Posts Tagged ‘Amazon’


Publishing your virtual bookshelf online with Goodreads

Last month, I described how I created a virtual bookshelf, resulting in a digital database of my library's metadata. Once I had that local index, I wanted to find an elegant way to publish it online. The software I used offers a "Publish to FTP site" that produces an HTML listing, but it doesn't integrate with any CMS or social network that I use. I chose instead to investigate Web sites that specialize in this service and which offer social networking features that allow me to share my library with friends.

First I looked at LibraryThing, recommended to me by a librarian. Although its online tour presented a visually attractive interface, I eliminated LibraryThing as a potential contender almost immediately upon reading this caveat: "A free account allows you to catalog up to 200 books. A paid account allows you to catalog any number of books." Anyone with a sufficiently extensive collection that warrants indexing likely has more than 200 books. Since mine is in excess of 600, I chose not to join this community of 1.2 million readers.

By contrast, Shelfari is free and features a bookshelf that looks similar to the one on my computer. It's owned by Amazon.com and integrates with one's purchases there, which ostensibly is a benefit, but I actually don't prefer consolidation — Amazon.com is a store, not a social network, and I'd like to keep those needs distinct. Otherwise, I'd likely just use Amazon.com's own media library service.

One online service I did not investigate was aNobii. bookarmy, closed in December 2010, was also not a contender.

Ultimately, I chose Goodreads, which was founded in October 2006 (two months after Shelfari) and has 4.4 million members. Being one of the older and larger online book cataloging services, it seemed more likely to offer an extensive member and book database for me to exploit. Goodreads also provides a widget that I can easily embed into Wordbits.net to dynamically inform visitors what I'm currently reading.

Exporting my library out of my Mac software and into Goodreads was simple but required editing the CSV file's headers from the former's "Creator" to the latter's "Author" and the like. Even then, Goodreads did not acknowledge all metadata made available to it: importation of whether or not I owned a copy of the book, as well as when and where it was purchased, is not supported, even though that same metadata is included in an export out of Goodreads. I had to manually edit batches of my books to identify which I owned (ie, all of them). But since books can exist in my Goodreads collection without me actually owning them, Goodreads thus becomes practical as a list not just of my books, but of any books that I want to read or purchase, or books that I have read without having purchased (courtesy my local public library).

Goodreads has a couple other quirks. For example, it's not immediately obvious how to move a book among the mutually exclusive "To Read", "Currently Reading", and "Read" shelves. Simply removing it from its current shelf won't do; it must instead be added to one of the other two.

But that's a result of Goodreads being used not just for static metadata, like my local index, but also for dynamic content. I can mark when I started reading a book, how far I've progressed each day, when I finished, and what I thought of it when I was done. Each of these updates can be put into a newsfeed for your friends can see and comment on — though, despite its large audience, very few people I know are on the service, which limits its usefulness.

I don't know if I would find myself with more friends if Goodreads tried harder to be more like Facebook, but I'm glad it doesn't. In its discussion groups have been requests for half-star ratings and thumbs up/down on individual comments, both of which have been flatly denied. Neither of those features would encourage the sort of intelligent and literary discourse that will help me find and interpret books, and I'm glad to leave them to other social networks to implement. (That said, the Goodreads application for Facebook seems quite popular.)

I haven't yet found a ton of value in publishing my catalog to Goodreads, though once I start rating more of my books, it may help me find similar books to read — a problem I've never had, as indicated by the 132 entries on my "to-read" shelf! But as a social complement to my own inventory tracking software, I find Goodreads an effective and free service, and one I hope more of my friends will join me on.


Why authors don't self-publish

In an earlier blog post, I cursorily asked why more authors don't self-publish, using today's tools to eliminate a publishing house as a middleman. In the wake of a recent tiff between Amazon.com and Macmillan, two authors whose books were temporarily removed from the online retailer as a result of the dispute have answered my question, outlining the continuing need for publishers.

Sci-fi and fantasy author John Scalzi presented his argument in the format of "a deeply slanted play in three acts" that outlines all the resources a publisher brings to the table, answering an author's questions: "Won't I need an editor? Or a copy editor? Or a cover artist? Or a book designer? Or a publicist? Or someone to print the book and get it into stores?" Relieving a writer of these responsibilities frees him to focus on the book's content, from which all else proceeds. A publisher also brings to the table the funds necessary to hire these human resources, which an author might otherwise be left to search for on Craigslist.

Author Jay Lake echoes these sentiments when he asks:

I'm a writer. How is it worth my time to self-edit, do my own layouts and production management? … All my value add come from the auctorial process, the actual writing. That's where the unique product and brand identity come from. Not flowing words into columns and managing margins.

He also points out that the Internet is not a medium in which a single voice can be heard as loudly as a publisher's can: "Given how much distribution I'd lose [by self-publishing], I'd have to make a lot more per unit sold to offset the economic hit."

Can authors self-publish? Sure. But the number of development stages a manuscript passes through is not easily reproduced by a single person. Traditional print publishers may be undergoing either an extinction or an evolution, but their resources will continue to prove a necessity to establishing a successful product and readership on large scales.

(Hat tip to Dayton Ward)


Why would the Atlantic publish on the Kindle?

In a publishing discussion forum I participate in, a friend recently posted her concerns over a recent announcement regarding exclusive content for the Amazon Kindle:

An article in today's New York Times announced that the Atlantic will sell some short stories exclusively on Kindle… This concept bothers me for a couple of reasons. First, the Kindle seems to be the most restrictive of the e-readers… Second, selling a short story exclusively to the Kindle is essentially creating a work that only a privileged few can ever read.

She's right that the Kindle is more restrictive than other readers, but not by much. The only advantage Sony's e-reader has over it in format compatibility is in its support of ePub files, for example. Wikipedia has a handy chart that compares all the hardware's compatibilities.

As for why anyone would choose to make their content available on only the Kindle, check out this table of who owns the e-book market: a quarter of all e-book readers are Amazon Kindles. That's twenty-five times greater than the Sony eBook Reader, and many more times still than the unproven nook. If the Atlantic wants maximum exposure for their content, it makes sense to go with the market leader. (And it's possible Amazon offered them some strong incentives to provide this exclusive content — something e-publishing fledgling B&N couldn't afford while investing in launching their own product.)

However, though there's something to be said for getting in on the ground floor, I think it's too early to be pledging allegiances just yet. It was just last year that early adopters of the HD-DVD format found themselves orphaned in the face of Blu Ray's victory, as this comic strip recently reminded me, for example. How many of today's e-readers will soon be similarly unsupported? The Atlantic may see the potential in taking a risk with a particular product, but I'm more than happy to wait this one out, and then through my weight behind a sure thing.

If e-books were a technology that needed my support to survive — so many people skipped the Sega Dreamcast in favor of its eventual successor that there was never the sales to warrant a successor — then I would be less hesitant. But given the nook's overwhelming presales, I don't think electronic publishing's pioneers will suffer for my economical patience.


The present and future of e-readers

It's been an interesting last week for e-readers.

First, the Barnes & Noble Nook, due in stores November 30th, is enjoying such great demand that, unless you preordered one, your order will not be fulfilled until 2010. I expect demo units will still be available in retail outlets, as I doubt B&N would miss the opportunity to market to the 2009 holiday crowds, thus generating even more sales for 2010.

Then, as a response to growing competition, the Kindle got a firmware update that offers better battery life, PDF compatibility, and easier landscape orientation. However, just like Amazon's removal of 1984 from some readers' Kindles, this update was pushed automatically to users, leaving them to wonder: who's really in charge of their e-readers?

And, despite all these advances, here are eight reasons e-readers could fail:

  1. Price of devices
  2. Price of e-books
  3. Smartphones
  4. Apple's rumored tablet computer
  5. Popular authors aren't sure about e-books
  6. Digital rights
  7. Open publishing standards, or not?
  8. Librarians and small bookstores

In evidence of #5, last week I attended a book signing by fantasy author R.A. Salvatore. As we discussed the unknown future of the publishing industry, he offered his own anecdote: Vector Prime, his only Star Wars novel and the one that infamously killed Chewbacca, sold 145,000 copies in hardcover and 500,000 in paperback. The title's e-book sales to date? 147. There are no zeroes after that — Vector Prime has sold under two hundred digital copies.

Despite these experiences, I don't think it's likely e-books will fail. As the technology progresses to offer a more pleasant user experience, and prices drop to more affordable levels, we may see e-readers become as commonplace as Star Trek's PADDs. But, as with the rest of Gene Roddenberry's vision for the future, we're still a long ways off.


Issues with the international Kindle

I'm having trouble understanding the concerns raised by the international Kindle, as related in Publishers Weekly. I think that publishers are worried that the correct editions of their catalog will be available in the right territories, lest readers cross borders to buy books that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Is that correct? If so, didn't Apple address this issue six years ago with the iTunes Store, or Microsoft with the Xbox Live Arcade — both of which are available on an international basis? Customers need to supply contact and billing information to make a purchase, and the online stores use that data to determine which products to list. What am I missing?

Is the issue that digital rights are not currently being negotiated on a regional basis, in which case a digital edition currently available only in American markets will now be sold globally, competing with the print editions exclusive to other regions? How is that different from now? As an American, I'm pretty sure I can go to Amazon.co.uk and order a book; if so, then the opposite must be true, and a Brit can order an e-book from the USA store.

The PW article repeatedly reported that the e-tailer (never heard that word before, and can't say I care for it) "has worked with publishers" on this matter. A quotation from an affected or involved publisher might've helped give the article some perspective.