Monthly Archives: January 2010

Do iPad and Kindle Both Appeal to Niche Markets?

The Apple iPad launch has made me realize something that should have been apparent a long time ago: I’m not a gadget guy. My current cell phone was built in ancient Roman times. In the not too distant past I not only didn’t have a cell phone, but had no phone at all and no television–though I did have a laptop and a radio. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m not thrilled with the iPad, even though I feel I should be. After all, it’s the Apple answer to ereaders.

There’s a whole lot of internet chatter about what’s wrong with the iPad, but very little on the worst feature for an ereader: the glossy, backlit screen. (One of the most appealing things about the Kindle is its ease on eyestrain.) There’s no discussion at all about all the noise. When I curl up with a book I don’t want to have an apps store nearby. I don’t want to play little games. I don’t want to send e-mails or text messages or instant messages. I don’t want to watch videos. I don’t want to blog or tweet or facebook. Here’s what I want to do: read.

I never feel like I’ve wasted my time when I spend the whole day reading–even the trashiest of novels. With video games, TV, phone calls, Facebook, texting, all of it can feel like a huge thundercrushing waste o’ time.

Which makes me think the iPad isn’t a Kindle Killer as other posts suggest, but that the devices cater to two distinct niche markets. The iPad is for the individual who needs something to fill that gap between phone and netbook, that is for those unlike me who already have both. And the Kindle is for the hardcore reader who wants as comfortable of a reading experience as possible. Though the better market is likely the latter. The dedicated reader buys a whole lot more books, and that’s where the real money is in these devices… content, not hardware.

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Michelangelo and the Fully Formed Idea

Michelangelo supposedly said that all blocks of stone already contain a statue. The job of the sculptor is to simply release it by chipping away all the bits that don’t belong. His unfinished slaves–which line the hallway leading to dear David in Florence–show parts of the statue stuck in stone, struggling to step free. They imply that Michelangelo started in some random spot, hacking away to reveal a foot here, a torso there, an elbow there.

But not so. The Seattle Art Museum has a dozen drawings by the Renaissance master on display. They show the artist at work: erasing lines, rethinking compositions, and refining the overall layout before beginning the final work. Many of the sketches are preparations for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The drawings are exceedingly rare. To reinforce the idea that his ideas sprung into his head fully formed, Michelangelo burned hundreds of his preparatory sketches.

The exhibit only runs through January 31, so be sure to catch it while you can if you’re in the Seattle area. If you’re too far or too late to attend in person, there’s a series of great videos on the exhibit by Dr. Gary Radke. They include this one detailing my favorite sketch–a hastily constructed shopping list.

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SCBWI Annual Conference: Guys Who Write Kid Lit

I’ve registered for the annual conference put on by the Washington Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, better known as the SCBWI. Two days all about scribbling with about 400 other likeminded folks, small enough to not be overwhelmed, big enough to not get cornered. If you write kid lit and are in the Seattle area, sign up now before it fills up. And let me know, would be great to meet.

In particular, this conference is great for guys. The attendees are always about 95% female, so… no, I’m not thinking that, but something more industrial. There’s the chance to bond with that elusive fellow creature, the guy who scribbles for kids. Usually all of us end up forming a sad lunch circle on the second day, until one of the SCBWI staff comes along and tells us to break it up.

And while attendees are mostly women, the numbers skew towards men as you move up the food chain. Nearly 40% of the faculty are men, and over half of the agents and editors. A good chunk of the men at these conferences are established in the kid lit business, and we all know where everyone ends up at some point…

Men's Room

There are so many women at these events that they commandeer one of the men’s bathrooms. Who can blame them? Their lines are still crazy long. So the few men grumble and tromp out to the front of the place in search of the tiny men’s room. It soon becomes a swarm of agents and editors. And what agent doesn’t love reading a damp manuscript slid in his direction across the bathroom floor? What busy editor doesn’t relish the idea of multitasking, taking care of nature’s call while hearing your eloquent pitch?

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Book Publishers and the Book Pirates

Last week, Publishers Weekly reported on a study conducted by Attributor on book piracy. It concluded that over 9 million books were illegally downloaded last year, resulting in potential losses of up to $3 billion. While the study is admittedly flawed–for starters it works on the assumption that every download is the equivalent of a lost full-price sale–it shows that illegal book downloads are alarmingly common. I would have thought books would not be so ready to succumb. Don’t we still have libraries? For a great discussion of the study itself, check out this post on Jim C. Hines’ blog.

With books following the trends of other digital media, here’s my completely unsolicited–and somewhat foolhardy–tips on how the publishing industry can best navigate the transition to digital:

Understand what you can control. I’ve spent most of my career working in the gap between web companies and old school business. The toughest lesson for traditional businesses to learn is how little control they have in the wilds of the web. I’ve seen Satanic cult discussions break out on Barbie doll pages, and customers pleading for help in comments sections where no one will ever hear them. On the web, customers will act in strange and unpredictable ways. That said, publishers cannot control when their books become available as ebooks. That will happen globally on the day of publication, if not earlier. What they can control is when a legal ebook is available. By delaying their release, publishers only encourage consumers to seek out the pirates. As pointed out on TechFlash, Game Change has been deluged with one star reviews on Amazon. With 120 (and counting) one star reviews because it doesn’t come in ebook form, how much of an impact will delaying the ebook have on overall sales?

Don’t alienate your best customers. Any lengths taken to introduce DRM or other restrictions will only hurt the people who buy the most books. Pirates will sail past them, or worse, take them as a challenge.

Set a fair price. Textbook publishers are going to have a hard time.  Students have long sensed a racket when they’re required to buy specific books, and can only get them at one bookstore in town for hefty price tags. This also underscores the customer sentiment that an ebook, due to savings from not having to print and distribute the book, should not cost the same as a hardback.

Make lengthy samples available of every book for free. A lot of the illegal downloads could be just the desire to sample before buying. It amazes me that some books offer no sample pages at all online, and even more put up just the table of contents or the index. Make the first 50 pages of the book available. If a potential customer reads all the way through page 50, the subsequent sale is a done deal.

Agree on an industry standard ebook format. Setting an industry standard would be a huge step forward in preventing an iTunes-like iron grip on downloadable books. Kindle books currently only work on Kindle. An industry standard would mean that ebooks could work across the myriad of emerging devices. Thus consumers won’t need to seek out a pirated version, following the frustration of downloading a legal copy only to find out it doesn’t work on their specific device.

There’s no reason for book publishers to repeat the lessons foisted on the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). There, we had folks like Russell Frackman, the first lead attorney for the RIAA, who until the Napster case never used either e-mail or a word processor but instead dictated his legal papers to his secretary. The thinking was, once Napster was put out of business the record industry would have nothing to worry about. Ummm, how did that work out? Argh!

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Small Books on Writing by Big Authors

No matter how a book is ultimately brought in front of readers, its success all comes back to the writing. I love books on the craft of writing by pretty much anyone, but those that I’ve found most helpful are by writers whose work I envy. Perhaps not surprisingly, these all tend to be short books that distill decades of expertise into a couple hundred pages.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury: This is a  collection of essays originally published in the 70s and 80s. It’s as much stories about a life in writing, as it is writing advice. I love the image of Bradbury on his lawn with his typewriter in 1942, when he was in his early 20s, crying with the realization that he had just finished his first really good story. His most memorable advice is that writing is akin to acting like a small lizard in the desert, run fast, stand still. Don’t edit so much when rough drafting, just get it down and then come back and fix things later.

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin: This book is more about the nuts and bolts of writing than the others on this list, a good intro for those new to the craft or a refresher for those more experienced by one of the world’s most talented wordsmiths. Her advice that’s done me the most value is that to read passages aloud, even though it made me feel a tad self-conscious at first. If you trip up reading your own words, the reader coming at them for the first time will stumble right out of the book.

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith: While the title implies this is just about suspense fiction, it applies equally well to all stories aimed at pulling the reader in and keeping the pages turning. She details how to take an idea, and build it out into a full-fledged story with numerous examples from her own work. Though perhaps most helfplul is her advice that the first person a writer should try to please is yourself. The rest of the world will come later.

On Writing by Stephen King: This one seems to make every writer’s list, and with good reason. What I remember most about it is the image of his wife wheeling his typewriter in front of him while King was in bed recovering from injuries after his infamous run-in with a van. Every writer needs someone like this, a partner to  kick you back into the writing even if you’ve been literally run over by a bus. King goes on to detail how his writing became a key part of his convalescence.

There’s a bookcase more of writing books that I’ve collected, but these are the four most worth mentioning. If you know of any other noteworthy tomes on the writing craft by its maestros, I’d love to hear about them.

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So Many eReaders, So Little Time

While 3D televisions got most of the coverage at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the explosion of ebook readers came in a close second. The Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Sony Reader will be joined by devices from Fujitsu, Samsung, and even the magazine publisher Hearst. Mighty Apple is also rumored to soon be entering the fray with a tablet computer. Far better coverage than I could ever give here can be found on Engadget and Gizmodo. The Huffington Post also offers a rundown, complete with a picture and blurb for each device. And if you really want to get detailed, check out Macworld. For the UK perspective, there’s The Guardian which covers the Que ereader by British company Plastic Logic, and gives an intro to the what they call the ebook revolution.

Part of my reaction to this explosion is distinctively Luddite, a strong desire to sit back and wait for the gadget freaks to work it all out, then let the rest of us know what to buy while also doing a magnificent job of driving down prices. It’s also disconcerting to see so much attention focused on bells and whistles: display colors, video, animations, ink technology. While some of these perks could be handy for textbooks and the like, the novel works just fine with black text on white. Admittedly, many of the smaller device makers are trying to corner a niche market: business readers, periodical readers, magazine readers, commuters. In the not too distant future, Hearst could well be giving away their Skiff reader for free if you sign a two-year contract for their content.

Then there is the most shocking gadget of them all: the watertight case for Kindle. Apparently this negates the need for 1-gallon plastic bags that Jeff Bezos has employed to date while reading his Kindle in the tub. Now, that is handy! Also worth noting is this Slate interview with Bezos from shortly before the holidays. He makes two bold predictions: dedicated ereaders (not just multipurpose devices) shall survive, while printed books will eventually disappear. My hunch is he’s right on the first (that whole black text on white thing) but dead wrong on the second. Luddite readers like myself will still want some good, old fashioned paper books. Come to think of it, I don’t need a 3D television either, way too difficult to get any writing done with one of those around.

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One Sheet of Paper: No Tape, No Glue, No Cuts

It’s often said that no one makes a living writing short stories, but what about origami? Not a chance. At least that’s what I thought until I saw Vanessa Gould’s documentary “Between the Folds,” part of the Independent Lens series on PBS.  Origami artists–or “paper folders” as they’re called more often in the documentary–work under limitations that seem absurdly restrictive: one sheet of paper with no tape, no glue, and no cuts allowed. Yet within these limits, paper folding masters produce amazing work.

The documentary features a slew of interesting characters, before moving into the profound with ideas of mathematical rhythms, ideal proportions, and real world applications of folding theory for stuff like car airbags and even proteins. But what’s most interesting are the featured artists, and their work. Here’s three of them:

Eric Joisel lives in a Paris suburb and creates work that seems like it could not possibly have emerged from a single sheet of paper.

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