February 13th, 2014 by Mike Fulton

There are Kindle apps for iOS, Android, Windows, Windows Metro and Mac, not to mention the Amazon Kindle Cloud Reader.  Oh, and really the modern Kindle devices, the color ones anyway, are using apps running on a specialized flavor of Android, so let’s count that too. From here out, if I refer to “Kindle” without mentioning a specific version, assume I mean all of the platforms collectively.

On the one hand, it’s nothing short of awesome that Amazon has supported such a wide range of platforms and made Kindle so widely available. On the other hand, it’s also true that the apps are rarely updated with new features.  To their credit, Amazon releases regular bug-fix updates but there are quite a lot of features missing from the apps that would be welcome additions.  Maybe the sheer number of platforms they support is part of the reason why new features are slow in coming.  After all, if you add a new feature to one version, you’ve got to eventually add it to the others as well.

However, the new features do trickle out eventually, so I have to presume someone at Amazon is listening to users’ requests or at least thinking along similar lines.  With that in mind, I’d like to throw out some new ideas.  Or maybe just refresh some old ones.

Support For Multiple Accounts

In a family household, it’s not unusual to have devices that are shared between multiple people.  It would be very convenient if the Kindle could keep track of multiple accounts and let users switch between them more easily.  Allow each account to control things like if purchases can be made without entering the password or not.

Better Parental Controls

Mom needs to be able to hand off her Kindle to her 12 year-old daughter so she can read Pride And Prejudice without worrying about her getting into 50 Shades of Gray instead.  Give parents the ability to mark individual books as being adults-only and require a password to be entered before the book can be opened.

Support For ePub

Kindle’s original file format is based on the Mobipocket format which had been around for several years before the Kindle’s debut.  The AZW format used by Kindle is essentially a MOBI file with digital rights management added on, and the Kindle can still read unprotected .MOBI files.  More recently, Amazon has added a new file format called KF8 (Kindle Format 8 ) which extends the AZW format to provide more formatting capabilities with HTML5 and CSS3.

There are a few other reader devices out there which can read unprotected .MOBI files, but nothing else can read AZW or KF8 files.  And if you own an eBook reader made by someone other than Amazon, chances are it uses the ePub format.  This is an open standard for eBooks created and maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum.

Kindle does not support the ePub format. It would be nice if they did.  I’m not saying Amazon should start publishing eBooks in that format, but it would be very useful if the Kindle could at least read ePub files obtained from other sources.

For one thing, ePub files tend to be a bit smaller than the Kindle formats.  It’s not uncommon for an eBook file to take half as much space in eBook format as the Kindle’s native formats.

More importantly, though, there are a wide range of free eBooks out there on the web which are only available in ePub format.  Usually you can run them through a converter like the Calibre software, and convert them into .MOBI files that you can use with the Kindle, but this extra step puts things beyond the capabilities of a more casual, less tech-savvy user.

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August 12th, 2013 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Authors, eBook Publishing

Lately I’ve been working on moving most of my belongings into storage in preparation for a move. This has included the boxes and boxes of old paperbacks, Mostly science-fiction and fantasy. My favorite authors typically have their own storage boxes so that I can make at least some modest attempt at keeping everything organized and easy to find.

The other day I ran across the box with the books from Larry Niven. Larry Niven was one of my first “favorite authors” along with Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. I stopped for a moment to have a look through the box and rediscovered old friends like Ringworld and the other Known Space novels and short story collections. It occurred to me to imagine how much I would enjoy reading these classics once again. With that in mind, I started browsing Amazon earlier this evening to see what was available in Kindle format and what the prices looked like.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised anymore when it turns out that some classic book like Ringworld is not available in e-book format, but as it turns out, I was still surprised! There were some books in Niven’s Known Space series, mostly the short story & novella collections, But novels like Ringworld, The Ringworld Engineers, and Protector were nowhere to be found.

I know these books are 30 to 40 years old, but it is simply nothing less than a crime to let them fade away like this, especially when so little effort is required to get them into the essentially immortal eBook format.

I realize that some older titles are not available in e-book format because of issues with the publishing rights. Perhaps the author has died and the heirs of the estate don’t even realize that the publishing rights have reverted. Or maybe the publisher doesn’t even know who owns the rights anymore.

However, it’s hard to believe that’s the case in situations like, for example, the David Eddings estate, which is worth millions of dollars. You can bet the people managing the estate know exactly what the publishing rights to his books are worth, and that it would be a good idea to make them available in eBook format, and yet most of his best-selling titles are not available in the US as e-book.

I’m sure there are some situations where it’s a genuine puzzle to figure everything out. I am equally sure that the publishers are rarely making much of an effort to try.

I was also a little disappointed, although again, not really surprised, to see that the prices for the eBook editions from that period of Larry Niven’s career were right up there the same with new release paperbacks. I was maybe, just a little bit surprised. Because recently I’ve seen a trend where older releases are getting ever so slightly discounted by a dollar or two here and there. I suspect in many cases, this is because the author has regained the publishing rights for these older titles, and has self-published them.

That leaves me to an interesting idea. Once a writer has become reasonably well-known, or at least has gained enough of a following to make a living at being a writer, it really doesn’t make any sense for them to live under the thumb of the traditional publishing houses anymore. They can self publish a book on Amazon at half the price of what a publisher would put it out for, and still make more money per copy than the traditional publishing contract would give them.

Publishers really need to buy a clue and get with the idea that it’s not the 19th century anymore. The business model for publishing books needs to evolve, just like the business model for music has evolved. One of the biggest changes in the music market that came about as a result of digital publishing was the realization of how much of the market had to do with sales from the back catalog, as compared with new releases.

When digital music publishing started to take over, one of the less obvious changes was the fact that all the records for all the sales were on computer now. You no longer had to rely on questionable inventory or sales figures taken by hand by workers in record stores. Before you could easily get an idea for how a brand-new release was selling simply by tracking the shipments from the warehouse, but you might not have any idea how well old titles were selling because they were existing inventory that had shipped to the record stores years earlier. Unless it was a perennial bestseller, like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, and had to be reordered from time to time, record companies simply didn’t know how well or how poorly the older titles were selling.

But when digital music publishing got started, sales information was available instantly, and with near perfect accuracy. The publishers could now see exactly how well the old titles were selling. And it turned out that the back catalog titles were generating much more income than anybody had realized.

Book publishers don’t seem to have realized that yet. You would think they would have noticed how well stores like Half Price Books are doing, selling mostly used books, in an era when retailers like Borders Books are going bankrupt and Barnes & Noble is struggling to keep their doors open. A big reason for the continuing popularity of used bookstores is the availability of older titles that are no longer in print and therefore no longer available through the main retail channels.

They don’t seem to recognize the sales potential in older titles. There are certain exceptions, like for example Frank Herbert’s Dune manages to come out in some sort of new edition or another on a fairly regular basis, so I’m sure the publisher knows that book, at least, is worth worrying about.

With eBooks, there’s no reason for older titles to be “out of print”. Even if the text of the book is not already available in computer readable form, it only takes a few hours with a book scanner to make it so. From there it’s just a matter of proof reading and a bit of computer work to create the eBook files. The cost per title is minimal, and the break-even point is fairly low.

It took the music industry many years to get a handle on digital publishing and figure it out, but these days they seem to have it figured out for the most part. Here’s hoping that book publishers trip over a clue sometime soon and don’t take quite so long to figure it out.

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June 9th, 2013 by Mike Fulton
Posted in Authors

Movies based on popular books are always kind of a gamble in more ways than one. One of the first questions that usually come up is, how will the story translate to the screen? There are a variety of technical and artistic considerations that can affect the answer.

From a technical view, the story may have elaborate imagery that will require a lot of special effects work. These days, they can do just about anything with special effects, given a big enough budget, but what if the movie has a smaller budget? And what about the artistic side of special effects creation? The book’s elaborate imagery will probably depend greatly on the reader’s imagination, so what if the movie maker’s imagination doesn’t line up with that of those people who read the book?

There are a lot of things that are both technical and artistic that can play a big role in the success or failure of a book to movie translation. Things like set design, costume design, or make-up can either enhance the feel of the original story and make it a richer experience, or they can contradict the original story and create a dissonance in people who read the book before seeing the movie.

The second part of the answer to how the story will translate to the screen is wrapped around the screenwriter, the director, and anybody else in the creative process who has input into deciding what gets filmed and what makes it into the final cut of the movie. This is where failure usually occurs.

The Screenwriter

The screenwriter is usually one of the first people involved in the creative process. You can’t do too much to make a movie until you have a script in hand. Translating a book into a screenplay is a unique blend of artistry and craftsmanship that few people can really master. The screenwriter must take the original story and filter it through a long list of considerations, such as:

  • Length and pacing.  An action sequence in a book might be 30 pages and only translate into 15 seconds of screen time.  But 30 pages consisting mostly of dialogue could easily translate into an hour of screen time, or more.
  • Details.  An elaborate description of a location in a book will usually translate into directions for set designers, prop masters, and other craftsmen who will be responsible for turning them into some sort of virtual movie reality.  However, as a general rule that says nothing about how much screen time results from the description in the story.  Maybe two characters walk through a room which is described in great detail in the book, but in the movie, the camera simply pans or zooms back to show the room while tracking the characters as they walk through.
  • Internal dialogue is always one of the biggest question marks.  The original book may have a lot of places which describe a character’s thoughts, but there’s no vocalization.  Sometimes these thoughts can be translated visually but not always.  Suppose a character walks into an ice cream store and has to decide which flavor to have?  The book may have a paragraph or two about the decision making process, but the movie is likely to have nothing more than the character looking back and forth between the different flavors for a moment before selecting one.Many of these moments are every bit as trivial to figure out as the example of the ice cream.  But many other times, such internal dialogue is critical to the story. It might reveal the reason why the story’s psycho serial killer likes only brown-haired girls between 5′ 4″ and 5’6″ who wear red shoes and eat Rocky Road ice cream on Tuesday evenings.  It might reveal how the grizzled veteran cop who is on the killer’s trail is driven by the loss of a partner years earlier.  The story may require these details to make sense, so the screenwriter has to figure out a way to take that internal dialogue and externalize it.  Sometimes we get a flashback. Sometimes we get a new scene with expositional dialogue.
  • Important detail versus non-important detail.  Books are often packed with lots of extra detail that help to draw the user into the story and the world the author is creating, but which do not ultimately affect the basic storyline.  Sometimes these extra details can be included in the movie with little effort, but sometimes they would require sets, props, actors, and other things that cost time and money.

Making Your Mark

Unfortunately, the creation of the screenplay is one of the main places where the translation fails.  Sometimes it’s because the screenwriter simply did not manage to succeed at the various tasks mentioned earlier, but at least as often as not, it’s because the screenwriter decided to put his own mark on the story.  This could be something like introducing new characters.

Sometimes, the process of simplifying a story for a screenplay involves the creation of composite characters that fulfill the role of multiple separate characters from the original book.  For example, you might have the same cops or CSI techs at different crime scenes in the screenplay while the book has a unique set of cops and techs each time.

Unfortunately, other times new characters are added because someone thought they could “improve” the original story. As in “the grizzled cop would seem more human and relatable if he had a love interest. Let’s add a couple of scenes where he flirts with the cute waitress at the diner where he and his partner have lunch.” or maybe “let’s add a plucky sidekick who can inject some humor”.

A Prime Example

The inspiration for this post was a movie I saw last night, Alex Cross, based on the book by James Patterson.  My first exposure to this author and this character was about 13-14 years ago when they made the movie Along Came A Spider based on Patterson’s first book with the Alex Cross character.  I enjoyed the movie a lot, and the follow-up Kiss The Girls as well.  Both were engaging and detailed, and when I later read the books I was pleased to discover that they had kept most of the original stories intact.  (Although there was a reasonable amount of needless “making your mark” as well.

I have not yet read the book this newest Alex Cross movie was based on, but when I rented the movie last night, I expected it to be in a similar vein to the previous Alex Cross movies.  Sure, having Tyler Perry in the lead role instead of Morgan Freeman would make a difference, but I was still expecting an interesting, detailed story with some depth.

No, not so much.

I can tell from reading the reviews of the book on Amazon that the movie took quite a few liberties with the original story.  I won’t list them here, but there are some major differences to both details and the overall plot. Ultimately, they turned a moderately cerebral crime story into a Bruce Willis-style yippee-ki-yay action movie.  The detailed psychological profiling that Alex Cross is known for gets reduced to his showing up at crime scenes, looking around, and then doing his own version of “here’s what I see” like the guy from TV’s Mentalist, except without the actual observation or interaction with witnesses or suspects you see on the TV show.

Taken just on its merits as an action movie, Alex Cross is so-so.  Matthew Fox was interesting as the bad guy, but his motivations were never made clear. I don’t really have any specific complaints about Tyler Perry, but I have to admit that it’s hard for me to separate his performance from my disappointment about how his character was changed around for the movie.  Bottom line is I liked Morgan Freeman’s version better. Ed Burns as Alex’s partner seemed kind of out of place here, but Rachel Nichols, from SyFi’s new TV show Continuum, was a pleasant surprise as another member of the team, if underused.

But while the movie was so-so taken stand-alone, anybody who reads James Patterson’s books wasn’t even given the chance of getting what they were expecting from this movie.  I know I didn’t.

Why Does Hollywood Keep Failing?

Sadly, the failure of Alex Cross to live up to the source material is more the rule than the exception.  Some movies turn out to be OK on their own, if you don’t compare them too closely to the original story but plenty aren’t especially good movies at all.

I blame ego. First, there are way too many people involved in the movie making process who confuse having money to bankroll things with being qualified to make creative decisions.  For every executive producer who is a Steven Spielberg, there’s another 10 who are just business guys without any real creative juices.  Second, even among those people who do have genuine talent and skill, they still sometimes suffer from the hubris of thinking they can improve on the original material when they should be concentrating foremost on translating it.

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