Tech Support at 2000 Meters

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Rollin’ a smoke in the high country, while my horse grazes, and gazing on nature’s majesty?

Not exactly – first of all I don’t smoke, don’t ride horses, and you can’t see it in the picture, but I’m actually typing away on my phone.  That hat, if nothing else, is a Stetson though.

My wife and I needed a weekend away, so we drove up to go camping up in Cortina d’Ampezzo, in the middle of the Italian Dolomites, which is of course a splendid place to spend a long weekend.   I was, however, a bit nervous being away from my fast internet connection – I like being able to deal with anything that comes up with LiberWriter in a hurry.

Thanks, however, to the people at Google who created the Android phone system, and my new Samsung phone, I was able to “take my email with me” and respond to a help request that came up while we were out for a walk above the Passo Giau.  My wife thought it was pretty funny (I’m lucky that way, I suppose some people might have been irritated!) that I was sitting there staring at my phone in the middle of the gorgeous high alpine meadow where we stopped to have a picnic, and took a picture.

My customer, on the other hand, was quite pleased that I got back to her so quickly, even though I wasn’t able to solve the problem right away.  I did fix the problem that evening, as soon as I got back to my laptop.

I work hard to make LiberWriter function without help, but given that people are paying us money to make sure their books look good, I feel the ability to respond with helpful, friendly support is always going to be a really important part of the service.

Formatting Poetry and Lyrics for the Kindle

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In many cases, people get worried about the formatting of their Kindle books when they shouldn’t be: it’s best to keep it simple and let people focus on your writing.  The default format provided by the device is something Amazon has tested with numerous people in order to make the default ‘just right’.  Of course, there are technical details like a table of contents and navigation that are trickier, and do merit a bit of attention (LiberWriter makes them very easy, though).

However, poetry and lyrics don’t work very well unless they’re laid out with the line breaks in the right place, and visually distinct from the rest of the text.  You may also want to write an attribution at the bottom, which should also stand out.  Here’s how to quickly and easily format a poem or song lyrics in LiberWriter, as well as the generated HTML, for those who are curious how things work under the hood.

  1. First of all, add a space between the main body of text, and the start of the poem, by simply hitting return.  This creates an empty paragraph: <p></p>.
  2. Write or copy the poem in like so: after each line, where you want the line break to occur, hit shift+return – this creates a <br /> tag.
  3. If you want to do an attribution, on the last line, hit the space key a few times – I find 6 works nicely, then type the name of the author and the title of the poem or song.
  4. Now, go back and highlight the whole poem and attribution, and click the blockquote button in the LiberWriter toolbar.  While it’s still highlighted, hit the increase indent button, located just to the left of the block quote button.  You can hit the indent button more than once if you want to  move it further right.
  5. If you have an attribution, highlight it, and from the styles menu, select small.  This will set the attribution apart from the rest of the poem or song visually.
  6. Make sure there’s another empty paragraph at the end of the poem/song.

The results, from a screen shot on my Kindle (click to see full size):

For the curious, the HTML for that looks something like this:
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Integer id eros in tortor eleifend tincidunt eu eget est.</p>
<p>&nbsp;</p>
<blockquote>
    <p style="margin-left: 40px;">O Fortuna<br />
        velut luna<br />
        statu variabilis,<br />
        semper crescis<br />
        aut decrescis;<br />
        vita detestabilis<br />
        nunc obdurat<br />
        et tunc curat<br />
        ludo mentis aciem,<br />
        egestatem,<br />
        potestatem<br />
        dissolvit ut glaciem.<br />
        <small>&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp; - Carl Orff, Carmina Burana</small></p>
</blockquote>
<p>&nbsp;</p>
<p>Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Aliquam pharetra tempor dui, quis molestie risus ultrices viverra.

There you have it – nicely formatted lyrics!  It’s pretty easy.

A Worrying Trend: Kindle Spam

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Hopefully Amazon will be up to the challenge of dealing with this worrying trend:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/digital-culture/social-networking/spam-clogging-amazons-kindle-self-publishing/article2063929/singlepage/#articlecontent

 

It says people are even selling software that automates the KDP spamming process… how sad.

They mention several suggestions to deal with the spam problem, including using a “social network” approach, as well asking people to pay a fee to list their books.  The latter idea isn’t as bad as it sounds – as long as it’s just a token amount, like $5, it’d be enough to make spammers think twice, but not be an undue burden on the rest of us.

It’s not an easy problem to solve, and is one faced by other online giants.  Google, for instance, is in a constant battle with outright spammers, and so-called “SEO experts” who try and game Google’s results to position products better in the search results.  Some of these people play by the rules, but others do not, and Google spends a lot of effort trying to make sure that the results you get are the ‘best’ in terms of the content.  Paypal and eBay also dedicate massive amounts of time, money and effort to fighting fraud, with the unfortunate side effect of many horror stories about Paypal freezing people’s accounts with no recourse.

Indeed, that may be one lesson that Amazon can learn from this: if you start automating spam-fighting, once in a while you’ll get a “false positive”, meaning that a real author gets flagged as spam.  That will not be a pleasant experience, so the better Amazon can deal with it, the happier everyone will be.

What To Look For In Professional Kindle Formatting

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A great deal of design can go into real, paper books.   Same thing goes for web pages.  At the moment, however, at least on devices like the Kindle, it really is all about the content.  Rather than embellishments, most of what goes into making books look good on the Kindle is ensuring there are no major mistakes or omissions, and some technical details.

  1. Does it have a table of contents (aka “ToC”) ?  If your book is very brief, this doesn’t matter as much, but a properly linked ToC is one thing that makes a book work well.
  2. Are the ToC and cover linked from the Kindle menu (“Go to…”) ?
  3. Most importantly – is the book consistent?  Does it use the same formatting throughout?
  4. Are extra styles – bold, italic, etc… kept to a minimum?  Great content usually doesn’t need a lot of visual queues to make it work.
  5. Do your images work? Do they look right?  They’re not pixelated or too large or too small?
  6. Does it use the regular Kindle fonts, so that people will see it how they want to on their Kindles?

It’s really not a lot to keep track of, but for many people, the devil can be in the details, or, more likely, in the Word file they’ve imported, so it’s important to look through the document and check, especially to ensure it’s consistent.

The positive side of this, of course, is that the gap between self-publishers and major publishers with large budgets is still bound to be fairly small; there’s just not that much you can do to make an eBook really fancy, yet.

Why We Can’t/Won’t Upload Directly to Amazon

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One of the things I’d love to be able to do with LiberWriter is for you to click a button and have your newly created content go straight into Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) system.

We can’t do that at the time of this writing, and you shouldn’t trust anyone who offers to do this on your behalf.

Why?  Because Amazon does not yet offer what we call an “API” or Application Programming Interface for the KDP.  Or, in plain English, they don’t offer a way for our computers to talk to their computers directly.

Some sites, desperate to suck in new users, will do things like ask you your username and password for your email account.  You should never give those to them.  And doing so for your Amazon account would be doubly bad; if you’re like me, you have several credit cards hooked up to it, so if someone were to get in, they could start shopping on your dime!  For that reason, even if for some people it’d make their lives easier, we simply don’t want to handle your user/password information, as it would not be ethical to do so.

Hopefully, at some future date, Amazon will add an API, so you’ll be able to go directly from LiberWriter to KDP.

How Much Is Your Time Worth?

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I read many stories of people spending hours and hours trying to get formatting “just right” for the Kindle, and as a programmer, I can fully understand the desire to “make the damn computer do what I want”, as sometimes it becomes a personal battle of wills where you feel  you must prevail on the evil machine to do your bidding. However, from a more rational point of view, sometimes it’s worth it to pay for a bit of help.

For example, a few weeks ago, after dropping my daughter off at school on a Monday morning, the car tire blew out.  I had a choice to make: I could either try and fix it, or take it somewhere and have it done.  Since I had a lot to do that day, I opted for the second choice; luckily there was a garage a few blocks away and I managed to limp in, driving slowly.  They were indeed able to get the spare on in just a few minutes, for a price that was more than reasonable to me, given that I 1) did not have to get my hands or clothes dirty 2) I didn’t have to fool around with the rudimentary tools in the emergency tire kit 3) I was on my way in no time rather than wasting a lot of my time doing something I haven’t done in ages and probably would not be very skilled at.  All in all, I was quite happy with having paid to get it taken care of quickly and professionally.

All the tires were old, so I brought the car back and had all of them changed, and while they were at it, they managed to fix a few other nagging annoyances in a few minutes.  The price they charged was quite reasonable, and now our car is safer and works better.  Once again, a good deal for all involved.

With LiberWriter we try and provide the same style of service: it’s perfectly possible to do what we do on your own, but if you don’t enjoy the technical challenge, I think we make things significantly faster, easier, and less stressful, letting you concentrate on your writing. If we can, we’re also happy to give you a bit of helpful advice about what works and what doesn’t for the Kindle, so that not only do you get your book formatted, you learn something yourself in the process.

Copyrighting Your Ebook

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A lot of people are curious about how to claim copyright on the book they’re working on.

At least for the United States, it’s easy: you don’t need to do anything!  You automatically own the copyright to works you create.  By creating the book on LiberWriter, and then submitting it to Amazon’s KDP, you also have evidence that it’s yours.

So what about formally registering it with the US government?  That’s actually pretty easy too.  You can do it all online, via this web site: http://www.copyright.gov/

Specifically, it costs $35 for “online registration of a basic claim in an original work of authorship (electronic filing)”, according to this page http://www.copyright.gov/docs/fees.html .

Something worth considering, though, is that the government isn’t going to do much to get people to take down pirated copies of your book; you’d most likely have to bring a civil suit against an infringer.  That is likely going to cost a lot more than your $35 fee, and is also going to be something of a game of whack-a-mole in any case – if you manage to shut down the guy in Kansas with a pirated copy on his site, some other guy in Russia or Thailand is going to pop up and be a lot tougher to shut down.  By paying the fee and registering your book, you are entitled to punitive damages, and the other party paying your legal fees, but you’d still be out a lot of time and hassle to bring a case to court.  With or without registering your work,  you can send a DMCA takedown notice.  Here’s one example of how to do so: http://ipwatchdog.com/2009/07/06/sample-dmca-take-down-letter/id=4501/ – of course that’s only valid in the United States, and pirated content may well reside on servers in other countries.

One of the good things about how Amazon handles ebooks is that it’s pretty easy to do the right thing – people the world over can buy your books for very reasonable prices with very little hassle.  Compare this to TV shows or movies, which those of you in the US can watch without problems via services like Netflix, but are simply not available abroad, even for those who are willing to pay, which means that either not seeing the movie or pirating it are the only options.  Which leads to my advice: concentrate on marketing your book and getting honest people to buy it rather than worrying too much about dishonest people.

Ebooks, The Law, and Economics

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On the heels of the music and film industries, the world of publishing is diving into the brave new world of digital goods, and it’s uncharted territory.

A real, physical book is pretty easy to understand: if you loan me your copy, you don’t have it anymore.  It takes a little bit of time and material to print each additional copy.  To obtain the book, you have to give someone your money before they hand it over, or send it to you – unless you got it from the library, in which case the book was purchased with your tax dollars or with donors’ money.  But in any event, for each copy out there, money changes hands.  If you steal a physical book, you’re actually stealing it – walking away with someone else’s property and depriving them of it.  You can’t do that from the comfort of your own home, sitting in front of your computer, so by and large, most people don’t.

Digital goods are different in that, theoretically at least, you could make as many copies  as you wanted without taking anything away from anyone – they still have their copy too.   Naturally, though, ebooks are still legally protected by copyright, and physically protected by DRM (Digital Rights Management) systems; although apparently the Kindle DRM has been cracked. However, these are attempts to limit the natural state of digital goods, rather than inherent properties, as with “real” books.

This makes for a strange world in which we still haven’t found a good equilibrium.  If everyone copies everything and no one pays for anything, the profession of ‘author’ will disappear – the only people able to write will be those who have plenty of money from other sources and can thus pursue their writing as a hobby.  Even if only most people, rather than everyone, “pirates” rather than paying, it could make the difference between good authors writing as a hobby because they don’t make enough, and writing professionally because they are able to pay the bills from the proceeds of their writing, which would deprive the world of the work they could have otherwise produced had they been able to work on writing full time.

On the other hand, even some of the simple things we’re used to doing with ‘real’ books are a bit awkward with ebooks.  For instance, we only have one Kindle in our family, so if my wife wants to read a book on it, I can’t read any of the other books on it.  Even if we had a second one, were it registered to her, the sharing system on the Kindle is a little bit weird and does not really replicate how sharing a book in the real world works.  Also, with a book, I can always sell it once I’m done with it, used.  I probably won’t make much from it, but at least it’s a little bit, and it gives someone else the opportunity to own the book at a lower price, which is a good way for students or other people with a tight budget to get ahold of books.  Ebooks don’t have this option, and it would be difficult to do: a “used” ebook is just as good as they day you bought it.  It has no wear and tear, no faded cover, or any other blemishes, which would mean that a potential acquirer ought to be willing to pay anything less than the full price for it since he’s getting the exact same thing.  By removing the real world effects of wear and tear on books, a somewhat strange market might develop.  In any event, at least with the Kindle, it’s not likely to happen: Amazon’s agreement says that they are “licensing” the book to you and that you do not actually own the book that you “bought”.

Another point that some people find odd is that ebooks are, at times, priced higher than their paper equivalents.  People figure that since there’s no paper involved, the ebook ought to be a bit cheaper.  What they’re missing, however is that the actual price of a paperback book is minimal – the real cost of  most books is all the work that went into creating them, editing them, laying them out, and so on – creative work, in other words.  These are “sunk costs”, in the parlance of economists, rather than “marginal costs”, which are the price each new copy costs to print.  With paperbacks, the marginal costs are low, with ebooks they are essentially zero.  But things don’t necessarily sell at what they cost to produce, they sell at what the market will bear, and if people find ebooks more convenient (more valuable!) than physical books, then it’s perfectly natural that the price would be higher than for the paper book.  I can’t argue with the fact that it does “feel” a bit weird though, and it’s yet another thing that the industry is still grappling with.

As an author, how should you react to all this?  My advice is to not get too worried about it, because it’s not something you can do a great deal about.  Amazon’s KDP represents a great opportunity for self publishers.

And, as author Cory Doctorow says,

“The greatest threat to an artist is obscurity, not piracy.”

As a self-published author, your biggest problem is getting noticed at all, not whether a few cheapskates read your work without paying for it.

Ebooks: To Link or Not?

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A reasonably common question I see on various Kindle publishing related forums is about the use of hyperlinks in the book.  It’s easy to include them, and for non-fiction books, it’s possible to link to a great deal of useful information outside of the book itself.  What’s not to like?  Well, several things:

  • The Kindle’s browser is not very fast.
  • Your readers may not even be somewhere where they can connect to the internet – on an airplane for instance.
  • It’s distracting to fire up the browser and go visit an external web page.

One easy way around this problem is to add your links in footnotes in the book, or perhaps a notes/references section at the back of the book.  This way, your users still get the value of your links, but don’t get interrupted from the flow of your book.

Another bit of advice: since your book may be sold for years to come, try and link to content that’s going to be there a few years from now, at the same address.  Things like Wikipedia, government, or university sites likely are in this category, whereas someone’s Myspace page probably isn’t something you can count on existing in the same form a few years in the future (anyone remember Geocities?).

Automating The Kindle Formatting Process

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Many industries start out with people hand-crafting something, which is an image we all like: the master craftsman hunched over, perfecting his creation bit by bit, lovingly creating one piece at a time, built just right for each customer.

Unfortunately, the economic reality is that producing things that way is very expensive and only available to those who are comparatively very wealthy.  The fact that we can all afford things like cars and computers is because they are mass produced.

LiberWriter aims to do the same thing for Kindle authoring and conversion services: rather than charge a lot of money and do one file at a time, we’re putting together the tools that work best, in order  to reliably repeat the process at a lower price and maintain high standards for quality.

Perhaps that doesn’t sound as romantic as the “master craftsman” approach, but rest assured that we’re putting all the craftsmanship and ingenuity we can into creating the tools that compose LiberWriter itself, in order to make it quick, pleasant and above all, friendly.  Rather than dealing with XML files and regular expressions and whatnot, we put a friendly face on the process, and of course are available to give you a hand when you get stuck.  Just because we aim to bring high quality tools to the masses doesn’t mean we don’t have friendly, personalized customer service!

And of course, where human creativity and individuality matter, there’s no substitute.  That’s what writing is all about, isn’t it?  We are doing our best to give you the tools to concentrate on your writing without worrying about “the details”.