Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Ring Saga Archives

Click image to visit the Archives!
I've spent the past few weeks loading content back onto the Fantasy Castle Books website, and now have nearly a hundred pages of resources for the further study and enjoyment of both Beowulf and the Ring cycle matter, including over a hundred individual files you can download for free in a variety of formats. There are links from bookshelf collections on each page like the one seen above, some leading to other shelves with additional titles to dive into. 

This is only about half of what I've got, and many of the bookshelf titles in the Ring cycle portion of the site have no links yet, but that's about as far as I'm going to go for now, as I need to get back to work on creating original content for The Ring Saga, which I've put off for far too long. I'll add more resources to the site as I find time, but for anyone interested in the Old Norse sagas and mythology there's plenty there to delve into. There are also a fair number of pages devoted to my own creative work, including both art and story content, and more will be added there as I find time as well. As always, the front page of the site will list any new additions, and I may also start mentioning them here.

If there are any particular areas not yet available on the website that you're interested in, let me know and I'll push it to the top of my priority list. I know some of you have shown an interest in other, earlier retellings of the Ring cycle story so I'll add a page with links to some of that, as well as the Arthur Rackham illustrations I had promised. For those of you in the Old Norse study group make sure you check out the Elder Edda and Volsunga Saga pages, as they have links to download a lot of the "Comparative Study" editions I put together.

Click the image above to go directly to the Ring Saga Research page, or click the Fantasy Castle Books tab at the top to hit the main page of the website. And as always, I welcome any feedback, comments, questions, or issues you may have. Just drop a note here or via the Contact page on the site.

By the way, I've added sample chapters of my books that you can download in three formats, and you can now once again read the entire first chapter of The Ring Saga online, plus some shorter online excerpts from The Saga of Beowulf. Just hit the Samples page for the online stuff or go to the Bookstore for the downloadable files.

And lastly, if you haven't taken advantage of the free ebook offer yet, you can still get any one of my titles free until the end of the month. Even if you've already got them, downloading from the Fantasy Castle Bookstore will get you automatic membership status with access to restricted content and all future upgrades, as well as all available formats of that title now and in perpetuity, so no matter what e-reader you use in the future you will always be able to read the ebooks you get directly from my website.

UPDATE: Many of The Ring Saga archive files have been temporarily removed as I re-evaluate the project, which has become considerably larger and more complex than first anticipated. You can still view much of the early concept art for the initial project test, including the cover for the first chapter which was published as a chapbook. Stay tuned for future updates as new material is completed and the old archives are returned in their appropriate time and place.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Saga of Beowulf Archives

I have finally completed rebuilding The Saga of Beowulf portion of the online Archives, or at least as much of it as I could dredge up from the wreckage of the previous website. There are four levels of menus, each featuring a bookshelf filled with resources for the study and enjoyment of either the original Beowulf poem or my novelization of it - just click on a bookshelf item to open it. These range from outlines and story summaries to chronologies and genealogies not found in the novel, as well as maps, detailed glossaries and a handful of downloadable texts, including my original feature film screenplay. There is video and audio content, high-resolution artwork, and a few additional hidden bonus features. In addition, there is an Art Gallery, with six clickable artist easels featuring artwork created for the novel, each of which take you to a page with notes and alternate artwork.

I will now turn my attention to The Ring Saga, reconstructing the Archive I had started for that project. Once the resources for chapter one are up I'll begin posting materials for the new chapters as I complete them. You can currently get Chapter 1: Theft of the Rhinegold as a free download, but only until the end of the month. After that each new chapbook will be posted as a limited edition offer. There will also be a members-only area with bonus content not included in the print or ebook editions. Membership is granted automatically with the purchase of any book from the Fantasy Castle Books website, including the free ebooks currently available through the 31st.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Public Libraries In Crisis Infographic

The American Library Association released a compelling infographic yesterday relating a number of unsettling facts regarding the current state of public libraries, which can best be described as "in turmoil," due primarily to budget cuts, but equally to the shifting trend toward digital distribution of books, with its requisite infrastructure requirements.

This has demanded an enormous expenditure of resources (both financial and logistic) in transitioning to the new mode of operations, exactly at a time when public funding has been cut due to the recent financial crisis - a crisis, by the way, which is in large part due to the electronic revolution itself: a large percentage of U.S. commerce now occurs online where little if any taxes are collected, thus lowering the pool of funds just such institutions as schools and libraries rely on.

Just ten years ago nearly all commerce occurred locally, or at least regionally, and people still asked questions like "is it safe to buy stuff online?" and "aren't you afraid someone will steal your credit card number?" When was the last time you heard that? The point is that buying online is now not only an accepted means of doing business, but very often the preferred one. Amazon's ongoing battles with state and federal governments regarding tax collections are just one part of this phenomenon. The other part of that equation is school and public libraries losing funds to stock their shelves.

For the past three years around 60% of U.S. public libraries have reported decreased budgets, while at the same time demand for services has risen proportionally: computer use is up 60% and Wi-Fi use up 74%. Anyone with a data plan knows what a 74% increase in bandwidth use can cost. An astonishing number to me was that 62% of public libraries are the sole provider of free public access to the Internet in their communities. And this is actually down from 73% in 2006. I guess a lot of towns still don't have a Starbucks yet.

The positive side of this equation is that 76% of public libraries now provide ebooks to their patrons - up from just 38% in 2007 - and a surprising 39% now offer reading devices for checkout. In addition, more and more resources are now found online, making equity of access to information and services a growing concern among rural and poorer communities without a strong digital infrastructure. And off course, all that new technology is putting an enormous drain on the shrinking budgets of libraries as they struggle to meet their patrons' needs.

As you can see from the infographic, providing training and online job searching is a fundamental service of public libraries, as over three-quarters help their patrons complete online job applications and 96% offer assistance in accessing online governmental services, such as unemployment and medical benefits. 90% provide technical training to help them do so (as in, how to use the computer and navigate the Internet).

It's surprising how many people just expect libraries to be there when they need or want them, but give no thought to how they're paid for. That's a statistic I'd like to see in an infographic some day.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Sci-Fi & Fantasy Infographics

As I've mentioned many times before, I love Infographics. and lately I've received a few comments from other readers who do too. So I thought I'd share a few of a my favorites with book-related topics that you may have missed.

A classic, of course, is this monster blob Ward Shelley did on The History of Science Fiction back in 2009. It has a small offshoot for Fantasy as well, although it's sketchy and leaves out some important works, so I'd like to see one done exclusively for the Fantasy genre. But if you're really into Sci-Fi and want a historical overview of what to read, this one is as good as any. Shelley, by the way, does charts reminiscent of the epic Wall Chart of World History by Edward Hull back in 1890, of which I have a facsimile edition. I like the style, and the overall graphic representation of a sci-fi alien fits it perfectly.

SF Signal just recently did one on the Hugo Award that has some interesting historical points as well. Along with a nice historical overview of the award and six of the major winners, it has a timeline that points out some of the major works and authors in the genre, as well as breaking down some stats about the award categories.

Toward the end of last yearNPR published a list of the Top 100 Sci-Fi / Fantasy reads compiled from over 60,000 listener votes, and once again SF Signal put together a nice visual guide based on that data. Not technically an Infographic, it's presented as a Flowchart to help you navigate the mammoth list, according to your interests and personal reading preferences, which is always a better way to approach ranked lists of other people's favorites. It's quite humorous to read though, too. SF Signal has also just recently added an online interactive version, which is kind of fun, and you can also download a high-resolution version, good for printing or for those of us with bad eyesight.
And finally, Goodreads just did one back in March on Dystopian Fiction, which has seen a rapid rise in popularity lately, particularly among the Young Adult crowd. This is not all too surprising, given the recent financial meltdown and increasing popularity of anti-establishment demonstrations such as Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party protests. Steampunk and cybergoth is at an all-time high, and this chart barely scratches the surface of what's been written on the subject of oppressed societies and post-apocalyptic worlds. From Ayn Rand's Anthem and Atlas Shrugged to James Dashner's The Maze Runner and Jeanne DuPrau's The City of Ember, there is plenty to read in this genre, so long as books remain free! For more selections take a look at Wikipedia's List of Dystopian Literature.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to File for Bankruptcy

One of my predictions for 2012 was that one of the major trades would fall prey to bad business decisions based on outmoded operating models and file for bankruptcy protection, and today the Wall Street Journal reports that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have done just that.

In retrospect this is hardly surprising, given HMH's heavy reliance on the educational market, which has declined by 48% over the past four years, due primarily to cuts in school budgets, but also because of a shift away from printed textbooks to laptops and tablets. In addition, they've been struggling under a capital restructuring plan since January (their second in as many years), with a hefty burden of $3.1 billion dollars in debts that is nearly three times their total gross sales for all of 2011 ($1.3 billion before expenses). And as with all the major trades, HMH has been reluctant to transition into digital, with major list authors like J.R.R. Tolkien only recently becoming available in official ebook editions (just this February for Tolkien, in fact).

Such blundering moves by short-sighted corporate heads are not uncommon, and HMH have made their share. Just four years ago the head of the trade division resigned in protest when the company put a freeze on acquisitions of new titles, a move seen by trade insiders as a monumental blunder when faced with lagging sales. Without new books to offer sales can only stagnate and decline. In 2009, HMH was ranked the 10th worst place to work in America, according to one survey.

In truth, HMH has been operating in debt for over a decade, with new ownership or mergers occurring nearly every year since 2001. But none of the new owners or executives were visionary enough to see the shifting tradewinds, or turn about a ship clearly riding contrary to the current. Whether or not it can ride out the tide will depend on how quickly and effectively they can retool for the new digital medium, particularly with regard to taking on Apple for domination of the educational arena. But big boats turn slowly, and Apple are already heading in the right direction. If HMH simply continue to operate on the business-as-usual model that ship is gonna sink.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Comments on the Top 10 Most Read Books In The World

I saw this the other day and thought it was really interesting. First of all, it's a cool way to visualize the data, and the graphic itself is nicely done, with the font and design elements replicating the actual print editions of each title. I like graphics, and I like statistics, and I like books, so this was right up my alley.

Of course, what's most interesting is the content. What it represents is the number of copies each of the top ten titles has sold in the past fifty years. That is sold, mind you, not read. There's a big difference. Of these top 10 titles, six are works of fiction (seven if you're an atheist), with the top and bottom two falling into the non-fiction category. The top and bottom are works of an historical nature, while the second to the top and bottom fall into the "inspirational" category, at least in intent (and only if you find these subjects inspiring, of course). Six of these works were originally written in English, and all but The Holy Bible within the last century. Nearly all of the popular fiction works fall within the past fifty years, within the time frame that the statistics take into account (or very shortly before that) - only The Lord of the Rings and Gone With The Wind are older than that - while the three most well recognized by modern readers fall into the "pop culture" bin of the most recent two to three decades (these being Harry Potter, The DaVinci Code, and The Twilight Saga, the most poorly written of the bunch, and of modern literature in general).

Conversely, all of the non-fiction works are more than fifty years old, save for Mao's Little Red Book (otherwise known as Quotations from...), which was first published in 1964. Think and Grow Rich was issued in 1937 and continues to be the best-selling "get rich quick" treatise on the market, and will likely remain so for as long as there are people who want to get rich just by thinking about it (the book, of course, is not about getting rich quick at all, but that seems to be what everybody thinks it's about). After all, it costs nothing to read (if you're a patron of the local library, that is), and even less to sit around thinking about getting rich all day.

My bet is that the three "pop culture" titles will fall off the list within the next ten years, while the more well-crafted works will remain, at least until equally well-crafted and deserving works appear. The influence of The Lord of the Rings has only grown with time as readers discover its astonishing depth and complexity, while Harry Potter's influence will likely wane as the legions of fans outgrow their childhood (if not their fifth grade reading level) and The Twilight Saga becomes gradually indistinguishable from the hundred other vampire-werewolf romance novels out there. Of the "pop culture" trio only The DaVinci Code will have any lasting impact, due not only to its controversial subject matter, but also its pseudo-historical context, which proves ever relevant and fascinating for conspiracy theorists of a literary bent (and there will always be boat-loads of those). The Alchemist is a bit of a dark horse here, being a truly unique entry among these titles, as both a work of fiction and an inspirational self-help allegory. It's hard telling what a book like this will say to people from one generation to the next. It's difficult to say what it means to people today.

As for the other non-fiction works, Mao's book will disappear as soon as he does (i.e. not soon enough), and Gone With the Wind will be just that, as younger generations fail to find an interest in outdated fictional history (read: stuffy and irrelevant). Anne Frank, of course, will have a lasting impact on the history of civilization, of the type that only grows with time and perspective - up to a point, at which it becomes ancient history, and no longer poignant (after all, who reads Caesar these days?). But that won't happen in our lifetime, because for at least the next century WWII will remain recent history, all too close for comfort. What will become of The Holy Bible is anyone's guess. Religion is a fickle mistress.

What would be more interesting here, to my mind, would be a comparative statistic of how many of these purchased books were actually read. The graphic's caption makes the distinction between number of books printed and number actually sold, but more important is the number actually read, a figure unfortunately impossible to determine. My guess is that more than half the Bibles lying around have barely had their covers cracked, while nearly every copy of Harry Potter has long since become tattered and dog-eared. The vast majority of purchased Bibles are bought in bulk by churches and related ministries to give away to third world nations and stock the drawers of cheap hotels. Additionally, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of variations of the Holy Bible, from tiny pocket editions in condensed form to fully annotated comparative editions in multi-column translations. All those count as a Bible sold. Still, 3.9 billion is a lot of books in any form. Too bad the author's not around to get those royalties.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Why Encyclopaedia Britannica Went Out Of Print

The Encyclopaedia Britannica has been publishing its behemoth multi-volume compendium of human knowledge for 244 years, since it first appeared in 1768. That first edition consisted of just 3 volumes running 2,670 pages, growing through continual revision and expansion until it reached its final size of 32,030 pages spread across 32 volumes with the 15th edition in 1985. Production of the initial 15th edition required ten years at a cost of $32 million. The cost of a full set would run you $2,200.

The glacially slow pace of production has always been a difficulty with print, and all the more so when its content is in need of continual revision. With the pace of information changing at an ever increasing speed, it was only a matter of time before the rate of change outpaced Britannica's ability to keep up. With a new edition being published only every quarter-century such innovations as the Internet or the iPad might not have gained an entry into Britannica until better than a decade after their advent. By the time the $32 million dollar 15th edition appeared it was already outdated.

Although a policy of "continual revision" had been instituted in 1933 to deal with just this issue (in which new printing was done every year, with time-sensitive entries being updated in the intervening months), rapidly evolving fields of knowledge such as science and technology have continued to escalate at an exponential rate, making even a year too long a span of time to stay up to date, particularly in the face of a globally networked information age where news appears online the moment it occurs.

But the beginning of the end for Britannica in print actually began back in 1980, when the publishers declined an offer from Microsoft to produce the first comprehensive CD-ROM encyclopedia, believing it would cheapen their brand and undermine print sales (sound familiar anyone?). Undeterred, Microsoft went on to create Encarta using content from Funk & Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedia instead. Encarta would become a mainstay of computer reference works for years to come, with the result that within three years of its release in 1993 sales of Britannica had declined by half, from an all-time high of $650 million in 1990 to $325 million by 1996, with print edition sales dropping from 117,000 to 55,000 units.

Meanwhile, the publishers had seen the errors of their ways and released a CD-ROM set of their own in 1994 (for just $995), as well as launching Britannica online, with a subscription rate of a mere $2000. Within two years the CD-ROM had dropped to two hundred bucks. The company was sold that same year to a Swiss financier for a paltry $125 million, a fraction of its former worth. Today, you can get the iPad app for free, with access to full content for just $1.99 per month. Information, they say, is power, and in a world where information is available only to the wealthy that power remains concentrated. When information is free, everybody is enriched.
The Britannica today: an interactive hyperlinked network of knowledge
Britannica has not been without its scandals or controversies either. From its cheapening through doorstep hawking during the Sears & Roebuck years (1920-1943), with its subsequent "simplifying" of information for a common populace, to the publication of Einbinder's scathing 1964 exposé, The Myth of Britannica (which found enough faults to fill up 390 pages of diatribe), it's hardly any wonder the free online resource Wikipedia flourished virtually overnight (Wikipedia is currently ranked #6 by Alexa, while E.B. Online is #114,852). Of course, it's two-thousand dollar price tag hasn't help much.

And lest you scoff at the vagaries of a public information database such as Wikipedia compared to the staunch authority that is the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the journal Nature undertook a study in 2005 that showed articles in Britannica to be hardly more accurate than those on Wikipedia: the former had an average 2.92 mistakes per article while the latter rated only marginally worse with 3.86. Of course, few would argue that the credentials of Britannica contributors are vastly more authoritative, although Wikipedia has gotten much more stringent in its reference requirements over the years. And if you're talking about online authority, Alexa reveals that 2,123,583 sites link in to Wikipedia, while only 7,180 link to eb.com, which tells us where people are getting their information these days.

But the real point of all this is the general shift from print to digital that's occurring globally. Print suffers in nearly every way when compared to digital. Not only is digital dynamic and interactive, but it's unhindered by print's inherent limitations via an infinite network of hyperlinks. It allows for instantaneous access to a wide array of media, its content is specifically targeted to the user's needs, and it's continually evolving as the network itself evolves: every link leads to a destination that may have been updated since your last visit, even if that visit was just an hour ago. It will not fade or age with time, every copy is an identical reproduction of the original, and it doesn't take up any space.

The end of Britannica in print should serve as an object lesson for other entrenched publishers and slow-moving behemoths. The world we live in today is changing rapidly, and one can either change with it or be left behind, because that change is coming whether you're onboard with it or not. The end of Britannica in print should not be marked with sadness for its passing, but rather as an affirmation of the march of human progress.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Ebooks Take Over USA Today Top 50

This is part of a new graphic put out by USA Today this week, showing the rise of ebook sales up the bestseller charts. The full chart shows dates running back to July 2009 when Amazon's ebook sales were first added to the bestseller charts, but entries in the top fifty were essentially non-existent until last January, so I haven't included that portion of the chart here. However, you can click though on the image to view it over at USA Today.

The only important points missing from the truncated chart above are the inclusion of Barnes & Noble ebook sales in December of 2009, and Sony's in February 2010, plus the singular event when I, Sniper by Stephen Hunter became the first ebook to crack the top 50, coming in at #48 on January 1st, 2010.

Points noted on the chart above include:
  1. First ebooks crack the Top 10 as post-holiday sales explode
  2. Kobo ebook sales added (no significant impact in the U.S.)
  3. Ebook sales begin to dip as holiday shoppers buy print books as gifts instead (and a whole lot of e-reading devices)
  4. Ebooks outsell print editions for every title in the Top 10, including 42 of the top 50 best selling titles
As with this week last year, ebook sales have increased exponentially after a holiday season in which literally millions of new e-reading devices were received as gifts. Forrester Research estimates that Amazon has sold some five million Kindle Fires since its launch in mid November, with Barnes & Noble adding two million new Nook Tablets to the fray. Apple, meanwhile, sent out around forty million iPads last year, although it's difficult to determine how many will be used to read ebooks. 

With digital editions overtaking print for the top spots on the bestseller charts, print is destined to decline even faster in the coming year, as print sales have largely been held up by the million-selling titles. Initial figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that print sales fell by 9% in 2011, due in part to the demise of Borders, who sold their final book in September. But if post-holiday ebook sales remain as stable this year as they did throughout the past year, ebooks might well achieve market dominance this year.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Amazon Reveals Library Loan Royalties

In a somewhat unprecedented move, Amazon has publicly revealed some very specific financial figures in a press release today. These concern the Kindle Library Lending Program and its fledgling counterpart, Kindle Select, in which authors are given a share of a half million dollar pot each month for every ebook they have enrolled in the program that is borrowed, based on the total number of loans that month.

December was the inaugural launch of the Kindle Select program, and until today no one knew how much to expect each loan to earn, as there were too many unknown variables, such as how many total loans there would be, how many titles would be enrolled in the program, and how those loans would be distributed among the current offerings. Would the top ten ebooks get the lion's share? Would everybody get a little? And how would anybody really know if Amazon never offered up the numbers? I floated some estimates in a post last month, but made no predictions. Amazon used the figure of 100,000 ebooks borrowed for their example.

The actual figure was 295,000. Thus, dividing the $500,000 pot by 295,000 loans results in a payout of $1.70 per ebook borrowed. And thus ends the speculation.

Now let me put that in perspective a bit. On a $2.99 ebook with a 70% royalty, an author receives $2.09 for each book sold, minus the download fee, which is .10 cents per megabyte. My "Complete Edition" ebook is 2.31 Mb, so .35 cents is taken out, leaving me with $1.74 - only four cents more than I now make when the book is loaned instead of purchased. This effectively increases my revenue, and brings new readers to my work. It's a win-win situation.

Let me put it in even more perspective. On a .99 cent book with a 35% royalty (the only royalty allowed for that price point), the author receives .35 cents. Total. But for each time that same ebook was borrowed in December, they will receive... yep, $1.70. More than the cost of the ebook. Nearly five times the royalty paid out for asale of that same ebook. Thus, rather than having to sell 100 books you can now loan out just 20 and make the same amount of money.

Now let me put this in another light. The average royalty for a traditionally published author is 10% on hardback sales up to 250,000 copies (12-15% for higher sales volume), and 6% for paperbacks. Minus 15% taken by the agent. Thus, for a $25 hardback the author receives $2.13 per copy sold ($2.50 minus 15%), but only when and if their advance has earned out (a $20,000 advance, for example, would require sales of over 9390 copies to start paying royalties; until then the author receives nothing beyond the advance). For a hardback book sold to a library to loan out innumerable times, that author receives... yep, $2.13. Total. Regardless of how many times that book is taped back together and checked out of that library. And that hardback is only available for sale for a short period of time, giving them a small window of opportunity to make that advance. After the paperback comes out our same author receives an average royalty of 6%, which on the average $6.50 title is just .39 cents... $1.31 less than our ebook author has just received for loaning out their title via Amazon.

For anyone that doesn't understand what Amazon is doing here, let me spell it out: they are buying authors. They are drawing authors in and stocking their shelves with exclusive content by paying out the best royalties in the business, giving them the best terms, the best tools, and the best distribution platform you could ever want: instant access, everywhere. Because of this, 75,000 titles are now enrolled in the Kindle Select program, up from 5000 available on launch. Exclusively. Meaning, you can't get those ebooks elsewhere. That is a requirement of the program.

And, just to make it more enticing, they have now just sweetened the deal: $200,000 more has been added to the pot for January, bringing the total to $700,000 that will go out to authors enrolled in the Kindle loan program this month. That would bring the royalty for those same 295,000 borrows to $2.38 instead of $1.70, more than the average traditionally published authors earns for selling hardbacks.

Of course, the more hardbacks an author sells, the more they earn. In this case, the more ebooks are loaned out the less each one earns. But for those that are loaned out in large numbers, the paycheck can be quite nice. Today's press release offered a few examples:
  • The top ten borrowed authors earned a total of $70,000 in December
  • Paranormal romance author Carolyn McCray received $8250
  • Romance writer Amber Scott's paycheck will be $7650
  • 16 year old children's book author Rachel Yu will get $6200
  • Plus, sales for KDP Select authors have risen by an average of 26%
Other publishers and book distributors are going to have a really tough time competing with this kind of stuff. Complain all you like about the megalithic empire that is Amazon, I defy you to name a single other entity that has done so much to get so many books in front of so many readers, and pay those authors for it.

Oh, and by the way, my payday will come to just a little over twenty dollars.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

KF8 & KindleGen2 Released

Amazon today finally released to the public the long awaited and much anticipated tools to produce ebooks in the new KF8 format, including a new Kindle Previewer, an upgrade to KindleGen 2, and a plug-in for InDesign that allows for KF8 export (minus a few of the enhanced features, such as Text Pop Ups and Panel Views). Links to each of these are provided below, as well as the associated documentation.

In addition, Amazon sent out a new survey to self-published authors today, which seeks to gather data on what they are looking for in a self-publishing service, what their past experiences have been, if any, with their own or other services, and asks for ratings of Amazon's offerings in this area if any have been used. So collectively it appears as if Amazon are poising themselves to actively champion the self-publishing cause, via a new enhanced format, new devices on which to distribute them, the tools with which to create them, and information on how best to serve the needs of content creators. I have, of course, completed the survey, with ample notes and commentary.

With the new format specs and tools having just come out today, it will take me a few days to sort through it all and test it out. I have nearly completed an iBooks fixed layout edition of my opening sample chapter, which I plan to upload early next week for your perusal, and as soon as I work out how to create an accurate KF8 version I'll upload that as well. Meanwhile, here are the links Amazon provided today, should you wish to go cavorting through some ebook code yourself...

More info will be posted as I have it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Growing Value of Reader Reviews

Carrying on from where I left off yesterday, it has become increasingly apparent that with the mass influx of new reading material on the market the average reader is rapidly becoming overwhelmed with choices. In a sea of three million new titles sorting out what's good from what is utter dreck is getting harder every day. This is the primary reason people tend to read the same few authors and titles that everyone else is reading, which is to say, what's currently being promoted heavily by the major trades via talk shows and magazine ads. It helps us sort through the ever-growing pile of work of only minor value or peripheral interest, works for which in business terms the potential return does not justify a large investment to promote. Consequently, more mainstream books are promoted, and works of "lesser interest" are left behind to wallow in obscurity.

Of course, many of those "minor" works are truly great. Not every great book has a huge potential audience: some genres and subjects are by their very nature smaller than others. But that does not imply no good work can be written on those subjects. Young adult vampire novels, for example, have a very large audience, while stories about, say, Sumerian mythological deities do not. That does not imply that all vampire novels are inherently excellent, and all (if there are any) newly written fiction concerning ancient Mesopotamian myths and legends are inherently bad. The latter will just never be read (or likely even published) because no viable publisher would ever put much effort into promoting it (unless it's been turned into a modern-day archaeological thriller by a major author, that is). Because of this, subjects of significant literary interest have become very narrow and overburdened with replicated content (much of it utter rubbish), while subjects with just as much potential literary value have been ignored and overlooked, even while some of it is extremely good (and often more imaginative).

This has been the state of affairs for much of the modern era, with a few narrow subjects such as crime thrillers and horror stories being promoted with lavish budgets and high praise from mainstream book reviewers while the vast majority of subject categories go unnoticed, aside from a handful of literary book reviewers who might take a fancy to a work of a more quirky nature. There has been, for example, an earnest and heartfelt effort to support small press publishers who produce works of social or personal drama, with the occasional Oprah selection of the month gaining incandescent notoriety. In general, though, the bestseller lists are populated with the same old dreck just written with different words.

That condition has been exacerbated by the literal flood of unfiltered material now inundating the world through self-publishing venues, much of which is drivel, but some among it bound to be quite good, if not astounding (while also odd, unconventional, or geared toward a rather narrow audience). Until now, one could place at least some minor faith in the traditional system which gleans (however inefficiently) through a virtual mountain of submissions to filter out the "best" of what's been written. Or so we would like to think. Define "best" how you like, but for the major trades this means "most potential return on investment" since they are, after all, first and foremost a business. However that may be, the enforcement of that filter has now been removed altogether (or rather, bypassed, as it were), and a veritable landslide of literary muck has been unleashed upon an unsuspecting public.
The question then, is how do we now discern what is of value when the traditional system has been usurped? Of course, the traditional system is still there, slogging away, so one answer is simply to keep doing what we've always done, and read what everyone else is reading, which is to say, what the six main publishers promote. Eventually all this other stuff will go away if no one pays it any mind, and we can go about our business knowing greater minds are deciding what is best for us in a comfortably Brave New World (ironically, Huxley postulated a world in which "the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance,"* where the general populace, unable to distinguish literary value for themselves, are reduced to passively accepting what is given them) [*Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death, 1985]. Sadly, that is not too far from the truth today.

But there is an alternative. There is another system already in place that can help us with our burden. It is built upon that most sacred and cherished of all commodities we possess: our own opinions, and those of others like ourselves. This system is made functional and relevant via the vast network of reader reviews on public sites like Goodreads, LibraryThing, book review blogs, and most importantly, online book retailers such as Amazon, whose reader review and recommendation engine is unparalleled. The more you read, the more you rate and review, the better the recommendations you receive. Social circles such as Goodreads help you discover books by seeing what others with interests similar to your own have read and rated. And of course, blogs that review books are a fundamental source for learning what is good and why.

In a world where every reader rated or reviewed each book they've read no good book would ever go undiscovered. Even in a year with over three million titles published, very few of those will go entirely unread by someone. But a great many of them will remain unreviewed, leaving the rest of us to wonder as to their quality, and casually pass them by.

The value of a book review is difficult to understate (and here I should specify that I mean reviews by readers unaffiliated with, and thus uninfluenced by, the publishing world, which casts a wide shadow over the media empires they control, including periodicals and TV stations). Even a simple one-to-five star rating tells the next potential reader much, particularly when it's an average based on a larger number of ratings. It also helps the author quite considerably in determining how their writing is received, and thus in trying to decide whether or not to bother writing another. A book that has no stars and no reviews is a book that few will ever read. It's an unknown quantity, an unnecessary risk in a world of opportunity, a gamble with those two other great commodities most of us have in short supply: our time and our money. But a minute spent rating a book that you've just read can save another reader (or yourself when selecting a book that others have rated and reviewed) a week or more of wasted time reading something that should never have been released in the first place, self-published or otherwise.

The days of benevolent gatekeepers looking out for our literary welfare are long gone. Regardless of whether it's independent or traditional, there is no one now evaluating the actual merit of what is being published but ourselves. Trade publishers tend to look at monetary rather than literary value, and self-published works are released regardless of value. Any given book published today can span the gamut of value, both monetary and literary. There is no real way to know unless someone has actually read the book and made the effort to give it an honest review.

And lest you think perhaps nobody pays attention to reader reviews, let me offer this bit of wisdom from personal experience: when Amazon recently added U.S. reviews to their U.K. site, my sales multiplied virtually overnight. No one in the U.K. had bothered to add a single review or rating to my debut novel, even though I'd sold well over a hundred copies there last year. With my U.S. reviews now available on the U.K. site my sales increased sevenfold, and I am currently on track to sell 780 copies this year just in the U.K. alone. Of course, some of that increase is likely due to holiday Kindle gifts that would have occurred regardless, but the effect was immediate and obvious when the reviews first appeared: seeing the increase in my sales report is what caused me to go looking at my book page on Amazon UK in the first place, to see if they had put the book on sale or something. They hadn't, but by adding the reviews they were helping to promote it in a very significant way.

So please, for your own sake, and the sake of every dedicated reader out there, take two minutes to rate each book you read this year, so that all of us can gain a better sense of what is out there worth our time. Better, take ten minutes and write a short review, describing what you liked or disliked, and why. This is particularly important for books with few or no reviews, as your opinion will carry a lot of weight with future viewers of that page. That being said, the opposite is true: if there are already over a hundred reviews don't bother adding your own as it will only be drowned out by the cacophony of voices, and clearly one more opinion is not needed. Certainly write one if you feel you have something of value to add to the conversation. But one more review of The Hunger Games won't convince anybody one way or the other, so save that for the fan sites. Instead, spend the effort posting your reviews of lesser read material, whether good or bad. Who knows, maybe you'll discover the next great work and start a literary landslide.

P.S. To all the book review bloggers out there, my heartfelt thanks and keep up the good work. You're serving a critical social function that's becoming more important every day.