William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Financial Management and Family-Building

Second draft editing work on my personal finance collaboration, "Where Does It All Go?" continues to crank along at a good clip. Perhaps it was watching the news clips of the royal wedding this morning, along with the commentators' repeated statements about how the economically battered U.K. really needed something like this wedding to lift their spirits, that made me take special note of this bit:

Image source: here
A family that saves and pursues goals together becomes stronger. The children learn better financial values. Perhaps most importantly, couples that get their financial houses in order have a much better chance of staying together and increasing their mutual happiness. The University of Virginia helped to produce a report called “The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America 2009.” Read it. The correlation between sound personal finance and the health of American marriages will hit you like a Mack truck.

“Consumer debt is also an equal-opportunity marriage destroyer,” writes author Jeffrey Dew in the report. “It does not matter if couples are rich or poor, working class or middle class. If they accrue substantial debt, it puts a strain on their marriage. Assets, on the other hand, sweeten and solidify the ties between spouses. Assets minimize any sense of financial unease that couples feel, with the result that they experience less conflict.”

Save together, stay together. The happiness and well-being of not only you but your entire family depends on it. Given these stakes, it’s imperative to admit when you find yourself running down the wrong path. In the big picture, this isn’t about bills and budgets. It’s about achieving long-term happiness and security, both individually and as a family. You cannot let something as trivial as your ego interfere with this. When you’re on the wrong path, have the brains to admit it and the courage to fix it. Get on the right path and stay there.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Unexpected Five-Star Review

It's been a slow April, even in page views, never mind actual sales. By this point, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking, "What if I never sell another copy of my book? What if it's really nowhere near as good as I think and my friends say?"

No sooner does that thought enter my head than I hear my inner Winston Churchill admonish me: "Never, never, never give up."

I'm not a good salesman. Being fairly shy by nature, I find outside sales in particular very difficult. But my Granddad, the eternal salesman, always drilled into me the fact that "you never get the order unless you ask for it." So I went through Amazon's list of top 100 reviewers, looking for those who provided both an email address and something in their profiles that indicated an interest in technology. Last night, I got my first hit. Arth Denton, Amazon's #2 reviewer in the world, gave me a five-star review and some highly unexpected praise, calling the material "interesting and a pleasure to read."

Will this help spur any sales? I have no idea. Honestly, the review's value may be more inspirational than financial. It marks the first time that a prominent reviewer, and a total stranger to boot, has given my writing real validation. So onward, dear friends! As a close friend of Churchill's once (nearly) said, "There is nothing to fear but lack of output itself."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Kindle Library Lending Arrives, Hints at More Change

It's been a busy week or so in Kindle news. No sooner did the digital ink dry on my criticisms of Amazon and its lack of library involvement than the company announced a new deal with OverDrive to enable lending on the Kindle. I'm sure there will be flaws and gaps that will need to be filled in with time, but this still marks a great step forward for ebooks. The move will allow millions of Kindle owners (and the millions more to come) a way to stay involved with their library systems and make better use of their taxpayer investments.

If you want a video synopsis of the news along with some interesting critical questions, try the Newsy coverage here.

Following are the key bullet points from OverDrive's announcement:

  • The Kindle Library Lending program will integrate into your existing OverDrive-powered ‘Virtual Branch’ website.
  • Your existing collection of downloadable eBooks will be available to Kindle customers. As you add new eBooks to your collection, those titles will also be available in Kindle format for lending to Kindle and Kindle reading apps. Your library will not need to purchase any additional units to have Kindle compatibility. This will work for your existing copies and units.
  • A user will be able to browse for titles on any desktop or mobile operating system, check out a title with a library card, and then select Kindle as the delivery destination. The borrowed title will then be able to be enjoyed using any Kindle device and all of Amazon’s free Kindle Reading Apps.
  • The Kindle eBook titles borrowed from a library will carry the same rules and policies as all our other eBooks.
  • The Kindle Library Lending program will support publishers’ existing lending models.
  • Your users’ confidential information will be protected.
  • The Kindle Library Lending program is only available for libraries, schools, and colleges in the United States.

With this expansion of the relationship between ebooks and libraries, we take another step in the evolution of libraries' roles. Librarians increasingly expect that locations will hold fewer physical books but increasingly transition to being local community centers. You already see this happening with increases in things such as family movie nights, local activity discounts/passes, and teen programs.

I should also point out that I increasingly see libraries service as impromptu office space. I'm starting to adopt the habit of working one or two days per week at the library, simply because it's easier for me to focus under deadline with fewer phone, email, and social media interruptions. My wife keeps telling me to just ignore those things, but...easier said than done sometimes. And there's just something about the library atmosphere that I find soothing and conducive to work. Apparently, I'm not the only one. By 11:00 AM, practically every table at my local library is occupied, each with at least one person working on a notebook. I have to get there at 10:00 when it opens just to get a table with a decent view of the duck pond.

Will taxpayers continue to fund libraries when they've essentially become community resource centers? Perhaps not as libraries per se. This is why I wonder if existing library facilities will start to fall under different state and/or county programs (such as regional recreation centers) and ebook assets will ultimately be managed by a highly centralized entity, such as the Library of Congress. If budgets don't improve, increasing consolidation and centralization would seem to be the only way library lending will thrive.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

E-reading Rising Among Students

According to a new report from the National Association of College Stores, ebook sales are up 6% among a base of 655 college students compared to last October. Other noteworthy factoids:

  • 15% fewer students now use laptops or netbooks to read texts.
  • 39% of students now use a dedicated e-reader.
  • Of those who owned an e-reader, the models owned were Amazon's Kindle (52%), Barnes & Noble's Nook (21%), Apple's iPhone (17%), and Apple's iPad (10%).

I find it most interesting, though, that 75% of respondents noted that, if given an equal choice, they would still pick paper. I wonder what would happen to this percentage if students were offered ebook versions of the same text for 30% of the paper version's price.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Kindle Special Offers: Amazon Smashes the Sacred

Amazon now offers it's $139, 6-inch display Kindle for $114 -- if you're willing to view the "special offers & sponsored screensavers." This is not a good sign.

I bought my wife a $139 Kindle for last Christmas, and she loves it. Every night, I find myself jealous and wanting an e-reader, too, although I'm not quite convinced that Kindle is how I want to do it. Perhaps you saw in my prior post how unfriendly Kindle is to library borrowing. I'm also still debating whether I want a full-blown tablet to be my reading device along with many other things.

In the literary question of whether "to Kindle or not to Kindle," Amazon may have just decided the issue. See, I get into debates with people about whether e-readers are better or worse than printed books. There are the obvious technical arguments both ways. But ultimately, this is not the real issue. The deep question is whether to read or not.

The National Endowment for the Arts reports that "the U.S. population now breaks into two almost equally sized groups -- readers and non-readers. A slight majority of American adults now read literature (113 million) or books (119 million) in any format." Only half of us read books in any format. Does it make sense for us to bicker around the table over technologies while the war for literacy and readership rages outside?

For me, reading is sacred. Many of my fondest memories involve reading, and I stake my livelihood on the millions of people who value reading in a similar way. The Amazon photograph above notes "the joy of reading." It is joyous. It liberates and expands our minds. It takes us to places -- geographical, emotional, informational, and experiential -- that life would otherwise deny us. Mark Coker of Smashwords indicated to me that reading is essential to the future of civilization. I don't think he envisioned advertising and merchandising as part of that role.

You can now buy that $139 Kindle for only $114 -- a massive $25 savings -- if you're willing to view banner ads at the bottom of the home screen and a full-page ad as your screen saver. Amazon lists the following as special offer examples:

  • $10 for $20 Amazon.com Gift Card
  • $6 for 6 Audible Books (normally $68)
  • $1 for an album in the Amazon MP3 Store (choose from over 1 million albums)
  • $10 for $30 of products in the Amazon Denim Shop or Amazon Swim Shop

Even if these don't sound offensive to you, Amazon's sample photographs tell a truer story. "Go experience the joy of reading"...by putting your book purchases on VISA and going into debt.

Amazon goes on to describe its new Kindle app and coming site called AdMash, which allows you to pick your screensaver ads.

Amazon writes, "You can also set your personal Kindle Screensaver Preferences to give us hints on the style and types of sponsored screensavers you'd like to see on your Kindle. For example, you can indicate that you'd like to see more or fewer screensavers that include elements such as landscapes and scenery, architecture, travel images, photography, and illustrations. Together, AdMash voting and Kindle Screensaver Preferences help us select the most attractive and engaging sponsored screensavers to display on your Kindle."

So not only do you endure ads, but you can choose ads that are more likely to part you from your money and, more importantly, distract you from your reading experience. The best thing to happen to television since the advent of color has been the DVR if for no other reason than because it allows you to skip commercials. But now we have the experience of book reading, which has been more or less free of commercial advertising for the last 1,000 years, suddenly gaining advertising! Isn't paying over $100 for the e-reader enough? Aren't the dollars Amazon retains from every ebook purchase enough? Do we now have to sacrifice the ad-free sanctity of readership so that the content distributor can increase its profits? Because that's all this is about. It's not about you or me. Our reading experience is in no way improved through this change. The only beneficiaries are Amazon and its shareholders.

Amazon might argue that that the book itself remains untouched. There are no in-document ads. To that, I would append the word "yet." There will always be next quarter and the next annual report. This isn't like the multi-hundred dollar discount incentive of a two-year cellular service contract. For $25, you're tossing away your right to a commercial-free e-reading experience forever.

Be ashamed, Amazon. Be ashamed of undermining the hallowed experience you've told us for years that you believe in and foster. Was it all an act? Was it a long-term, convoluted, underhanded ploy to turn one of the last intellectual forms of entertainment into just another chance for us to become billboards?

Please fix this, Amazon, and let's keep book reading about books and reading. Take the high road, and show the rest of the market that it doesn't have to be this way.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Library Ebooks & the Indie Author Conundrum, Part 2

In Part 1 of this blog post, I detailed OverDrive, the aggregator company that distributes digital content to library systems. We left off with the question of how independent authors like myself could get their works into library holdings.

Since my librarian friend had no clue on how indie ebook authors could get into library holdings, I did a little digging. See, if I wrote an self-published a traditional paper book, I could take it to the county library system purchaser, pitch the book, and essentially sell the copies out of a box. The library has zero ability to do that with digital. The library owns no digital content assets. As my friend noted, "Ebooks are different. Those are databases we subscribe to. We actually don't own any of the titles and could suddenly lose access to them at any time." His employer, Multnomah County, subscribes to OverDrive, NetLibrary, and has a new service called ebrary coming up soon. Clearly, libraries are moving to embrace digital, but where does that leave indie authors?  In addition, if I find an ebook that I want the library to offer, how can I petition for it?

As I started poking around, I ended up on a chat session with Alison, who turned out to be the head of procurement of digital holdings for the state of Oregon. We touched on the fact that Kindle, being the one e-reader that's decidedly unfriendly to the increasingly popular EPUB format, is essentially incompatible with library e-lending. Amazon has its own very limited lending capabilities, but these are a far cry from what a library provides. As Ali noted, "Kindle supports lending, but Amazon has no interest in working with libraries."

To request digital content, patrons can go to the Library 2 Go site and click the Suggest a Title link on the home page. This brings up an email form addressed straight to Ali. "I get a lot of requests and I can't answer them all," wrote Ali. "But if the titles are available we almost always purchase them. I'd just let you know that some publishers will not make their products available to libraries, and sometimes the titles are not available as downloadable for us. So don't take it personally if you don't see your suggestion appear in the collection."

Apparently, then, the challenge is to have the book be available through one of the library's aggregator suppliers. Since OverDrive is the largest and most established of these, I went there next, to a division within OverDrive called Content Reserve. I poked around on the site for a while but came away with almost no significant information. I emailed the company and received a reply (always a good initial sign) stating that I should submit an application. "Once submitted, someone from our team will review your application. If we determine that your content is a good fit for our distribution networks, we will be in contact with you about taking the next steps."

Before spending the time on filling out paperwork, I asked again for specific requirements and guidelines regarding independent publisher inclusion in OverDrive's catalog. All I got back from this message was notice that there was a five-title minimum per publisher and to let them know if I had any further questions. I did, and my patience with this cat and mouse routine was wearing thin. I wrote back:

Details such as a five-title minimum are good to know. Are there restrictions on length? For example, as you know, many short stories are now published as ebooks. An ebook poetry collection might only have, say, 32 "pages." Some authors might try to represent a recorded chapter as a discrete audiobook file, just as books on CD are sometimes broken into different physical volumes.

Then comes issues of payment, and this is just my lack of familiarity with OverDrive's model talking. But whereas a library would historically buy one or more physical copies of a book per branch location, with the author receiving a royalty on each copy sold, how do authors get paid when it seems that a single digital file is shared to library patrons across the state? Does OverDrive pay the retail rate for titles as they're listed on sites such as Smashwords, or do you negotiate lower rates on a per-title basis? How often does licensing of these titles get renegotiated? Are any distribution rights for the author tied up while content is licensed to OverDrive?

Broadening the discussion a bit, I know that some librarians are worried about content longevity. When they buy a book, it becomes a permanent holding. But with OverDrive and digital content, the library owns nothing, right? If OverDrive decides to drop a title or the book owner(s) change the content, then the library has no ability to safeguard the original material for its patrons. We've seen The Oregonian newspaper eliminate huge swaths of content from library databases, and Texas made headlines recently when it amended its history textbooks, just to name two examples of digital era "content casualties." I understand that OverDrive is merely the distributor in the middle and probably not engaged in such decisions, but, given that you are apparently the single source of electronic library content in my state, I'm very curious if you know of any safeguards that protect the library's interests and traditional mission in this context.

The next day, OverDrive's Amy Kaufman responded with this:

Thanks for your questions. We do not currently have any restrictions when it comes to the length of an eBook. While audio publishers may break their content up into several different volumes, these would still be considered one title.

Our distribution agreement is non-exclusive, and publishers are paid on a per-title basis, just like in the physical book world. If a consortium purchases one title, they have that one title to circulate throughout the entire library system. If an individual library within that consortium would also like to purchase that title, they may have it to circulate to their specific branch, in addition to the one circulating throughout the consortia.

If a publisher decides to make changes to a title that has been readily available for sale, or remove the title all together, the libraries and retailers that have previously purchased the content will still have access to it. [my bolding]

This is better news than I expected, although I'm still fuzzy on whether individual branches are actually exercising their ability to purchase titles separately. I also notice that when I do a search for "short story" at Library 2 Go, there are no individual EPUB files, only short story collections. Perhaps I would be the first author to ask Content Reserve to purchase a short story as a discrete ebook...but I doubt it.

It remains to be seen what other barriers besides the five-title requirement might be waiting for me at OverDrive. I now have two full-length ebooks self-published, and a third should only be a couple of months away. So my library lending days may still be a ways out, but at least there's a path for indies to follow...assuming that OverDrive is true to its word and not still working for the big publishers' benefit behind the scenes. We'll see.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mini-Review: Stephen King's "Cell"

I've never reviewed a book before, and I won't pretend that that this is anything like a professional stab at a real write-up. But I'm trying to get more involved in the Goodreads service, and you gotta give to get. I'd like people to review my stuff, so fairness dictates that I should return the favor. Plus I have a soft spot for Stephen King. He was my idol during my early teen years, and I wanted nothing more in the world to be like him when I grew up. Come to think of it, that dream really hasn't changed much in almost three decades.

If you enjoy the horror genre, give this bad boy a spin...

CellCell by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Cell" is the first time I've seen Stephen King return to his pre-Delores Claiborne splendor. I listened to the audiobook version of the novel, which I found well-paced and hard to put down. The characters are sympathetic and engaging without bogging us down in endless backstory. The first third of the book is fairly gory, but it's suitable to the plot, and the plain-talking, level-headed protagonist (Clayton) keeps the situation from spiraling off into absurdity.

Speaking of absurd... You may find the premise, that a "pulse" sent through the cellular phone networks of the world can essentially wipe and reset the human brain, a bit over the edge. In this, I think King might have borrowed a page from Michael Crichton and stocked his characters with one more scientist and one less humanities professor. Instead, we get most of the technical meat from a pubescent nerd named Jordan. Jordan is likable and ultimately critical to the story, but his role as an information source is a bit strained.

You come to "Cell" for zombie action, and King delivers grandly. The uber-zombie, the Raggedy Man, is gratifyingly creepy and menacing. Seeing the nature of zombies change over the course of the book is an interesting twist on the genre. As other reviewers have noted, the levitation bit toward the end is a bit odd and excessive. It strains the credibility of the fictitious world without actually adding anything to the story or being necessary in any way.

My only serious complaint with the book is its last page. I find myself comparing it to the closing seconds of the movie "Inception." When you look back over the story, you realize that the premise of the book boils down to one thing. The hero is on a quest to accomplish something. In "Inception," that something is personal redemption, and at the end of the movie, as the scene cuts to black, you realize that the answer to the question literally on the table (will the spinning top fall?) is irrelevant. The real question of the story has been answered. With "Cell," I don't feel that central question was answered cleanly. The reader is left to decide on his or her own what happens in the next few seconds. Whereas I walked out of "Inception" thinking that the end was perfect, I finished "Cell" and got increasingly angry because I felt the central question of Clay's journey remained unanswered. And I cared. I wanted an answer. It's a testament to King's artistry and the strength of the book that I cared this much. "Cell" is worth reading. It's a great, thrilling adventure. Just steel yourself for that last unresolved question.

View all my reviews

Friday, April 1, 2011

It's the End of Writing As We Know It

I've been reading Ray Kurzweil's latest book, The Singularity is Near. It's dense, mind-blowing stuff that discusses the melding of mankind with machines in the coming decades. Kurzweil describes himself as being talented with pattern recognition, and his track record as an inventor shows this is no empty boast. He spends a lot of time developing his ideas surrounding what he calls The Law of Accelerating Returns. In essence, this refers to the tendency of things to evolve more quickly over time because each generation builds upon the improved tools of the last. This is how we have Moore's Law, although Moore's Law encompasses only a subset of a broader sweep in technological evolution over the past century.

The pace of change itself is accelerating. Kurzweil walks through many iterations of this idea, such as the ability for organisms to store information. The evolution of DNA was an early point in this process; today, we have cloud storage. In the future, argues Kurzweil, we will weave information into matter itself.

At 672 pages, "The Singularity is Near" is not a lightweight paperback, either in form or content. As I sat reading it on the couch last night, I was struck by two thoughts:

1. "At age 40, this reading by the light of a lamp located across the room isn't as comfortable as it used to be."

2. "I should be able to absorb the information in this book more quickly. I'm reading about exponential evolution via a medium that hasn't significantly changed in over 500 years."

This second point got me thinking about how we use communication to convey ideas and the speed at which that conveyance happens. Does The Law of Accelerating Returns apply here as well? I thought about the style and pace of Jane Austen and Fedor Dostoevski compared to, say, Janet Evanovich and Dan Brown. That took me to pondering interpersonal communications. Consider the style of Ben Franklin's letters compared to a modern business memo. Then I thought about Twitter and the increasing tendency to accelerate communication by condensing fleshed-out thoughts into compressed, 140-character blurbs.

Like many people, I've often considered Twitter to be a bastardizing force in the English language. I saw it as a dangerous trend for our youth in particular. If communication and consciousness are inextricably linked, doesn't it follow that limiting our ability to convey thought limits our thoughts in the first place? Then it struck me that I was thinking about this as a 20th century English major, not a 21st century transhumanist. Perhaps Twitter isn't so much about cultural ADHD as communicative compression along the 80/20 rule. If you can convey 80% of a concept in 20% of the time previously spent to convey that idea, that's decent compression. Sure, it's a lossy method, but we seem to get along fine with lossy compression in sound- (MP3) and image-based (JPEG, H.264, etc.) communications. Why should text be different?

Consider acronyms. Acronyms are essentially a form of lossless compression, like a ZIP algorithm for speech. When I say "FUD," you know that I've compressed the concept "fear, uncertainty, and doubt" into a three-letter acronym. I've compressed 28 characters into three with no loss in conceptual fidelity. Do you see acronyms in the writings of Ben Franklin or Jane Austen? Nope. Acronyms are a 20th century innovation to accelerate communication, just as Twitter is a 21st century innovation in the same vein. Compression is one vector for modern communicative evolution.

This micro-epiphany left me brushing my teeth last night with two final thoughts:

1. The problem with "FUD" is that it is only lossless if you happen to know the acronym. Otherwise the loss ratio is extreme and you're left to try to surmise the meaning through context -- but there is almost no context in a medium bounded by a 140-character limit. The first time I used "BRB" (be right back) in a Skype message to my mother, she had no clue what I meant. So perhaps there is an inevitable, asymptotic limit in the relationship between communication compression and the loss of context.

Kurzweil might argue that we are realizing maximum potential for communicating through text. Previously, we maxed out the potential of communication through speech, and so writing evolved. Now, we're maxing out what can be accomplished with text, so it's time for another leap in encoding our interpersonal communications. Perhaps Twitter is a precursor step in that evolutionary leap.

2. As a writer, this obviously concerns me. We're seeing blogs displace an increasing amount of journalism. YouTube videos are gradually displacing TV viewing. We're seeking out shorter (or perhaps more efficient) ways of achieving the same informational or emotional outcomes. When you get paid by the word or page, this is not an encouraging trend. But on an even larger scale, what does this mean for authorship? How does one deliver depth of thought or experience via the written word to a mainstream audience when that audience is increasingly likely to grow impatient with text as an inefficient legacy medium?

I'm not so cynical as to think that Twitter reflects a general dumbing down of the population. But we clearly need evolved methods of interpersonal communication with a tolerable amount of data loss. I still think that Twitter steps over the loss line. I have to spend too much time hunting down hashtags and following links for it to be truly efficient. We haven't reached that next communication vector yet. Perhaps the lasting value of Twitter will be that it showed not only where we need to go but also the wrong way to get there.

This was a very long blog post to convey a handful of interwoven concepts. I should have been able to convey all this to you much more quickly, but the technological medium doesn't allow me much leeway in this regard. New, more efficient communication methods will be here soon. How soon? I don't know. If you study Kurzweil's charts, you'll think, "Pretty freaking soon!" But I still wonder if I and all of the other writers like me will be able to adapt to whatever evolved communication mode comes next. Kurzweil shows how evolution happens exponentially, and it follows that the efficiency of our communication will match this pattern. Will there still be a place for writing as a mainstream method of communication? I hope so...but I'm really not sure.