Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Scanners Work In Vain

One of the arguments you sometimes hear in the brouhaha over "intellectual property"
is "well you can just scan it in", referring to copying a book or a story.

My current response to the "you can just scan it in argument" is "like Hell you can!"

For the past couple of weeks I have been trying to scan in an a novella I wrote with Ernest Hogan, called "Obsidian Harvest" that we intend to publish as an ebook. On the basis of my experiences I'd say scanning digest-sized (paperback book size) pages is in fact extremely difficult. The real reason we're no overrun with scanned pirated versions of books is it's damned hard to do.

Part of the reason it took so long was that I was also in the final stages of publishing my new book titled "Shift Happens: The New E-Publishing Paradigm And What It Means For Writers." That was another "interesting" experience, albeit much less frustrating than the scanner.

My first attempt at scanning was with my quirky HP 8500 all-in-one printer-scanner-fax machine. It took me over an hour to scan in the 28 magazine pages. Then it went through OCR and the fun really began.

First off, the quality of the scan and resulting OCR was lousy. There was a mistake or two on nearly every line. Worse, whole sections of the story had simply not been picked up. At several places in the copy I was missing half a page or more. In short the scan was unusable.

Now I regularly use the scanner for contracts and such without the OCR and it has performed satisfactorily. So I assumed the OCR software that came with the machine (OEMed) from Iris wasn't up to the job.

My next step was to go to Nuance and order OmniPage 18, a highly recommended scanning and OCR package. After some hassles getting it installed, I tried it on the pdf file the IRIS software had created. This is a file of graphic images and most OCR packages will accept it.

The results were definitely better, but there were still a lot of mistakes. And of course the gaps in the document was still there.

Okay, recalling the famous dictum of John W. Campbell Jr.: "Always use the proper tool for the job. The proper tool to fix a television is a television repairman." I decided to take doczilla to a scanning service and have it scanned professionally.

The first place I tried was a regular commercial service. After some back and forth on the phone the guy at the service told me that basically they couldn't do it. Not only was my project to small physically for their scanners to feed, it was also too small a job for them. "Now if you had 2800 pages instead of 28 . . ." my informant told me.

After calling a couple of more services I got the same response. They all dealt in letter or legal sized pages printed on dead-white background and in quantities in the thousands.

Then I decided to try one of my local quick print places. They did indeed have a scanner for small quantities, but when I took it down there the answer was the same: They couldn't do it. Their problem was the paper size. It was too small to feed reliably through their sheet feeder.

In talking to the very helpful guy at the copy center, I found out why I was getting gaps in the scans. My all-in-one simply didn't have enough RAM to handle the job. When it ran out of RAM it quit OCR until it caught -- with no warning, naturally.

Okay, I've got one final shot. I dug the original manuscript out of my files and today I'll take it back to the copy center and see if they can do that. It's a little dog eared, but it is a clearly printed original. If that doesn't work, it's time to hire a typist.

The point of this long, rambling tale is that "just scanning it in" isn't easy, especially when you're dealing with digest-size or paperback book-size packages. While it's theoretically easy, the practice for some kinds of documents is a lot harder. It doesn't help that you've got to take the pages out of the original to get a clean scan.

There are a lot of things like this in our high-tech world where the gap between "we can do it" and "we can do it easily and routinely" is broad enough to defeat even semi-serious efforts to make it work. Just because we can do something doesn't mean it has been reduced to everyday practice and just because something is reduced to everyday practice in one field doesn't mean it will transfer easily to another, even closely related, field.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Attention: The driving force behind the web

One of the peculiarities of selling stuff on the web is that the sales curve is quite a bit different.

I have particularly noticed this since I've been publicizing my new book "Shift Happens: The New E-Publishing Paradigm And What It Means For Writers." The topic is the rapidly changing landscape of e-publishing and the opportunities it offers writers.
So far the book is following the standard pattern for ebooks. Sales start off very small and then ramp up. This is unlike a print book which typically starts strong and then runs out of legs after a few months.

I wasn't surprised by this because I've seen the pattern in other ebooks. Even runaway best-selling authors such as John Locke and Amanda Hocking has this happen both of them received paltry first royalty checks (less than $20 in both cases) on books that ultimately sold a million copies or more.

This difference is perfectly normal for ebooks, but it is very discouraging to print authors venturing into ebooks because for the first couple of months the book seems a failure.

That perception of failure can easily become self-fulfilling because it can discourage authors from continuing to publicize and market their ebooks. Selling ebooks takes constant marketing and if you let the effort die, so does your book.

So what's going on here? Why is the sales pattern so different?

The answer is that getting an ebook known is a much more important part of selling ebooks. You have to make your book known to potential customers. In the current state of the industry, this takes time and during that time your sales are low.

This also points up another difference between ebooks and regular books: Persistent marketing effort. In ebooks writing the book is only half of it. The other half is marketing the book after it comes out. That's what drives sales.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

What Is The Future Of Printed Books

In light of the advantages of ebooks over printed books, particularly cost, do printed books have a future?

Let me answer that with another question. How many blacksmiths are active today?

The answer to the second question is "thousands". The Artists Blacksmith Association of North America has over 4,000 members and there are thousands of more blacksmiths who aren't affiliated with ABANA. Buggy whip makers are also thriving, and there are a lot of wheelwrights working as well. In fact it's hard to think of an obsolete trade or craft which isn't still being practiced today.

I submit the same thing is going to happen to publishers of print books. The economic advantages of ebooks my limit them to niche markets, but they're going to be healthy niches. Some people think enough of print books that they're willing to pay 5 or 10 times the price of ebooks for a printed-on-paper copy.

In fact that's what has happened to traditionally bound books, made by hand with the cords running across the back under the leather binding. They're still available, although much more costly than regular printed books.

We're not going to lose printed books because of ebooks, but because of price and other advantages ebooks will dominate the market.

"Shift Happens" is now available

Since this blog is about paradigm shifts brought on by the new media, it's appropriate to discuss the changes that ebooks are bringing to the publishing industry. The answer is the changes are huge; so much so that I'd need a book to discuss them. So of course I wrote the book.

"Shift Happens: The New E-Publishing Paradigm And What It Means For Writers" is now available from Amazon

Ebooks change everything, from the price of books and the selection available to readers to the relationship between authors and publishers. The social implications are vast as well.

For writers the most important changes are that ebooks offer the opportunity for independent authors to make significant ahttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifmounts of money and that they turn the relationship between the author and publisher upside down. Now the writer is in control of every aspect of their book, from copy to method and timing of publication. Considering the long-standing resentment among authors for publishers, this is a very liberating development.

Of course most people are readers rather than writers but for readers the changes are vast as well. Readers will have a much broader selection of books because publishers are no longer serving as gatekeepers between writers and readers. Perhaps more significantly, the price of books drops sharply because ebooks don't face the hideously expensive, archaic, distribution system that is the essence of modern conventional publishing.

There's a lot more and it's all available in Shift Happens

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cooks Law Of Media Mis-Action

Having accumulated enough evidence, I'm ready to propose a new law, which I have (with shocking immodesty) named Cook's Law Of Media Meltdown. To wit:

When faced with a disruptive technology which threatens their business, entrenched media companies can be counted on to do the wrong thing.

This is a remarkably consistent response. It may involve fleets of lawyers filing flurries of lawsuits, or it may involve using coercion or their market power to try to enforce silly rules to bolster the media company's position. It is often illegal, if the FTC or other appropriate bodies decide to look. But as inevitably as the sunrise, the media companies try it. And they almost invariably fail while the media death spiral continues.

Case in point: The major book publishers and ebooks.

Operating under the rubric of the "agency model", five of the six major publishers have banded together to fix prices on their ebooks. Under the rules publishers must set non-discountable prices for all their ebooks and at least 30 percent of the price must go to the retailer. This is in sharp contrast to bookstore pricing of print copies, which is a free-for-all.

There are two things to note about the agency model

1) It is almost certainly illegal.
"Almost certainly" because the authorities haven't investigated it yet. However the agency seems to fall under the established rules barring restrictive trade practices in most cases.

2) It is designed to keep up the price of ebooks to eliminate the competition with print books.
The publishers' problem is simple. Ebooks are much cheaper to produce. So much so that they threaten to decimate sales of conventional books. By artifically keeping up the price of ebooks publishers are trying to keep ebooks from "cannibalizing" the sales of print books.

There's a third thing to note as well:
3) This is an idiot scheme which is guaranteed to fail and damage the publishers in the process.

The basic flaw is that the big publishers control an ever-shrinking percentage of the ebook market. It doesn't really matter what the big boys do, the small publishers and independent authors are going to price their books as they please. That means plenty of ebooks available at attractively low prices.

It also means that most independent ebooks will be priced well below the price of their competitors from the large publishers. Since ebooks are highly price sensitive this means that the sales of independent ebooks will out-compete the major publishers' books on price alone.

But wait a minute! Isn't each book a unique item, not subject to substitution?

The publishers believe that but they've been drinking their own kool aid and lacing it with LSD to boot. In one sense it's quite true. No book is exactly like another one. But for most readers of non-fiction books are what economists like to call a fungible good. In other words there are lots of substitutes available.

I can't get the new Sookie Stackhouse (or I'm not willing to pay for it in hardback), so I pick up another paranormal romance from an independent author. If the difference in price is, say, $10 for Charlene Harris, and $3 for the independent, is that enough to influence my buying decision.

For most books the answer is clearly "yes". If I'm really hooked on Sookie Stackhouse, I may buy her latest adventure despite the price difference. But most readers aren't in that category. For that price different they'll forgo Charlene Harris' work, good as it is, and get two or three of the independent authors books instead.

In other words, what the mental giants in publishing have done with their agency agreement is to guarantee sales for independent authors, even if no one has heard of them before.

Typical dinosaur behavior.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

The REAL Cultural Revolution In Ebooks

Over in my other blog, Rick Cook's Notebook, I've been talking about the revolution ebooks are producing in publishing. Because I'm an author and naturally I'm concerned about financial matters affecting authors I've (naturally) concentrated on the economic bonanza things like 70 percent royalty rates and a potential market of tens of millions of ebook reader owners will produce for us poor, starveling ink-stained wretches. (Joke, sorta.) However there are enormous cultural implications in the ebook revolution as well. Since this blog is more about the social effects of new media, including ebooks, I decided to move the cultural implications over here.

First, let's note that in cultural history giant oaks from little acorns grow. Something that's obscure today is likely to become a commonplace tomorrow. And such things often have totally unexpected results.

Case in point: The automobile and the sexual revolution. The automobile didn't start the sexual revolution -- if anything did, it was the wide availability of birth control pills -- but it gave it an enormous boost even before The Pill arrived. The car became a bedroom on wheels and the availability of cheap cars meant that millions of horny American teenagers were able to obey their raging hormones with a minimum of complications (after The Pill arrived, anyway). It can safely be said that if you came of age in a certain era, if you hadn't made it in a car you hadn't made it.

Now this was emphatically NOT what people like Henry Ford had in mind when they invented the automobile. Henry, in particular, would have been offended to the depths of his strait-laced soul. But once the technology was available, people used it for what they wanted and moralists and inventors be damned.

Actually it was kind of a nice combination of Heresy, Pornography and Treason all rolled into one invention.

In the case of ebooks, the critical cultural factor isn't the high royalties paid authors, or the wide availability of cheap books. The thing that is really revolutionary is simply this: With ebooks, gatekeepers effectively vanish!

Yep. Gone. Nonexistent. The equivalent of an ex-parrot.

The implications of this are huge. Effectively anyone can now say anything they want (barring such things as libel) by publishing it in an ebook.

This is a huge change from the situation which has existed up to now. Even the most fanatic publisher has been limited by economic considerations. Books were expensive to produce and the money had to come from somewhere. That limited the number of tracts that even the nuttiest publisher could put out.

Guess what? With ebooks there are effectively no more limits. If you want to publish the equivalent of a 600 page magnum opus and sell it at the Kindle Store for a penny a copy, there's nothing to stop you and you instantly reach a world-wide audience. Or, if you're a little more savvy, you can boost the price of your screed to Amazon's cutoff point of $2.99 and make just over $2 a copy on whatever you're peddling.

This means that every alternative view from the most staid and sober to the most virulent nutballery can be made available to everyone for almost nothing.

This first reaction to this realization is likely to be (in the best Jonathan Qualye Higgins voice ) "Oh. My. God."

The amount of stuff out there -- badly written, mostly illiterate and generally reaching a level of indescribable awfulness that is, well, indescribable -- that is going to descend on us is almost beyond comprehension. It's like browsing in a peculiar used bookstore where almost everything on the shelves is terrible but there are occasional nuggets of really good stuff tucked in here and there.

Remember, no censorship. No copy reading. No proof reading. And editing? That's like, so 20th Century. And remember, no gatekeepers built into the process.

To give you an idea of what that means, I still have a copy of a self-published book titled Eight Days With Hitler In Yellowstone Park that was put out in the 70's, before ebooks. The poor author actually paid thousands of dollars to have it published and yes, it is truly as awful as you imagine.

It could have been worse. This was apparently a fragment of a much longer work about Hitler's secret trip to the United States in the 30s. I gather there were thousands and thousands of pages of it which the author couldn't afford to publish.

(As an aside: Hitler, of course, did not visit the United States in the 30s. At least not in our universe. I've given up wondering what color the sky was on that planet, but I'd still kinda like to know the Ricci Tensor for that universe.)

So what's the compensation to justify this outpouring of terribleness? The fact that mixed in with it you also get a fair amount of good stuff that would otherwise go unpublished. Perhaps it didn't appeal to publishers (think Harry Potter), perhaps it is incomprehensible to the average reader (think Einstein's Theory of Relativity) or perhaps it is so politically and socially unpopular that it risks getting the publisher's office burned down (think the abolitionist tracts of the early 19th century in the south.)

In other words, just from the law of averages, we can expect that some fair proportion of this stuff will be quite good, and some of it will be vitally important to our world. Now personally I think that's a pretty good trade. But it really doesn't matter what I think. It's coming and coming fast.


Monday, July 4, 2011

Kindles, millionaires and paradigm shift

One thing about paradigms: Shift Happens.
-- G. Harry Stine

In the last couple of months there have been some major developments in the publishing business, specifically publishing e books with companies like Amazon. In fact the changes have been so great that I've written a (short) book about it. The title, unashamedly stolen from the late G. Harry Stine, science fiction writer, rocket scientist and cranky crossways futurist, is "Shift Happens". The subject is the paradigm shift in publishing and what it means for authors and readers.

(What's going to happen to conventional publishers and brick and mortar bookstores is less interesting. They're not going to be toast, but they are sure as heck going to be lightly browned.)

To give you an idea of the sea change that's taking place, here are a couple of names to remember: John Locke and Amanda Hocking. Locke is a 60-year-old insurance executive and real estate investor in Kentucky. Hocking is a 26-year-old writer from Minnesota. What makes them worth remembering is that both of them became instant millionaires by writing e books. (When I say instant, I mean instant. Both of them struck it rich in less than a year.)

These two rather ordinary people are worth remembering because they made a whole lot of money by riding the new wave in e publishing. Both of them struck it rich in 2011 and in Locke's case it took about five months to make his first million in e publishing.

This would be a curiosity except for the fact that they are not flukes. Instead they're the vanguard of a wave of successful authors who will be making a ton of money off e books. That means Locke and Hocking are worth careful study -- and emulation -- by up and coming writers. We can expect to see their stories repeated over and over again until "e book millionaire" becomes as common a phrase as "internet millionaire."

So what, you may ask, the heck is going on here?

Actually there's a lot going on. So much so that I'll probably spend the next five or six posts talking about it. For right now let's just deal with the basics.

The first basic is that the sales of e readers have exploded in the last two or three years. According to a recent survey something like 12 percent of the American adult population now has a Kindle or other e book reader. The market is growing rapidly and showing no sign of slowing down.

More readers mean more e books to read. And in fact this is happening. Amazon, one of the largest book retailers in the country, is now selling more e books than it is print books.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is that e books are much cheaper than their print counterparts. (They're not as cheap as they should be but that's a topic of another post.) Locke prices his mystery novels at 99 cents each, while Hocking's fantasy novels sell for $2.99 each. These prices and the accompanying royalties of 35 to 70 percent of the cover price mean that people like Locke and Hocking can sell a ton of books and make more off each copy than they'd make in a conventional royalty deal with a regular publisher.

Finally, decades of stupidity and an absolutely insane business model are catching up with conventional publishers. Their poor business practices, and those of conventional bookstores, are cutting the industry off at the knees and threatening to implode the whole business. (Hmm. Mixed metaphors much?)

What all this means for authors is that people who couldn't ever get published under the conventional system are flooding the market with new books. What it means for readers is that they have far more choice than ever when it comes to books -- at the price of having to wade through a lot of illiterate, crazy dreck, but still. . .

What it means for our society in general is that the realities of the new media are catching up with us in a very public way.

What it does not mean is that we'll have smooth sailing into a perfect world. Things won't work the way they have and as usual that means a combination of good news and bad news.

Personally I think the news will be good on the balance, but we're all in for a wild ride.