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Old 11-22-2009, 08:21 AM   #1
Steven Lyle Jordan
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Seeking advice: My reference book

Okay, here's the situation: My parents went away on a week's vacation, and...

Oh, wait. Wrong situation. Let's do this one:

For those of you who are not aware, I was inspired by my recent attention on the NYT and other blogs and e-book interested parties to write a book on the historical background of e-book development, from my perspective as a tech-head whose career and hobbies have moved parallel with the e-book industry for years (IOW, not a facts-and-footnotes reference, but personal observations).

The book is entitled: "Why Is This Hill So Steep? (subtitle) E-books: The simple idea, sensible concept and understandable product that took twenty years to pull off." It's a modest 55,000 words.

Here's where I need advice: I'm trying to figure out the best way to put this book out. Although my wife thinks I should charge for the book, using a price more in line with reference books ($5-10, given that it's an e-book and not printed), I'm not so sure about the price... or even charging at all. Part of me considers this might be good to use as a free product, spreading my name further afield, and drawing potential customers to my books. The "charge it!" part of me thinks even $5 is pushing it for a 55,000 word book.

So: Any thoughts from the corner? Your perspectives?
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Old 11-22-2009, 04:13 PM   #2
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Wow, you have it completed already?

You mention that it is a reference book. Who would be the target audience? What are some of the topics covered? Is this a book that would be of interest to a nontech person such as me? Is the language used understandable to the general population?

Having more information about your book would make it easier to suggest an option.

"Part of me considers this might be good to use as a free product, spreading my name further afield, and drawing potential customers to my books."

This sounds like a good idea, especially if you are able to be exposed to a wide audience. Maybe a followup to some of your recent interviews?
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Old 11-22-2009, 04:59 PM   #3
Steven Lyle Jordan
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Okay, here are more details (and actually, I'm still doing revising edits, so I suppose it's not completely finished, but close):

The target audience would be anyone in or outside of the e-book field who is interested in knowing more about its development (or, in this case, lack thereof) over the years, from the student, to the enthusiast, to the professional. It is written in a non-technical style, easily understood by the lay-person, and interesting enough to hold the attention of the techie.

The hook is the almost unbelievable number of isolated developments that served to hold back such a straightforward idea as e-books. As the original blurb goes:

Quote:
E-books. Electronic. Books.

Sounds like a simple concept, doesn’t it? So why has this simple concept taken so long to develop, when other forms of digital commerce and media have become modern sensations? Because of a series of events and forces acting against it that would seem too improbable to believe in a dime novel.

(Or maybe an e-book.)

If you want to know where e-books are going, it will help to know where e-books have been, and why they still seem to track mud on the floors wherever they go. This book sheds light on a perfect storm of publishers, corporations, professionals, amateurs, dogmas, movements and beliefs, all of which worked either unintentionally or deliberately to forestall the coming of the e-book for over two decades. And it details which of these elements is still going strong and continuing to hold back e-books. At last, you’ll learn how badly e-books have had the cards stacked against them, and why.
Does that help?

Oh... might as well show you the current cover art:

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Old 11-22-2009, 05:09 PM   #4
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Touchy subject that - the pricing, not your book .

Why not offer it for free for a set period to see how it goes, once you have either past the period or sold x amount of the books, start charging. Or offer it for a small amount on sites like smashword?

That's just me as a non-writer / non-publisher talking. I'm sure there are heaps of people here on the forum who had the same problem and will be willing to share their experience
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Old 11-22-2009, 05:49 PM   #5
Steven Lyle Jordan
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I'm guessing they're away for the weekend...
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Old 11-22-2009, 06:44 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by Steve Jordan View Post
I'm guessing they're away for the weekend...
Yep, more than likely as it is almost Thanksgiving in the States and shopping for the holidays is on the agenda.

Thank you for the expanded explanation, Steve. It does sound like something that would be interesting to a nontech person (with limited experience of e-book formats) like me.

I love the cover art, and yes, IMO cover art does tend to draw a person to take a closer look.

IMO, it seems it would be of interest to a limited audience. Possibly consider it as a free ebook with pages at the end giving the link and essay topics to be found at your site. Also, list your books (maybe some with blurbs) available at your site. Get the word out on various blogs, follow up with past interviewers, etc.

Would this be something that you would want to get out to authors? Both indie and published? Send them copies? What would the reader numbers be if you happen to have it pirated? (and all those people see the links at the end)
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Old 11-22-2009, 09:02 PM   #7
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I'm a little puzzled, Steve. Is this a reference book filled with charts and outlines, or is it more a tech. history book like Fire in the Valley?
Reference book sounds pretty dry, Fire in the Valley more like your fiction style. I hope it's the latter.
How big is 55,000 words in pbook pages or file size? Some of my favourite fiction is the 250 page sciFi that came out 30-40 years ago. A nice afternoon read, not a huge effort like the 500 page things we get now.
Oh, and I will buy it, so let us know when it's ready.
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Old 11-22-2009, 10:28 PM   #8
Steven Lyle Jordan
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No charts and outlines... yes, more like Fire in the Valley. As far as size, most of my novels clock in at 120,000-150,000 words... and by print book standards, they are considered small. This is 55,000 words, so you can blow through it pretty quickly. It's not intended to provide intense facts and figures, it's a personal perspective...

Tell you what: I'll post the introduction, and you can get an impression of the read, and its style, from that.
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Old 11-22-2009, 10:37 PM   #9
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Introduction

E-books. Electronic. Books.

It actually sounds very straightforward, doesn’t it? Especially in the opening decade of the twenty-first century, after we’ve spent half a century learning the intricacies of the computer age, twenty years getting used to computers on our own desks, ten years getting used to the computers in our pockets, goggling (not “googling”) at the digital images computers are injecting into our televisions and movies, marveling at the reality of instantaneous global communications, googling (not “goggling”) the information suddenly at our fingertips, and watching over our shoulders for the computers that will be telling us what to do, picking up after us, and reporting on us when we are naughty. With all that going on, how strange can electronic books possibly be?

But in one of those strange-but-true stories that no one would ever have believed if they hadn’t witnessed it with their own eyes, e-books have turned out to be the poster child for everything that’s wrong with the world’s transition to a digital future. A very simple concept for a very basic item, letters arranged to communicate ideas, has struggled for no less than twenty years without achieving a popularity and ease of use that every other form of electronic media has managed to achieve in half the time or less.

And it’s not as if no one has seriously tried to shift literature into the digital era. In fact, everything from world-dominating organizations to basement programmers have tried, and all have… well, if not failed per se, their efforts have to date been less than successful.

Now, more authors, publishers, companies, hardware manufacturers, software programmers and consumers are being attracted to e-books than ever before. Further, experts, scholars, technicians and businesspeople have watched the industry closely, and in almost every case have thrown in their comments, suggestions and recommendations, with the idea of helping to get e-books back on track.

All of this effort… all of this attention… all of this potential… has carried on for the past twenty years, without real success. Which begs the question: What in the name of Gutenberg has been going so wrong?

~

To begin with, we need to have a good idea of what an e-book is… a seemingly trivial thing, but not a trivial point, because the events of the past twenty years have managed to muddy even that essential picture in many people’s minds. Today it can be amazing how many different opinions there are of the essential nature of e-books.

An e-book is, essentially, an electronic file designed to be processed through an electronic device. The electronic file contains a document, which can be as simple as the raw text, or made much more advanced through additional code designed to provide formatting to the text… font type, size and color, italics, bolding, headers, etc. It can also include additional non-text elements, like graphics, sounds, even video, and special programs that can imbue the document with various “special effects” like color-changing objects, animated elements, etc. Generally speaking, though, an e-book is much like a printed book in that it is expected to hold text and graphics, like a printed book, and little or nothing else.

This definition encompasses a wide range of electronic files that are considered e-books. A basic ASCII-based text file (known by the “.txt” extension at the end of the name) is an e-book. A document created in the Microsoft Word format is an e-book. A document saved in the Adobe InDesign format is an e-book. Basically, any electronic document encompassing text, maybe some graphics, and occasionally other elements, are e-books by broad definition.

Today, however, many people in and out of the industry see e-books as a more specialized kind of electronic file, designed to be accessed only through specialized software that is designed to optimize the reading experience for the consumer. The point is to create a file that the consumer will not have to configure, program, or otherwise mess with, other than to open and read it.

This definition removes the more common formats like ASCII, Word, etc, from consideration, and replaces them with formats designed specifically for reading electronic files. These specialized formats have names like eReader, MobiPocket, FBReader, Palm Doc, Microsoft Reader, Sony Reader and, among the better-known names today, Amazon Kindle. They have unique document extensions as well, including .LIT, .PRC, .PDB, .FB, .LRF, etc. There are many, many others, but the formats listed here are among the most commonly and popularly used. About the only such application that is well-known by e-book readers and non-readers alike, around the world, is the Adobe Reader (formerly known as Acrobat, which reads .PDF files). Most of these file formats are not designed to be edited by the consumer, and in general the electronic documents must be created in a different application, such as MS Word or Adobe InDesign, then converted to the chosen e-book format using special software tools. And most of these formats can only be read by the application software designed for it—Adobe Reader will not open an FBReader file, MobiPocket will not open a Sony Reader file, etc.

A notable bright spot (one of few) in all of this format mania is a relatively new format, developed for the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF.org) as an open-source, easy-to-use, pretty-much-universal format for e-books. The Open E-Book (OEB) format, usually just referred to by its file extension, .EPUB, has been endorsed by authors, publishers, hardware and software makers, and is rapidly becoming the default e-book format industry-wide in the Western world. Many of the hardware devices on the market already read OEB files, new software applications for computers and personal devices are being developed, and more e-books are being released in this format, by the day.

These files must be read in computer applications specifically designed to read them, like the Adobe (Acrobat) Reader is designed specifically to read PDF files. Many of these applications are available for computers of all kinds, usually free to download and relatively easy to install and use. Others are pre-installed on dedicated hardware devices, like Amazon’s Kindle device and Sony’s Reader device, and may be available as applications for other hardware to download and use. Most importantly, most of these reading applications can only read one or a few types of e-book formats, requiring the consumer either to restrict their e-book reading to those formats, or to keep multiple reading applications or devices available for whatever formats their latest e-book happens to use.

Notice: The waters are muddy already, what with multiple formats, multiple reading applications and hardware. And it gets better: E-books may be available at many e-book-selling websites, or sometimes only one; and the e-book sites sometimes offer multiple e-book formats, or sometimes offer only one format. So a consumer must juggle which books they want to read against which sites they are available from, which formats they are available in, and which reading devices or applications read that format.

~

This is the state we find e-books in at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. With such a litany of incompatible formats, reading devices and applications, is it any wonder that e-books have taken twenty years to take off? The scenario would seem to be designed by a sadist, and appealing only to a masochist! If it’s this bad, why shouldn’t we just put e-books out of their misery?

Because of the incredible potential of e-books, that’s why. E-books are like distilled literature, text reduced to its essential nature. It is not only capable of being read, it is free from physical constraints, and therefore malleable, flexible; its final format can be altered to fit the user’s needs. Fonts can be altered to styles, sizes and even colors that are easier on the eye. Paragraphs can be massaged to allow comfortable spaces between words and lines, and backgrounds can be adjusted for contrast as desired. Some e-book applications can read text aloud, and others can translate the text to other languages. None of these things can be matched by printed text-presentation methods. E-books represent no less than the natural evolution of literature to a new and better medium, the natural progression of text from clay, to stone, to hide, to linen, to paper, to electrons.

E-books are practical products. Electronic devices, by their nature, can hold numerous document files, allowing the consumer to potentially replace hundreds, even thousands of printed books, with the files on one electronic device. That means less physical space taken up by shelves of books… the number of books an individual can own is no longer limited by the amount of storage space they have available. And your collection of books is ultimately portable, ready to travel with you in its entirety at a moment’s notice.

E-books are environmentally-positive products as well, another advantage over paper. As pointed out, an electronic device can replace hundreds to thousands of printed books. Although an electronic device requires power, chemicals and precious (and sometimes toxic) metals to produce, so, in fact, does paper… and a single electronic device can replace literally tons of paper product. Finally, paper is made from harvesting trees, a process that is contributing to the denuding of our forests, the loss of carbon-sequestering vegetation, the loss of oxygen-producing plants, and the contribution to ecological destruction and global warming worldwide. We need trees more than we need paper, especially as we now have a clear alternative in electronic devices.

Finally, e-books’ nature makes them easily transmitted to the four corners of the world, almost instantaneously. The world’s knowledge can be shared and accessed from anywhere, not just in the corner of a community library, or in someone’s private study. The potential for sharing information, for raising the literacy rate of people all over the world, and bypassing many of the practical concerns that kept some of those people forever isolated, cannot be undervalued or dismissed. These factors are being discovered by more people every day, and are driving a resurgence of interest in e-books unlike any previous period in history.

Given e-books’ world-altering potential, it’s no wonder that an idea that has struggled for twenty years has not yet been abandoned… doing so would be a crime against technology, practicality, ecology and humanity. We have everything to gain, and nothing to lose, by sorting out the problems saddling e-book development and set it on the right course.

It is tempting to think that there is some sort of obvious villain in a story like this, some specific agent and their nefarious or misguided actions, that has been pounding e-books to a—pardon the expression—pulp for so long. But if it had been only one, or maybe even two or three such villains, they would have been identified and vanquished by now. It must be more complex than that, you’d think.

And you’d be right: It’s much, much more complicated. In fact, the villains in this story number so many that they could scare the Legion of Super Heroes into taking an early vacation. These villains, operating jointly and/or independently, have created a perfect storm of resistance that has kept e-books struggling against the waves for the past two decades. And thus far, every attempt to save e-books has only concentrated on one or a few villains at a time, leaving the rest to continue shoving e-books under the waves.

In order to deal with e-books’ problems, find solutions, and finally pull e-books into safer waters, we need to deal with all of the villains in the story. But in order to do that, we must know who all these villains are, in order to devise a strategy against them. Identifying all of these villains, so we know who we are fighting, is the purpose of this book.

~

In understanding technology, I have found it useful to understand history. Not just the history of technology, but the history of people… of politics… of social systems… even of geologic activity… for all of these things have impacted technology, its development, and its usage, over time.

This was the tactic of scholar/historian James Burke, whose series of videos and books known as Connections inspired me as a boy in college, to develop a full historical understanding of how and why technology had been shaped over the years. Burke’s later works, Connections2, The Day the World Changed, and After The Warming, continued the theme of understanding human technology via understanding humans, and the environments that influenced them over time, to make sense of technology, and of our present-day world.

As it so happens, my perspective on this subject is due to some unique “connections” of my own over the years. Though I was not directly involved in e-books during the twenty-year time period described in this book, my career paths have coincidentally paralleled the development of electronic files and e-books, allowing me a clear view of the developments over the years, and how they have impacted those inside and outside of the fields involved.

In the 1980s, my college years brought me into direct contact with young programmers learning all about the incredible new Big Thing, the mainframe computer. These programmers were already envisioning the ways in which access to computers in everyday life would transform our world. As for myself, I was already getting tired of Tank Wars.

In the 1990s, a friend of mine tried to get me into a job at a consulting firm, creating reports and graphics using computers. That specific job did not materialize, but I was instead offered by the same company a chance to manage their new reprographic offices. They had just installed high-speed reprographic equipment (aka copiers to the layman), connected through their office network, down the hall to the very document creators that I had initially applied to work alongside. During this job, I not only learned how to operate computer-controlled production equipment, but I learned how to optimize digital documents for printing, and I applied the latest in office computer software (at that time, Windows 3.1) to automate and modernize the department’s job tracking and billing systems. The digital document era was developing before me, and I was comfortably keeping pace with it. I watched the early development of Adobe Acrobat, and its subsequent dominance of other competitors in the fledgling digital document industry.

The consulting firm relocated outside of my commuting comfort zone, so I moved on to a downtown Washington, D.C. think-tank that needed help tying its high-speed networked printers into a daily 5,000+ document a day workflow. As I developed their networked workflow system, showing them better ways to turn computer-generated content into higher-quality finished products, I was also training myself in the arts of webpage design and production, what I saw as the next step in my professional career. Once I had finished updating the digital workflow system at the think-tank, I obtained a web designer’s job with a downtown government contractor. I produced digital documents for federal government reports and projects, and I created and maintained federal web sites.

I also learned about the concept of designing web pages to be compliant with federal regulations providing protections to Americans with disabilities, and the importance of adhering to formatting standards. The office was operating multiple computers, seemingly with a different operating system and set of programs on each one, connected through “sneakernet,” and using the desk phones as modems for the computers. Even in 2001, I knew they could do better, and I talked the boss into modernizing the office systems. I arranged to have DSL and a networked file server installed, and standardized their multiple computers with the same operating systems and software for easier maintenance and support, and consistent documents produced by any station in the office. I acted as the office IT manager for my duration there, improving their workflow and products and saving them thousands of dollars in IT needs.

During this time, I had done my web research, and developed the first generation of my own e-book sales websites. I closely followed the e-book industry, in order to optimize my sales model and improve my e-book products. The site has undergone two new generations since then, keeping up with sales trends and site design developments to present the most attractive marketing package to customers.

When work began drying up at the contractor, I resigned and, after just a few bounces, ended up at a Washington. D.C. non-profit maintaining their web site and digital documents. The company maintained a vast collection of documents on their website, which gave me the chance to learn the ins and outs of a content management system, and what it meant for digital documents.

These positions, working closely with digital document creators, controlling networked printing systems, organizing and standardizing hardware and software in business environments, developing websites, and producing my own digital documents, have kept me closely in touch with the various disciplines that have shaped the e-book industry since the 1990s.

~

I think the Connections approach is essential to understanding what has transpired in the e-book industry over the past two decades or so, to create the situation we e-book fans daily lament over. Some of it is also important in order to understand how the effects that have adversely impacted e-books can be countered and corrected. Many people do not immediately see the need to understand the historical significance of a present-day object or movement, but there’s an old saying: Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. Many new players are entering the e-book arena every day, and these players, as much as the veteran players, stand to do as much damage as good if they pay no heed to the mistakes of the past, and continue to make them into the future. E-books could continue to founder on the rocks for another decade or more, or even slip finally into the depths, not to resurface again until all of the villains have passed on, history has been forgotten, and a new world, a few generations removed, can try again.

Personally, I don’t want to have to wait that long.

And so, this text illustrates the many, sometimes complex and sometimes thoughtless elements that have worked to keep e-books down for so long. The elements are presented roughly in order of their impact on the industry, which was sometimes chronological, sometimes technological, and sometimes dependent on another element’s actions, but all ultimately interrelated and significant. These aren’t presented as dry facts and footnotes; rather, it is the history of e-books from the perspective of someone who has walked alongside it, even when he was not aware of it, for the past thirty years, to suddenly find himself an evangelizer and authority on e-books to those on the outside looking in.

I offer my perspective on the painfully-plodding history of e-books to those who seek to enjoy e-books, and possibly to be a part of the developing industry. Hopefully, a full understanding of the many elements involved will help us to guide e-books back off the rocks, and onto a course that will result in a happy, healthy industry in time. At the very least, it will hopefully stave off another twenty years of what we just went through. (I couldn’t take another of those, myself.)
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Old 11-22-2009, 11:01 PM   #10
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Thanks, Steve. That's more than what I was looking for. Now I can't wait to get the whole thing.
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Old 11-22-2009, 11:25 PM   #11
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Thank you, Steve, that was easy for me to understand and interesting enough that I want to continue to read and learn.

I think for me to understand how change can happen, I need to understand the history and it's players more fully.
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Old 11-23-2009, 03:51 AM   #12
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I'll definitely get it, whether you choose to give it away for free or for money...

It has for a long, long time baffled me, why there are so many different formats... to fit different readers. Why not just one - like .ef - electronic file??

I have a Palm Zire 72, and constantly look for books in the .pdb format. That's why I love Smashwords...

I'll be watching out for the book...

Thanks
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Old 11-23-2009, 08:20 AM   #13
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Originally Posted by Steve Jordan View Post
Here's where I need advice: I'm trying to figure out the best way to put this book out. Although my wife thinks I should charge for the book, using a price more in line with reference books ($5-10, given that it's an e-book and not printed), I'm not so sure about the price... or even charging at all. Part of me considers this might be good to use as a free product, spreading my name further afield, and drawing potential customers to my books. The "charge it!" part of me thinks even $5 is pushing it for a 55,000 word book.

So: Any thoughts from the corner? Your perspectives?
My guess as to the best approach: Follow Baen's model. The first n chapters are free as a preview, where n is some value less than half of the total chapter number, m. The rest of the book costs $k, where k is some small integer, less than 10.

It would help if your name was Tracy Kidder, John McPhee, or something like that.

Good Luck,
Jack Tingle
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Old 11-23-2009, 08:52 AM   #14
Steven Lyle Jordan
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It would help if your name was Tracy Kidder, John McPhee, or something like that.
Well, why stop there? I could change my name to Michael Crichton II...

Or go with a close match, like Steven King (Stephen Kong?)... Arthur C. Clark...

Neal DeGrass Tyson...

Maybe not...

Okay, as far as the Baen model: That's about what I do presently with my e-books... and yes, I could just do the same with this (with maybe a slightly different price, since it's a reference book). Assuming I would charge for the rest, I was already planning to put up the first 2-3 chapters (including the intro above) for free preview on my site. And Dreams, yes, I will include my other books for sale at the end (I always do).
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Old 11-23-2009, 08:56 AM   #15
Steven Lyle Jordan
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I think for me to understand how change can happen, I need to understand the history and it's players more fully.
That's been my attitude regarding technological history for decades, ever since being introduced to the Connections series. That was the inspiration for writing the book, combined with my peculiarly parallel perspective on the subject.
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