Book about the business end of self-publishing

Best-selling author Dean Wesley Smith is running a series of excerpts from the updated edition of his book “Think Like a Publisher”. He’s posting a chapter every few days, but if you don’t want to wait you can buy the Kindle edition here or the Nook and paper editions here.

There’s definitely a need for this; there are other books about writing ebooks (some of which I’ll be reviewing at a later time) but not so many about the business side of publishing — certainly not this up-to-date (basically, anything in this area that’s more than a year old is going to be hopelessly outdated). I just ordered the Kindle version myself, and am looking forward to reading the whole thing.

Tor goes DRM-free

This is good news. Several years late, and quite possibly too late, but good news nonetheless.

To be perfectly clear here, the guys at Tor per se (likely including Doherty) actually got this a long time ago. They’re science fiction guys, after all. :-)

I remember them running a pilot project very similar to Baen’s ebook model several years back (they may even have been running it on Baen’s infrastructure), until it got tromped on by someone higher up the corporate food chain (Tor is owned by Macmillan, which in turn is owned by Holtzbrinck).

I’m very likely preaching to the choir here, but DRM does nothing to prevent piracy. Zero. Zip. Nada. It is completely and utterly ineffective, and always will be. The only thing it does is inconvenience your paying customers.

Corporate types always seem to think there’s going to be some magic bullet that will prevent digital files from being copied, but as Bruce Schneier once put it, trying to make digital files uncopyable is like trying to make water not wet.

As far as I know, every widely-deployed DRM scheme for ebooks has been cracked (no, I’m not linking to any of them, and no, I won’t tell you how to do it). New schemes are typically cracked within days. Remember, the pirate only has to crack the protection scheme once to produce a file that’s completely restriction-free.

This reminds me of numerous conversations I’ve had over the years about disabling right-click on web pages (usually instigated by someone who’s worried about his or her images being stolen, or by educators who are worried about students copying and pasting test information). It can’t be done. Sorry, it just can’t. Yes, you can crap up your page with JavaScript and annoy everyone who uses the right-click context menu for other things, but you can’t stop someone from disabling your script (on the most basic level, just turning off JavaScript will often work — if the page otherwise requires JavaScript, tools like Greasemonkey let the user inject their own JavaScript into the page, which of course makes it trivial to disable yours).

Abulafia is live in the Mac App store!

The process was interesting in its own right, and perhaps I’ll discuss that at a later time (after careful examination to make sure that I’m not violating Apple’s developer agreement — certain things are considered proprietary), but it’s in!

Get it here.

More info here.

Abulafia generates ebooks that are compatible with all major ebook readers, including the Amazon Kindle (with the addition of a free tool from Amazon), the Barnes & Noble Nook, and Apple’s iBooks.

It includes a basic WYSIWYG editor, or the writer can use an external editor or word processor of his or her choice and simply paste the text into Abulafia for formatting and building the ebook.

It uses standard HTML for its working files — no format lock-in.

Disintermediating Amazon. Fast.

Everyone has an opinion about the DOJ v. Apple/Big Six case (or Big Five, I guess, since Random House wasn’t involved in the alleged collusion). I’ve got my own opinion on the merits of the case, of course, but I’m not going to discuss that in this post. Instead, I’m going to address some common misconceptions: first, that publishers find it difficult or impossible to get their books on the Kindle without paying Amazon (as expressed by Bruce in the comment thread on this post by John Scalzi) and second, that setting up your own ebook publishing workflow requires scads of time and money (as expressed by Charlie Stross here). Now, Charlie Stross is a smart, technically sophisticated guy, but he’s way off base when he claims (in the comments) that “if I had to run my own self-publishing op I’d lose half my writing time”.

Starting at 5:39 PM CST, I created a cover image, formatted and compiled an ebook using Abulafia (shameless plug, deal with it), created a video explaining how to set up your Kindle to receive third-party books by email, and wrote a rudimentary book-to-Kindle distribution mechanism (actually, there was very little original code involved — all it really has to do is send the book file as an email attachment, and people have already written that code plenty of times :-)). If you want to try it, watch the video, then set up your Kindle to allow mail from books@contraterrene.com.

In a (probably vain) attempt to forestall nitpicking:

  1. No, I didn’t write the book in that time. It’s actually just a short story; Poe’s Masque of the Red Death — but I could just as easily have copied and pasted his complete works. The writing time is irrelevant to this discussion anyway (you’ll have to write the book no matter how it’s distributed, yes?).
  2. The cover image could use some work, certainly. It’s a modification of an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, taken from a 19th century edition of the piece (it may be moderately NSFW, depending on where you W). If I were going to put this up for sale, I’d either spend more time on the cover or hire an artist. Maybe one of these folks.
  3. It wouldn’t take much volume to bring this little server to its knees. A production server farm for the likes of the Big Six would need to be much more robust, no question about it (and I’d definitely spend more than 15 minutes on the code :-)). But, you know, you can spin up as many servers as you want nowadays — within minutes. Hundreds of servers. Thousands of servers. If you don’t want to screw around with maintaining your own, there are companies (including Amazon itself) that will rent you as many commodity servers as you want, by the hour.
  4. I don’t have a payment mechanism set up but that’s also a solved problem. These guys, or these guys, or even these guys (if you must). Hundreds of others.
  5. Yes, Amazon could shut down the Kindle’s email facilities (or start blocking email from competitors they don’t like), but that would very likely result in the DOJ descending on them. If that happens, getting a third-party book on the Kindle would require the awesomely complex process of plugging it in to your computer, waiting for it to show up as a USB drive, then copying the files (or you could use this — another shameless plug).

It is now 11:08 PM, and I spent 25 minutes of that time talking to my aunt Joyce on the phone about issues unrelated to this project — so about 5 hours total to go from raw text to an ebook that’s available to every Kindle owner on the planet at the click of a button. Not bad.

Remember, that’s the total time to format the book, create the cover image, compile the book, set up the server for distribution, create the tutorial video, and write this blog post.

And I’m just, like, a guy, you know. If I can do this why can’t the Big Six do the same? Claiming that they’re “unable to compete with Amazon” is sheer unadulterated nonsense. Sorry, it just is.

I should note here that forward-thinking publishers such as Baen and Pragmatic Programmers have been doing exactly this for quite some time. I didn’t invent this process. I have probably a couple of dozen books from those publishers on my Kindles right now — none of which were purchased through Amazon.

Update: April 22, 2012

In case it’s not perfectly clear: I’m not planning to go into competition with Amazon myself (certainly not with this server :-)) — this is just an illustration of how easy it would be. If I can do this in 5 hours, imagine what someone with Rupert Murdoch’s budget could do.

The story choice was not a coincidence. The publishing industry is behaving in much the same way as the characters in the story.

This only addresses ebooks. Amazon, of course, also has a colossal (and massively efficient) infrastructure for delivering physical goods. Now that is an area where it would be very hard to compete with them. Digital goods are another story entirely.

With respect to Amazon “not paying taxes”: Amazon charges sales tax and pays their own taxes in every state where they have a physical presence, and doesn’t in states where they don’t, just like every other mail-order company since, well, always. The same is true of every other retailer from Apple and Barnes & Noble all the way down to the indie bookstore on the corner, which doesn’t collect sales tax on mail orders to other states. This is one of the consequences of a federal form of government. In general, you’re not obliged to abide by the laws of a state unless you’re physically present in that state. Changing that would likely require a constitutional amendment. If you think that’s a good idea, it might be worth considering how you’d feel about being required to abide by all the laws of (insert least-favorite state). That doesn’t sound quite as appealing, does it? :-)

Sideloading books on your Kindle

I’ve been intending to do this for a while, and finally got the requisite tuit of circular shape this morning. While sideloading non-Amazon books on your Kindle isn’t immensely challenging (at least not if they’re already in Amazon’s mobi/azw format — if they’re not, Calibre is your friend), it’s a bit of a hassle to plug in the Kindle, open a Finder window, navigate to the proper folder on the Kindle, find your book file again, copy it over….

This morning I wrote a droplet to streamline the process a bit. This thingie sits on your desktop (or any other folder of your choice) and takes care of copying files to the proper location on your Kindle.

To use it, just plug in your Kindle (and turn it on/activate it, if you have a Kindle Fire), then drag and drop your mobi files on top of the BookLoader icon. Once the files have been copied you can eject the Kindle’s “disk” and enjoy (the Finder won’t let you eject the disk until the files have finished copying, but this takes only a few seconds).

The droplet is here. The source code (such as it is… this wasn’t exactly a major undertaking :-)) is here. Code by me, the icon is a modification of an image by Michał Rzeszutek / bocian, and released by him into the public domain. MIT license: do with it as you will.

Tested with my eInk Kindle and my Kindle Fire. Let me know if it doesn’t work on your model.

This is only marginally related, but often puzzles Kindle Fire owners: the mobi format specifies two possible tags, EBOK (for books) and PDOC (for other documents). Until recently most ebook readers (including Kindle) ignored this tag completely, and many ebooks (including those from major publishers) did not include the tag. The Kindle Fire, by contrast, does pay attention to the tag, and assumes that the item is a “doc” rather than a “book” if the tag is not present. If your sideloaded books don’t show up under Books on the Kindle Fire, check under Docs.

If this bothers you, you can use Calibre (above) to add the proper EBOK tag. Personally, I don’t care if they’re under Books or Docs as long as I can find them.