Articles by Max Rivlin-Nadler

Should eBooks even try to be books?

Photo Source: Gizmodo

We can all agree that when it comes to eBooks, we’re still at the very early stages of their existence. Like early video games or early films, we have yet to push the boundaries that will ultimately define the format.

In a piece for Gizmodo, businessman Kane Hsieh asks why we persist in creating eBooks that are still grounded on the model of a physical book. Like when television shows were simply filmed stage plays, he believes we’re at the beginning of a long period of innovation — if only we allow ourselves to get the technology and the business model right.

He writes:

The problem with eBooks as they exist now is the lack of user experience innovation. Like the first television shows that only played grainy recordings of theater shows, the eBook is a new medium that has yet to see any true innovation, and resorts to imitating an old medium. This is obvious in skeuomorphic visual cues of eBook apps. Designers have tried incredibly hard to mimic the page-turns and sound effects of a real book, but these ersatz interactions satisfy a bibliophile as much as a picture of water satisfies a man in the desert.

Which is exactly why eBooks should keep changing. Only when authors conceive of eBooks as something different than a physical book (which, we’ve established, aren’t going anywhere), will eBooks really take off and come into their own. Something that Hsieh points out is the rise of serialized fiction — authors can now write books and release chapters as they go — imagine receiving input from your fan-base on what should happen next, or where you’ve gone wrong and possible corrections you can make.

Another great point he brings up is the idea of bundling print and digital books together. He describes how in other technology shifts, like the one from a CD to MP3 to putting them on the cloud, you only had to buy the song once. Yet with books and eBooks, you end up buying the book several times as you buy it physically, digitally, and then sometimes again for digital as readers shift. He makes the great point that the time is coming for a flat price for a book, both digital and physical, to be yours in perpetuity.

That brings him to his last point, which is the idea of a eBook subscription service, similar to the music-sharing site Spotify. Book subscriptions hearken back to the age of book-of-the-month clubs, when you would get a different book each month. Now, Hsieh, and a lot of businesses, are pushing for a subscription to all the eBooks you would want to read for a single monthly rate.

These are all interesting ideas, and definitely are exciting for fans of both reading and technology.

Do you think eBooks will continue to change? How so? And would you buy a subscription to all eBooks? Let us know!

The Modern Poet

It’s National Poetry Month and in conjunction with Poets.org, we are celebrating the works and contributions of poets from all over the world.  Check out all of the happenings here.

Poets face an interesting dilemma in the contemporary publishing field — while the rest of the industry is in flux, their lot remains mostly the same. Poetry will never produce huge runaway successes like fiction or non-fiction, but it has a devoted, loving fan base who show up in droves to see poets read as well as for the classes they teach.

And while the rest of the writing world migrates towards independent publishing, poets have been doing that for some time — they have produced chapbooks and other artistic distribution methods for as long as they’ve written.  And because poetry is so compact and the poet so fervently believes in their material (as well as being more of a presence in their poetry than say, fiction writers) they are first-adopters of many new technologies, from the wonders of dial-a-poem to poetry in motion.

So eBooks are no different. Poet Susie DeFord self-published her eBook of poetry “Dogs of Brooklyn” after years of trying to get it published through a traditional publisher. She told Galleycat:

“I paid to submit to first book contests for almost two years, so I lost money and time trying to do it the old-fashioned way. I suppose that time spent revising/ editing/ swearing/ and feeling rejected made for a better book and some character building, but there are so many cool easy ways to self-publish and get your work out there from blogs to books. I think poets and writers in general should try to make their book the best book possible and not rush into publishing.”

While rushing a book out doesn’t help the work, knowing that one can publish their book of poetry and have it on hand for readings is a huge boon to poets, who often do much of their selling through readings and events.

But the switch to eBooks has not been entirely smooth. Because of the added formatting issues of poetry, a lot of poets have had issues when converting their verse to eBooks and eReaders. Because spacing and breaks are so important, and the viewing and formatting options of eBooks can easily be altered, poets are having a hard time getting their formatting right. Ira Silverberg, director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts, told the Washington Post:

“Right now, we’re talking about conversion of print files to digital files and the greatest issue is in the poetry community. If you’re working on a Kindle or Nook or Kobo device, and you shoot up a page, you lose the line breaks depending on how you’ve formatted your preferences.”

Poets are trying to work out the kinks, however. Judging on the level of creativity that goes into a poet’s existence, we’re betting that they’ll figure it out.

What has your experience been independently publishing poetry? Have you had issues with your eBook formatting? How has it changed your life as a poet?

Are eBooks a different genre than print ones?

eBooks as their own genre?

Writing in The Guardian, Stuart Kelly has proposed a radical idea: that eBooks should be treated as a different genre than regular print books. Why? The fantastic possibilities of eBooks shouldn’t be bound (haha) to the confines of print and pages. In short, Kelly calls for something that proponents of eBooks have been saying for a while: let’s treat it like a bold new invention, rather than a standard digital copy of a physical book.

Of course, there are always going to be eBooks that closely mimic a regular physical book. eBooks based on older works, or eBooks that would like to closely mimic a physical one because of market reasons (think of Harry Potter — you only want one version running around, really). But the possibilities that eBooks (as a genre) present have yet to be fully explored.

For one, we don’t read eBooks like we read a physical book. Physical books have a monopoly on our attention and also don’t receive information from us. They are static. eBooks are often read as one choice among many of digital applications, with the ability to be amended, personalized, and improved.

An eBook that allows an author to change section, to move up plot points depending on reader input, to change the entire setting based on a reader’s location — that is a wholly different genre than that of regular books, and is obviously where we’re heading (some of the more adventurous of us). Not only that, but eBooks can be constantly updated to provide for further coverage of a current event (or a fictional one). Imagine an eBook that updates the details of a giant, mythical battle, as it was happening. It would basically be a real-time report of total fiction. In other words, incredibly exciting!

I believe that eBooks will become their own genre, much in the way that board games became video games. First, they were limited facsimiles of the original, then they became immersive and even more user-oriented. While some eBooks will remain very much similar to our concept of a regular book now (as they should), enhanced eBooks will become their own genre, replete with all the technological wizardry and components that the medium (tablets, computers, phones, etc.) can afford.

We have barely begun to scratch the surface of what eBooks can do, and a call to think of eBooks as something wholly different from our romantic notion of the hardback will lead us to some very interesting (and cool) places.

As authors, what do you think about eBooks as their own genre?

Social media for book lovers

Social networking meets your reading addiction.

The New York Times recently ran an excellent profile of Goodreads, a super popular book-centric social media platform. The site launched in 2006, and as the Times notes, has over the last 7 years become “the largest source of independent reviews on the Web, with 21 million and counting.” Like all successful social media sites, its popularity springs from the relationships and communities it fosters, and if this article is any indication, these ties are booming.

I was also happy to note that the piece paid special attention to Goodreads’ relationship to independent publishing. It notes the wild success of “Wool,” a series self-published sci-fi books by Hugh Howey that received serious attention after being featured by one of Goodreads’ most popular book clubs (later it mentions that Howey’s series was optioned by 20th Century Fox!).

The Times attributes the particular advertising power of sites like Goodreads to the “membership model.” In short, recommendations or reviews written by friends (be they online or off) tend to be more effective motivators because they’re understood to be trustworthy and personal. Could literature-focused social media platforms provide the non-traditional advertising avenue self-publishing authors need to break through to a wide audience?

Though the Readmill’s iPad app has been around for a while, in early February the company launched an (even more mobile) app for the iPhone. Readmill is a digital reading platform with a built-in social media interface. One part digital marketplace, one part bookworm Facebook, the application – now available for both iPhones and iPads – allows users to purchase eBooks from vendors online and read them via a slick, minimalist interface on their mobile devices. It also lets readers share favorite quotes, track reading stats, and get recommendations from friends and followers.

Competitor apps like Wattpad and BookShout point to a growing market (and hopefully a growing demand). We’ll see if apps like this catch the public interest, but I think they could provide excellent opportunities for self-publishers trying to get the word out as well as serious readers looking for their next page-turner.

Are you a part of any of these book-centric social media platforms?  What has been your experience?

Independent Publishing at SXSW

SXSW, the Austin-based conference that features events base around technology, education and music took place last week and I’ve now finally recovered from all the excitement of having all of these insanely talented minds congregating in one place. While I did not attend the interactive presentations on independent publishing (they were packed!), from outside the convention center, I can tell you that independent publishing and eBooks had a huge presence, as the technology continues to evolve and become even more intertwined with other digital platforms like phones, tablets, and videogames.

In the Publisher’s Weekly roundup of events, you can see how the energy around independent publishing has freed up authors t make more interesting publishing decisions:

“Originally published by small press, Hugh Howey quickly decided to go the self-publishing route generating an enormous word of mouth following that turned his books into e-book bestsellers on Amazon. Indeed Howey said at one point he was generating $30,000 to $40,000 a month in sales and selling hundreds of thousands of e-books.”

The move by established authors to selling books on their own was a huge topic of conversation. For established authors to then use their reputation and leverage a successful independent publishing campaign from it has been a huge development, and lent a lot of credibility to independent publishing.

Another new development has been the discussions over whether you should give away content for free to build your credibility. David Carr, of the New York Times, had some choice words at his presentation,

“Don’t give your shit away for free,” he declared to the hall—emphasizing that “exposure” doesn’t work and free doesn’t lead to paying customers. But he also seemed so focused on the newspaper world—unsurprisingly— that his vision for the future of digital content kind of stops at the New York Times website, now revitalized with an innovative pay wall generating a sustainable and growing level of income. 

It seems like the argument over pricing will go on for some time. However, walking along the convention hall, it was easy to see that the rise of eBooks will continue at its staggering pace. New electronics, like Google Glass, will make reading even more accessible. eBooks will continue to grow and the fact that the leaders in technology are even talking about books, unthinkable only a few years ago, is a testament to this wonderful phenomenon.

Any writers out there make it down to SXSW this year? What did you learn? Any plans to go next year?

Reselling eBooks raises questions for authors

Over the past week, debate has intensified over the practice of reselling eBooks. Amazon and Apple both filed patents last week to make reselling eBooks a reality, and the collective reaction by readers and book-buyers across the Internet was ambivalent. Of course, selling and buying used books has long been a practice in the publishing world, but eBooks provide a series of new issues that need to be resolved before the practice can become widespread.

When you would buy a physical version of a book, you would buy the rights to owning one copy of that book. It could be resold to whomever you chose, at whatever price, but at least there was only one copy of it. eBooks are a little more complicated with their ability to be copied as well as the multiple Digital Rights Management choices out there for authors. Every author’s worst nightmare is seeing their book go out there, become a hit, and everyone reading a pirated copy. Luckily, that hasn’t been the case so far for eBook readers. A lot of readers enjoy buying their books, which is good. But at what price do they want to pay for it?

If the book resells for a dime, wouldn’t it cut into the profit margins of the author, especially if it is being resold right next to the original full-priced eBook? Mark-downs are common for used copies of physical books, but that’s because they physically degrade. A “used” eBook would look just like the original one.

David Pogue over at The Times tries to sort through this complication — physical degradation of a book is necessary for its discount.  He goes through the patents filed by Amazon and Apple and doesn’t quite find a solution, but believes that publishers and writers will find a common-ground that allows for used eBooks to help writers make a living, while also making their work more available and affordable.

What do you think about the possibility of used eBooks? As writers, do you want their to be a secondhand marketplace?

Location, location, location…what’s your perfect place to write?

Writing, for all its wonders, is essentially a frustrating experience. It takes a lot of time putting words on a page before you get anything half-decent, and even then, having written anything  that will satisfy your own lofty standards is pretty difficult.

Have desk, will write.

To ease the process, writers develop routines. However, routines are contingent on something very important for a writer: having a place to write. While Virginia Woolf laid out the very basic truth that a woman needs “a room of one’s own”  to write fiction, I find that a writer of either gender would agree. But how important is that room anymore, especially with the rise of laptops, the Internet, and our endless capacity to multitask?

D.H. Lawrence wrote under a tree, while Hemingway wrote standing up. Which tree? Where was Hemingway standing? The poet Robert Creeley said, “The necessary environment is that which secures the artist in the way that lets him be in the world in a most fruitful manner.” I’m that much more comfortable in a cafe surrounded by other people than alone in my room. When I’m alone, in that ideal room of my own, I’m too tempted by my own laziness, my own ability to become sidetracked than if I was at a cafe, surrounded by other productive people, all those humming brains focused on talking, reading, eating, writing. I am most fruitful when I am in the middle of it all.

But that is certainly not be the case for all writers. Joan Didion took manuscripts to bed with her so she could make corrections in the middle of the night. Toni Morrison wakes before the sunrise so its light can energize her writing. Other writers go for public spaces like libraries. I spent several weeks writing in the beautiful main branch of the New York Public Library before the silence drove me mad. But, still, while I was there, I was productive. Other writers belong to organizations that provide “writers rooms,” rooms geared specifically towards the act of writing.

With a new generation of writers writing solely on laptops and tablets, the need for power outlets has become that much more crucial in finding a space to write. Maybe D.H. Lawrence’s tree won’t be a possibility for writers of fiction anymore, now that many have become accustomed to the rhythm and formatting of writing on a laptop.

Where do you write? What makes a great writing space? Do you still need a room of your own, or does a cafe or library work just as well? Let us know!

How to make a great science eBook

Science journalism has always been at the forefront of innovation — the first to utilize diagrams in reporting, the first to experiment with the advantages of digital books. But what makes a great science eBook? Download the Universe, a wonderful new website devoted to reviewing science eBooks, has highlighted the best eBooks of the past year, and shared some of what makes them so great.

One of the things that they point out is something we take for granted in a lot of science books: get your facts right and include a lot of them! A lot of the books they disliked this year were thin on backing up their argument, and left a lot unexplained. As readers of science books know, they can sniff out a weak argument from a mile away. One of the advantages of publishing an eBook and not an article online, is that you’re working with a little more of a deadline — make sure you’re taking advantage by backing up your facts. Once it’s out there, it’s tough to edit your eBook.

Another tip they give is to take full advantage of the medium of eBooks (this might depend on your ability to code, however). If you’re writing about the body, interactive features help a lot, while if you’re writing about geography, maps are obviously the way to go. As the famed theorist Marshall McLuhan noted, the medium is as much the message as the book itself. Take advantage of the eBook’s ability to complement your science writing with some truly exciting animations, images, or audios.

Download the Universe gives high marks to book publisher The Atavist, which published a series of eBooks that took full advantage of the eBook medium, including some wonderful illustrations, audio features, and diagrams. Look for more, smaller publishers in the future to offer software that will allow independent authors (like yourselves) to put together simple interactive features that will not only enhance your eBook, but allow readers a much better understanding of what can be, at times, very difficult content.

The future of science writing is as bright as a supernova! Just make sure you’re using eBooks to their full extent with a wonderful assortment of features.

What have you used to enhance your eBook to better explain an idea or discovery? What do you wish you knew how to do with your eBook?

Unleashing the TED Talk Within

Over the last few years, there has been a single high-profile destination for leading thinkers and experts to share their ideas: the TED Conference, a four-day festival of ideas and the arts, devoted to solving the largest problems our society faces. Featuring the career-altering opportunity to talk in front of today’s thought-leaders, speaking at TED is a dream-come-true for idea leaders, and one of the most coveted slots in professional speaking. Not only that, but it has become a prime opportunity for authors to promote their books and brand. Authors are already incredibly adept at turning their ideas into a narrative. At TED, the people who tell stories the best are often rewarded with attention and the chance to make a huge impression on the movers and shakers of our changing world. Through TED, excellent authors are able to establish themselves as leaders in their field, as well as bring a huge amount of attention to topics that have a great impact on the way we live.

The format is simple: presenters are given 18 minutes to share their expertise. Presenters range from the high-profile, like Bono, to young and rising thinkers like music blogger Amanda Palmer. Experts can discuss topics of all sorts, from the design of community gardens to the proliferation of cheap technology across Africa. The main requirement for participants is that it has to be something that can change our world for the better, usually by solving a problem with innovative thinking.

TED, and idea-based conferences like it, believe in unconventional ways of solving problems. That means looking for inspiration in different places, bringing smart people into the room together, as well as letting experts have their say in the plainest way possible — no jargon here, basically. The TED Talk within you is one that will make your highly complicated expertise seem simple to a general audience. The TED Talk within you will inspire other smart people with ideas and leave with their own “aha!” moment — as in, why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?

Cloe Shasha, who works at TED, has found that in her own opinion, “The best speakers’ talks are the ones whose content is driven by what they do. The theme emerges out of one’s experience, work and goals in a way that tells a story.”

In that spirit, here is a step-by-step guide to developing your own TED-caliber talk:

Small problem, global scale: When thinking about how your expertise can change the world, think about how your knowledge can solve a huge problem with a simple solution. For example, Tristram Stuart turned his expertise into a book, Waste, about food waste across the globe, and then into a popular presentation on how we can eliminate food waste across the globe. His hypothesis was that if we make clear just how much food is being wasted, people would demand that we no longer waste as much. By simply showing people how much food was wasted (a small act), he has been able to work against a global problem, and has become a successful TED presenter in the process.

Build your argument. Set the scene for your presentation: state what the problem is, what the solution is, and how your idea can achieve it. Often, if you work backwards from your great idea, you’ll lose the momentum of your presentation, and the audience won’t be as well acquainted with the problem you’re solving. By building to it, you make your solution seem inevitable.

Keep it simple. Your visual presentation should be simple, and only act to help highlight what you’re saying. “Nothing distracting you from the true message. Crazy effects on PowerPoint? I’m not a big fan. Something that gets your point across visually and verbally and through sound and movement can be very powerful,” Shasha says.

Practice, Practice, Practice. Who should you give your presentation to? Everyone.  ”Use your friends! Your colleagues! Your family! Practice a version of a talk in the form of a story at The Moth, as long as you think it would fit the theme! Maybe even try an Open Mic Night and tell a story,” Sasha recommends.

Try to keep in mind however, that the presentation is still going to be a massive simplification of your expertise and what you’ve spent so much time writing about. Make sure people see how complex your field is, enough so that, of course, they’ll want to read your books. As Salon’s Alex Pareene reminds us, TED specializes in “drastically oversimplified explanations of complex problems.” So don’t think you have to solve everything in one PowerPoint. Just get the audience excited enough to look into your field, and see an old problem in a new way.

Should you just give it away?

What’s better than free?

It might seem irrational, but one of the best ways that authors have found to gain popularity and profitability for their eBooks has been to, well, give them away. Authors have found that dropping the price of their books to $0, at least for a short time, leads to dramatically better sales when they do raise the price.

[Recommended Reading: How Free Books Build Your Brand as an Author and Authority]

Speaking on The Self Publishing Podcast, independent author David Wright found that this type of promotion works, especially with writers who work in genre fiction. “Free downloads drive sales,” he said. “Especially with the serialized fiction model, where if our readers get our first episode for free, they want to read on, so they buy the next episode or the full season.”

[Recommended Reading: How To Serialize with Lulu]

Dropping the price of your eBook can help raise your sales rank and visibility, while, at the same time, promoting other books you’ve written. Of course, the lost revenue can sting a bit, but who knows if readers would have taken the plunge on your book if you hadn’t taken the cost-free promotional plunge?

But is a free promotion right for you? For serialized fiction, the answer is yes. Get readers hooked, and then get them to buy the rest of your series or your other titles. For experts and speakers, the answer is also yes. You want to spread your brand and name, and an eBook is even better than just giving out your card. Use your eBook mainly as a promotional tool — not a revenue stream.

Here’s who this promotion might not work for: writers of long, literary fiction who depend on sales to make up for some of the painstaking work that went into their novel. It might also not work for historians, who also put in a tremendous amount of time and energy and whose specialized knowledge has a place in the marketplace and should be able to find a readership despite its cost.

Either way — it always helpful to experiment with different marketing tools. Dropping your price to zero might feel weird, but the eventual reward could be huge. If it doesn’t work out anyway, it’s just as easy to start charging more for your book, and go back to the drawing (or writing) board.

Have you tried this technique? What was your experience?