Monthly Archives: May 2010

How Terribly Old School of Me

I finally got rid of my cheap, particle board bookcases and replaced them with solid pine. They smell fantastic. And yes, they cost more then an iPad, but these guys will still be around when an iPad is nothing more than a paperweight.

There was something enormously pleasing about going through all of my books. Half of them remain in the basement in boxes, so the process involved choosing what gets displayed and what gets boxed. That’s part of the appeal, limiting what I’ll look at regularly and leaving some space open for new books.

As a former bookseller, I must categorize. I have a half a shelf devoted to travel, half for yard work (okay, gardening, but it feels like work), a couple shelves of mass market paperbacks, a shelf of reference and (ahem) self help, a shelf of history and biography. I found a couple of strange notes tucked between the pages, such as “Polycrates: tyrant of Samos 535 – 515 B.C. killed his two brothers but eventually crucified” from Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. I never did quite finish that book… one of these days.

Then there are the first editions and signed copies. Some real treasures, including one with a doodle from China Miéville. Going through these books, some recent arrivals and others that I’ve had for decades, is like reliving bits of my past. eBooks may have portability and instant gratification advantages, but there will always be something special about the physical book.

Bookscases

Oh, and if you’re in the Seattle area, I highly recommend Ballard Bookcase Company. They were super helpful and friendly. They do custom installations too. I’m happy to say seem pretty busy, even with all the ebook hoopla.

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AmazonEncore, J.A. Konrath, and the $2.99 eBook

"Shaken" by J.A. KonrathAmazonEncore announced this week that they’ll be releasing Shaken by J.A. Konrath. The ebook will come out in October, and in an interesting twist the paperback will follow four months later. According to Konrath: “It’s easier to release an ebook than a print book. Print books require printing, shipping, warehousing, pre-orders from bookstores, etc.”

Shaken is the seventh novel in the Jack Daniel’s mystery series by Konrath. The previous six books were published by Hyperion, which dropped its entire mystery line including this series. Apparently Shaken is a bit of a departure for AmazonEncore as it will be the first entirely new title that they publish. The recent imprint instead focuses on publishing books already available on Kindle, either those by new authors or re-releases from traditional publishers that have since gone out of print.

Konrath has long been a proponent for authors to self publish their back list, and he’s documented his own growing stream of revenue on his blog. According to his most recent post on the subject, his self-published titles on Kindle are now generating a staggering $472 per day. That works out to an annualized income of over $120,000 assuming that no books at all are sold over the weekend, an unlikely scenario considering when readers use Kindles most–all this from books that traditional publishers passed on.

As for the Shaken deal with AmazonEncore, while Konrath is bypassing a traditional publisher, his agent has been involved every step of the way. On his blog, he frequently encourages new writers to take their lumps, put in the effort, and hone their writing chops until they land an agent to champion their work–and he often takes some heat for it due to his own experiences with self publishing.

This success and his sometimes outspoken blog on the traditional publishing industry makes Konrath a no-brainer choice for AmazonEncore. It’s an interesting partnership. As part of the deal, Amazon gets to sell an original title in an established series for only $2.99. (The paperback version, when available, will sell for $10.17.) This super low price is one of the hallmarks of Konrath’s other Kindle titles. He’s extensively tested different prices, and found that low prices drive enough incremental sales to grow overall revenue. He can prove this with the fact that he’s making a killing off of books that New York publishers didn’t want.

There’s no question that Amazon will use this as a case study to show publishers that their concerns over low ebook prices and windowing are baseless, if in fact that turns out to be the case with this book. At just $2.99 a pop, this new title isn’t in the ballpark of the $9.99 price that was so hotly contested, and not even in the same universe as the $27 hardback price, where it would be if it had gone the traditional route.

Ironically, Hyperion will likely to see a boost to their Kindle sales for the earlier books in the series, though they may have trouble explaining why these older titles are priced at two to three times the cost of the latest book. Konrath will also will also likely see his self publishing numbers grow at an even faster rate. It’s far from chump change. More than a few established midlist writers must be taking a second look at those manuscripts they have filed away in a drawer somewhere.

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Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Short Story Writers

I first encountered Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. when it was published a decade ago. It collects his short stories that didn’t make the cut for Welcome to the Monkey House. Most were originally published in magazines like Colliers and Saturday Evening Post, back in the enviable days when writers could work through an apprenticeship by crafting short stores.

Having already read almost everything by Vonnegut, I devoured these previously lost stories, comforted by the fact that some of the cracks in the plaster showed. These aren’t the best stories. Even great talent needs time to develop, but the stories in some way showed how one might set off on such a path.

Something in those stories must have stuck with me through the years since. I’ve been working on an entirely new story, and feeling a bit lost. It’s a different sort of tale from those that normally come to me, and reminds me of the ideas that Vonnegut explored. I’ve been hankering to go back and reread Bagombo Snuff Box, which I borrowed at the time so would need to track down a fresh copy.

In the process, I came across his rules for short story writers. It’s amazing these aren’t more well known. Here’s a video of Vonnegut reading his advice, which almost makes the accompanying montage worth watching:

And here they are written out so they’ll stick in my head:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel that time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such a complete understanding of what is going on, where, and why that they could finish the story themselves should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I like the last one in particular. (I’ve been a sadist for ages now.) One of the things I keep coming back to with my writing is clarity. It should be crystal clear to the reader each step of the way what’s going on, and for the most part why it’s all happening.

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Thoughts on The City & The City by China Mieville

"The City & The City" by China MievilleI know that China Miéville will soon be coming out with Kraken, so I’m a bit tardy with this review of The City & The City. But this earlier novel was recently nominated for a Nebula award. Plus, one of the great things about reviewing books for this blog (as opposed to the more official reviews I wrote for Perdido Street Station and The Scar in The Seattle Times) is that I get to write when I want. So there!

The City & The City may well have the strangest premise I’ve encountered. It’s about the divided cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma in an unidentified part of eastern Europe. Both cities occupy the same space, which doesn’t mean that they neighbor each other. They’re interwoven. One city can switch to the other from one block to the next. The only thing that keeps residents from walking in and out of each city is lifelong training, and discipline. The book is filled with concepts like unseeing, unhearing, and unsmelling, where residents of one city work to cement themselves in it and not perceive anything happening in the other. The only way to move officially between the cities is through Copula Hall, a transit center where one literally goes through the door one way only to come right back out the other way, but in a different city. It’s a deliciously absurd premise.

The plot is pure hard boiled. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad investigates the murder of an unidentified woman. The case takes him into seedy corners of both cities and into echelons of power. In the end though, the star of the book is captured in the title. The plot itself remains somewhat flimsy, perhaps even predictable. The real thrill in reading this book is getting to spend some time in Besźel and Ul Qoma.

In the hands of a less skilled writer, the premise would crumble. Miéville handles it deftly. He could have easily resorted to some magical explanation for how the cities occupy the same space, but he resists, and by keeping magic at bay, he makes the book far more intriguing. Initially I was skeptical. I thought these cities would never make sense, but as the pages turned and the details grew, it all became shockingly convincing.

It also reminded me so much of Berlin. I lived there for two years after the wall came down in the mid 90s, in the Eastern side of the city. While the wall was gone, the divisions it created were palpable. I had my Ossie (East German) and my Wessie (West German) friends, and nothing killed a party faster than when the two met. Hopefully things have changed since then, but social planning required judicious balancing to keep the two cultures, which occupied the same physical space, from clashing. Miéville expertly draws on this human tendency for the absurd, how we can make our lives hugely inconvenient for the sake of something arbitrary that has been deemed important.

In addition to its Nebula nod, The City & The City was nominated for a Hugo. It’s a thought provoking novel that like much of the author’s work rewards the reader even long after it’s finished. Though I am happy to see that Miéville is returning to fantasy with his next novel… sort of, one never really knows quite what to expect from him. He doesn’t follow the rules, which is one of the things that makes his work so refreshing.

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Henry VIII and His eBook Psalter

Henry VIIIWe’ve all heard the argument that ebooks are nothing like the real thing. They don’t have the same weight to them. They don’t smell like books. Turning virtual pages isn’t nearly as enjoyable as the paper variety. You can’t take them in the bathtub. All true. But let us not forget that the paper variety of books are fairly new-fangled in their own right. Back in ye goode olde days, books were handwritten on vellum, featuring lavish flourishes around capital letters, if not whole illustrated pages.

The British Library has crossed the paths of some of these treasures with the ebook, though they don’t ask that you buy an ereader. My personal favorite from their virtual collection is a psalter that once belonged to Henry VIII. I’m rather fond of page f.48. What’s not to love about a battle scene in a prayer book? The book is in amazing condition, pretty lightly used, though one wonders what sort of quiet, reflective time it spent with the notorious monarch.

Also check out a 17th century illustrated Ramayana, which flips up from the bottom rather than over from the right.  Or see how Mozart scribbled notes in his diary, the illustrated version of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, and History of England, an early work by Jane Austen which happens to have a drawing of Henry VIII on page 12.

It’s all around a fascinating site, though the navigation at the top of the main page is a tad annoying. It never seems to want to stop, and only recognizes clicks on the tiny arrow (not the whole “More” link). Also, their Turning the Pages 2.0 app is one of the few things I’ve encountered that seems to run better in Explorer than Firefox.

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2010 Webby Awards

The winners of this year’s Webby Awards were announced yesterday, May 4. The full list of nominees in nearly 70 categories is downright amazing, ranging from sites backed by mega corporations, through those bankrolled by celebrities, and then on down to those managed by one lone individual who probably doesn’t even scratching a living out of it.

With over 300 nominees on the page, there’s something there for everyone–fascinating browsing. I haven’t checked out the full list, but here’s a few picks worth a visit:

The Poppe Shoppe: This won in the Best Use of Animation or Motion Graphics. I can’t quite figure out if it is or isn’t an ad, but in the end kind of don’t care. Scrolling up and down and clicking away causes the site to take on a life of its own, though it does get old kind of quick.

One in 8 Million: This site from the New York Times was a nominee in the Best Use of Photography category. I love how this seemingly stalwart paper has so thoroughly embraced online media. If they can do it, book publishers can too. It’s impossible to imagine this experience–crisp black and white photography notwithstanding–as anything other than a website.

Jim Carrey: Official Site: This won both the Webby and the People’s Voice awards in the Celebrity/Fan category. It’s a tad strange, but super cool. I’m not quite sure if it actually communicates anything other than how weird it is, but definitely an amazing site. Can I get me one of them Twitter birds?

Clouds 365 Project: This was a nominee in the Personal Blog/Website category. It’s a simple idea: one picture of clouds per day for an entire year. I love sites like this with clear concepts that are elegantly executed. All around, it’s an enticing site that makes May in Seattle (shouldn’t it be spring already?) not quite so lonely.

Selleck Waterfall Sandwich: This won in the Weird category. Not quite so simple a concept, but yup, exactly what it says it is. Had me laughing out loud. How does Mr. Selleck stay so slim with all them sandwiches around? Make sure you play the audio clip on the first page, it sums the site up nicely.

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Kobo eReader: Is It the Real Kindle Killer?

What a difference an eReader launch can make? The Kobo eReader is available today in Canada, and the lack of attention on this side of the border is almost deafening. It seems that gadgets need bells and whistles to attract much hoopla, and the Kobo eReader is almost old school in the world of ebooks.

Michael Tamblyn, vice president of sales and merchandising at Kobo, recently presented at BookNet Canada’s Technology Forum 2010. There, he called it a device “for people who love books more than they love technology.” He goes on to highlight the company’s philosophy of letting the reader choose the right device for them “not just from month to month or year to year, but even within the course of a day.”

And at $149, the Kobo eReader is cheap enough to back such claims.

Kobo also hosts an ebook downloads store that currently features 2 million titles. Perhaps the best feature about this startup is its approach to ebook format. The Kobo eReader supports standard ePub, PDF, and Adobe DRM formats. If down the road you want to move your ebooks to another device, even one not made by Kobo, you can do this relatively easily. The iPad and Kindle are designed for lock in. Anything bought in the iBooks and Kindle Stores can only be accessed on future devices made by Apple or Amazon. The Nook supports more open formats, but like the Kindle it costs $110 more. Unlike all these other devices, the Kobo eReader can’t directly download new books. You need to either connect it to a computer or use Bluetooth to sync it wirelessly with a phone. Though the Kobo eReader does comes preloaded with 100 books.

Other features include the same size (6-inch) screen as Kindle 2 and similar e-ink technology. This is one of the deal breakers for me with the iPad. I don’t want screen glare for those few, though hugely enjoyable, all-day reading stints. The iPad does look like a snazzy games gadget, but I don’t need any more incentive to waste time playing stupid games.

Kobo is definitely a company to watch in this space. They’re small now, less than a year and a half old and very much in startup mode. Their approach is firmly grounded in giving customers what they want first, empire building second. The titans with whom they compete seem to be far more concerned with empire building. The Kobo eReader won’t be available in the US until summer. They’ve partnered with Borders, so US consumers will be able to check the device out before buying it. And at $149, it just may get me to take the plunge. At the very least it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Kindle and Nook pricing as the competition heats up.

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