29 April 2010
One way writers can get an audience is by publishing online, but the challenge for many writers is that people rarely go searching for the kinds of things they write. How often have you sat down and typed keywords into Google and trawled through pages of results to try to find a new novelist to read? Never.
People discover a lot of the content they view online virally through sites like Facebook and Twitter now. Facebook has launched new features which enable any website to put a 'Like' button there. That means that when people do discover your website, they can click the Like button and it will be added to their Facebook profile, where their friends can see it. Facebook says that the story is also shared with their friends, but I haven't been able to confirm that works. If it does, it is a powerful way to ignite word of mouth.
You can get started by just pasting a short snippet of code into your blog template. There is documentation for all the Facebook site plug-ins here. There is a Facebook Like button generator here that you can use to create customised code for your site.
The default version leaves a large gap underneath the text (presumably for photos of people who liked it), so here's a simple customised version I've created which doesn't:
You can copy and paste this into your own website. You need to change the website address from EXAMPLE.COM to your own website. To get rid of the border replace '1px solid black' with 'none' (without quotes). You can try changing the other parameters, but if you want to do that, I suggest you just use Facebook's Like button generator unless you understand HTML.
This is what it looks like:
Feel free to try that out and tell your friends how much you like my website ;-).
The data can be a powerful tool for writers. You can incorporate an activity feed for your site into it, so you can direct readers to the stories that the Facebook community is buzzing about now. You can also provide Facebook recommendations, which will direct readers towards those pages their friends liked most and then direct them towards the content most popular with all Facebook members. Both of these features are as easy to incorporate as the Like button.
You can use Facebook Insights to get 'detailed analytics about the demographics of your users and how users are sharing from your application'. It includes a graph showing how often the site has been shared, and a breakdown of who is sharing it by gender, age group and country. That kind of information is hard to obtain using conventional analytics, so there is potential to learn a lot more about your online audience by integrating your website with Facebook. The registration is simple and the stats are easy to understand. (I've written an in-depth primer on web analytics if you're interested in learning more about that).
To familiarise myself with the tools, I've added them to Wild Mood Swings for now and will look at how they might work well on this site once I've seen how people use (or don't use) the plug-in on Wild Mood Swings.
If you're interested in learning more about Facebook from the member's point of view, see my book 'Social Networking for the Older and Wiser', which dedicates a chapter to the site.
22 April 2010
The Guinness Book of Records used the London Book Fair to launch its new iPad app. It's a lite app, with a handful of records in eight different categories and was discussed as being a way to test the market and gauge the response to it.
The user experience is great. You drag two fingers across the screen to move to different sections. The animation is much more sophisticated than a simple page turn: the different elements of the design scroll into view at different speeds with objects closer to the horizon moving more slowly (parallax scrolling, to use the technical term). This creates a nice feeling of depth in the user interface. The menu options are well labelled, so there's no confusion about where to tap. The screen feels roughly A4 sized and the resolution is good, so the illustration can include striking photographs.
When you drill down to the content, there's a mixture of text, video, photos and audio (depending on the record you're viewing).
The device itself feels lightweight and comfortable, although I'm not sure how I would hold it if I really wanted to have a book-like experience with it. A laptop is hinged so the screen can be propped up at the right angle, and a paperback book feels easier to hold in one hand at the right angle. I only had a few minutes to play with it, though. And it's worth saying that the print book of the Guinness Book of Records is too big to hold comfortably for too long anyway. It's not the kind of book you'd take on the tube.
For the launch, the Guinness stand was attended by record holders including the world's tallest married couple and new record breaker Ben Lee who played Flight of the Bumblebee on the violin, showing the skill that helped him shave a second off the world record earlier this month. For many people, though, the real star of the show was the iPad. I wonder whether Guinness will be able to repeat its print sales record in this new digital format?
The seminar on writing for teenagers at this week's London Book Fair was so packed there were people sitting on the floor. This was despite the level of exhibition visitors apparently being lower because of the flight ban (about 10-15% of the stands were empty too).
Barry Cunningham, founder of Chickenhouse publishers which is now part of Scholastic, had some good advice for writers: he said it was important that teenage fiction was told from the teenage experience, and wasn't viewed from an adult experience. He cautioned against writing adult books in disguise ("in animal suits"). There's a difference between books for teenagers and books that have teenagers in them. "It's an important definition," he said. "If we get it wrong, we might as well say all books are for everybody."
The lines are becoming increasingly blurred at a time when Cunningham says booksellers have moved teenage books from the children's section into the adult section, and we've seen so many crossover books which are read by both teenagers and adults (starting with Harry Potter, but also including the Golden Compass among others).
Sophia Bennett, author of the Chickenhouse novel Threads, said that she wrote her book for herself as an 11 year old, but had her own daughters (aged 11 and 13) in mind too. She believes her title is more for 14 year olds, but gets most fan mail from 10-12 year olds who are reading ahead of their age group. She said she has been inspired as much by movies and the internet as literature, and writes short, snappy chapters for "people with attention spans as short as mine".
There was some discussion about the degree to which the authors self-censor their work. Rachel Ward, author of Numbers which was shortlisted for the Waterstones prize in 2009, said that she didn't censor and her book includes bad language, sex, and drugs. The first draft had over 100 F--- words, but during the editing process she took advice on what would be acceptable to teachers, parents and librarians. The swearing was taken down to about 20 occurences, but she says reviewers still say it's in every paragraph. "In real life, the characters would use bad language," she said. Although she described the book as a "neutered version", she also said she was "very comfortable with anything that will get [her] published". For the sequel, she was more self-conscious about who would read the book, and after receiving emails from readers realised that many of them were 12 and not 14. The bad language is still there, but not as strong.
Bennett said that she created a problem for herself in the way her series was structured. In each book, the characters age by two years but the readers are not growing up so quickly. She tried using words like "Drat!" but it seemed too artificial. She found that it took two paragraphs to replace expressions like that without using swearwords, but she said that afterwards she couldn't tell where the edit was, and it felt like she was cheating when she was relying on bursts of dialogue. She also said that booksellers she's spoken to were particularly concerned about sex in teenage books because they want to be able to recommend them to younger girls.
One key idea to emerge in the session was the importance of following your own muse. Bennett warned that if you think about it too much and try to study the market, you'll be two years behind everyone else because that's where the market is today. "Write from the heart," she said.
15 April 2010
Ebooks represent an opportunity for publishers to sell direct to customers, and to bypass the traditional sales channels. There are many reasons they might want to do this: it enables them to build a direct relationship with readers so they can better understand their needs, and it enables the publisher to make a bigger margin on the sale. It creates a massive challenge, though, which is often underestimated: customer service.
I've mentioned the Retro Gamer app a few times on this blog recently. It's an iPhone/iPod app that enables you to read issues of the magazine, which covers computer games from the 80s (or 'retro games'). I used to write games for the Amstrad CPC, so I like to dip into this magazine and the app version is cheaper and more portable than the print mag. The app features a catalogue of all the available issues, and you can use an in-app payment to buy one you want, which then downloads.
When I bought the latest issue, it failed to download correctly. Towards the back of the mag, there are about 10-15 pages that say 'downloading' on them, but which never download. There's no option to reset the download in the app, so the only solution is to file a support enquiry.
This is where the process breaks down: the print magazine has outsourced the whole operation to PixelMags, the company that makes the app. PixelMags says it responds to enquiries by the end of the next business day. But it doesn't: I've sent two enquiries (last Friday and Monday) and had no response to either of them.
As publishers move from print to digital, they need to reorientate their business around customers. Print books rarely have support issues. It's possible a book might be misprinted or wrongly bound, but I can't remember ever returning a book. In that event, the retailer, which has extensive customer service experience, would manage the replacement. In the print world, publishers can basically be creative manufacturers, shipping out crates of books and not worrying too much about end customer service. (They do have retailers as customers, but their needs are very different to readers').
Standardised formats and ebook channels (such as Apple's iBook store and the Kindle store) will help publishers revert to retail-led customer service. But when publishers want to be more innovative and sell iPhone apps or PDFs from their website, they have to make sure they can cope when things go wrong. The content delivery can be automated, but the customer satisfaction cannot. The promise of ebooks is immediate delivery, so customers expect prompt and helpful service.
Because this is an emerging technology, the publisher has more at stake than the reader does. In my case, I'm writing off a £3 purchase of an app, but the publisher is losing annual sales from me of about £30, because I'm unlikely to purchase again.
(Download a free chapter from The Customer Service Pocketbook).
UPDATE: I filed a support request with Apple, and Apple has promptly issued a refund and said it will investigate the issue. So in this case, the retailer was still able to offer an excellent service as support provider of last resort, even though it couldn't fix the downloading issue. As a result, I can continue to have faith in buying apps, although I probably won't buy any more issues from the magazine app.
11 April 2010
The London Book Fair takes place 19-21 April, with a programme of paid seminars starting next weekend on subjects including digital transformation, how to get published and writing for screen. Throughout the week, there is a comprehensive programme of events, including frequent sessions on assessing your manuscript, self publishing and book promotion. On Monday there is a session on the Google Books Settlement, which could be of particular interest to authors. These events are included in the entry price.
The authors of the day will be Hilary Mantel (Monday), Andre Brink (Tuesday) and Eoin Colfer (Wednesday). They will take part in Q&A sessions, seminars and book signings.
This year there will be an area dedicated to comic books and graphic novels for the first time. The fair's website says they have "finally emerged as a serious part of the publishing industry", but we're still a long way behind France where graphic novels are a part of the mainstream culture. They do present an interesting opportunity to expand the market, particularly to younger people, at a time when book retailers have been struggling.
The Digital Zone and theatre will be back again this year. Last year, there were a lot of people selling technology to package ebooks. It will be interesting to see how much that has changed in the intervening year, in particular whether there are any companies developing apps for the iPhone or iPad. The sponsor for this zone is the Sony Reader, and there are no obvious Apple-related companies in the exhibitor guide. There is a comprehensive programme of talks dedicated to ebook publishing, covering technical, business and legal issues.
The market focus this year is on South Africa, and there is an impressive number of exhibitors (about fifty) in this area. If you're looking to break into the South African market, there is bound to be helpful advice there.
Outside the themed areas, the exhibition can be a bit hard to navigate. To help find your way around the exhibition floor, there is an interactive guide creator on the London Book Fair website. You tick the boxes for the product classes you're interested in, and it will generate a map and exhibitor listing showing only the companies you'll be interested in. If you have fairly narrow interests, this can be a valuable planning tool.
Tickets are cheaper if you register in advance, and you'll be able to get into the show more quickly on the day too. Members of the Society of Authors have a special discount. Details are in the latest issue of The Author.
09 April 2010
There's an interesting discussion taking place on the forum for Retro Gamer magazine at the moment. As I said in my recent post about how ebooks are changing writing, Retro Gamer has created an iPhone/iPod app for buying and reading the magazine.
Retro Gamer has many fans who are committed, or perhaps should be (as the old joke goes). They collect every issue of the mag, and now there's an iPhone app, those with iPhones will collect that too. What's interesting, though, is that several people are saying that subscribers to the print mag should get the digital version for free or for a reduction.
Editor Darran Jones said: "Why should you be given it for free? After all you don't see people saying. I've already got Die Hard on DVD, why should I have to buy the Blu-Ray version? I'm sure that some sort of deal will eventually come along that will give subscribers a better discount over those who are buying it fresh, but it doesn't normally make good business sense to give away something for nothing. After all, you're not being forced to buy it, it's just there as an option."
Reader Opa-Opa (not his/her real name) said: "The thing with your DVD/Bluray argument is that you would be paying for the media and packaging, which will cost the production company a certain amount of money to get produced and shipped etc but with the digital version of any magazine (not just RG, I'm not having a pop at you guys) the magazine is already made, it's already put together and it costs next to nothing to make all the time the paper version is being made. Do you get paid twice because you are now making two different magazines, one paper and one digital.. Because we have to pay twice if we want a digital copy..?"
There seems to be a perception that there are no costs in creating ebooks, which is not true. Even when the print version has been created, it takes time to generate the digital version, upload it to the app system and to test it. There are often significant setup costs too. I contacted PixelMags (who created the Retro Gamer app) to ask about their pricing a month ago for an article I was writing but I haven't heard back. Typical prices for creating a corporate app might be £20,000, although it's possible to do it much more cheaply and to do it on a revenue share basis. If it did cost £20,000, then it would take over 9,500 sales at £3 per copy to break even on that cost. (Apple takes 30%, and Imagine Publishing can probably amortise some of this cost across all its titles).
What about the other costs? Well, let's estimate that it takes about a day of somebody's time to look after each issue (including generating, uploading, and customer service) and that the cost of that (including office rental, furniture, employer taxes etc) is about £500. In that case, Retro Gamer needs to sell over 235 copies to break even on the cost of any one issue.
It's easy to question the figures. We could say that the cost of the staff time is half that, or equally argue that it takes twice as long. But it does demonstrate that however you slice it, digital content isn't free.
I have no idea how many copies they are selling. But Retro Gamer is a highly specialist magazine which had a print circulation of 5,000-7,000 last time I heard a rumour about it a couple of years ago. There are lots of people with iPhones and iPods, but how many of them are in the target market? It's clear that Retro Gamer has taken something of a gamble here, and won't make any profit until a significant proportion of its potential buyers have bought an issue. Only then does it start to make the profit which rewards its risk.
(It is possible it's doing it all on a revenue share basis and that PixelMags is absorbing the setup costs. But in that event, the costs are still in the system, and it's still not viable to give the content away for free).
02 April 2010
If you're out and about taking photos this long weekend, don't forget to change the time on your camera. Last weekend, the clocks went forward, and some devices will have recognised this automatically. The internal clock on your camera probably hasn't updated itself, though.
It's worth keeping an eye on the camera time when you travel abroad too: I have lots of photos taken in America which have a UK timestamp on them. When the PC downloads these pictures, it divides them into folders by day. But midnight in the UK falls in the early evening in the US, so a single photo shoot in one location can end up split across different folders on my PC. That makes it harder to find pictures later on.
I recommend that writers learn to take good photographs. It helps to sell stories if you have some images to go with them, and it is in itself a rewarding creative pursuit. It's also a useful research tool. If you want your pics to be published, though, don't let the camera stamp the time and date in the picture itself. It's in the file metadata, so you don't need it to be on the visible part of the image. You can get some fantastic professional-quality results with affordable digital cameras today, but a picture with a timestamp in the corner will always look like a cheap holiday snap.
* With thanks to my friend Mark for suggesting the idea for this blog post