Friday, May 22, 2020

Writing the future in uncertain times

In some ways, humans have always lived in perilous times. In the past, life spans were shorter because poor nutrition and disease killed many people well before old age got the chance to. Now, however, science, which enabled more crops, a better understanding of nutrition, and the development of antibiotics and other life-saving drugs, has also created the technology of rapid world-wide travel. The corona virus designated as COVID-19 has spread at an unprecedented speed to create what feels like an overnight global pandemic.

The resulting lock-down of society in an effort to slow the spread of the virus has threatened the world's economy and put countless people out of work. This is scary as hell for a lot of people, and it has highlighted the difference between jobs in the digital world, which can be done anywhere, and jobs in the physical world, which require a person to be present. It also illustrated the length of our supply chain. If people stop going to restaurants, it's not just restaurant owners and cooks and kitchen and wait staff who suffer, it's the suppliers who sell them food, and the truckers who transport it,and the farmers who grow it, and the people who sell the farmers seed and tractors and fertilizer. We are all more economically connected than we ever realized.

If you think about it, though, this kind of epic event also affects people who write stories set in the future. There is no way this pandemic won't have an impact on our history. Once reason I always set my science fiction stories a thousand years into the future (except for Turnabout) is I didn't feel comfortable predicting the shorter term future.

Look at George Orwell's 1984, or Arthur C. Clarke and his series that began with 2001:A Space Odyssey. Orwell only went forward 30-some years. Clarke used about the same time leap (but then the setting jumped forward with the next book, finally ending a thousand years into the future with 3001.). But both books have, of course, been proven wrong. Orwell's story has had an impact on our language and political discourse, but it didn't actually happen (although it is looking more likely every day that Donald Trump is in office). Arthur C. Clarke's story became a visually stunning movie as well as a novel but we went to the moon and did not find any alien artifacts.

In a thousand years there might not even be people anymore. Who knows how many pandemics are going to happen and what their impact will be? I will keep writing, but the future now seems more uncertain than ever.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Universal book links and ISBNs

I have discovered a new tool. Well, new to me. And also I have discovered a limitation to the tool. A site called Books2Read offers a way to create a "universal book link" for ebooks. That is, the site  will generate a link and when it is clicked, the link page looks like this:

Next to the Drifters cover image are icons with links to every site where the ebook is available,  In this instance, the link was generated for my newest book, Drifters, which is available at Amazon's Kindle store, and at Apple Books, B&N Nook, Kobo, Google Play, Indigo, and at Angus & Robertson, an Australian ebookstore.

I was excited to think I could slim down my website by using this tool, as it allows me to make the book title itself into a single link without my having to create a series of links for each vendor. Now, the interesting thing is, the tool works by the user giving it a link to a vendor site that sells the ebook. The tool then generates a list of the other vendors of the ebook. When I put in the Amazon Kindle link for Drifters, published this year, it generated a  link that displayed the page shown above. When I put in the Amazon Kindle link for Turnabout, which I published in 2017 under my own imprint, Cracked Mirror Press, I got this error message:

However, if I put in the Barnes & Nobles link for the same book, it worked fine and generated a link to this page, which you will notice does NOT list Amazon's Kindle store:

The same "Not an ebook" error message is generated for every other book I have published except for Drifters IF I use the Amazon Kindle link. So, what's the deal? The answer is ISBNs.

In the US, R. R. Bowker is the company that is authorized to sell (and thus to issue) ISBNs to publishers (including self-publishers).  ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. In a way, an ISBN is like a social security number for a book. Remember that titles cannot be copyrighted. If you want to write a nonfiction book about the dust bowl in Oklahoma and call it Gone with the Wind, you go right ahead. An ISBN provides a way to track a specific book without recourse to specifying things like titles and authors that could easily be duplicated. A single book can have multiple ISBNs however, because the rules have always specified you needed one for each format. When a book came out in hardback, it had a unique ISBN (previously 10 digits but now 13). When the same book came out in trade paperback, it got another unique ISBN. Ditto for the mass market paperback. And, ISBNs are always linked to publishers. I created my own imprint, called Cracked Mirror Press, and all my books except Drifters have been published with ISBNs bought from Bowker that identiufy Cracked Mirror Press as the publisher. If you self-publish and let the platform you are using (Kindle store, Apple Books, etc) provide an ISBN, then that ISBN will identify that platform as the publisher.

When Bowker started issuing ISBNs for ebooks, the pick list for book format included the option "Electronic Book Text." There is a secondary list that allows you to specify epub or mobipocket (on which the Kindle format is based) as well a PDF and a few others. Both mobi and epub formats are created using HTML, but they have slightly different coding rules. Almost every vendor out there uses epub rules for formatting ebooks, but Amazon wanted to control the format of Kindle books, so they started with mobi and then morphed it into azw. I had always assumed that picking from the secondary menu was required; if it was in the past, it is not now. You can simply specify Electronic Book Text and let it go at that, and then apply that ISBN to all ebook versions of that book. Because Snowy Wings Publishing doesn't use the secondary list, all the ebook versions of their books can use the same ISBN, and thus the link took works for all the vendor sites.

Of course, the one thing that the universal link relies on is Books2Read always being in existence. If that site goes down, the universal link will be toast.