Tag Archives: eBooks

Your Kindle Doesn’t Know How Much You Read

I write mysteries, and I know there are some people out there who like to skip to the end before they read the rest of the book. I’m not a big pain about spoilers, but this one has never made any sense to me. I’ve heard that for some people it eases the tension, or gives you an idea if you’ll like how the book turns out before reading the whole thing, but part of being a mystery writer is trying to build tension and interest, not reduce it.

SkipToTheEnd

But if my book were on Kindle Unlimited, then those people who skipped to the end would be making me more money.

So here’s what happened.

Last summer Kindle Unlimited changed its rules for how it pays out to authors from the lending library fund. Prior to the change, authors were paid by the borrow (if the reader read 10%). This system resulted in a lot of short books getting paid the same as longer ones. In fact, this happened to me with my Fractals You Can Draw booklet (unintentionally I might add). I made about $0.35 for every sale, and $1.35 for every borrow.

The new system was supposed to pay you by the page read (at a rate of roughly half a cent per page). But as it turns out the system was flawed. Kindle reported the number of pages read by the farthest position in the book, not by the number of actual pages read. So if your readers skipped to the end without reading anything else, instead of counting for just 2 pages, that read counted for the whole length of the book.

Scammers naturally took advantage of this, using click-bait techniques and phonebook sized dummy books to rack up as many “pages read” as possible. In February, Amazon limited the maximum number of pages to 3000, which could still net you a little over $12 a book.

And here’s how it affects indie authors like me.

For starters the scammers are taking a big chunk out of the total lending fund, which is a fixed pool we all fight for a piece of (you can read a great analysis of this situation here). And if the scammers are top performers, they not only get the pages read, but some nice bonuses as well. And they negatively add to the reputation that all self-published books are crap.

But the other side of the coin is that Amazon’s failure to write good pages read detection code affects authors who use “scammy” techniques to provide what they think is a better reading experience.

One of the best ways for someone who’s never read your book before to decide if they want to buy from you is to read as much as possible. So a lot of authors chose to put the Table of Contents at the back of the book instead of the front, since the eReader can take them straight to it anyway. This meant that the TOC wasn’t taking up valuable sample book real estate. And even those who didn’t make this choice deliberately may have inadvertently done it by using book conversion tools like Calibre. In fact, some older eReaders prefer the contents to be at the back, otherwise they can’t detect them.

All of my eBooks actually have a front TOC and a back TOC to have the widest range of compatibility. Newer eReaders, like my current Fire, render the TOC as a side-bar, giving me direct navigation. To take advantage of similar navigation techniques on older readers, both TOC locations were required. But I have a hunch that at least some of my pages read (particularly the 582 spikes), resulted from someone going to the back TOC before reading the book. Again, not the reason I put that TOC there (for a book that was published several years ago I might add), but a factor nonetheless.

Earlier this month Amazon starting sending quality notices to authors requesting that they reformat their books or have them removed from sale. Amazon later revised this policy, stating that the back TOC is not recommended, but not in and of itself a violation of the publishing guidelines. I haven’t received a quality notice for any of my books (and Fractals: A Programmer’s Approach is the only enrolled in Kindle Unlimited anyway, though that hasn’t necessarily mattered to those getting the notices). If I do get a notice I will give my strenuous objections for why I want to retain backward compatibility. And then I may end up reformatting the book anyway.

The funny thing is, if my book were purchased by a regular library I’d get a tiny chunk of that sale, once per book, not per read, or per pages read. Kindle Unlimited, as a subscription service, is a different animal, and I think authors are entitled to a chunk of that pie. But I’ve always looked at it more like the library model, a way for people to try before they buy, or to get my book to people who can’t afford it, but still want to read it (though this last falls apart a bit with a $120 a year service).

I think Amazon needs to act with a more nuanced hand and instead of painting all indie authors with the same brush, try to enact better controls for getting rid of crappy books. And they need to write the code to actually detect pages read, rather than try to punish others for their lack of foresight.

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Some other great articles on this subject are here and here. If all this is kind of making you annoyed with Amazon, there are many other great places to buy eBooks including Smashwords, where my latest cyber-noir mystery, Surreality, is available for all of your eReaders and without the nasty DRM.

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The Trailing Edge of Technology

We live in age of fairly continuous advancement in technology. Admittedly a lot of that progress is incremental, processors get a little denser, hard drives get a little bigger, and internet speeds stay roughly the same. But in my roughly 30 years on this earth I’ve seen the transition away from big floppies, to small floppies, to tapes, to CD’s, to DVD’s, to flash drives, to portable hard drives to solid state drives to the cloud.

But the thing is, as advanced as we are, there are a lot of us who still use older technologies in our everyday lives.

I used floppy disks regularly (the 3.5″ variety) until about 2003. I didn’t have a CD burner on my computer until later that year and that was also roughly the same time I saw someone with a flash drive. The year before I even distributed a software project for a country simulation on floppy disk. I used to cary around a little white box that had about 60 disks containing all my programs, games, books, music and files. The disks were even color coded to indicate what was on them. I still had a floppy drive on a computer until last year when I finally sold my old desktop (though I’m still searching for a reliable USB powered one so I can get old games).

Adopting new technology is expensive. My first flash drive was twice the size of the white box in terms of storage capacity, and cost $40 (for 128MB). My first external hard drive was $300 for 320GB (I don’t buy computers now for much more than that price). My first computer was $1300 and my first laptop was $800. My first tablet was $200 (which may have been a little cheap compared to the iPad, but still). CD’s used to cost 15 dollars and DVD movies the same or maybe even five bucks more.

And we don’t throw out technology immediately after we buy it. We try to figure out what’s a good technology to invest in and stick with so we can build our collections. CD’s and DVD’s get a bad rap in this regard. Even though a lot of things have moved to digital or pure streaming services, computers are still very compatible with the optical disk format. It’ll probably be another 5-10 years before getting an optical drive on a standard size laptop will be an add-on not a default. And if we drive cars, those are usually at least five years behind in terms of media adoption. The CD was created in 1982 but my Dad’s 96′ Taurus still had a tape deck. In fact most of my generation’s first high-school cars had a tape deck and had to use that weird tape to CD converter thingy (God knows how it worked) to plug-in a portable CD player.

Even those of us making a decent middle class wage can’t afford to adopt everything, and definitely not in its first year. Sometimes this works to our benefit as it allows us to avoid dead technologies like HD DVD and before that Laser Disk (and probably soon the new Apple watch).

But one of the best illustrations of the trailing edge is the library.

I worked in my local library in 2002-2003, around the time DVD’s were first starting to take over for VHS in the collection. Now at the time DVD’s had been around for about five years (the first one I ever owned might have been in 2000 and it was a gift). A lot of people still had VHS players and extensive VHS collections and didn’t have the money to switch over. The library wants to serve the greatest swath of the public and so it will often keep technolgies long after they are “dead” in the public conciousness, because the reality is many people still use that tech. Today that trailing edge for VHS is thrift stores. The one in Delaware has a whole long wall of VHS tapes to be had for a quarter. For those of us who didn’t want to pay 20-30 bucks for the original versions of the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD, finding them for a quarter is pretty good.

The same can be said of the libraries’ books. Sure a lot of us have tablets, eReaders and smart phones that can all read eBooks. And libraries, including my local branch, are beginning to focus as much on digital lending as phyiscal. But not everyone has the ability to read eBooks. I gained mine maybe in late 2011. eBook sales while rising most years are still a small part of the book market. Books are literally a dead-(tree) technology, but I have a feeling they may have one of the longest trailing edges of anything we’ve ever created.

What old tech have you used recently? Remember having to rewind tapes with a pencil?

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Ben talks to book fondlers

I spent the labor day weekend organizing my office. This can at times seem like a Sisyphean task, throwing out, recycling, giving things away to garage sales or Goodwill, and selling books. I actually managed to make some rather stunning progress over the course of three days, but it has led me to inescapable conclusion:

I have too much stuff, especially media.

My Dad did a recent post on the benefits of physical books, quoting Churchill’s advice to hold you books from time to time, even if you’re not going to read them. Dad actually has a pretty even hand, promoting a both/and culture, though still seeming to prefer the tangible qualities of books as keepsakes and memories. And I have to admit, having some of my grandmother’s old Bible’s is pretty cool.

But there are others who practice an almost fanatical devotion to the physical book, regardless of content or context. They speak of the smell of the pages, the bookmarks and other items they hide in-between the covers. They evoke the touch of aged yellowing paper, the satisfaction of physical weight, etc.

As someone who has been surrounded by books all his life I think these sorts of people need a reality check (albeit a playful one).

The physical book is a piece of technology: The printed book is an amazing technological achievement, and has been responsible for the democratization of knowledge and story telling. But at the end of the day it is just one kind of medium with a certain set of properties. Books have permanence, even cheap ones can last decades. They only require energy in their initial creation (as opposed to the battery powered e-Reader). Books can be any size and shape, with variations in quality of paper, typeface and binding.

The modern eReader is light, holds charge for a long time, can hold thousands of books, and is roughly the size of a paperback. If we’re talking the Nook in specific, it is contoured to fit comfortably in your hand, turning pages with a gesture or button press. And it is free from the distractions of tablets and computers (even the Kindle Touch has games and a browser which can be occasionally diverting). Millions of books are available within seconds and you can hold a library in your hand you’d need a whole house to store.

The best books make the best use of their medium. The printed sci-fi paperback, mystery novel, literary genre, romance novel etc. is really no different in one form or the other. Sure the weight of a big book can make it feel like an accomplishment, but the younger generation is already pretty used to the idea of non-physical gratification. The artbook, the colorful textbook, the children’s book (sometimes) are better suited to paper. But well crafted tablet eBooks and apps can offer ways to tell a story books cannot.

Not all books are created equal: As I organize and try to live well in my house, I need to be able to differentiate between the book I’ll read once (if that), and the book I’ll keep coming back to. If it’s a book I love, I’ll get the nicest copy possible (but I’ll probably also keep an electronic copy for everyday use). Almost all technical references are better served on a tablet device (which can hold 1000 pages as easily as 100) and have search capabilities and hyperlinks. These books don’t need the permanence of dead trees, as they’ll be out of date in 5-10 years anyway.

One of the reasons I wrote an electronic Fractal reference was because there were so few affordable and available for the eReader. More than half of my research was done using dead tree books, often the day’s work had to be carefully selected, as my bag could only carry a couple of books at a time. Sure I love having two shelves of fractal books, but it would be equally nice to just carry them on a tablet when I’m working out.

Keep memories: Keep your nice books that have meaning to you. I’m not the kind of guy who writes in books, but reading the marginalia of my other relatives is nice. But just because something is old does not mean it is precious. I have plenty of old books I obtained cheaply from Half Price Books or library sales that have little particular significance to me (even if occasionally the old cover is cool). But bookshelves don’t show cool old covers, but well organized eBook libraries can. Agatha Christie is a good example. I have about two dozen of her books on my eReader, and a number of old paperbacks. She’s one I’ll replace with an eBook copy, then sell the physical.

I guess my message is, it’s okay to have stuff, just don’t have it because you acquired it thoughtlessly. I’ve lived a life where books just piled up, and now I’m having to weed them back just to make my places of writing and working livable again. I like having some physical books (my complete Peanuts collection is a treasure for example), and I certainly have a lot of kids books and Hardy Boys in the wings for my hypothetical child to enjoy. But I also had a lot of junk that kept me from getting the most out of my library. And even a lot of the things I enjoy for entertainment’s sake, are best kept on a device that doesn’t get bigger with each book I add. Interests change over time, and an eReader full of books I no longer want to read at least isn’t keeping my door from opening.

Woo rambling post. Got any thoughts of your own?

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Really we’re to blame

It’s pretty easy to pick sides in the Amazon vs. Hachette contract negotiation battle. Amazon is evil for removing the buy buttons off many (though not some of the bestselling) Hachette titles, and Hachette is foolhardy for taking this long to negotiate with one of the largest book distributors in the world, considering that the average consumer doesn’t think about publishers, they think about authors.

But here’s the thing, Amazon may be evil for squeezing profit margins down to razor thin amounts, or requiring the eBook to stay at a certain price, but if we wanted that to change, if we actually wanted to make sure that authors and publishers got more of our money, then we would need to be willing to change our behavior.

See the solution to Hachette’s problem with Amazon could be so simple. Instead of selling eBooks through Amazon, it could sell them through its own site, DRM free in epub, mobi and pdf formats. That way the customer actually owns the book, and can read it on the reader or tablet of their choice.

But that solution will never work for two simple reasons: Consumers don’t really care that they don’t own their eBooks (or they simply don’t think about it), and even if they do care, most do not want to have to manage their eBook libraries themselves.

Buying eBooks from many different sources requires organization, and even though there are plenty of good software options for doing so, most would rather Amazon just do it. Hachette’s audience is broad, it houses some of the most popular authors. Sure, some of its audience is tech savvy, but many just want to read and not think about it.

And yeah, maybe you don’t own an ebook, but does it really matter if you’re only ever going to read it once, and you only paid a couple of bucks for it? There’s always risk in losing something, you could be robbed, you could lose a physical book, or drop it in a puddle, or whatever. Owning a book DRM free may reduce your risk of losing the book, but not significantly enough for people to change behavior.

And worst of all, we each make perfectly rational personal economic decisions when it comes to buying books (i.e. we buy the cheapest book we can find). If I want a lot of ebooks, I will want to buy them cheap, and apart from a few book bundles, the answer to that is Amazon. As an author, publishing on Amazon is a must because it’s the best channel for people finding my niche work, despite the fact I can get a better royalty almost anywhere else. But higher percentages don’t matter if they aren’t matched by higher sales.

Now some of us are charitable. We think about who our money is going to, or we’re willing to pay a few extra dollars to get a better product (I’m doing this with the comic book Saga by buying it directly from Image instead of waiting for the cheaper trade). But if we have finite dollars, we probably can’t do that for everything we like, unless we’re willing to buy less things, and that doesn’t seem like us.

So yeah, Amazon is evil. And we’re totally going to keep buying from them anyway. And Hachette is going to keep selling through them. And so am I.

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Update: The “Real” Book Experiment

Well it’s been a few weeks and I thought I’d give you a quick update on how it’s been going reading a physical book.

In short, not terribly well.

I’ve had two trips these past couple of weekends, both of which provided ample time for reading. And I did read. I finished Just a Geek on my Nook, and I made some decent progress on The Falcon at the Portal and read a couple of novel samples on the Kindle.

(Speaking of which, somebody’s going to have to convince me The Bone Season is worth slogging through. I couldn’t get past the first ten pages).

A Morbid Taste for Bones was in my bag on both trips, though the first I considered leaving it behind. But, not once did it leave my bag.

Now it has occurred to me that it’s possible that even though I thought the Cadfael was good it might not be what I’m in the mood for right now. It also is possible that I was determined to finish a book on the Nook in particular to justify its purchase (testing the fractal book was a good initial excuse, but eReaders aren’t cheap).

As it happens, I returned a day early from my trip to a friend’s lake house, which gave me ample time to check out the Labor Day 20% off sale at Half Price Books. This is the sale where I trudge the clearance section to get a little more shaved off, or look deeply in the sections I usually skim.

Along the way I found a copy of Terry Pratchett’s first Discworld series book, The Color Of Magic. This is a book I’ve intended to read for a while, and at only a little over $5 for the Kindle, it’s frankly a little surprising I hadn’t bought it already. At Half Price the book was $3.75 and I was genuinely considering not buying it (saving a dollar is nice, but it still seems to be true the book stands a better chance of being read on the Kindle). But with 20% that $3.75 became $3.00.

What a difference $0.75 makes eh?

I’ve dived right into this one, getting about 30 pages in my first day (10% to the eReader crowd). We’ll see if it keeps up, but for the moment I now have two books in my bag.

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The “Real” Book Experiment

It’s been more than a year since I’ve read (or bought) a physical book for pleasure.

I’m surrounded by them in my office, but the books I actually read are on gray tablets with touch screens and internet access.

This last weekend I decided to break the fast.

I thought I’d start small, with a good old-fashioned mystery, in this case Ellis Peters’ A Morbid Taste For Bones. My choice in part was based on watching some of the Cadfael Masterpiece Mystery specials on Netflix and observing that none of her books were available for the Kindle or Nook.

Ironically after I got home and rechecked Amazon on a whim they had put out the first five or so of the Cadfael series for $4.99 apiece in the couple of weeks since I’d last checked. The last book in this series was published nearly 20 years ago, so I wasn’t really expecting Kindle to change its ways any time soon but there you are.

Prior to this experiment I might have just dropped the $4.99 to read the book on the Kindle, but I was able to buy the first two books for less than $4.00 as thin paperbacks, adding them to the five or six later volumes I’d received from my dad. Mysteries are one of the genres doing best as eBooks, as is other genre fiction like sci-fi and romance, so I thought I’d see which experience was “better” (more cozy, comfortable, satisfying).

From time to time in the next few weeks I thought I’d reflect on the difference between the Ellis Peters mystery I am reading in paperback, and the Elizabeth Peters book I’m reading on the Kindle. I’m really loving the “convenience” of reading on an eReader. But a paperback just a little bit thinner should not be all that more inconvenient, right?

One thing I can tell off the bat is that reading a real book requires two hands. Maybe not for holding the book up and reading what’s on two pages, but page flips with a single hand are nigh-on impossible, whereas with a Nook its ridiculously easy. But I’m not flipping those pages nearly as often, with smaller type and two pages facing me instead of a single screen. And the book is quicker to “boot”.

This used to be the only way I read, and already it’s feeling a little foreign to me. That if nothing else says something about the pace of technology.

The real test will be in my favorite reading spot, or in bed.

Have you ever taken a step back in technology just to remember what it was like? Watched a VHS instead of a DVD? Played a record instead of a CD or MP3? Read a physical newspaper? Leave your comments, and future “real book” suggestions below.

 

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All the (book) news that’s fit to print

Or whatever you call the rearranging of electrons on hard drives.

About a week ago I was at the thrift store, when I saw something a little chilling. Out front, next to a pile of forlorn $5 TVs was a bin of ten cent books. By bin I mean recycling bin, long and gray and dirty, with the books piled high with no thought or arrangement. Maybe to somebody this was a treasure hunt, provided you didn’t mind standing out in hot muggy weather. For me, it was something to glance at briefly, then retreat to the safety of the air conditioning within.

I appreciate moments like this one, little reminders to take a step back and reassess my feelings about books. The last physical book I bought was less than a few weeks ago and it was, predictably, a fractal book (Even now that the book is done I seem to be gathering materials for volume 2). But the last fiction book I purchased was probably six months ago. The last one I can remember anyway was one of the Scalzi books, and truth be known they are cheap enough as eBooks that I’ll probably go that route anyway.

Five years ago, or maybe even less, a bin full of 10 cent books would have been a treasure, something I would have dug through every inch (and with the dirt there may have been some actual digging). I’d come out with my stack of 10 books and happily hand over my dollar, knowing that if even one of the books was any good it’d be worth it.

It’s certainly not about the money. If anything I’m spending more on books than I ever was. And as much as I work with machines I don’t really trust them to be my permanent archive. But well, shocking as it may seem, most books I read I will only read once, and will probably never look at again.

This has always been true for me, if I really think about it. I can probably count all the books I’ve re-read on my fingers and toes, whereas the books I’ve read for the first time might not be accurately counted by the hairs on my body. Reading a book is a time consuming, and somewhat exhausting experience, and I want to read as many as I can while I’m still on this earth. I’m not saying I don’t have favorites, but few seem worth coming back to, even if I as a person have changed since my last reading. Maybe that says more about my reading, but it is what it is.

But nonetheless I used to love being surrounded by books, of feeling the weight of them (I’m not a book sniffer but I do love the look and feel). Now it’s all just “media” a delivery mechanism without importance one way or another. I feel like I’ve lost something, even as I’m reading more than I ever did before.

Maybe I need to take some time and read a real (and by real I mean physical) book again, one for pleasure and not research. And maybe in six months I’ll come to the same conclusion again. Gotta love cyclical thinking.

What’s the last physical book you ever purchased? How about read?

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