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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May 5th, 2013 by Mike Fulton

As a general rule, it seems to be the case that publishers have done a relatively poor job of making older catalog titles available in eBook format. Go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble or your other favorite eBook seller and look up some book you remember from 20 years ago.  More likely than not, it’s not available as an eBook unless it’s from a fairly successful author.

Even books that spent time at the top of the bestseller’s lists are often not available.  One great example is the Belgariad/Mallorean fantasy series from David Eddings. A total of twelve books, most of which spent several weeks at or near the top of the bestseller’s lists when they were originally released.  And yet, none of them are available here in the USA as an eBook.  In fact, of Eddings’ twenty-five novels, only seven are available in eBook format here.

In the case of David Eddings, I suspect that there is some issue regarding royalty negotiations with the estate that is the main problem, because some of his books are available in other countries but not here.  However, aside from situations like that, I think the biggest factor is that mass-market eBooks are still a relatively new thing.  It’s still a young market. To whatever degree eBooks existed before Amazon released the first Kindle in late 2007, they were a niche product used mainly by hardcore computer users. For comparison, if you look at the situation with older music catalog releases on CompactDisc 5-6 years after that formats was first introduced, I suspect you would see a similar situation with the availability of older titles.

But “young market” is not a good excuse, for many reasons.  The first reason is that the publishers should know better.  If you look at the availability of older titles on DVD, you’d see that they were released earlier and more quickly than had happened with music on CD. In fact, this helped make DVD one the fastest growing media formats ever.

Why did they release older titles more quickly?  The DVD format was created and introduced in the mid-90’s, about the same time that significant numbers of people started buying music on the Internet.  Tracking sales statistics for online purchases was much easier and more accurate than for brick-and-mortor stores, and it soon became apparent that the sale of older catalog titles, overall, was a much bigger part of the market than had been previously realized. This fact did not escape the notice of the movie studios. While new releases still got the most attention, they also made an effort to make older titles available more quickly as well.

Another reason why the “young market” argument isn’t a good excuse is that, unlike the process of bringing older music titles to CD or older movies to DVD, there’s no potentially expensive restoration or remastering process required.  With music and DVD, the process of bringing out an older title can require a significant investment of time and money. With music, taking an older set of analog master tapes and making a decent digital master could take a serious amount of work. With movies, even more so.  It’s not unusual for it to cost a quarter million dollars to restore a movie for a DVD release.

With books, and we’re talking basic mass-market fiction with minimal illustrations, there’s no such expensive and/or arduous process involved. Even if the text isn’t already available in digital form, it takes no more than a few hours of work to scan and proofread.  Once the text is in digital form, it takes just a few hours of work, at most, to create an eBook.

How Much Should It Cost?

Above all else, any eBook edition should never be any more expensive than the cheapest paper-based edition.

If the book is available as a mass-market paperback, and is still “in-print” (an increasingly archaic concept) and reasonably easy to find on the shelves at bookstores, then I think the same price as the mass-market paperback is reasonable. Although I’m not complaining if it happens to be cheaper.

I am not at all a fan of the idea that an eBook should cost more because there’s a trade paperback or collector’s edition hardcover edition.  I’ve seen prices go up on books that have been available for years because of this sort of foolishness.  It’s especially stupid when there’s a new CE hardcover, because the markets don’t really overlap much. If I were to buy a new hardcover edition of Dune for myself or as a gift, it doesn’t really affect my decision to buy the eBook version, or vice versa.

If the book is no longer easy to find on the shelves, then my thought is that it should be somewhat cheaper than a current mass-market title.  I think pricing it the same as a current title is foolish because you’re just driving away a lot of people that would otherwise make a purchase.

Once upon a time, with paper-based books, it made sense that older titles which were no longer selling very well would be eventually taken down off the shelves at the bookstore. After all, shelf space is a limited commodity and you want it used for books that are going to sell, not just sit there. Anything on those store shelves has to generate a certain level of income or be replaced by something that will.

It’s a long-standing idea of retail that if you’ve got a warehouse full of stock that is no longer really moving at the original price, you knock the price down. And knock it down again, and again until it’s in the bargain bin. The money required to create the product has already been spent, and every day it sits on store shelves or in the warehouse is costing you more.  At some point, you stop worrying about how much it cost to manufacture and start worrying about being able to recover any money from it at all. If you end up selling it at at 10% of the original price, you’re probably still better off than just letting it sit.

With eBooks, “warehouse space” is virtually infinite and virtually free, so it’s probably easy to decide that if it doesn’t cost you anything to store the product, there’s no compelling reason to drop the price until sales pick up. Just leave the price where it is and sales will still trickle in. As long as the publisher isn’t losing any money, what’s the problem?

The problem with looking at it that way is that it means there’s not a lot of incentive to spend any time or effort on older titles that you’re not convinced will sell very well. Even if the break-even point is really, really low.

Lower prices on older catalog titles would provide incentive to buyers to try out authors and genres they’ve never read before. Why wouldn’t you want a fantasy reader to decide it’s time to check out James Patterson’s Alex Cross mystery series because they can get some of the older books for $3.99 instead of $7.99?  I guarantee you will sell a lot more copies of Along Came A Spider at the lower price, and maybe you also create a new James Patterson fan in the process.

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