Sunday, January 24, 2016

Reading aloud — Is Alexa a better reader than the Kindle?

I love my new Kindle Voyage! It's very like the Paperwhite, except screen resolution is a tad better, and it has two spots in the bezel that you can depress to page forward and page backward, if you prefer that to swiping or tapping the screen (actually four spots, two each on the left and right sides, so it works whether you're left or right-handed).  But like the Paperwhite and unlike earlier Kindles, one limitation of the Voyage is that it cannot read aloud to you. I blogged about this when I was thinking about getting a Paperwhite, because I liked to use the read aloud feature for proofing manuscripts.

I assumed that Amazon killed this feature in the newer Kindles because their data showed that not many people were using it. Certainly, other e-ink readers never bothered with it.  Now, however, Amazon had enhanced their voice-activated personal assistant Echo, so that it can read your Kindle books to you.

If Alexa (the voice of the Echo) has the same limitations as the Kindle robot voice, this feature may not be that big a deal. The Kindle voice was not great at pausing in certain situations, like between paragraphs of dialog if the first one ended with a question mark. Also there was the problem of homographs. The robot voice could not tell from the context whether the word "bow" was pronounced with a long o, as in "bow and arrow," or a short o as in "take a bow."

Possibly, newer, more sophisticated programming has improved both pacing and assessing meaning from context. Or possibly not, depending on how much research and effort Amazon put into this. The reviews I have seen don't mention either problem, so it's possible it's much better. I don't know anyone who has an Echo, but if you do, please post a comment with any insight you might have. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

A mystery about a mystery: How can two books have the same set of reviews?

I am quite fond of murder mysteries, especially British ones. One of my favorite authors is Dorothy L. Sayers, author of a series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, the younger son of a duke, and an amateur detective. I've read all of them, some of them many times,  When we renovated our house, I donated 18 cartons of books, including all my Sayers copies to the local thrift shop. However, when Open Road Media started reissuing them as ebooks, I bought some of them, so I could reread them when I felt like it. I loved what a fantastic job OR did on them. I even wrote a post about it.

Now, however, someone else is publishing Dorthy L Sayers (presumably, it's out of copyright) and they are no Open Road. You can tell it's a different version because it not only has a different cover, it has a different ASIN (Amazon's unique stock number). The Open Road cover is shown above.

I got an email promotion for Clouds of Witness for only 99¢ (ASIN = B00LDSUTMC). There was no warning on the Amazon page saying "You bought this book on [date]" so I didn't realize I already had the Open Road version (ASIN = B008JVJKXK). I bought the 99¢ version and it was terrible. I have never seen an ebook with so damn many errors!  Most obviously, there were 25 instances of [garbled] and 26 of [missing] they had not bothered to clean up.

They looks like this:

“[Garbled] least--not [garbled] see him. But there was poor Denis's body,

“My lords, it is your happy privilege [missing] his grace the Duke of Denver these [missing] of his exalted rank. When the clerk [missing] address to you severally the solemn [missing] find Gerald, Duke of Denver, [missing] guilty or not guilty of the dreadful [missing] every one of you may, with a confidence [missing] any shadow of doubt, lay his hand and say, 'Not guilty, upon my honour.'“

There were also plenty of plain old typos:

“What did you say you found on that skin Bunter?” (this should say "skirt," not skin)
. . .and bunked Silly-ass thing to do . . . * (missing the period at the end of the sentence)
“The position of the fingers being towards the house appears, does it not, to negative the suggestion of dragging?” (should be "negate")

But because it turns out Amazon lumps the various editions together, there is one set of reviews. You see the same reviews for the Open Road version, the crappy, cheapo version, and the print version. People are giving the book one star because this version looks so bad!

 I didn't write a review, but I did email Amazon and ask for my money back. It had been more than the 7-day limit, but they credited me anyway. I wish they would make the seller take down the new version.  Formatting that could make me feel cheated after paying 99¢ is truly terrible formatting.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Print versus ebooks: it's still a debate

You might think that more than eight years after the Kindle launched*, the debate over print books versus ebooks would be settled, but it looks like it's not. CBS News recently weighed in with a post titled Books vs. e-books: The science behind the best way to read.

It gets some things right: it mentions that studies of e-reading interrupting sleep are about LCD screens, and that dedicated ereaders have non-light-emitting screens (although it never calls them e-ink screens). It talks about the advantages that controlling the appearance of the text can give to people with reading disabilities.  There's even link to a website where readers can try out that kind of feature to see if it helps.

Things the post gets wrong: The title implies one best way to read, and there isn't one! It also calls print books just "books." That's like saying "Cars vs. Electric Cars: Which Is Better?" They're all books! Way back when the codex replaced the scroll, it was just a new format for the same thing.

This post also sites a specific Australian study of students to make the claim that "avid readers also tend to prefer reading on paper." I find this bogus! I think if you made a point to include people who own dedicated e-ink ereaders, you would find they are some of the most voracious readers out there.  Furthermore, Australia doesn't have as mature an ereader market as the US.

* I know the Kindle was not the first ereader--not even the first e-ink ereader--but it was what launched the digital transition. The pre-Kindle market for ebooks was minuscule.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

How is Saronna's Gift like the latest Mad Max?

I seem to be posting about movies lately. But this writer's post about Mad Max: Fury Road rang a bell with me.

The plot of the movie illustrates that an absolute matriarchy, where all men are seen as evil, can be just as toxic to humanity as an absolute patriarchy. And in Saronna's Gift, that is, in fact, the way Krueger's World is portrayed. I won't go into details, because that would spoil the unfolding of the plot, but the religiously-based colony on Kruger's World has both an absolute patriarchy and a hidden matriarchy. Neither is kind to its adherents.

There is a human tendency to  want to punish oppression with oppression—to oppress those who oppress you—but it's not a humane response. Nor is it healthy, because the act of oppressing someone else makes you less human as well as less humane.

The world is grim enough as it is. We all need to be kind to each other.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

How hard can it be to give away a book?

Harder than you might think. I have been selling my books as ebooks since 2011. I have seven novels and one novella available as ebooks, and one of the novels is also available in print. I have yet to set the book world on fire. Some years were better than others. My best year for sales was in 2013 because that was the year I got a BookBub promotion.

Unlike print, selling ebooks happens entirely online, and some of the best ways to promote ebooks are also online. Several companies offer websites, social media posts, and/or email alerts to tell people about free or cheap books. The services are free to subscribers but usually, authors have to pay a fee to include their books.

Not how but why?

So, why would an author make a book free, let alone pay to advertise that its free? Well, for one thing, you can get reviews that way, and reviews sell books. But even better, if the book has at least one sequel, giving the first book away can make sense. The Sixth Discipline has been free for quite some time, but its number of downloads has been going down lately because it has so much competition.

In May of 2013,  paid $60 to include the listing for The Sixth Discipline in a Bookbub email. They included the links for the US Kindle storeBarnes & Noble Nook, Apple, Kobo, Smashwords, Sony, and Diesel. I got the Kindle numbers right away, but since the other numbers all came through Smashwords, it took a lot longer to find out, but altogether I gave away about 20,000 copies of my book: about 14,000 Kindle copies and the rest split among the other platforms.

Bookbub promotions now start at $99 for books that are free, and go way up from there, depending on the price of the book and the genre. But price aside, the problem with using Bookbub now is that it's very difficult to get  a slot.

Bookbub is the premiere email promotion service and it's going great guns because they figured out that:

  • New ebooks from major publishers are overpriced, so people are always looking for deals
  • They can make money as an Amazon affiliate (if a customer clicks on a link to a non-free book from a Bookbub email, the link has a code embedded that tells Amazon to credit Bookbub a teeny-tiny percentage of that sale. Teeny-tiny adds up when multiplied by thousands.)
  • Readers will use their service if it's free and they make sure the books they're telling readers about are well-written
  • If you deliver high enough numbers, authors and even major publishers will pay a lot for your service

Of course, giving away 20,000 copies of a book doesn't do me a lot of good, except it's Book 1 of a two-book series.  In the months that followed the promotion, I sold about 1,200 copies of the sequel No Safe Haven. This points out one huge limitation of giving away a book. Not everyone who downloads it will read it. A lot of people see "Free" and click the button, but don't read the book. I've done it plenty of times myself, so I know. You figure "Get it now, while it's free, and read it later," but later might never come. Unlike books available through a subscription program that limits how many books you can have at a time, free downloaded ebooks have no expiration date. In fact, plenty of people download books without checking whether or not they would want to read it.

FreeBooksy Listing

And while The Sixth Discipline has mainly very good reviews, not every single person who reads it will want to read the sequel. This means for every hundred copies of Book 2 I sold, I had to give away well over a thousand copies of Book 1.

However, Bookbub is now so popular that they can be very, very choosy about the books they list. They make a lot less on free books (a lower author fee and no affiliate percentage), but they always include one or two freebies per email, to keep their readers happy. But even the free ebooks have to have lots of good reviews and a professional-looking cover. And with major publishers wanting to advertise sale prices of backlist books, and a gazillion self published authors trying to get some traction, it's very hard for a self-published author to get a slot with BookBub.

Where else can you go?

There are plenty of other services; none have the impact of BookBub, but they can be worth the time and money to use. I recently tried out a few of them: Book Gorilla (affiliated with Lendle), eBook Daily, Free Booksey, and eBookSoda.  All of them offer varying services at different prices. For example, Book Gorilla lets their subscribers choose how many books maximum to be included per email, with 12 as the smallest, so it costs more to be sure your book will be one of the first 12 in your genre.  They also vary as to range, in that not all of them will post all your buy links.  Book Gorilla and eBook Daily show only Amazon links, not iBooks or B&N.

My results (your mileage may vary)

Freebooksey: ($70) 1,187 Kindle copies (this overlaps so it's hard to separate them), 102 on iBooks, 68 on Nook, and 1 on Kobo (note I also had one Kobo sale of the sequel shortly after, which suggests the Kobo folks don't have as many free books to choose from and actually read the ones they can get)

eBookDaily: (free) 267 Kindle copies (this one is a bit different as they rely on a Facebook page to get submissions from authors and they post the book they select to their website, and tweet it, as well as email it. There is no scheduling mechanism.)

Book Gorilla: ($150) 490 Kindle copies

eBookSoda:  ($27) 68 copies on Kindle, 3 on Google Books, 3 on Smashwords, 1 on iBooks, and 5 on Nook

eBookSoda Listing

So, Freebooksy won this round in total numbers with eBookDaily winning in terms of cost/benefit (hard to beat free).  Freebooksey has a version for sale/cheap books called BargainBooksy, and I might try that for another book if I decide to put one on sale.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Saronna's Gift makes a Barnes & Noble science fiction romance list!

How did I forget to post about this? Saronna's Gift made a list of 20 science fiction romance books on the Barnes & Noble sci-fi blog!

As the Brits say, I am chuffed to see my book on a list with the likes of books by Lois McMaster Bujold and Linnea Sinclair.

Interestingly, although the only links are to the print and Nook copies available from B&N, I had a much bigger sales bump from Amazon after the list came out than I did from B&N, which suggests readers are browsing the B&N blog but still buying the Kindle version.  

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Big Brother knows what you don't know

Assuming the reason people look up a word in their Kindle dictionaries is because they don't know its meaning, Amazon knows what it's customers don't know. They recently released a list of the most-looked-up words. I knew a lot of them, but some (see yellow highlighting) were unknown.

The built-in dictionary is a great feature of ereaders, but it's kind of creepy to think Amazon is tracking which words are looked up.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

MY List of the “Best” Movies

The thing about movies is, they're story telling that's different from books. In books, the author tries to give enough description that you can picture what's happening, without slowing down the story. In movies, you see the story as it happens, and the visual aspect is equal to the words. Arguably, movies have become more popular than books. Certainly, when a book becomes a movie, more people are exposed to that author's work than ever before.

Someone on my FB feed recently posted a list of the AFI's 100 best movies,  The list could be checked off, and it turned out I had seen only 57 out of that 100.  But the FB post generated an alternative list from Chicago film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. He had a lot of really old and somewhat artier movies, and I only got 5 on his list.

Why should film critics have all the fun? I decided to come up with my own list. I didn't exclude animated movies. My only requirement was that I had seen the movie and liked it for some reason (The Thin Man is on there for the relationship between Nick and Nora. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is there for the visual story telling, etc.). I put The Lord of the Rings as one entry because it was one story, but I listed the first three Star Wars movies by title because they can be viewed separately and I wanted to distinguish them from the second set of movies which were nowhere near as good.

One thing this kind of list points out is that awards are given by year. Plenty of great movies don't win awards because they come out in the same year as other great movies.

Feel free to nominate your own favorites in the comments. I might even add them, as I didn't stick to a specific number. Also, they are not in any particular order, by rank or chronology; they're just as I thought of them,

My top movies of all time

  1. Groundhog Day
  2. The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! 
  3. Bringing Up Baby
  4. Desk Set
  5. It's a Wonderful Life
  6. The Sound of Music
  7. Mary Poppins
  8. American Graffiti 
  9. Notting Hill
  10. It's About Time
  11. Galaxy Quest
  12. Lord of the Rings
  13. Three Men and a Baby
  14. The Green Mile
  15. Forest Gump
  16. The Sting
  17. Up
  18. Toy Story
  19. Some Like It Hot
  20. The Princess Bride
  21. Jurassic Park
  22. Auntie Mame
  23. The Truman Show
  24. The Matrix
  25. Tootsie
  26. The Graduate
  27. Breaking Away
  28. Sleepless in Seattle
  29. Die Hard
  30. Casablanca
  31. Star Wars episode 4: A New Hope 
  32. Star Wars episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back 
  33. Star Wars episode 6: Return of the Jedi
  34. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  35. Pretty Woman
  36. Aladdin (Disney animated version)
  37. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  38. Psycho
  39. Finding Nemo
  40. The Thin Man
  41. Heaven Can Wait
  42. Miracle on 34th Street (original version)
  43. In the Heat of the Night
  44. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  45. Moonstruck
  46. Shrek
  47. The Incredibles
  48. The King's Speech
  49. Rain Man
  50. Beauty and the Beast
  51. Sense and Sensibility
  52. The Sixth Sense
  53. Little Miss Sunshine
  54. The Blind Side
  55. Argo
  56. Erin Brockovich

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Herding dogs? A round-up of Puppygate posts

As well as my own post yesterday, there have been a lot of articles and blog posts about the Hugo voting results, and the Puppy slates. The roundup below includes a post from Puppy favorite, John C. Wright, who has no hesitation in calling himself “a skilled author, one of the finest writing today.” That level of hubris explains a lot. There is also a post from the Federalist, a right wing site that seems to think left-leaning folks cannot be nerds and compares them instead to ISIS.

N.B. I am adding to the list as I find things, so feel free to add links to a comment if you know of a good discussion.

Who Won Science Fiction's Hugo Awards and Why it Matters, (best in-depth description I have seen)

The Link between Sad Puppies and Donald Trump, Slate

Hugos & Puppies: Peeling the Onion, Foz Meadows' blog

The Hugos, the Puppies, and why this is more important than just a rocketship, Mary Robinette Kowal's blog

Smeagol Nielson Hayden, John C Wright's blog

Bad puppies, no awards, Charlie Stross' blog

The Hugo Awards: Why the War on Nerds Is a War on Art, The Federalist

Hugo Awards Upset: Fans Say No to Sad Puppies, Alexandra Erin's blog

George RR Martin 'relieved' after Sad Puppies' Hugo awards defeat, The Guardian

The Hugo Awards 2015: Looking Back and Moving Forward, The Mary Sue blog

Hugo Awards: Rabid Puppies defeat reflects growing diversity in science fiction,  by Gary K Wolfe for the Chicago Tribune (I liked that this one makes it clear it was mostly a Rapid Puppy slate)


Final(ish) Notes on Hugos and Puppies, 2015 Edition, John Scalzi's Whatever blog

THE DIVERGENCE BETWEEN POPULARITY AND AWARDS IN FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, Eric Flint's blog (interesting analysis of sales/popularity versus awards)

And in conclusion

Next Year's Hugos, George RR Martin's blog

Monday, August 24, 2015

What the heck is a Hugo? My take on Puppygate, assuming you know nothing about it

Worldcon = World Science Fiction Convention

If you've never been to a Worldcon, you've missed out. They're a bit like a nation of nomads getting together for an annual reunion, a nation made up of tribes: the Gamer Tribe, the Costumer/Cosplay Tribe, the Writer (and Aspiring Writer) Tribe, the Avid Reader Tribe, and so on. Some people never go to the masquerade and some live for it. Some rush from panel to panel, trying not to miss anything, while others skip out on panels entirely and haunt the dealers' room (full of new and used books and craft items. for those who've never seen one).

And on Saturday night of the long weekend that is Worldcon, the convention holds the Hugo Awards ceremony, which rewards writers, editors, artists, and TV and movie producers, for work the fans judge to be the best of the previous year. In the past, a significant percentage of people who payed for attending memberships never bothered to vote for the Hugos, and even fewer bothered to nominate. And when they did nominate, people mostly listed one or two or maybe three works in each category, not the maximum of five, which is why this year there was a huge kerfuffle.

The Puppies, Sad and Rabid

I really think the root cause of most of this mess boils down to ego. A few authors (specifically Brad Torgersen and Larry Correia) felt that since their books were (they thought) really good, and were selling well, therefore, they should win a Hugo. When they didn't win one, they decided the only way to account for this was there must be a conspiracy against them. After all, they're political conservatives and many science fiction fans are more liberal. They were sure overtly literary work was being promoted by a secret cabal who despised them and thus prevented them or writers like them from ever winning. But to me, it looks like "we didn't win a Hugo, ergo the contest can't possibly be fair."

This allowed them to justify forming a group called the Sad Puppies, who promoted a slate of works and people that they thought should be nominated for a Hugo. And after these conservative but not evil people (mostly not evil, anyway. Not too sure about John C Wright since I read this.) put their slate out there, a guy named Theodore Beale (aka Vox Day) jumped on their band wagon with his own slate, which he called Rabid Puppies. He dropped some items from their list, added others, and then he then ordered his minions (his word) to a) buy supporting memberships to Worldcon (which cost about $40 and confer nominating and voting rights for Hugos, but not attendance at the convention) and b) nominate that exact list of works and people on his slate. Interestingly, people talk more about the Sad Puppy slate, but really it was mostly the Rabid Puppy slate that made up the Worldcon ballot. John C. Wright appears on the Sad Puppy slate twice but on the Rabid Puppy slate six times; he "only" got five Hugo nominations, however, as one story was bumped for ineligibility.

The minions (not nearly as cute as the animated versions) obeyed, and with about 400 ballots in lockstep, they were able to shut out anyone else in several categories of the ballot, and to numerically dominate the others.

The Fallout

There was shock and outrage, and it got nasty after that. There is a basic communication disconnect in the situation. Puppy supporters do not think promoting a slate was a bad thing to do, while Puppy opposers do not understand how anyone could expect them to vote for someone who got on the ballot by shutting out all other works not approved by them.  Now mind you, in the past, plenty of people have done some level of campaigning to get a specific work on the ballot. Bloggers publish "Recommended Reads" and writers make a point to say which of their works are eligible.  The difference is these slates were full ballots! That is, there were five entries in every category, so that if enough people nominated the slate, it would swamp the nominations and nothing else in that category would get in. A slate is not "Vote for me!" it's "All your nominations are belong to us!"

Keep in mind that readership is lower for shorter works, which are mostly published in magazines and online. Combined with general apathy about nominating, this means there are never that many nominations cast for the short fiction categories (short story, novella, and novelette), usually nowhere near as many as there are for novels. There were enough non-slate votes for novels that the RP slate could not totally swamp that category (remember Vox Day claims "390 sworn and numbered vile faceless minions"). But the ballot for the three short fiction categories was (at first) only  RP candidates. That changed when some people like Annie Bellet dropped out, preferring not to be used as pawns in politicising the Hugos, and in the novelette category there was thus one non-slate entry.

Unlike the Sad Puppies, I consider that VD (I'll just use his initials) is actively evil. Assuming he means what he says, he holds huge chucks of humanity (women, black people) in overt contempt. The Sad Puppies seemed to think that he was only riding their coattails, but it has become clear they are now riding his. Brad Torgensen says he's really just a "shock jock" who is jerking people's chains for the fun of it. That's Torgersen's excuse for not totally repudiating him, I guess, I happen to think that stirring people up to hatred is a horrible thing to do, regardless of motive. You could say it's worse if you don't believe what you say, because you're not acting from principle but from mischief. 

The Pre-K Analogy

So, imagine a whole roomful of 4-year-olds are playing a game. As time goes on, a few kids get mad because they haven't won, even though there are are lots of kids and only one chance to win per game. These kids decide to stir up the game pieces in the hopes of improving their chances--not against the rules, but no one has done it before. This gives the class bully his opportunity to stomp all over everything, and no one wins. This is pretty much the state of things at Worldcon.

The Hugo ballot is a bizarre thing, in a way, because voting is ranked. You don't just pick one choice per category, you rank each entry as 1st, 2nd, and so on. And there is an option for No Award. which you can use if you don't think any of the entries remaining after you have picked your choices should win.  This option was used a lot this year and in the categories where there were no choices not on the RP or SP slates, then the voters chose No Award and no one got a Hugo in that category.  The only exception was the dramatic presentations (TV show and movies) which were perceived as not Puppy-influenced because they were pretty much all things that would have been nominated anyway.

Outrage again, on the Puppy side, this time. How could those mean people deprive hardworking editors and writers of their chance to win a Hugo? I would ask them, who was really deprived? There were a lot of people who would have made the ballot if it had not been for the slates, so it seems to me that the real villain is Vox Day. First he pushed deserving people off the ballot, and then pushed other people onto it in a way that few people could support. Thus, he let them in for a huge disappointment when most people voted No Award. I'm not saying those people weren't deserving. Certainly, the long form editors (other than Vox Day) were all solid professionals. In a normal year, no one would have questioned their presence or hesitated to vote for one of them. But the person who made it not a normal year made it difficult for Worldcon members to condone the slate by letting anyone win that way. The surge in supporting memberships and percentage of votes cast shows how strong that sentiment was, and it won't go away.

A slate that dictates all possible choices is a bad thing. It is a tool of dictatorship, and I, for one, am not willing to cede that role to Vox Day, or anyone else.