Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Newflash: Kids like ebooks, Kindle for the Web

A couple interesting articles. In study, Children Cite Appeal of Digital Reading talks about a study that Scholastic, publisher of the Harry Potter books. It goes on to say that kids seem to embrace the ereader technology, while some parents remain concerned that the devices will be distracting as they play, watch video and send text messages.

In a news release yesterday, Amazon launches the Kindle for the Web, in beta form. Its way to share a sample of a book on your web site, and receive a referral fee if the book is purchased after following the link from your web site.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

World Building, Part 3: Hybrid Design

aka You Did It Your Way, I Did It Sideways

(You can thank Johnny Yune for that quote)

In part 1 of my World Building series, I talked about constructing a fantasy world from the Top-Down, starting with a million-mile view and zooming down to the continents, the countries, the cultures, economies, and so on.

In part 2, I talked about constructing a science fiction universe from the Bottom-Up, starting with people and their stories, then hanging a framework on top of that to support the plot.

Both methods have advantages and drawbacks, and depending on what you are trying to create you may be perfectly fine with one or the other. I created a fantasy world using a purely Top-Down design, but I ran into problems when trying to create a science fiction universe with a purely Bottom-Up design.

What I learned from these two lessons is that, sometimes, the best solution is both solutions.

Such is the case when creating an entire universe for stories to take place in. I often find myself in the Bottom-Up Terran Shift universe employing a Top-Down mentality to design individual worlds.

Suppose you have your main character land on a new planet and you have nothing planned in advance for it. The problem is that by moving your mindset to this new world, stretching out from your home base (Earth, in my case), you have essentially just shifted from Bottom-Up (your universe) to Top-Down (looking at the new planet). It's easy to look at a planet like Mars and say "by 2250 we'll have three million colonists living on Mars." But how are they living? Where? What are they doing there and what were their motivations? You could solve this by staying with a Bottom-Up design, shifting your mindset to Mars at the time the first humans walk on its surface, and building the story of the world from there. But that may take quite a while to develop.

In my case, I decided we will expand to bases on Mars, and then I switched to Top-Down mode. I developed the military and civilian social structures on the planet and began planning out the individual bases. I pulled out NASA maps and figured out logical placements for colonies. I read books like Zubrin's The Case For Mars for ideas on how terraforming would be done and what would be needed to make it happen. Once I had enough structure in place for my story ideas, I switched back to Bottom-Up mode and figured out the next plot points to work on.

Such is the way with many things in life - the hybrid of two good systems can often be more powerful and intuitive than either individual system on its own. So far I have found no drawbacks with this hybrid method, and am inclined to believe that switching between these two design methodologies as needed is the best way to create worlds. Your results may vary, but hopefully this series has given you some things to think about and a new way to approach the design of your world.

So you've started building your world or universe... what else is needed?

In part 4 of this series, I'll discuss some ideas for bringing your world to life.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Scribists Now At

Lee created a page for us at to handle scheduling our meetings. We're also hoping it will help us find other budding authors in the greater Portland, Maine area who are interested in joining us. If you are a writer, and live near us, and are interested in joining an active writing and workshopping group, check us out.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Publishing Houses on the Cusp of the Digital Age

Billions of dollars go in and out of the publishing industry each year. Money earned on titles, fees paid to printers, artists and hundreds of employee salaries. John Scalzi recognizes that with every book he publishes, he, and every other author with a current manuscript, gives at least ten people a job that year (or would it be two years as that is how long it can take to get a book to the shelf?).

But we can’t all be John Scalzi. Let’s say Del Rey buys my book. I may not get a marketing agent or a copy editor. But I will have an editor (who may not edit me at all), a cover artist, an interior designer and printer at the least. This all adds up to a large overhead per company, per year--best sellers and all the rest.

Everyone can see that ebooks are quickly becoming more popular, while fewer physical books are selling. Publishers are being forced to make decisions on a new product they are less familiar with. But I can see why the folks running the business may be uncomfortable with change. Publishers have to make decisions now for a book that will hit the shelves in two years. It is impossible to know exactly what is going to happen to the publishing atmosphere ahead of time. So any decision they make now, while uninformed, is risky--that is riskier than usual as they never know if a book will sell well to begin with. With shrinking profits, they have less room to take those risks.

But the question is, do ebooks cost a publisher less to make? And therefore will they make more of a profit off them? I think the answer is yes. Current reading trends are showing that ebooks are certainly worth their time. For a buck or two, people are grabbing them just for the hell of it, like candy in the dollar store.

Dorchester seems to be catching on to this. But perhaps, their decision is a little extreme. They recently announced that they are going electronic. Epublishing advocates everywhere rejoiced, I’m sure. The digital format is finally being recognized! However there is more to it. According to an agent from Nelson, Dorchester has recently had financial troubles. And according to the Publishers Lunch Blog, their staff has been shrinking too. This doesn’t bode well for them, and really makes me wonder about their decision to abandon physical books.

Publishers are losing control over the market. They are hesitating to give authors a reasonable percentage of ebook sales royalties. Apple and Amazon are banking on selling both reading devices and self-published books. Tech savvy authors know that ebooks are worthwhile. They aren’t even selling the e-rights of their books and are making 70% or 80% profits off their work, never including a publisher or an agent. However, their books won’t see print, or grace the shelves of your living room bookcase.

Standing between self-publishing authors of ebooks and physical books is a huge mountain of tradition, but there is a method behind that madness. Physical books require more money and space and shipping to produce. Publishers take on all responsibility for that. I think that the huge overhead makes publishers drive up e-book prices to keep their business as a whole in the black. The aren’t selling the pile of pages with a pretty cover, they are selling the hard work of all involved in addition to the entertainment value of the words.

But the self publishing authors of ebooks who charge a buck or two for their book are seeing plenty of profits. What scares me the most is the worst case scenario: Pysical books disappearing forever, driving all the publishing houses out of business, leaving the world at the mercy of self-published books only. It would be hard to find the stuff you like amid the uncontrolled flooding of stories. I’d rather have over control than none in publishing. Author Catherynne Valente saw a similar dark vision of the future.

So far, I’ve made my observations as a writer looking at the business. However, there are many readers, consumers, who are driving the decisions of publishing houses. In the end, it really is all about the readers. Many put their TRUST in publishers to find the good books, the good names of authors who will give them the satisfaction they are looking for. Some won’t even look at a book that didn’t come from a publisher, as reflected in this blog post. The bookstore customers wouldn’t buy a paperback with a glossy cover because they thought that meant it was a self published book. They didn’t read the cover blurbs or even check out the spine for a publisher’s logo. This stigma is the biggest danger for someone considering self-publication, but fortunately, this stigma is showing signs of fading.

The book has been one of the least-changed products since it emerged in the 15th century. The Gutenberg Bible doesn’t look too much different from any hardcover book on the shelf today. Perhaps that is why some are so eager to change while others are so hesitant. But it comes down to the fact that if you want your book to be on a shelf, and make a living with it, you need a publisher. If you can put your own book into digital format, then go for the profits.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

World Building, Part 2: Bottom-Up Construction

In part 1 of my World Building series, I talked about constructing a fantasy world from the Top-Down, starting with a million-mile view and zooming down to the continents, the countries, the cultures, economies, and so on. But this is only one method for creating a world...

My science fiction universe, Terran Shift, was simply too large to start at the top. The universe, after all, is quite a large place. Even limiting my current work to just our solar system gives me dozens of planetary bodies to design and populate. Expanding into other solar systems increases the workload exponentially. So when designing this universe I felt it was more logical to use a Bottom-Up design method.

I started with a handful of ideas, a few pivotal moments in our near future that give a good indication of where we as a species are going. Next I filled out the near future - a timeline for the next 500 years. Then I plotted how and when we would expand into the solar system and beyond. When designing from the Bottom-Up, you have to begin with your characters and the stories that change their lives, then move out from there to design their surroundings, countries, factions, planets, and so on. You end up molding your universe around the characters you created, essentially creating a network of supporting cultures and people to allow your plot to play out.

This method has some benefits. It's especially good for designing a science fiction universe that has a large scope. Even for a fantasy world, this method allows you to detach your thought process from the world itself and concentrate on the people and their stories. Perhaps you want to construct a fantasy world rich with political intrigue and characters. Designing the landscape of that world is not nearly as important as the people in it -- once you know the people and their motivations, you can tailor the landscape for the needs of the story. This method lets you create any plot you want and then construct the elements it requires to function as you get around to them. If nothing else, that means you can get into the story faster and worry about building the world around it later.

And that is one of the biggest drawbacks. I often find myself making references to things in one story and then contradicting it in another, both in the same universe. I'm talking about big glaring errors as well as subtle ones. For example, I have a story that starts on Mars, and the first draft took place about fifty years too early. The problem was that I didn't have anything definitive planned on Mars at that point -- just a few bullet points on my timeline, nothing more. I had to flesh out the world design for our colonies on Mars in order to see the best way to fix the errors I had made.

Solving problems like this could be done by switching perspective to Mars and designing that new world with the same Bottom-Up mentality. Or, you can adopt a hybrid approach...

In part 3, I'll discuss a hybrid of the Top-Down and Bottom-Up construction methods.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Experiences Upgrading to Ebooks

I purchased my iPad in hopes of replacing all my technical print books with ebook versions so I could carry them around with me between home and work. I hated leaving a book behind, since I might need it at the other location--which happened just the other day; I needed my Programing Perl book, and there it was on my iPad. I also was tired of having so many books in my bookcase, since I was moving a lot. Twice in one year, both on very hot days. 'Nuff said.

So what have my results been? I'd have to say very good. I have been able to replace 5 of the 8 books I wanted to replace. There were a few others that would have been nice to replace, but since they were so old anyway, it wasn't a big deal. The ones I have replaced are Programming Perl (ePub), Java Swing (PDF), Programming Game AI by Example (Kindle), Open GL Super Bible (Kindle), Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X (Kindle).

I'm really glad O'Reilly is one of my favorite publishers. They have by far the best ebook policy. You won't find their ebooks on Amazon. Instead they offer them for sale on their own site. This is a great thing since I am able to purchase the book and read it as PDF, Kindle or my preferred format, ePub. All formats are DRM free, and not watermarked. They have great prices and great deals. I was able to purchase 6 new ebooks from them for $65 with their buy 3 get 3 free deal (exclusive membership offer for ebooks). They will also sell you upgrades from print versions of books you own for $5. You can't beat that. $65 is only about $10 more then I would pay for a single book, and I got 6 of them! I have found other publishers doing similar, but with mixed results. One publisher only offered PDF watermarked ebooks. Others were only available on Amazon as Kindle ebooks.

While O'Reilly offers Kindle versions, it should be noted that I have not been able to transfer those DRM free Kindle books (like the ones from O'Reilly) onto my iPad. If you had a Kindle device, you could just transfer it via Amazon's paid transfer service, or when you hook it up via usb. It appears that if you want them on your Kindle app, you will have to purchase the ebook from Amazon. So for the iPad, choose ePub or PDF.

For novels, I'll admit only had a couple Stephen King books since I tossed all the others. I had made my mind up to only get ePub novels, but now I am starting to lean towards Kindle. The selection is so much bigger; I recently purchased Dean Koontz Phantoms from Amazon which is not yet available on the iBookstore, while some other Koontz titles are. And with the recent fall in price of the Kindle device, it isn't out of the realm of possibility that I would get one for the wife. So let's see. $140 (cost of a Kindle) is about the price of a nice book case. A bookcase can hold about 100, maybe 200 if you pack them in. A Kindle will hold up to 3,500 books. That means the Kindle will replace 17 bookcases! I'd have to say it is much cheaper in the long run to buy a Kindle. See how that works? With the right mindset, you can justify just about any technical gadget.

After using both the Kindle app and the iBooks app, on both the iPad and iPhone, I prefer the iBooks app. For technical books, I like being able to use more then one-highlight color. For example, I use yellow as my main highlight color to highlight important things I will refer to often. Blue is for minor highlights, like the important parts of a series of steps describing how to modify some source code, or editing a photograph. Finally, pink is used to mark errata, corrections to the book since it was published. I also like that the entire screen is used to show your bookmarks and highlights on the iPad. The Kindle app sticks you with this tiny window at the bottom of the screen. The iPhone Kindle app is a little better in that it uses the entire screen. For novels, while I prefer iBooks, I think I will be switching to Kindle ebooks because of the selection, and since I am thinking of getting a Kindle reader.

When it comes to reading PDF ebooks and documents, I turn to iAnnotate PDF. While it isn't as pretty as using iBooks, it is much more functional. I can highlight text, add bookmarks, add comments, and even draw on the document. It has become my favorite way to mark up other people’s stories. I can email an annotation summary along with the marked up document, or save the document back to Dropbox when I am ready to share the comments I made.

Over all, I prefer using one reader for everything, but I'm okay with switching between them. As time goes on, I hope we will end up with a standard format so I can use just one reader. But until then, I have my 3 favorites.