Technology

E-books need a subscription service

I would think an ideal business model (from a consumer perspective) would be a monthly or yearly fee (I’d probably be willing to pay up to $20 a month) for unlimited access to hundreds of thousands of books. No need to digitally recreate the “library check out” process that places artificial limitations on digital resources. You pay the fee, you get access. Once you stop renewing your subscription, no more access. Your monthly fee goes to the service to keep it running, and to the publishers of the books you spent the most time reading (or flipped the most pages of, or something).

Unfortunately, just as movie studios are stingy about letting audiences have too many streaming options, I doubt most publishers would be willing to allow such access to large catalogues. And this sort of business won’t work if the size of the catalogue isn’t vast enough to attract audiences. It must compete with physical libraries after all.

For now, the only thing that could pry me away from small stacks of physical paper would be easier access to a vaster selection for a cheaper price.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Animation

Animating and reading and music and stuff…

Animation studies continue

It’s now week 7 (of 72) of Animation Mentor! The first semester (of 12 weeks) is half way over!

Last week’s assignment involved animating a pendulum. Unfortunately, towards the end of the week (mostly Saturday and Sunday) I caught some sort of virus, so I lost a nice chunk of animation time, and my assignment turned out pretty “blagh.” I mean, it wasn’t completely terrible, but it needs lots of polishing, so I’ll post that up on YouTube after I do a revision. Feeling better now, so I hope this week will be better.

Reading…

I finished reading The Talent Code the other day. Overall, ’twas a pretty good read, though I still think that in some of the chapters the author kind of goes off on these less interesting tangents. There was this whole chapter about how good some “KIPP program” schools were, though to me they seemed kind of brain-washy. One of the main points of the program, besides instilling militaristic discipline, was to not only get the students to go to college, but get them to want to go to college. Apparently the founders of the KIPP program believe that going to college is pretty much the most important thing in the world. It’s kind of … disturbing. Maybe there’s a grain of truth to it, in terms of there being a correlation between income levels and college attendance, but I don’t think brain-washing children to believe that college is the most important goal in life is necessarily helpful, even if the students in this KIPP program preform very well on tests.

Which kind of leads me to another problem… so often it seems that how “good” a school is is determined by comparing it to other schools. People say things like “this school scored in the 90th percentile!” That sounds pretty good, but it actually really doesn’t say that much. What exactly is the “score” of the 90th percentile? Shouldn’t the actual score matter? With this sort of comparison-rating system, a school (or a student) doesn’t even have to improve for their score to improve… everyone else just has to do worse.

Along the same lines (though this is a complete tangent from the subject of the book), I hate when teachers, both high school and college, grade to a curve. As if a bell curve should naturally arise in the grades, and if it’s not there, you just shape the test scores to it. It makes no sense; you can get a better grade simply because everyone else did lousy on the test? But really this is part of the bigger “grading problem” in general that schools have; they simply use grades in a completely wrong way, as a form to easily compare students and to act as an easy gatekeeper for decision making. Unfortunately how well someone knows facts or a skill is not so easily numbered. (And this is really related to the “school problem” in general; how so many people think it’s a good use of time and money to teach and learn things students are not interested in or are not going to use. I’ll spare myself from going off on that tangent today…)

One last thing I’m starting to understand, from this book and others with similar themes, is that our personalities, as defined by our decisions and interests, are, or at least can be, as malleable as our intellect. They are a product of our environment. Maybe not completely, of course, but the true (often subconscious) sources of interests and personalities are quite complex; they do not simply emerge from DNA. In other words, if you observe that someone is bossy when they are a baby, that’s not necessarily just because they have “bossy” genes. Although, maybe they do… my point is that it’s complex. And people can change, at least to a greater degree than they may realize. Not easily, perhaps. It might take a complete overturning of your environment, and the change might be from “stable” to “completely depressed and crazy”, but it’s possible. I do wish it were easy to understand how interests come about and how they could be changed, but they seem to get so set-in-stone that we think of them as being as unchangeable as stone…

The other book I finished reading was Federations, a collection of sci-fi short stories. It was kind of a mixed bag… I thought some stories were very good, especially Prisons by Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason and Symbiont by Robert Silverberg. Some were OK. Some were uhhhh-what-the-heck? (I have more traditional tastes. When authors try to get all experimental and stylized, I don’t always get it. One of my big pet peeves is unisex/nonsex pronouns, like “hirs” and “shim”… blagh! You’re not clever! Stop it!)

Will books die soon?

In other news, I read this article in which some guy says that physical books will be dead in 5 years. *gasp* Firstly, the article states that we must consider what has happened to music and films, which makes no sense to me. Those are digital art mediums in the first place. You watch a movie with a digital TV, and you listen to music on speakers (or headphones). Those have required electricity to perceive the art for a long time. Not so with books. So I don’t think the comparison is entirely valid. Also, movies are still quite non-digital, in that they still are sold on physical discs. This not only helps prevent copying (to a degree), but it also allows customers to trade, rent, borrow, return, and resell their movies. In a purely digital world, we can’t do that. Money would only ever flow one way. Great for movie distributors (if they can prevent illegal copying enough), somewhat lame for everyone else (unless you can get free movies by watching ads at certain intervals… but still no returning or trading).

He also says that the sales of Kindle books has outnumbered the sales of hardbacks. OK… that in and of itself is not really evidence of anything, as far as I can tell. We’d also have to see a decline in hardback sales, and look at paperback sales. And publishers would have to at some point conclude that publishing a hardback would not be worth it. And then conclude that paperbacks aren’t worth it either. These business decisions would, I think, be way too drastic for publishers to figure out in just 5 years. Unless, of course, Kindle and other ebooks take off so well and make publishers so rich that they have nothing to worry about by going all digital. So I guess I’d really have to look at the publishers’ records to know…

Eventually, books may very well die, or at least become mostly dead… but in just 5 years? I highly doubt it.

Some beautiful music!

Lastly, as a reward for reading all that blather (or for scrolling down), here’s some beautiful music for you!

Want more? Of course you do!

These pieces were brought to you by the Portsmouth Sinfonia which I came across last week (or yesterday or something)… what beautiful sounds!

By S P Hannifin, ago
Business

To self-publish or not to be?

Good tidings!

If you are an avid reader of this blog (and if you’re not, you should be, because my words are full of much beauty and wisdom), you will know that I have criticized e-books for their high prices, and predicted that they won’t become very popular until those prices go way down. However, I realized earlier this week that Amazon allows writers to self-publish their books on the Kindle (and other e-readers that can interface with Kindle books). It seems to me that if a writer were to price his self-published books nice and cheaply, at $1 or $2, he actually has a great opportunity to get some sales. Probably not nearly as many as he might get if he got professionally published and his book sat on physical book store shelves, but I think he’d have a much greater chance of making any money at all (since getting published in the first place is quite difficult).

So I’m quite tempted to try this out. I reckon my first novel, if I can finish it, would take years to try to convince a traditional publisher to publish it, and who knows if it’d ever get published or not? So I might just skip that step and go straight to self-publishing. There are already some print-on-demand services that allow writers to self-publish their work for free, such as Lulu and Amazon’s CreateSpace (I think it’s called), but print-on-demand books don’t attract a huge audience in and of themselves because they end up costing slightly more than regular books. With paperless e-books, readers can now try out new writers for $1 or $2 (or in some cases for free), so the risk is much lower. So I’d really like to try self-publishing on Amazon for the Kindle, and pricing my book at $1 or $2. It might allow me to get some reviews and make a little money. Most importantly, though: it would give people an easy and convenient way to access and read my work. Which is why any writer wants their work published in the first place, isn’t it? So that other people can experience it?

Of course, there’s one huge disadvantage with this self-publishing system, which is also it’s biggest advantage: anyone can do it. There’s a TON of competition, so you still might not attract any readers or make any money. But at least the opportunity is there, and to me it looks worth taking.

That said, time is of the essence here. Everyday, other writers are finishing their novels before me, and putting them up for sale. The longer it takes me to finish my novel, the more competition it will have.

I don’t want to rush, of course, that would obviously make the quality of the work suffer. But, as a commenter suggested a few posts back, I’ll have to at least try being more disciplined, and set some deadlines for myself. I won’t keep to them too strictly, since Animation Mentor is coming along, and I’ll be dedicating most of my time to that (the chance of Animation Mentor helping me find a full-time job afterwards is much greater than the prospect of being a full-time author, obviously). However, here are my suggested deadlines to myself to help myself make progress and self-publish a novel as soon as I can without sacrificing quality:

Firstly, I’d like to have the entire novel completed by Friday, September 10, 2010. (That is the day I’ll be seeing The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King at Wolftrap with a live orchestra playing the score. It will be amazing. I might be crying at the end. And if I can have my first novel finished by that time, it will be even more amazing.)

Here are the novel-writing steps I decided upon earlier (again, just a guide, not an overly strict plan), now with suggested completion dates by them:

1) Clear beginning and clear ending, with character motivations and plans figured out (almost finished now) Due Monday, June 7, 2010
2) List of important scenes (this is the step I usually stop at and just start writing, but not this time, I hope) Due Monday, June 14, 2010
3) Details of how each scene begins and ends, adding connecting scenes when necessary Due with step 4
4) Purpose of each scene – make sure each scene is important and accomplishes something plot-wise and theme wise (not just one or the other (but plot-wise is more important)) Step 3 and 4 due Monday, June 21, 2010
5) Details of all scenes – details on what exactly happens between each scene’s beginning and end, including dialog (like writing each scene into a little screenplay) Due Monday, August 2, 2010

Complete rough draft due Friday, September 10, 2010

Complete final draft due Thursday, November 25, 2010 (Thanksgiving, and my birthday! Yay!)

And then it should be up on Amazon’s Kindle marketplace in no time! Yay!

OK, this probably won’t work at all; I’m bound to fail with lack of self-discipline, discover things take a lot more time than planned (especially since Animation Mentor will become my main focus), lose interest, etc., but it will be worth a try.

I think I finally have an outline for an ending though, so I need to start plotting, working backwards from the end, and forwards from the beginning. It will be fun! Especially with my new Piccadilly notebooks!

23 days left until Animation Mentor begins!

By S P Hannifin, ago
Philosophy

Why In Fact Publishing Will Not Go Away Anytime Soon: A Play in One Act

CHARACTERS:

ELTON P. STRAÜMANN, a modern-thinking man with exciting ideas
SEAN, a humble wannabe writer

Act I

SCENE OPENS ON STRAÜMANN and SEAN, standing.

STRAÜMANN: Do you want to buy this self-published book?

SEAN: No.

STRAÜMANN: Obama is awesome.

CURTAIN FALLS

John Scalzi wrote a longer version on his blog that goes into a bit more detail on the subject, but really I think it just comes down to marketing, and the whole business of that.  A catchy professional-looking cover is part of marketing.  Potential readers have to expect that your book will be well-edited.  And having bookstore shelf-space is pretty huge.

Scalzi seems to miss one thing (which is not to say he doesn’t believe it; I just didn’t notice him mentioning it): a self-published book is NOT automatically worse than a professionally published one.

That said, from my few observations, self-published books definitely TEND to be of lower quality.  The few self-published books I’ve looked at have been so unspeakably awful that I’ve lost most faith in them.  I’m not very likely to buy one.  Ever.  At least if things stay as they are in terms of quality.  See this older post.

That said, I do think there are unpublished writers out there somewhere who’s works of fiction I would enjoy immensely; I do not believe publishers and editors are the almighty gods of determining what writing is good and bad.  I am that god.

So what self-publishers really need if they want to prove Scalzi wrong (though the character Scalzi created would never be so adept) is to 1) actually polish their writing (I think editors are a huge help, but not the end all be all, and certainly NOT the reason publishing will not die soon) and 2) market better.  Now, how exactly one “markets better” is a huge subject, and not one that I claim to have much of a clue about.  However, starting a Twitter following campaign is probably not the way to go.  If you are dumb enough to market like that, then of course your writing must be garbage.  (As in many arts, it’s a lot easier to recognize what not to do.)

It would be nice if there was a way for self-published books that aren’t garbage to get noticed more easily.  I’m sure there are some people out there working on this problem, perhaps through blogs or sites that review self-published stuff, or at least track sales.  And there’s the whole book-podcasting thing.

But can self-publishers ever market with the power of the big publishers?  I don’t see how, unless they just overwhelm the market with quality content, which I can’t see happening.  The big publishers have the money to market.  If your self-published book does well and a publisher becomes interested in your material, you’d have to be a complete idiot to refuse… and though you’d benefit from that, you’re also making them stronger.  Not that that’s bad.

All this talk kind of makes me want to be a publisher… but I can’t really afford such a gamble right now.

The only other thing that remains to be seen is the effect of book piracy.  When publishers aren’t making money, will that even the playing field?  Will there be enough pirates to do that?  How popular will ebook readers become?  I still think ebook readers and ebooks are a bit of a rip-off, so I don’t see myself switching any time soon.  I can’t predict the future very well (I thought the iPhone sounded like a dumb idea… (so does the iPad for that matter…) but I was right about blu-rays winning the high-def format war) but if a lot people think like me, ebooks and ebook readers will either have to become drastically cheaper, or remain about as popular as they are now, which doesn’t seem very (though enough that publishers are continuing to pursue it).  But… who can know?

A rather lengthy aside: if ebooks do become much more popular, I have a very very tough time believing publishers and distributors wouldn’t have to change their business models drastically.  If I were a published author, and the publisher and distributor were no longer dealing with a bunch of physical inventory, then their roles would be completely different.  I’m not even sure why I should need the distributor at all if all they’re doing is hosting digital files, besides to make my book easier to find.  But shelf space becomes infinite.  And certainly the publisher shouldn’t need as much $$$$ if they don’t have to deal with paper.  Look at this recent fight between Macmillan and Amazon regarding ebook prices.  Macmillan wants to charge $15 for some ebooks?  What morons out there are buying ebooks for that price?  (I shudder to think.)  I have to side with Amazon on the issue… but even $9.99 is too much… what in the world are publishers thinking?! I guess they just don’t how to work this business yet and are trying to be safe… and rip people off while they can… (Or are they trying to counter ebook piracy losses early on?  And punish the legitimate buyers?  Nah…)

Another aside, as I browse Scalzi’s blog… Scalzi wrote about the Amazon vs. Macmillan and wrote a post about supporting authors.  I guess I might seem cold-hearted, but… NO.  Ever hear the phrase “don’t quit your day job”?  Yeah, well… Not that I think stealing is the way to go, but when I buy a book, it’s a trade for my benefit, not the author’s.  If you [authors] want more $$$$, maybe find a way to cut out the middle men with all this new technology?  Oh, but no, you don’t want that… well don’t go whining about financial troubles to me then.  (Not that Scalzi is really whining, I’m just being dramatic.)  If Amazon’s move was against authors (as Scalzi seems to claim), it was also for readers.  So are the authors against readers?! What do authors think about Macmillan’s pricing?  If they think $15 for an ebook is OK, then I’m not sure I want to read their books because they obviously don’t mind being published by a company who would like to rip-off customers.  Thanks!  Don’t ask us, the audience, to do something about it.  You do something about it.  You’re the ones getting paid.

OK, I digress…

Anyway, to sum up my point, publishers won’t go away anytime soon simply because most people who buy books buy them from professional publishers.  That’s really all it comes down to.

Now you must admit that my play is better than Scalzi’s, right?

By S P Hannifin, ago
Music composition

Why e-books stink

Technology opinion

I keep hearing mention of the kindle and other e-readers, and I see them at book stores on display. They do look nice, definitely better than reading from a computer screen. They’re small and look easier to carry around. They look pretty darn convenient; I’d like to have one. Unfortunately, they stink.

The main reason I think they stink is because, to read a book, I would be paying for a digital file. So . . . what if I don’t like the book? Can I return it? How much control do the e-reader makers have over my collection of digital files? Can I copy them to a new e-reader if I get one from a different manufacturer? Can I copy them to my computer and copy and paste text I like? I can re-sell my old books, but what about some old digital book file I don’t care about anymore? I wouldn’t be able to get a penny for it, would I?

I currently have a part time job at the local library, and I’d say about 66 to 75 percent of the books I read are from the library. Because they’re free. If I really like a book and want to keep it, I’ll buy it, but I’m very hesitant to pay money for a book from an author I’m unfamiliar with. I use the library to “demo” books. And, as long as no one else has the book on hold, I can demo it for however long I want. Unless a similar structure could be set up for e-books, where I can freely “check-out” books for an unlimited amount of time, I won’t be buying an e-reader anytime soon. The costly monetary disadvantages outweigh the spacial ergonomic advantages.

Also, another thing I would love to have with an e-reader is the ability to underline or highlight text, and then view the writing with or without the highlighting. When reading traditional books, I always have the urge to highlight certain sentences. But I don’t highlight, either because the book is from the library, or because I simply don’t want to create distractions for my future self if and when I ever go back and look into the book again. The ability to view my books with or without my own highlighting would be a major selling point. (But I’d still want the ability to have complete control over my files, no DRM crap.)

My first album news

In other news, I finished composing my third piece for my album, and I’m calling it The Dragon King (Opus 49) … bum bum bum! But, like Dragon of the Mist, it doesn’t sound threatening; it’s not an evil dragon. (I also subtly slipped in the melody from Dragon of the Mist for a couple measures, bwahahaha!) So, about 16 minutes of music is now finished for my album (White Castle Waltz, On the Edge of a Dream, and The Dragon King). I’ve got quite a few other pieces started that I’m still working on (one is over 12 minutes long and will most likely become the longest piece I’ve ever written). I’m hoping to have the album out by mid-August. Right now I’m focusing all my creative energy on it.

By S P Hannifin, ago