As I was saying . . .

April 9th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about some of the issues that arise when a for-profit company offers a free service. A week later, as if to prove my point, it was announced that Amazon has purchased Goodreads. There has been quite a bit of outcry about this, ranging from indifference to outrage. I’m somewhere in the middle. I think that there is a value in an independent social book review site that is incompatible with a retail-owned version of the same. But the change will be gradual, and there will be plenty of time for something else to come about (and perhaps something even better). In short, I won’t be deleting my account, but I will be keeping my eyes on the horizon.

But what do I mean about the values of Goodreads being incompatible with ownership by amazon? Well, the reviews on Amazon suck, and they suck for a simple reason: there is money to be made, and so reviews are posted that reflect not the opinions of actual consumers but rather the purchased opinions of whoever stands to make money when you choose this book over that book (not Amazon, who doesn’t care which book you buy so long as you buy a book, preferably both books). Although Goodreads no doubt has this same dynamic present, it is much less pervasive, as the site was focused on the readers, not selling the books.

On another topic, what I find really interesting about this is that the value of Goodreads was largely created by the users. Users wrote the reviews, rated the books, categorized the books, and Goodreads’ part in all this was largely that of facilitator. And yet, when they sell, the money goes to the facilitator, not the people responsible for most of the value (Amazon could have written similar software for far less than what they no doubt paid for GR, what they were paying for was the stuff you and I put in). Now, this isn’t to say that users weren’t compensated for any of this, when you receive a free service, that can be viewed as a form of compensation.

So what to do if you care more about the service than the compensation? Well, you’ll just have to pay for it.

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Separating the Wheat From the Barley

March 12th, 2013  |  Published in commentary

Back when I lived in San Francisco, so more than five years ago, I realized something: marketing for fiction is terrible. Here’s the chain of relationships between an author and a reader, as far as I can tell (and this is for novels, other formats are much worse): Writer writes a book. Writer markets book to agent. Agent markets book to publisher. Publisher markets book to bookstore. Book store markets bookstore brand to potential reader. Reader hears about book from a friend or notices a catchy cover and buys book. Most of the books that get any marketing support are books that are already pretty much guaranteed to be popular (think Evanovich, Patterson, or Rowling; they could have announced the Deathly Hallows by way of a Post-it note on a random desk in Tunisia and it would have been around the world in three hours).

Granted, this is not necessarily a problem with a good solution. Books are personal things, and marketing to the wrong demographic is a waste of money. The traditional solution to this is the bookstore/library model of browsing. By arranging books by genre, a reader has the opportunity to discover something new. Of course this model falls apart when bookstores start to act like theaters, focusing almost exclusively on the first week of sales, which can easily prevent a new book from finding an audience (just ask the unfortunate authors who had books released on 9/11/2001 what happened to their books/careers). Unfortunately, this browsing model doesn’t seem to translate to digital bookstores, which means that finding new books can be very frustrating if you don’t already know what you are looking for (which, to me, is kind of the point of finding new books to read)

On to my point. Last week I realized that I read books in three different formats: paper books, audiobooks, and ebooks. Each format fills a different need. I read paper books on lunch breaks and in the bath (as I really don’t want to break my shiny new smartphone) and the books I read this way are mostly the ones that I can’t find in one of the other formats. Audiobooks I listen to while at work or doing household chores. Ebooks I read before I go to bed (a backlit screen is much more convenient for me than a book light) or when my son falls asleep in my arms (turning pages on a hardcover with only one hand free is a pain). In addition, I decided that I wanted to read more indie fiction, stuff that was good but didn’t fit into the publishing industry’s current fad. I read enough paper books and audiobooks that reading indie fiction on my phone wouldn’t really keep me from reading anything that I read now.

Somehow I had assumed that things would be better, 5+ years down the road. So that evening, instead of reading, I went on to Smashwords to look for something to read. Forty minutes later and I still hadn’t found anything. I tried again the next night, and the next. Still no luck.

I chose Smashwords for three reasons: 1) everything on there is indie, meaning that I wouldn’t have to filter out traditionally published works; 2) they are device neutral, when you buy a book from them you can download it in any format you want from plain text to kindle; 3) they have the best filtering tools. I’m going to focus on point #3.

On Smashwords, I can filter my browsing by genre and subgenre, as well as by various types of popularity and release date, and by length (which is my favorite feature, as I like short fiction). The subgenres are nice but don’t offer enough specificity. For example, lets say I want to read a short piece of fantasy set in a secondary world (meaning not Earth). The subgenres listed for fantasy are: General, Paranormal, Epic, Contemporary, Short Stories, Urban, and Historical. Out of these, I can write off Short Stories (which, on Smashwords, usually indicates anthologies), Paranormal, and Urban, and Contemporary (which implies contemporary Earth), and Historical (which implies historical Earth). Granted, there may be a few stories in those categories that fit what I’m looking for, but the vast majority won’t.  That leaves General and Epic, neither of which are exactly what I’m looking for but are better than the alternatives. Filtering down to just short fiction, those categories have 136 and 49 pages of results, respectively. At ten results per page, that is a total of nearly 1900 results to sort through, a large number of which will not fit my criteria at all.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. With ebooks, we don’t have to shelve things in just one place, we can have a near infinite number of categories, and each book can fit into more than one. In fact, there is already a system in place that could handle this. Each book is tagged. When you look at the detail page for any particular book, it lists the tags that the author has assigned to it. Click on the tag, and it brings up a list of every other book that has that same tag. For example, lets say that I clicked on the tag for space station, it brings up 94 results. Cool, right? Well, no. I can’t filter that list at all, and as far as I can tell, the only way to get to the tag list is to find a book with that tag and click or to know the format that the site uses and type it in manually. If I, say, search for space station, it brings up a page with “title search” results and “full search” results (whatever that means). Of course, I can’t further filter this list in any way, but the weird thing is that between the two types of searches that are performed, there are only 70 results, which would indicate that the full search does not include tags.

Which is why, after a week of looking for something to buy (or just download, if its free), I have nothing.

And to be clear, Amazon is no better. In fact, it is worse, as I have yet to find a way to filter by length and the recommendations are almost all books by authors I have bought books from in the past.

Furthermore, notice that I have said nothing here about quality. If I can find something that fits what I’m looking for, I will happily try a sample and decide for myself, especially since I have been burnt by high ratings too many times. What I want, to use the metaphor from this posts’s title, is not to separate the wheat from the chaff, but to separate the wheat from the barley from the oats. I want to be able to filter by genre, length, popularity, intended audience, and tags. If the system is built on one big database (which it would almost have to be), then this shouldn’t be hard to do. Maybe someone can even be convinced to give it a shot. Of course, if not, we will have to do it ourselves, but that’s another post.

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A humble suggestion for Bantam Books

April 17th, 2012  |  Published in commentary

Bantam is the publisher of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, even if you haven’t read the books, there is a good chance that you have seen the HBO series, Game Of Thrones. The series of books is huge, consisting so far of five thick books with at least two more planned. Each of these books is divided into numerous points of view, and the story itself is getting so unwieldy that readers rarely see their favorite characters. One reaction to this would be to suggest more editorial oversight, but I have little expertise in that department. Instead, I would suggest that the publisher makes sure that they profit from it.

After the series is finished, imagine a massive e-book edition of ASoIaF (call it the Perfect Collection or Ultimate Edition or something) that contains all of the books. Now, let the fans remix the books. Not rewrite them or modify the text, but rather the ability to rearrange the chapters. Imagine reading only the Tyrion chapters or the Jaime chapters, with no interruptions, or only the chapters of peripheral characters. I realize that you could do this with paper books by skipping the chapters that you don’t want to read, but it would be a pain in the ass. In addition, fans could release ‘playlists’ of the book that other people who have purchased the uber edition could then view.

Of course, this wouldn’t need to come cheap, say $50 or $100 per license. Imagine everyone who has already purchased the entire series going out and buying the whole thing over so that they can remix it.

Personally, I don’t actually expect the publishing industry to do anything like this. They will almost certainly say that it is too difficult or too expensive, if they consider it at all. Fortunately, what we are talking about here isn’t video or music, but text, which is notoriously hard to control (or as Cory Doctorow says: “Behold . . . the typist!”), so whether or not Bantam wants my money, I’ll be able to get it.

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