Articles by Max Rivlin-Nadler

Meet the Dropbox for Books…Ownshelf

OwnshelfIn only a few short years of existence, Dropbox has become indispensable for computer users the world over, who need to quickly share files with their friends, coworkers, and relatives. But until now, there hasn’t really been a popular way to share eBooks across platforms with the ease of simply accessing a communal cloud-based hard drive. So in that spirit, meet Ownshelf, which is marketing itself as the Dropbox for books.

Ownshelf lets eBook readers share their DRM-free eBooks (eBooks that are allowed to be shared without paying for them again) in a simple and fast way: you just add books to your virtual bookshelf, and your friends can browse them and download them to their reader or computer. Not only can you browse books posted by your friends, but you can also check out titles that have been recommended by complete strangers through the “Featured Shelves” component.

Since the precipitous rise of eBooks over the past few years, readers have been looking for ways to share eBooks with one another through website and social media. Ownshelf takes advantage of this tendency by directly plugging into your Facebook, allowing friends to see which books you’re currently sharing with the world, and which other one’s you’ve been reading. Of course, if sharing with the world that sort of thing is not you cup of social media tea, then you might be out of luck with Ownshelf, which heavily uses the Facebook element of its design.

Ownshelf is still in the early stages of it development, but has the potential to grow into an indispensable part of the eBook ecosystem. Unlike other platforms that make readers choose between “bookshelves” only available to certain products and companies, Ownshelf opens up eBook sharing to everyone, and is one of the first projects to do so.

As a reader, how do you find eBook recommendations? Do you think products like Ownshelf will encourage independent authors to publish without DRM protection, or will writers be scared away by the threat of piracy? As always with eBooks, the situation is constantly evolving, and whether an application sinks or swims is entirely dependent on just how helpful the (voracious) eBook-reading population finds it.

SiDiM…the future of DRM software

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the landing, holding a bowl of lather on which a glass and a razor were crossed.”

This is not the first sentence of James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece Ulysses. But one day it could be. Maybe. Joyce’s book actually begins like this:

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

I changed just three words in that first version of Ulysses‘ opening, “stairhead”, “holding,” and “mirror,” but that might well be enough to catch a pirate, according to DRM researchers at Germany’s Darmstadt Technical University. As I have discussed previously, DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management, is any form of software that protects the copyright of digital books. Some software prevents piracy, other software alerts those charged with stopping it.

SiDiM, the radical new DRM software being developed by the aforementioned researchers with support from the German government, would achieve the latter. By making subtle changes to a book’s text, punctuation, or formatting, SiDiM would effectively “watermark” a digital book, making that book unique and therefore identifiable to agencies tracking pirates.

Researchers maintain that this is a consumer friendly version of DRM because it wouldn’t prevent sharing a book between devices or tether it to a specific account, but the prospect of altering a book’s text, however imperceptible, makes my skin crawl. How would you know you are reading what the author intended? The process is said to be automated, so what’s the guarantee the changes are slight, or even imperceptible?

I am always curious as to how new technologies will change the way we write (did the telegraph shorten our sentences? what will the SMS do??) but this kind of software, which literally changes the text, seems comically dystopic. Certainly writers need protections if their works are to circulate digitally. Author Phillip Pullman recently pointed out how much money authors stand to lose if they aren’t compensated when their books are borrowed, and he makes a good case.

What sort of protections do we want as writers and what sort do we want as readers? There is surely a balance to be found, but my guess is that it will be less intrusive than the vision advanced by SiDiM.

Are eBooks Bad For Kids?

[Photo via Mashable]

In the eyes of many parents, there’s just something wrong with the image of their child hunched over a tablet computer, whizzing through a program with the tip of their finger. Upon closer inspection, the parent sees that they’re reading an eBook, but still the screen itself is unsettling. Haven’t a few generations of parents been taught to turn off the devices and give children a book instead? What happens to that instinct now that books are digital?

Well, it’s actually quite a tough parenting instinct to shake, it turns out. A new Pew Research Study found that 81% of parents still find that reading print books are incredibly important to a child’s development, and that 81% (again) find print books preferable to digital ones while reading with their child.

The statistics do begin to change a bit when parents are asked about selection and travel. When reading books while on a trip, 73% of parents preferred eBooks (the tablets can also double as a computer, taking up less room). Parents who valued selection also preferred eBooks by 18%.

Does this mean that eBooks are bad for children? No, it simply means that parents are still changing their own parenting habits, and that they still believe there’s value in a simple, colorful print children’s book (which there is).

Yet another study however, might not give solace to those parents itching to make the digital jump. Britain’s National Literacy Trust found that children who do most of their reading online are half as likely to be an above-average reader. It also found that “those who read only on-screen are also three times less likely to enjoy reading very much (12% vs 51%) and a third less likely to have a favorite book (59% vs 77%).”

While the favorite book statistic is more indicative of reading habits shifting away from contained long-form stories and more towards shorter, serialized works, the advanced reader statistic is a bit alarming. Does reading eBooks stunt children’s growth?

Digital Book World weighed in, and (as can be assumed from their name) was not pleased by these findings: “Some parents and educators correlate digital screens with ‘unhealthiness.’ For years, they’ve been trying to wean their kids off of TV and video games. TV and video game screens are windows into non-reading activities.  eBooks, however, are not video games or passive TV shows.”

Because of the rapidly changing nature of reading, technology, and education, it’s obvious that the jury is still out on the effect of eBooks on reading skills. However, reading is reading. It’s all about making sure that those eBooks are less of a game and more of an internal experience, allowing children to create world’s in their minds, and to think critically.

The artistic possibilities of self-publishing span far and wide

Two articles concerned with the question of the artistic possibilities of self-publishing a book caught my attention this week.

Courtesy of Redux.com

The first was a testimonial by Mark Bastable published in The Telegraph and titled “How I overcame snobbery to self-publish an e-book.” In it, Bastable gives a variably convincing account of his decision to self-publish his fourth book, after having gone the “proper” route for the last three (ie. the traditional publishing model). What I found most interesting, however, was the paragraph where he rattles off all of the decisions he had to make when he went DIY:

“So, this month I launched a novel into the e-market,” he writes, “the culmination of several months’ slog, proofing the text, writing the blurb, doing the cover design (or, actually, paying someone to), getting the internal text layout right (or, actually, paying someone to), developing and launching a website (or, actually – yeah, that too). All the stuff that a publisher used to do, the e-author has to do for himself. Or pay someone to.”

Whew. It’s always sobering to see a list like that in print and be reminded of the immense amount of work self-publishing requires. But Bastable makes the case for the silver lining: message control. From the writing, to the editing, to the marketing, you’re in the driver’s seat, and you get to call the shots.

I found an inspiring echo to this book talk in a piece by Jason Boogon Galleycat extolling the virtues of Shane Carruth’s excellent 2013 indie sci-fi film Upstream Color. Produced entirely outside of the Hollywood system and released on a wide range of streaming platforms at about the same time it hit theaters, Upstream Color received widespread acclaim, cementing Carruth’s position as an indie auteur. But is this a stepping stone for blockbuster success? Probably not. Boog nails it, I think, when he goes on to write about how films like this can only exist outside the normal system of production:

“Writers spend too much time arguing about the goldmine potential of self-publishing. When we talk about indie books, why does money dominate the conversation? Instead, we should worry about the artistic freedom that creators like Shane Carruth have found by taking the DIY route.”

I like what Bastable was saying about having total (anxiety inducing) control over your book and it’s presentation, but what about the artistic space that emerges without the confines of the publishing industry? That’s what I’m looking forward seeing discussed. So, hat tip to Jason Boog and Simon Carruth for getting us going.

 

How to stay fresh when writing becomes work

When you do something professionally, whether it’s a full time gig that pays the bills or part-time work to get that walking-around money, it can become monotonous. To be honest, the odds are that it will.

In some cases, that monotony could be a welcome development. I’ve worked some pretty unfulfilling jobs where routine has provided a welcome refuge. But if you are lucky enough to be financially compensated for doing something you love, the tedium that comes from repetition is something you really have to watch out for and guard against.

I find writing to be fulfilling work, personally and professionally, and I manage a good balance of writing for myself and writing for others (now largely readers on the internet) — writing I’m compensated for and writing I’m not — but there have certainly been times when that balance has felt askew and, as a result, writing becomes not much more than work.

What to do in a situation like this? How can a writer keep their work fresh and prevent burnout? Here are three practices I’ve found that help me keep my writing personally relevant and moving in new directions.

Keeping a journal: I know it sounds like an assignment from your high school English teacher, but keeping a journal (the pen and paper kind) has allowed me an entirely reflective space for my writing. Although I write on the web and enjoy writing to be read, the opposite arrangement helps me stay sane.

Using Twitter: I thought Twitter was a pretty vapid platform initially. I mean 140 characters? Micro-blogging? My attention span is short enough as is! But the more time I spend on Twitter, the more interesting I think it is. It’s basically a super social constraint-based writing club that demands clarity and brevity and encourages experimentation.

Taking time off(line): This one is sort of the crux, but also a bit a catch-all: I write better for the internet when I take time away from it. It’s easy to get comfortable in an echo chamber, but echoes don’t make for fresh ideas. Whether it’s reading or cooking or traveling when I can, I tend to bring something back to my work when I give myself a break from the net (whatever form that takes).

Some of these things might work for you, some might not. You’ve probably got similar suggestions so let me know in the comments!

eBooks gaining ground but, printed books remain number one

Courtesy of Typedesk.com

When eBooks really started to take off around three years ago, their success was accompanied by the typical doomy, gloomy apocalyptic hand-wringing about the future of the printed book. The thinking then was that every winner has to have a loser, and with a winner this big (British sales for consumer eBook fiction and non-fiction were up 366% in 2011!!) a big dive was predicted. It’s funny to think, just three years down the line, that people were sure the printed book was on the way out. Perhaps it was just a testament to the popularity and exciting potential of eBook technology, perhaps it was something closer to a silly panic. Either way, the numbers from last year seem to point to a happy, mutually beneficial coexistence, which is good news for all parties involved.

According to Britain’s Publisher’s Association, total book sales rose 4% last fiscal year, and while print still makes up the majority of sales, its small 1% sales slip was more than made up for by a 66% gain in the digital realm. As The Telegraph points out, that number is way down from the previous year’s 366% surge. “There is an inevitable slowdown going on,” said [Richard] Mollet [chief executive of the Publisher's association]. “You expect that with any new technology but there is still very healthy growth.”

It seems like this type of evening out is to be expected. Not only that, it’s probably a healthy sign that eBooks are becoming less gimmicky and finding their way into normalized reading culture. As Gaby Wood points out, “Digital books are a complement to, not a replacement for, physical books. Some publishers now offer a hardback with an eBook as a package, since an eBook is easier to carry around but a hardback is what you want to own, and have on your shelf.” And sales data is starting to reflect this cooperative nature in comforting ways. When print publishers don’t have to worry about another source of lost funds (the fabled flight to eBooks!) and bibliophiles are growing more and more aware of the advantages both formats hold, we the readers (and we the customers!) win.

Self-publishing gaining ground in the academics

[Graphic: Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle of Higher Education]

While I don’t typically pay a lot of attention to academic publishing, I recently ran across a very interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on (mostly) young academics taking advantage of the new opportunities afforded to them by recent developments in self-publishing.The piece focuses on Clay Spinuzzi, a professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas at Austin, who decided to self-publish his third book Topsight: A Guide to Studying, Diagnosing, and Fixing Information Flow in Organizations. The article goes on to point out that there are a lot of common sense  reasons for the decision. By spending just “a couple of thousand dollars in freelance graphic design and copy-editing Spinuzzi will make back his financial investment after 300 copies are sold” due to the super high rate of royalties Amazon guarantees (about $7 a digital copy). Selling 1,500 copies will net Spinuzzi $10,000, the article points out. If he sold 15,000, a rare, but not entirely inconceivable number, he could walk away with more than$100,000.

These numbers are interesting, and Amazon’s royalty arrangement could pay off big given the right product, and this is where I think the story is really interesting. Spinuzzi says he doesn’t consider independent publishing a replacement for the traditional academic press. In fact, his next book will be published by one. Instead, he sees digital self-publication as “part of a larger ecosystem” and “a natural outgrowth of other unvetted work,” such as scholarly blogging and social media.In other words, digital publishing allows him a level of freedom (and a margin of profit) traditional academic publishing can’t, but it is also helping to create a new and, finally, viable type of writing. It’s allowing authors like Spinuzzi to write rigorous, researched books that have a popular appeal but carry academia’s mark of approval.

As we’ve seen with high profile Kickstarter campaigns over the last few months, studios and publisher’s are often conservative in their appraisal of a work’s appeal, and it’s probably just a matter of time before an author sees similar success (David Mamet is giving it an early shot according to The New York Times). Third-way options like self-publishing could be just the ticket to help  promote and distribute this type of new and refreshing work.

Living in a DRM-Free World

Digital Rights Management, the software that helped protect the copyright of books, but turned out to be a rather large hindrance to many readers, is beginning to go the way of the Dodo. More and more businesses that sell eBooks are taking the plunge and ditching DRM (including Lulu). But has the loss of this security measure affected sales? Has the eBook market been flooded with pirated copies of books that drag down the market and result in losses in profit to authors and publishers? In short, no.

Tor Books, the high-profile science-fiction publisher dropped DRM last April, and they have seen “no discernible increase in piracy on any of our titles, despite them being DRM-free for nearly a year,” according to their editorial director, Julie Crisp.

Consumers of eBooks have long been in favor of getting rid of DRM. It has made a hassle out of switching eBooks from one reader to another, and hindered the reading experience of readers who have paid to read their favorite authors.

Authors as well have applauded the move away from DRM. However, some larger publishers believe that DRM-free copies of their books published in other territories will find their way back to their own market, thus increasing the likelihood of digital piracy. Still, Tor’s report that there hasn’t been any discernible change in sales and readership is proof that DRM didn’t do much to protect authors.

“The move has been a hugely positive one for us, it’s helped establish Tor and Tor UK as an imprint that listens to its readers and authors when they approach us with a mutual concern — and for that we’ve gained an amazing amount of support and loyalty from the community,” Crisp reported.

When it comes to independent publishing, DRM has long been considered something that was once thought necessary, but is no longer needed, especially in a reading atmosphere that so proudly supports its writers.  Already, video games and music have begun to move away from these protections, as well.

What will be interesting is to see is if anyone will stick to DRM in the next few years. How have you felt as a Lulu author in a DRM-free world? What other minor changes in the publishing model would you like to see happen over the next few years?

Worldreader delivers with mobile phones and eBooks

When we think of an ideal e-reader, we tend to visualize something like the Nook or Kindle or iPad — a device that has the dimensions, but not necessarily the heft of a book. Most us probably don’t think of our cell phones.

iPhones screens have remained relatively small and don’t lend themselves to sustained reading. While the Samsung Galaxy screen is big for a phone, it still doesn’t compare to the ease of reading on a tablet or Kindle. It might seem less than ideal for us, but for awhole sector of the world’s readers, cellular phones are now the central medium for reading eBooks.

In developing countries, where landlines have been skipped entirely and millions of people have directly adopted cell phones as their main interaction with technology,  eBooks are now being read in massive amounts on older, smaller phones that run off of a 2G wireless connection. The non-profit organization Worldreader, which used to just distribute Kindles to children in Africa, has now begun a mobile application where anyone with a mobile phone can access up to 1,400 eBooks for free.

Susan Moody, Worldreader’s director of marketing and communications, told the website Mashable that, ”Feature phones are omnipresent in the developing world. They’re people’s lifelines; they’re where they get their access to payments and the Internet.”

Worldreader takes advantage of Creative Commons licenses to make available classic children’s books like Nancy Drew and Black Beauty. They also partner with larger publishers to offer such all-time favorites as Matilda and the Magic Tree House series. In addition, they offer a good amount of Africa-centric literature. Taking advantage of existing technological infrastructure to get kids hooked on reading is a wonderful idea, even if it puts eBooks on some unfamiliar territory.

Through the project, Worldreader has found some interesting (but somewhat predictable trends) — young women read a lot, and Romance is the most popular genre.

eBooks, often heralded as the end of publishing as we know it, continue to fight against that idea by introducing great works to even more readers everyday, readers who will search for even more books.

Would you ever read on a small cell phone screen with a slow 2G connection? Have you? What other ways can eBooks continue to reach out?

Image courtesy of WorldReader

Writing and work ethic

A dear friend of mine told me the other day that she couldn’t understand how I was able to write. “I just sit down at my computer and, well, eventually I start writing,” I told her.

“No,” she said. “I mean, I don’t understand how you can make yourself do something that is so incredibly frustrating to me. I hate writing — I can’t believe you do it for fun.”

I replied, “Well, it’s not always fun.”

Because as we writers know, it isn’t always fun. Sitting down to write, there are always those “no good, very bad” days where writing isn’t something that relaxes us or even something we take pleasure in. It drives us insane. We want to do anything but write. (The Internet seems like a great place to hide from writing. Talk to any writer and they can tell you all about the most mind-numbing waste-of-time websites on the Internet and how they have spent considerable time there.)

So why do we stay writing, even as day has turned to night, a long frustrating night into another bleary-eyed morning? Why do we keep writing something that might never find a huge audience, or something we know is just going to get cut in edits?

I believe that’s where work ethic comes in, and even though only a few lucky people on this Earth get to call writing a job, there is some aspect of being a writer that demands you take it as seriously as your job. You are producing art, but you are also doing “work.”

That’s the separation between people who write opportunistically and without much labor and writers who have to sit and struggle through a piece, and toss and turn all night because wow-does-that-scene-stink. Sometimes you have to force yourself to write, just because you told yourself you would. Even if nothing good comes of it, at least you put more hours into your craft, your strange and beautiful desire to translate and work through ideas on a page.

A writer’s work-ethic comes from the knowledge that it’s not that first hour where you write your best, but that third or fourth. That moment when the words (after losing all sense from endless re-reading), begin to coalesce into something extraordinary and true. A writer’s work-ethic is knowledge that the payoff isn’t always in the moment of writing itself, or even publication, but the fact that you participated in part of a long history of a phenomenon of inward-thinking and art. It’s beautiful to be a part of, even if it’s not always fun or prosperous.

So the next time someone asks you why you write, why you can’t make an event or go out that night because you have to do it, and why you can’t just write another time,  maybe it’s best just to say, “Because I need to. Because I want to.”