into which a lot of thought and originality has gone. Would that all the essays included were as well written.

The overall impression the "Book" gives is not just of an industry in turmoil, but of a cultural icon and symbol of human progress undergoing a fundamental change. And that says a lot about who we are, and where we're going.

Book Rating: 3/5

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Scrivener for Windows Finally Released

At long last, it's finally here...
I've been waiting for the Windows version of Scrivener to come out for well over a year now, having received outstanding reviews from a number of writer friends who are fortunate enough to have used the Mac version for several years. With Word becoming increasingly bloated with features few novelists would ever use, and none of those they really need, Microsoft's Office suite has become more and more a business person's tool and far less helpful for creative endeavors. I actually deleted my copy of Office 2010 (version 14) in favor of the far more streamlined and efficient Office XP (version 10), albeit with an added plug-in to allow me to read .docx files I get sent. Scrivener is what Word should have become. And for those of us who are Windows-bound it's been a long time coming.
Scrivener is a "complete writing studio" - an all-encompassing creation tool and project manager that houses a wide range of disparate elements all geared toward the organization and development of creative writing projects, with particular benefits for those that are long and complex. As you can see from the image above, there is a corkboard which replicates an index card system, but with the benefits of electronic manipulation of both content and order: they can be rearranged with ease, blown up for easier viewing, and customized to your heart's desire.

There are linked outlining tools that access and compile all your research notes and files, including audio/video and web documents, creating a central hub where all your reference sources are readily available. Scrivener can even temporarily combine multiple documents for viewing and editing as a single cohesive whole, while saving each piece separately. Using the outline tools allows you to rearrange these pieces easily using drag and drop. These organization tools are far more powerful and useful than those in Word, with visual elements that let you color-code and see the bigger picture at a glance.

At its heart, of course, is a simple, but powerful word processor with all the formatting options you'll ever need. It will even convert your story into script format, or mix formats for writing rough draft treatments. Statistics show your progress for both overall and session word-count targets. It even has a name generator to help with character creation. And finally, it will export your document to both ePub and Kindle formats, as well as Word, RTF, PDF and HTML for external editing or file sharing.

My current "organization system"
I'm looking forward to importing my current notes and outlines into Scrivener and getting down to work on that final draft, but I sure wish I had had it six months ago when I was working on the outline and the first draft.

You can download a free trial version of Scrivener for Windows or Mac OS X here.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Nook Tablet vs. Kindle Fire

The tablet wars officially began today as Barnes & Noble fired a warning shot across the bow of Amazon's flagship tablet, the Kindle Fire. Making a number of direct comparisons to their arch-competitor, B&N CEO William Lynch came out with guns blazing, stating that the new Nook Tablet has "seven times more storage capacity" than the Kindle Fire, is "faster", and has the first "no air gap" screen!

Say what? 

You mean my 1024 x 768 9.7" iPad screen really sucks because it has an air gap? Bummer. I guess I better toss that piece of crap out and get a 7" 1024 x 600 Nook Tablet instead. Yeah, it's 169-ppi instead of 132 (as if that really makes a big difference), but what I want to know is how exactly does 1080p HD streaming work on a screen that's only 1024 pixels wide? And wait a minute, isn't the Kindle Fire's screen also 1024 x 600 @ 169-ppi resolution, just like the Nook? But oh, if only it wasn't for that crappy air gap!

And let me get this straight, 16Gb versus 8Gb of onboard storage is ... how much? ... times more capacity? That must make the Nook Tablet's $249 price tag about seven times more expensive than the $199 Kindle Fire. And how exactly is the Nook's 1GHz dual-core processor "faster" than the Fire's exact same specs? Especially when a hands-on review over at Gizmondo showed the new Nook's performance to be sluggish and lagging in both the browser and the interface, while the Kindle Fire was smooth and smoking fast. 

Here's a handy comparison chart for those of you who want a side-by-side lineup of features...

Kindle Fire vs. Nook Tablet (courtesy of CNET)

The only real advantage I can see to the Nook over the Kindle is the microSD card slot, which will allow for added storage portability and rooting to a full Android OS (with access to the Android app store). But with cloud storage onboard memory is rapidly becoming irrelevant, so that content availability is really of "Prime" importance here, and in that department Amazon wins hands down. Barnes & Noble can only claim to be the "biggest bookstore in the world" because they have brick and mortar stores as well as an online website. But fewer and fewer people are shopping in those physical stores, which is why they've recently jettisoned their entire DVD/Audiobook departments - in favor of ... what? ... toys and games?! How exactly is that helpful in advancing their digital platform?

But here's the real qualm: whereas with Amazon you can get video streaming, free monthly ebook rentals, and free two-day shipping all for $79 per year, Barnes and Noble is somehow touting "access" to their new "content partnerships" with Netflix, Hulu, and Rhapsody as bonus perks of their device. Seriously? So paying $7.99 a month for Netflix streaming ($95 a year for access to a truly lame movie selection), and another $7.99 a month for Hulu Plus so that I can watch television shows that I can DVR already (that's $190 a year now), plus $9.99 a month for Rhapsody (an additional $120/year) so I can listen to music I can listen to for free with Pandora or will likely buy on iTunes anyway if I like it. Where exactly is the advantage for me here? Do they have any kind of book programs on this thing? 

Oh, yeah, they were the first ones to do ebook lending. There's a plus. Except that Amazon now does it better with a variety of lending programs in place (not to mention the handful of third-party sites that mediate the Kindle lending process). If B&N was first then why aren't there a dozen Nook eBook lending sites out there somewhere? The answer: because Barnes & Noble's 27% of the eBook market still pales in comparison to Amazon's 66% - and that's where size really matters. The square footage of your buildings and warehouses matters not a whit if someone else's warehouses are doing more business. Biggest bookstore in the world? I don't think so.

Still, another factor might be important to consider here, and that's the Nook's native ePub support. Whereas Amazon's main format is proprietary, ePubs are open source and quickly becoming universal. In a way it boggles me that Amazon has been able to make its restricted ebooks the dominant format in the market. But that just goes to show you the power of a dominant device. Barnes & Noble has a lot of ground to make up if it plans to overtake the Kindle as an e-reading leader, and I really have to question whether this new Nook line is anywhere near enough to close the gap (unless it's an air gap, that is - honestly, is anybody buying that line? Is anyone really going to look at the Nook and go, "Oh my God, look! There's no air gap!!! How awesome is that?!").

But really when it comes right down to it there's only one comparison that shoppers are going to make, and that's the $249 price tag versus $199. Because when it comes to dollars and cents, there's just no comparison.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

eBooks Sales Surpass Print Books

It's official: eBooks are now the single biggest selling format in U.S. trade book sales. Bigger than Hardbacks. Bigger than Adult Mass Market titles. Bigger than any Children's & Young Adult categories. And now, for the first time, bigger than Trade Paperbacks (this includes both fiction and non-fiction titles, everything from graphic novels and travel guides to Bibles). Of course, we're comparing all eBooks here to just a single category of print, so the comparison is not exactly accurate; but if digital is considered a "format" on its own, then the distinction is correct, and well worth taking note of regardless.

According to the latest AAP report for February sales, ebooks brought in $90.3 million in revenue for the month, a 202.3% increase over the previous year, while Trade Paperbacks accrued just $81.2 million. And while digital editions continue to soar month after month, all formats of print continue to decline, fueling concern and speculation as to the extent of cannibalization that has occurred, and how far it will extend. And although one of the most significant factors behind this shift is the sudden prevalence of reasonably priced e-readers, another (possibly more important) reason is that the average price point for print editions is $15.50, compared to just $8.75 for the equivalent ebook. At any time price will be a factor, but more so when times are hard and funds run thin.

And this is the result: for the first two months of 2011 print sales were down 24.8% overall, with Adult Trade categories falling 34.4%. Religious, Educational, and Academic texts all declined by single digit figures, while Chidren's/Young Adult print editions were down 16.1%. Meanwhile, eBooks have climbed 169.4% overall, and downloaded Audiobooks rose 36.7%. I don't even need to mention the stunning numbers of ebook readers sold recently, but with those figures running in the tens of millions, it's not very difficult to figure what's coming next. After all, what good is an ebook readers with no ebooks on it?

All this goes to show that digital editions are here to stay, and should be given the same consideration that print has always had. This means that independent publishers and self-pubbed authors need to pay start paying more attention to formatting, and build their ebooks with the same care and attention to detail that print has always received. Simply dumping a text file into a conversion program or uploading the print edition pdf to an ebook retailer isn't good enough any more (not that it ever was). Given that for many readers these days a digital edition may very well be the only edition of a title they ever see, it behooves the creators of that book to make it the best edition they can.

With that in mind, I'll be starting a series of posts in the days to come dedicated to ebook formatting. It's something I've spent a great deal of time studying of late, and a subject which is both confusing and rapidly evolving. With iBooks now supporting fixed-layout ePub files and ePub3 pending, far more complex layouts are possible in digital than ever before, and will only continue to improve, making graphic novels and highly illustrated storybooks not only possible, but with embedded audio and video, more exciting than ever.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Intro To Smashwords

So I suppose I should take about Smashwords a bit. I haven't done much blogging on publishing lately (or anything else either, really), as I've been utterly swamped with book production issues that have just been sucking up my time. But I started this blog with the intention of discussing my experiences in independent publishing, and as many of you reading this are doing so because you're self-pubbed authors yourselves, Smashwords is a service you should know about, if you don't already.

As I mentioned in a prior post, Smashwords functions as an aggregator, producing and distributing ebooks to several online retailers, foremost among these being Barnes & Noble, Sony's Reader Store, the Kobo Store, Diesel eBooks, and Apple's iBookstore, as well as via their own online storefront. Founded just three years ago, Smashwords has published over 40,000 ebooks from 16,000 different authors, all of whom retain full rights to their own works, set their own prices, and decide in which formats and venues to release them.

I won't go into a load of detail here, as they describe their services best themselves. But I will point out a few of those that stood out for me. First off I should say that I hadn't initially given them much consideration, due to the fact that most ebooks distributed via Smashwords list them as the publisher. And since I went to all the hassle of establishing my own publishing company in order to work with Lightning Source, I didn't want someone else's name on my books in some formats, but mine on them in other versions. However, I later discovered that this isn't required, so long as you provide your own ISBNs. Consequently, all my editions are published under the Fantasy Castle Books brand. That said, one of the best features of Smashwords is that they will provide a free ISBN if you don't want to shell out a couple hundred bucks to buy your own block of ten or more from Bowker. This does, however, list them as the publisher of record. But for a mere ten bucks they'll give you the ISBN and list you as the publisher if that's an important consideration for you. I think it should be, but Mark Coker, Smashword's founder, disagrees (for obvious reasons). You'll have to decide for yourself. But then, that's the job of being self-published, isn't it?

And, of course, it could be argued that this is irrelevant in the end anyway, since what is important is actually getting your book out there, and readers don't generally pay attention to the publishing imprint or even care one way or the other. While there is still a stigma attached to self-published works, and books produced through CreateSpace, Lulu, BookBrewer and the like can suffer as a result, that is quickly changing as readers themselves become the ultimate and final arbiters of taste and quality, as it should be. As ebooks gain more and more ground, and indie authors like Amanda Hocking gain notoriety, books will be judged more on their own merit than by the channel through which they reach the reader. Indeed, the entire field of publishing is now wide open, with the path between source and destination shorter than ever.

This is where a company like Smashwords comes into its own. Functioning essentially as a new mediator between the author and retailer, aggregators like Smashwords and BookBaby step in to fulfill many of the functions once performed by traditional publishing houses and literary agents. That is, they take a manuscript, format it into a marketable product, and ship it to a variety of retail outlets. Marketing is still essentially left to the author, as are things like editing and cover art, but each of these receive a great deal of aid throughout the Smashwords process. For example, the ebook conversion process rejects poorly formatted manuscripts and automatically generates notes on needed changes; web pages are created for every author and title; and basic cover stock can be produced using standard templates.

For all this (and much more), Smashwords charges nothing, making its revenue through a 10-15% share of all ebooks sold, depending on the channel (who themselves, of course, take a share). So for example, Apple gets a 30% cut of the retail price, with Smashwords taking another 10%, leaving the author with a full 60% profit. No traditional publisher comes near that, with 25% being the norm for digital sales at present. In additional, there are a surprising number of promotional and marketing tools available, such as a coupon generator, to assist you in selling your work.

Now, seeing that I have an established account with Ingram, I could get onto the iBookstore that way. But there is an upfront fee, and Ingram still takes a cut as well. Smashwords, on the other hands, acts as a one-stop shop not only for iBooks, but half a dozen other ebook readers, all of which are available to the customer with a single purchase. There's no need to buy a title in Kindle format, then again for the Nook if you decide a NookColor is really cool, or again when you pick up an iPad and want to read in iBooks. And all titles sold through Smashwords are Digital Rights Management free, meaning you can transfer them from one of your readers to another, to your home computer and back again, without having to worry about not being able to open the file ten years from now when the Kindle has been replaced by who knows what. You bought the book, you should be able to read it when and where you want.

Which brings up another important point: Smashwords only publishes ebooks. And while there is a growing movement of digital-only authors, print books still make up the vast majority of sales, and likely will continue to do so for some time, so it's a good idea to pursue Print on Demand options as well, or continue to do so. Some books just don't translate well to the digital format, as I'm discovering with my current project (Argghhh!!), and the wide variety of screen sizes and reader formats is a hindrance at best, limiting what digital publishing is currently capable of producing. But Smashwords does the best job yet of standardizing those variables for the best presentation on them all, and for that alone they're well worth looking into.

Friday, January 21, 2011

eBook ISBN Uncertainties - or, Is the ISBN Outdated?

With the rapid transition from print to digital underway, a wide variety of issues have arisen - from multiple product formats to digital rights management and licensing - many of which have yet to be worked out in anything but rudimentary form. One element underlying all these issues that has bubbled to the surface lately is the waning relevance of the International Standard Book Number in the digital age. In an online scenario where no physical barcode is actually scanned and the definition of what even constitutes a "book" spans the gamut from simple text to high-tech multimedia presentations, not only is the usefulness of the ISBN as an identifier debatable, but its capacity to even fulfill that function is coming into question.

In 2007 the ISBN was updated from a 10 to a 13 digit code in order to accommodate a wider range of data. However, this may very well be a case of far too little far too late. Amazon, for example, had already by this time given up on the traditional identifier for its own uses in exchange for an internally generated ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number), seen not just on ebooks, but on every product in its store. And while most items on Amazon carry both an ISBN and an ASIN, no Kindle edition has, in fact, ever had an ISBN assigned to it.

In part, this is due to the inability of the ISBN to distinguish variant ebook formats of the same title from one another in a segment of its code without having to assign an entirely unrelated ISBN to it, as if it were a different title. This is, of course, how the hardback / paperback / audiobook division was handled, but with an almost unlimited number of variations of format and content possible with digital, this becomes burdensome at best. Not only are there a half dozen major proprietary and open-source software formats in use, but there can be additional interactive content in each one, such as embedded audio and video, hyperlinked and touch-interface capabilities, different rights management encryptions employed (or not), lending-enabled editions, scanned pages versus reflowable text formats, and a wide open horizon of endless future possibilities as new media are developed and incorporated. The question then becomes what exactly is an ebook, and at what point is one version significantly different from another so as to require a unique identifier. Without a clearly defined set of criteria, and the means to differentiate them in code, no set of numbers can mean anything useful to a broad overall group involved in its production and distribution.

An additional concern is the role - and even identity of - the publisher of an ebook edition. Digital titles published for the Nook format, for example, are given an ISBN which identifies Barnes & Noble as the publisher, regardless of who actually published the print edition (mine was given a new one even though I'd already assigned one to it). This technically means that B&N "owns" the ISBN for that edition, and not me as the author/publisher. This is important because what, in fact, separates a true self-published author from an author whose book is produced by any of the many ebook distributors who reformat digital editions is the actual ownership of the ISBN: whoever owns the ISBN is the "publisher of record" (even though the rights to the work itself may remain with the author or other rights holder). Consequently, a single title in ebook format can now have many separate publishers, some of which are little more than retailers while others are megalithic literary conglomerates, a sign of how the roles are blurring in the digital age. The distinctions are obscured even further by the fact that a buyer of an ebook does not technically own the book they buy, but only purchases a license to read it.

The usefulness of an internal system by an online retailer is understandable, but the assignment of random unrelated identifiers to what is essentially the same title brings up a range of problems for everyone else, from libraries who need to catalog a title to the author who wants to track their sales across multiple platforms. Metadata conflicts are a growing concern, as voiced in the recent findings by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), who have undertaken a research project to identify and define ebook classifications with an eye to revamping the ISBN system. For more on the issues involved, you can download a pdf Summary of BISG Report Findings (1-13-2011), which outlines their initial results and recommendations. As an interim solution, in November of 2010 the International ISBN Agency released an updated set of Guidelines for the Assignment of ISBNs to eBooks (including "apps"), in the form of a 13-point F.A.Q. which is useful for any author or publisher to read. 

Ultimately, as with many things, it may simply come down to a question of cost, as ISBN blocks are not only relatively expensive to purchase outright from Bowker, the U.S. agency tasked with selling and recording ISBN data, but are now often given away for free by ebook retailer-publishers (such as Barnes & Noble) or for a minor fee (as the $19 fee charged by BookBaby), or they are simply eliminated altogether (e.g. Amazon, the major ebook publisher worldwide, with whom Bowker is understandably unhappy). But unless the price of an ISBN is all but eliminated (and soon), Bowker's days as caretakers of the univeral literary cataloging system are numbered (and in single digits, too).

Current costs (or "processing fees" as they're called) to purchase ISBNs outright from Bowker are $125 for a single number (which does not, by the way, include the actual barcode graphic - that costs $25 more), or $250 for a block of ten (which is what I bought), and $575 for 1000 (it goes up from there, but at that point you're not wasting your time reading this). Believe it or not, these are the recently reduced prices designed "to accommodate the digital identification needs of authors, publishers, libraries and the supply chain at large." A year ago a block of 1000 was $995. But even at a nearly 50% price reduction for that many, who's going to buy something that someone else is giving away for free? Especially when the highest prices are being charged for the smallest quantity. If anything, they should all cost the same regardless of how many you buy, since (like ebooks) there isn't anything physical actually being produced. But then, if you want to be the actual publisher of the book, you have to pay their fee.

In the end, the only identifier that will really work is one that incorporates all the new relevant data that surrounds a digital edition of a book, both external (production data) and internal (content data). Anything short of that is irrelevant.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

More About Amazon Rankings

Recently, the good folks over at NovelRank released the results of an interesting study they undertook in order to determine how various sales events effect book rankings on Amazon. Given the recent hullabaloo concerning the "fake your rankings" ebook scandal (if you can call it that), this comes at an appropriate moment, and gives us some real and useful information rather than the "scam your way to being famous" variety we've been inundated with of late.

The criteria of the study essentially set out to disprove (or support) several common "myths" concerning how Amazon's ranking system works. Amazon won't divulge the information themselves, but the practical application of a few controlled experimental purchases provided some useful facts nonetheless. Among the most interesting discoveries was that returns do not negatively impact sales rank (i.e. the book is returned, but the sales rank remains), and that sales of a book on multiple orders increases the ranking more than multiple sales of that title on the same order (so if you're buying your own book, only buy one at a time!).

Visit the NovelRank blog post to read the details and learn more. Also, if you're an author I encourage you to employ their definitive ranking and analysis tools to your benefit. They're very cool, they're impressively fast and thorough, and best of all, they're free!

One "myth" not tackled in the study, however, was that "if you buy your way to the top, someone else will buy your book too."

Friday, January 14, 2011


The latest entity to jump into the ebook self-publishing/distribution melee is BookBaby, an offshoot of the highly successful indie music distributor CD Baby. Similar in many ways to Smashwords, which both act as distribution intermediaries between the author and the retail outlets (the new province of the ebook publisher), BookBaby differs mainly in its pricing structure. So far BookBaby has partnered with Apple, Sony, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon, with plans to add more.

Whereas Smashwords takes a percentage of every sale in the standard way (generally 15% off the top, leaving 85% of the net profits for the author), BookBaby's approach is to charge a flat-rate fee up front, and take nothing from each sale. Consequently, for authors selling a significant volume, this may well be a better way to go. But determining where the sweet spot is will take some careful math, and not a little intuition (something akin to futures forecasting or mystical insight).

For example, at their standard title setup fee of $149 (currently cut to $99 per ebook) you'd have to sell just 19 books a week at $2.55 each (with a 70% royalty in place at each retailer) to recoup your cost in one month. Any profits after that are yours, as BookBaby passes on 100% of the retailer's wholesale cost to the author, taking no fees other than the initial costs, plus a $19 annual fee after the first year to keep the title "in print" (but see below for the caveats!). This also includes free ePub conversion from .doc, .html or .txt files.

They are assuming, of course (and rightly so), that most ebooks will never sell that many in a year (or ever), let alone a month. But if you're one of those self-pubbed authors who have reached a volume of roughly 80 units a month per title then this might be a serious consideration. Of course, you can sell half that and cover your costs in two months, or however long you like; but as a business model, you'll have to decide where that cutoff lies, and at what price you can guarantee that quantity of sales. Otherwise you're just shooting craps. And good luck with that as your strategy.

As with every business deal, there are caveats and stipulations, and not a little fine print. The base fee is for text-only ebooks with up to 30 chapter headings, and includes an interactive table of contents. Anything after that costs extra (including $19 for an ISBN if you need one, which is required). So for graphics, charts or tables, additional chapters, or multimedia features such as embedded audio or video the fees accrue rather rapidly. Again, you'll have to decide for yourself at what point the cost offsets the benefits.

If you just want to get your ebook on Amazon or B&N your best bet is to deal directly with them. But Sony and Apple are a little stricter and require leaps through far more hoops to get into their stores. A one-time fee will get your ebook out in four major retail outlets, and net you a larger share of the back-end than Smashwords, whose net royalties equate to roughly 60% of list. That extra ten percent could make a difference down the road.