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Who Wants to Read this Stuff? The Business of Storytelling in a Digital World

Posted November 21, 2012 by

It’s often said that writers write for themselves. This might be true, but as a publisher it’s my task to be the reader’s advocate. The first question I try to ask when considering a new project is to consider the audience: “who wants to read this stuff?” 

In the digital realm, particularly at the experimental, pointy end of digital, this question of audience is, I think, rarely considered as a first step. The excitement of shiny gadgets and new software overwhelms our puny publishing minds. So instead, the first question is often – “what can it do?” and the second question is “what else can it do?”

The answer to that question is – “pretty much anything”. There are bog standard ebooks, of course, but it goes much further than that. There are transmedia stories, geo-located stories, multimedia enhanced stories and fully interactive pseudo-gaming experiences. We can serialise books, we can release short stories and we can make apps and games.

In other words “What can it do?” is an exciting question and it’s full of potential rather than limitations. But it’s my contention that when it comes to the business of storytelling – whether you’re trying to entertain, educate or inform people – it’s not a very good question. To put it indelicately, there’s a very short distance between asking the question “what can it do?” and disappearing up your own arse.

My argument is basically this: the colourful and exciting part of digital publishing innovation is – for the most part – not something that readers actually want. Pushing the boundaries of what a book is – whether it’s by blurring the lines between different kinds of media or questioning the linear nature of traditional narrative – is not something that people are looking to book publishers to provide. Too much of what we call innovation is basically turning our content into a showroom for device manufacturers – and we do it to the detriment of more important and more useful innovation at the back end of the publishing business.

This is not to say that every example of a book app or interactive book-like experience is bad. Consider The Waste Land or The Sonnets that have been released by Faber & Faber. Both of these apps successfully meld critical annotations, video, audio and multiple text versions into a unified whole without distracting from the fundamental purpose of the text. It’s interesting that poetry, perhaps because it’s so dense, seems to lend itself quite naturally to this kind of enhancement. There’s a lot to unpack in poetry. Poetry itself isn’t necessarily linear and it’s often intended to be performed rather than read so it seems the marriage of technology and literature is a happy one in this instance.

However you might not want the pace of your Lee Child novel interrupted by a quick video of the author reading a couple of paragraphs or Tom Cruise running about in the trailer for the new movie. That would probably somewhat lift you out of the story.  And yet publishers return – again and again – to cheap gimmicks and unnecessary tricks to try to enhance what doesn’t need to be enhanced.

The real experiments that will actually help publishers make books that people actually want to read – for a price they want to read them for – are distinctly lacking in sex appeal. They aren’t books – they’re improvements to things like workflow, content management systems, metadata optimization, distribution efficiency and rights management.

For example, a digital-only, format independent workflow drastically improves the speed and quality of ebooks and other digital content production.

Metadata – the information about a book like price, category, the book blurb and author information – is essential to making a book discoverable in an online retail environment. There is now solid evidence that improving the accuracy of metadata increases sales for books.

Distributing our content in a global market is a new challenge that needs some creative thinking and a lot of resources to get right. We need to get better at working with our overseas colleagues to make sure our content is available simultaneously or as quickly as possible. 

I won’t go on about rights management too much as it’s a bit of a bug bear for me, to the point that Momentum has now removed these controls from our books. Suffice it to say that digital rights management is bad for readers in the same way that awkward user interface design in book apps are bad for readers. It interferes with the purchasing and reading experience in a non-intuitive way.

These are the kinds of invisible improvements to a modern publishing business that have helped Amazon to become the biggest single bookstore in the world – and allowed them to single-handedly take on publishers at their own game.

More than a few publishers are steadfastly refusing to make some of these changes. Among those that are making deep systematic changes – and there are plenty – many are moving so slowly that they are risking losing the race.

Meanwhile, many modern publishers are distracting themselves with experiments that do nothing but provide a nice press release and show-off the latest capability that Amazon, Apple or Google have built in to their newest device. And it’s not just publishers. I’ve been on a number of panels with industry pundits who love to talk about the death of the book and how technology is going to radically alter our sense of what narrative is and how we are going to consume stories in a completely different, non-linear and interactive way.

What an utterly exhausting proposition.

Nothing I’ve seen in the past year of running an experimental digital imprint has led me to believe there is a voracious horde of early adopters out there who want this type of content and that publishers are failing to deliver it. I’m not saying it won’t ever happen, but it hasn’t happened yet and I see no indications of it coming other than the fact that it’s technological feasible.

The next decade is inevitably going to provide some creative re-imagining of the boundaries of what a book is. And that is a good thing. Technology can and already does help us deliver content around the world for a fraction of the cost that it did only a few years ago. The self-publishing revolution means that there are now very few roadblocks for authors to get their content read by audiences. There is now an audience for serialised content and short stories that seems to have sprung out of nowhere. This is the actual revolution at the foundation of the publishing business. The boundaries of what publishers can and should do have already shifted while we weren’t paying attention – there’s no need for us reinvent the wheel when it comes to storytelling and narrative. We must remember what it is we’re good at – looking at that manuscript, whether it’s delivered by horse and cart or email – and asking the question “who wants to read this stuff?”

This post was adapted from a speech delivered at The Future of Writing symposium at Macquarie University on 14 November.

Ebooks and Ownership: Do You Own Your Ebooks?

Posted October 30, 2012 by

An email from an acquaintance today in light of the Amazon library deletion scandal caused me to write a long rant about digital rights management (DRM) and ebooks and copyright so I thought I’d share some of it below.

It amazes me sometimes that we’re still all talking about DRM and ebooks. I feel like it’s a conversation we’ve been having for a very long time, and made very little progress with. But ultimately that’s the nature of an industry undergoing such huge changes. Protecting the legal rights of authors and readers while also trying to run a business and not violate any licensing agreements can be a nightmare for even the most informed publishing functionary – to an outsider I think it must look like complete and utter nonsense.

There are different issues at work here. One is the legal rights of the reader/consumer and the other is the technology used to restrict those rights.

When it comes to legal rights, most publishers aren’t selling the ebook file itself – they sell a license to use it under certain circumstances. They give the reader the file – but the reader doesn’t ‘own’ this file. This is pretty standard for selling digital content – if you sold the file with with no restrictions then the person who bought it could potentially copy and send it to thousands of people with no legal recourse for the copyright owner (the author, not the publisher). I don’t know of any publisher of any digital content that sells digital files without restrictions – whether they’re using DRM or not.

The second issue is a technological one. Most publishers sell their content with DRM, which on top of the legal restrictions also physically restricts readers from transferring content to other readers or between devices by using encryption software. This software is usually implemented by the retailer (Amazon, Apple or whoever) at the behest of the publisher. Some publishers, like Momentum, have asked retailers not to include DRM on our files. This isn’t because we think users should be able to own the file and use it without restrictions, but because we believe that a reader who buys an ebook should be able to transfer that book between devices without the technological difficulty inherent in using encryption technology. Basically it’s extremely frustrating for a reader who has legitimately purchased a book to transfer that book between multiple devices if it has DRM on it – and that’s why we removed it. We wanted our readers to be able to buy a book from Amazon and read it on their Kobo reader if they wanted to – and now they can.

To be clear – Momentum is still technically selling a license for our books, not the files themselves – we just don’t physically restrict readers from transferring their ebooks between devices. The reason for this is basically down to the nature of digital content – it isn’t some kind of Orwellian urge to control what readers do with their reading material. If we ‘owned’ a digital file in the sense that most of us ‘own’ paper books, by current laws we would be able to do whatever they wanted with it (including selling copies for a profit), which would in most cases violate the contract under which retailers sell ebooks and the rights publishers license from authors. Authors ultimately own the copyright for their content and license it to publishers who can then sub-license it to readers.

In the Amazon case mentioned above, the reader violated Amazon’s terms and conditions in some way that Amazon hasn’t made clear to anyone. As a result, Amazon closed their account, which means they no longer had access to the encrypted files that were stored on their device. If that reader had bought any of Momentum’s ebooks, this wouldn’t have been a problem, as they could have just moved their ebooks to a different device. As far as I know, without DRM Amazon cannot yank a book from someone’s device – but I might be wrong. At any rate, because all of the reader’s books had DRM on them, they lost their entire library (albeit temporarily – Amazon has restored the reader’s account as far as I know).

As much as I think this is a horrible situation for the reader – and this is precisely why we dropped DRM from our books at Momentum – these stories do seem to crop up intermittently and don’t seem to have any real effect on the ebook market. Ultimately the convenience of digital reading outweighs most people’s concerns about it. I’d love it if more readers cared about this stuff as it’s something I care about, and we’ve made Momentum a more reader-friendly place as a result. However, my general impression is that for the most part Amazon’s ecosystem works pretty well and these situations tend to be anomalies or bureaucratic oversights rather than some kind of concerted effort to defraud readers.

Having said that, I’m curious about what you think. Has Momentum’s decision caused you to buy more books from us? Do you seek out DRM-free ebooks consciously? Had you even heard about the story mentioned above? Sound off in the comments and let us know.

 

Please Note: A previous version of this post claimed that selling digital files gave the purchaser the right to on-sell the ebook. As commenter Iain points out below, copyright law should already adequately cover this situation. See my response below for clarification on this issue.

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100 Ways to Write Badly Well by Joel Stickley is a hilarious guide to the art of awful writing. Remember – if a thing’s worth doing badly, it’s worth doing badly well. Available DRM-free for $2.99.

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Books for Boys – Would Your Protagonist Kill a Dog?

Posted July 24, 2012 by

An author friend of mine was talking to another author friend of his about the large number of women who read his books. This surprised him. His books are for the most part military thrillers in which the main character (often a man) shoots and explodes his way through his problems, usually scooping up a lady friend along the way for extracurricular fun. This shooting of problems and gratuitous sexy times, said the author’s friend, did not make any of his novels a boy’s book.

“Would your protagonist kill a dog?” asked the friend.

“No, he doesn’t kill a dog,” replied the author.

“Not does he kill a dog. Would he kill a dog. If the dog was in the way.”

The author thought for a moment and allowed that, if they had any other choice, most of his protagonists would probably not kill a dog.

“There you go then. Chick’s book.”

Let me clear here – personally I believe the concept of a boy’s book or a girl’s book is completely socially constructed. Given that fiction is read much more by women than men it seems clear to me that almost any successful fiction title will have a significant female readership. And I’ve spoken to plenty of men who read what is traditionally termed “women’s fiction”. Nonetheless, the idea of gendered fiction is still quite powerful. A lot of guys would avoid Fifty Shades of Grey like the plague – not because they don’t like a bit of light spanking in their fiction, but because it’s perceived as a girl’s book.

Rules of thumb like the above might reinforce the idea that women don’t enjoy violence in fiction and that men are savages who like nothing else, but it doesn’t mean the distinction doesn’t exist. As a publisher, I can’t help but try to think of the potential reader when I read submissions, and sometimes that reader is gendered.

I don’t use a rule as clear-cut as the above, but something figures into it (and it certainly isn’t the gender of the author). It isn’t the gender of the protagonist either – as a reader some of my favourite protagonists are women who would calmly kill a dog if necessary (with a lot less traumatised screaming than most men I know). I don’t know why this is, but I suspect Joss Whedon has a lot to do with it. Either way, the gender of the author and the protagonist don’t come into it – but there is certainly a tipping point that makes me think “probably a boy’s book” (even when I know plenty of women will read it).

So my question for the day – where do you draw your line? Do you like boys’ books or girls’ books? Do you care? And if you’re an author – would your protagonist kill a dog?

Top 5 Future of the Book Clichés

Posted June 13, 2012 by

I’ve been writing blog posts about the future of books and publishing for a while now. I’m by no means one of the first, and by no stretch of the imagination one of the best, so I’m painfully aware of how I often tread on the same ground as those who have gone before me (and usually done it better). However, reading yet another article on the future of books over the weekend nearly caused me to claw my own eyes out with frustration (and probably a healthy dose of shame) as yet another bookish pundit gleefully wheeled out cliché after cliché as if she were writing them for the first time. Thus this list. If I ever commit any of these sins again, please feel free to point them out and/or punch me in the face.

 

1. The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book

This one works extremely well as a headline for a piece about the death of the book, and it makes you seem both worldly and progressive (acknowledging both the inevitable death of the paper book and the regrettable truth that digital books are still books). Originally from the French Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi! (the king is dead; long live the king), the expression was probably popularised in pop culture by Shakespeare. Always a bad sign.

2. A Lot of Ink Has Been Spilled About the Death of the Book

The temptation when writing a blog post is to make grand statements in the lede. When you know the story you’re writing is completely unoriginal, it helps to point out that you do, in fact, know it. One way to do this while also making a clever pun at the same time is to claim that so much ‘spilled ink’, ‘miles of newsprint’ or ‘column inches’ have been wasted talking about the issue, thereby slyly indicating that the article you are about to write is, in point of fact, not a waste of anyone’s time. If you’re being especially clever you can say ‘countless screens of pixels’.

3. Are Paper Books Going the Way of the Dodo?

See also: Going the Way of the Typewriter, Going the Way of Vinyl, Going the Way of Video Tapes or Going the Way of the Album.

4. The Singular Pleasure of Solitude

Almost every post (particularly in the last twelve months) on the future of reading makes nostalgic claims about the pleasure (and importance) of reading alone in solitude for hours at time and conflates this experience with paper book reading and literacy. Let’s get this straight – whether you make the time to read for great stretches of a time all by yourself has less to do with your reading format of choice and more to do with how you choose to spend your time, how busy you are and the available alternative choices to reading.

5. Complain About People Complaining About the Smell of Books

It’s long been a cliché to talk about how you don’t like ebook readers because they don’t smell like ‘real’ books. That’s old news. The newest trend is to ostentatiously point out that the argument about the smell of books is moot, because obviously it doesn’t matter. See also: claiming that the smell of books is actually the smell of death.

 

Got any of your own clichés or pet hates about digital book blogs and articles? Sound off in the comments below.

So We Dropped DRM – What Does That Actually Mean?

Posted May 30, 2012 by

As some of you might already know, we announced yesterday that we’re dropping DRM (digital rights management) from all of our books. The chatter on social media last night and this morning leads me to believe there’s still a bit of confusion about what DRM is, what it’s for, why we chose to drop it and what it actually means for you – assuming you are someone who might buy or want to buy our books.

What is DRM?

First of all – what is digital rights management? Basically, it’s a type of software that limits what you can and can’t do with a legitimately purchased piece of digital content. It’s used on everything from computer games to music, movies, books and television episodes. It’s the reason why when you rent a movie from iTunes you only have 48 hours to watch it, and it’s the reason why when you buy a book from Amazon you can’t copy it to your Sony or Kobo e-reader. 

However, DRM is not the same thing as territorial rights. Territorial rights are to blame when you try to buy an ebook from a store and you get the dreaded ‘This book is not available from your location’ notice. It’s also what stops Australian users from using US services like Hulu, Pandora and, until recently, Spotify. Typically, content publishers buy a licence from the copyright holder that gives them the right to make that content available in particular ways within a particular geographical territory. Digital retailers of all kinds can usually work out where you’re buying or viewing content from and block you if they don’t have the right to make it available to you.

Does territorial copyright make sense on the internet? Not particularly. But ultimately it’s not just up to publishers to solve the territorial rights problem – if authors and agents want their books to be available to the world they need to make those rights available to content publishers and many still don’t.

Happily at Momentum we’ve worked extra hard to make almost all of our books available globally. In other words, our authors have licensed their books to us to sell them worldwide. This has been the case since we launched in February.

What is DRM For?

This might seem like a fairly obvious question with an obvious answer, but it’s actually kind of complicated. DRM ostensibly exists to protect a creator’s copyright – it stops readers from tampering with a file, copying it, converting it into other formats and even stops illegitimate users from opening or viewing a file. This is why publishers use it and it’s also why many authors still want it applied to their books – they are afraid that without DRM their books will be copied without limitation by anyone who gets their hands on it.

In practice, however, DRM is relatively easy to remove from a book. This is why piracy of books and other digital content is so rampant – it only takes one person with a working knowledge of how to remove DRM from a book to make it available to the entire world for free. In other words – DRM is extremely bad at doing its main job.

Given that this is so, what else is DRM for? DRM stops readers who buy their ebooks from one retailer transferring their purchase to an unapproved reading device. For example, you can’t read an ebook with DRM on it from Apple on your Kindle, and you can’t read a Kindle ebook on your Kobo Touch. So the answer to that question – what is DRM for? – becomes clear. The purpose of DRM is to encourage readers to buy their ebooks from a single source.

So Why Are We Dropping DRM?

At Momentum we have a commitment to accessibility. As I mentioned earlier, we’re working hard to make our books available globally. All of our books released so far are available for under $10, and most of them for $5 or less. Ensuring that you can buy your books from wherever you want and read them on whatever device you want is part of that commitment.

Dropping DRM is not about encouraging piracy. Piracy is a reality of the digital era, and this situation is extremely unlikely to change. Some people are always going to pirate content and spread it around without permission. Let me be clear, here – this isn’t something we support. Authors deserve to be paid for their work. But we believe that the best way to fight piracy is to remove the barriers to purchase – make books cheaper, make them available everywhere and to any reader from any platform.

What Does Dropping DRM Mean For You?

The simple answer is: not all that much. You can still buy our books from all the same places for the same prices. Come August, however, if you want to read your Kindle book on your Kobo or your iBookstore book on your Kindle – you can. We’re still working with our retail partners (and in talks with others) to make our books available in as many places as possible – but that’s a separate issue to our decision to drop DRM.

So if you are thinking of buying our books, I urge you to encourage your friends to buy books from us. Most of them are the cost of a cup of coffee (or two), and they can buy and download them while waiting for the bus. Ultimately dropping DRM is an experiment – if it proves to be successful, then we’ll keep doing it.

And we really want to keep doing it.

If you have any questions about this change, please sound off in the comments and I’ll answer them as best I can.

FutureBook: How digital stalking can get you published

Posted May 15, 2012 by

Nathan M Farrugia’s recently released debut novel The Chimera Vector has dropped into a sea of digital content at the centre of a global conversation around the future of reading.

Ebooks are slowly cannibalising print sales. The traditional gatekeepers of book publishing are embroiled in a dispute with the US department of justice. Amazon is dominating digital publishing both with its closed Kindle platform and huge self-publishing push, and the threat of a monopoly (or monopsony) looms. Fear mongering around the death of the paper book, bookstores and book culture is rampant.

Enter Nathan Farrugia, the first debut author to work with Pan Macmillan Australia’s new digital imprint Momentum. Initially planning to self-publish, the ex-Australian Army infantryman describes ‘stalking’ me through the ‘long grasses of Twitter’, recognising the need for professional editing for his content. He happened to catch my attention at a time when I was just about to undertake the Unwin Fellowship in the UK and was helping set up Momentum in Australia. In other words, I was busy.

Although I initially agreed to take on the editing job, it became clear that the book would be perfect for Momentum, even though the imprint hadn’t been announced at that point. The story was exceptionally fast-paced and action-packed and blended genres in a fresh and fun way. What followed was an awkward few weeks in which I had to convince Nathan I was working on his edit when what I was really doing was trying to sign up his book.

Thankfully, when the offer came, Nathan was convinced that an experimental digital-only publishing imprint fit with his ideas about the future of storytelling and digital consumption. From the get-go Nathan wanted to work with a publisher who was willing to experiment with price, territoriality and copyright restrictions. He was adamant that he wanted to sell his book at a low price with no DRM. ‘DRM actually encourages piracy instead of protecting against it,’ he says. Far from being concerned about piracy, we shared the belief that if you sell content that people want at a price they’re willing to pay then piracy becomes a non-issue. It’s refreshing (and rare) to come across authors who are as informed, engaged and enthusiastic as Nathan – but Momentum has attracted its fair share of them so far, and I’m looking forward to finding more.

Although Momentum was only able to sign up the straight-text book of The Chimera Vector, Nathan had far more ambitious plans. They involved launching the ebook along with an app, audio book and graphic novel to encourage accessibility across different types of media.

‘There are enhanced ebooks, there are transmedia products, there are a few book apps with bells and whistles. But nothing cohesive, nothing integrated, nothing truly groundbreaking. Is that really the best we can do?’

Nathan and his agent, Xavier Waterkeyn, started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the planned book app, but despite raising over $US40,000 it fell short of the ambitious $140K goal. Nathan and Xavier are now slowly funding the bells and whistles themselves, working on audio, graphics and wireframing in their spare time.

The ebook of The Chimera Vector has led the way as Momentum’s first debut author, shooting straight into the top ten on Apple’s iBookstore at launch last week and attracting promotion and sales around the world. The ability to launch a debut author with a digital-only book and still stand out from the crowd proves that publishers will still have a role in connecting authors with audiences, in and out of print, for many years to come.

You can buy Nathan M Farrugia’s The Chimera Vector DRM-free from the ebook retailer of your choice here, and it will also be available soon in print-on-demand.

This post was originally published on FutureBook. You can read it again here.

This Book is Certified Edited

Posted May 10, 2012 by

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about editing this week. Tomorrow I’m speaking at the Residential Editorial Program, an intensive editing course run by Varuna for professional career editors. My topic is about the future of editing, and although I find myself talking about this almost every day of my working life, it’s hard to sum up precisely how I feel.

And then Rich Adin from The Digital Reader blog gave me a little push.

I’ve been toying with this idea for some time now. I haven’t gotten very far with it because of resistance from editorial colleagues, but I’m wondering if professional editors should certify that a book has been professionally edited as a way to assure the author’s customers that the book was edited?

Adin is talking about self-published authors here. And it’s an extremely noble idea. Adin identifies most of the (many) problems with the idea himself on the post. These include how to penalise bad editing, who decides on certification, who ensures that authors follow the advice, who will promote the value of such certification and, the biggie, “what fee schedule is reasonable for a certification process?” However, he goes on to say that “few of the problems cannot be overcome”. Here I have to disagree with him, and I think the reasoning comes down to this umbrella term – “editing”.

Editing is more than just good proofreading – making sure the author has used the right “your” and “their” and “its” and ensuring that a character with blue eyes and blonde hair remains blue-eyed and blonde throughout the book. A ‘certified’ edited book, in the sense that Adin means, wouldn’t be worth the electrons it was typed in if the book was well proofread and the continuity worked but was still a giant pile of crap to read. In traditional publishing (still the best in show for professional editorial standards, despite objections and occasional dropped balls), the editorial process starts at commissioning. Extremely badly written books don’t get published in the first place. Books that are commissioned usually go through at least one big picture edit that sorts out many of the structural problems (like the six chapters written before the plot starts, the inauthenticity of the setting or the sheer stupidity of a character). Then there’s at least one line edit (or copyedit, depending on your country of origin) and then multiple rounds of proofreading by both freelancers and in-house editorial staff. A huge percentage of editorial work is sent to the author to get their approval, but there is also a lot of stuff that flies under the radar and is just fixed without the author’s knowledge because it’s obviously, glaringly incorrect. All part of the invisible service.

And you know what? Even with all that (and I very much doubt a ‘certified’ editor working with a self-published author could provide all that) not every book that is edited well is a good book. Editing – to a massive extent – is an invisible gloss on a book. I’m frequently enraged when book critics claim that a given book wasn’t very well edited. The kinds of things that can be changed (but are left as is) and the kinds of mistakes that creep in (and are not fixed) are often not the fault of editors, but of the author, the typesetter, the printer, the conversion house and so on and so on and so on. The editor might take ultimate responsibility, but it is almost impossible to determine how ‘well’ a book was edited by looking at the final product.

The other problem with this idea is the cost. The market for self-published, unedited ebooks has proved that there is a proportion of the reading population who are willing to pay a lot less for work that is not edited at all (or edited poorly by non-professional editors). This market is largely driven by price. I’m not convinced that a ‘certified’ editorial scheme is going to make the quality of these books much better unless a lot of money was spent. To address the problems with a certification program, you need an independent third party with a stake in the book with knowledge of editorial skill and the infrastructure to carry it out. And all of that costs money – money that readers of self-published writing don’t want to pay.

Having said that, there is clearly a market for paying slightly more for a well edited book – and that’s to buy it from a publisher. I’m not saying publishers do it perfectly, but it is extremely high on the priority list for our books to go out with as high a level of quality as possible – and it is usually the biggest cost associated with producing a book. Traditional editorial workflow has been built over generations, is constantly improving and it is run efficiently and with razor-thin margins. How, precisely, can self-publishing improve on that?

I do think we can do a better job of ‘selling’ this idea to the reading public. At Momentum, all of our books have the name of the proofreader and the line editor (if appropriate) on the copyright page of the book. It’s one way that we can prove to a sceptical reader that all of our books are edited by real, professional, vetted editors (who are also human beings).

An extract from the copyright page of The Chimera Vector

We also have an email address so that if you do spot errors in our books you can let us know. So far we’ve received two emails from concerned readers, and in both cases they received responses and the errors were corrected.

But I wonder – what else can we do? What do readers expect? Are you willing to pay more for better edited books – or is price more important? Sound off in the comments – I’m curious to hear what you think.

Harry Potter and the Digital Rights Management

Posted March 28, 2012 by

So JK Rowling finally made her ebooks available for sale last night. It’s about time. It’s been described as the ‘Beatles moment’ for ebooks. The Beatles moment they’re referring to is when the Beatles finally acquiesced to selling their albums digitally on the iTunes store.

The Potter ebooks are a bigger deal in book publishing circles than the Beatles going on iTunes for a number of reasons. Imagine that instead of making their music available on iTunes, the Beatles had set up their own website and payment system and forced all the retailers to link through their site in order to purchase their content. Imagine, too, that all music being sold at that point by major retailers was sold with restrictive DRM (digital rights management) and the Beatles were the first major brand to sell without it.

JK Rowling and the Pottermore project (led by ex-HarperCollins head of digital Charlie Redmayne) have done something with ebooks that has never been done before. They’ve effectively forced Amazon to list the books without actually selling them directly. That means JK Rowling and co. get all the sales (and I mean all of them – there’s no commission being skimmed off by paying via PayPal or anyone else). They also get all the customer information that Amazon would ordinarily collect. And they’ve done it by making their books available without DRM.

The screenshot above is the only DRM that Pottermore is including on the books sold through the site. It sits on the copyright page, and identifies the user of the ebook. If you were to post up the unaltered version of a Pottermore ebook on a file sharing site (or email it to a friend, who then shared it), you could be identified with this code, and presumably you could be sued or blacklisted from Pottermore if Ms Rowling was so inclined.

This kind of watermarking, also known as ‘social DRM’, doesn’t restrict the user from doing what they want with the file, but it does make the user think twice about sharing (particularly with someone they don’t trust). As far as I can find by opening up the EPUB file this code doesn’t exist anywhere else in the book except for on the copyright page, so it would be relatively easy to remove it (but not much easier, it should be pointed out, than removing normal DRM from an ebook).

The power of this kind of DRM, though, is that it can be applied by anyone, not just a book retailer, and it costs (virtually) nothing to implement. Importantly, it also means that ebook readers of any platform can buy your book and put it on their device without syncing, linking, three different logins or any other issues. It allows sharing among friends and family that you trust, and it passes the Grandma test (my grandma would understand how it works).

Amazon has been forced to list the books to avert serious leakage from their platform. If Amazon had decided not to link and list the Potter ebooks via their site, then Pottermore would have sold them to Kindle customers anyway. And those Kindle customers, who may have never bought an ebook from outside Amazon before would all of a sudden know that it was possible and how to do it. And Amazon doesn’t want that.

This opens up a massive opportunity for publishers to use a brand like JK Rowling to get some more leverage with Amazon. The Pottermore purchasing system may not be the smoothest around, but it works and it’s certainly not beyond publishers or their intermediaries to set up something similar. Publishers have tried to do this before – but they haven’t done it with a brand like Harry Potter.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and Pottermore has demonstrated one way that publishers haven’t tried yet. Amazon’s chokehold on the distribution of digital books is not as watertight as it seemed just yesterday morning.

For its part, Momentum is making our very first debut author’s book available without DRM. The Chimera Vector is available for pre-order right now from your retailer of choice for the early bird price of $AU2.99. Go on, you know you want to.

Experimenting with form and structure in ebooks is a recipe for confusion

Posted March 6, 2012 by

I’ve been reading ebooks for a long time. People complain nowadays about quality control in ebooks, but when I started reading them there was no quality assurance whatsoever. Books were all over the place. Most books were pirated or typed out from classic editions of the text by enterprising amateurs. There were random line and page breaks scattered throughout most books, and you can forget about footnotes. The most memorable example of my confusion was when I tried to read a (most probably pirated) version of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace*, which is full of footnotes, and even contains footnotes based on footnotes**. It was baffling to me. The book itself is a little baffling anyway, but it wasn’t until I got my hands on my Kindle and read the rest of the book digitally that I felt like it made more sense.

All of this is leading to a chance conversation with a few people on Twitter the other day, who were talking about the possibility of converting Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves to an ebook. And also to a conversation with my mother. To start from the end, she (my mother) was talking about reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the book by Jonathan Safran Foer that has recently been made into an Oscar-nominated film. She is currently attempting to read the book on her Kindle. Having not read it myself, I couldn’t tell her that the book wasn’t an experimental journey into the nature of books and the structure of stories. I just said, “Maybe there’s something wrong with the ebook.” And she said, “That’s what I thought.”

And that got me to thinking. We (as in literate human beings) have been reading from paper books for hundreds of years. We’re pretty comfortable with the form of a paper book, so when an author decides to mess around with it, for artistic purposes or even for shits and giggles, we get it. In ebooks, however, most readers don’t know the capabilities or the limitations of the form. Every quirk (which is most likely an error) may just be the author playing with our minds.

So this brings me back to my conversation on Twitter. I implore you, Mr Franklin – and anyone else considering it – please don’t ever try to convert House of Leaves to an ebook. You’ll just confuse my mother.

 

*Appropriately enough, this is a footnote. I would like to point out that the only reason I was using a pirated version of a book is because I knew that my first-gen Kindle was in the post from the US and had already bought an electronic copy for the reader but couldn’t read it anywhere.

**This is another footnote. Just because.

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Momentum Giveaway

Posted February 20, 2012 by

To celebrate the launch of Momentum we want to share our excitement by giving you a chance to collect a set of our ebooks for free. Just retweet or share the Momentum giveaway post on Twitter or Facebook in order to be in the running.

You have until 5pm Friday, February 24, so go forth and spread the word: a new way of publishing is here. Digital, available globally and ready for your reading pleasure right now. Purchase our books wherever good ebooks are sold.

The giveaway includes the books below. Click on the book covers for more information.