Dear Apple, let’s talk about iBooks

Dear Apple,

I’m sure you don’t know me, at least no more than any of your other millions of customers. I’m someone who cares deeply about reading, readers, publishing and ebooks.

And I can’t help but notice that despite a solid effort with iBooks for five years now, Amazon is still eating your lunch in this space. Well, if you’ve got a minute, I think I have an idea on how you can turn this around in a particularly “only Apple” way.

As I’m sure you know, Amazon recently made a change to their Kindle Unlimited program. They’re going to pay authors who sign up to have their books in this all-you-can-eat subscription program by the page read by the customer. This is an amazing idea. Authors will get paid on a merit system; write a great book, one people can’t help but finish, and you make more money.

But what if it went both ways? What if instead of a $10/month flat fee, tying (presumably, as Amazon never actually explains their numbers) the author’s payouts to something they can’t control or influence, the number of KU subscribers, people simply paid for what they read?

I’ll cut to the chase. I’m suggesting you make iBooks a pay-by-the-word marketplace. Like Amazon, you know how much of which books people actually read; it’s how you sync their place between devices.

How about taking a cue from Apple Music (really looking forward to this) and letting everyone build their own “collection” of ebooks from the entirety of the iBooks library for free. Let them categorize and sort to their hearts’ content.

And then when they actually download and read those books, charge them a nickel for every thousand words. Reading a short story in such a way might only rack up a quarter. A novel, five bucks. And then, using the millions of credit cards you already have authorized in iTunes, you automatically bill everyone at the end of the month for what they actually read.

You have all the pieces to make this work. You have the ebook catalog. You have the billing system in place. You have the ability to track (not in a creepy way) how much people read in iBooks. And if you put something like this in place, I for one would kick my nearly thousand-ebook Kindle library to the curb and use iBooks for everything.

The only thing you’d need to do is get the publishers to go along with you. You already signed them once, so this shouldn’t be too hard. And hey, if you need help negotiating, I hear Taylor Swift is available.

Sincerely,

Jeff Kirvin

It Just Doesn’t Matter

One of the all time great pep talks is near the end of the Bill Murray geeks-at-camp flick “Meatballs.”

Go ahead and watch it. I’ll wait.

The great thing about this is the idea that winning isn’t important. Winning is impossible anyway, so why worry about it. It just doesn’t matter. But what does matter, the only thing that matters, is having fun. It’s the only life you get. Enjoy it.

I think a lot of writers forget this. We’re goal-oriented people. We have to be; we’d never finish writing hundred thousand word novels if we weren’t. And we get so caught up in “winning”, however you define that–publication, fame, fortune, unlimited supply of hamsters–that we stop having fun. We start to think it matters, and then every little setback devastates us.

Stop that. It just doesn’t matter. King and Patterson and Rowling will have all the money and fame no matter what you do. Settle down. Make stuff up and entertain people with it. That’s what this job is. It’s goofy, when you think about it. Enjoy that. Have fun, and let victory attend to itself.

Consistency (or, Why My Writing Output Isn’t What My Internal Guiltmonkey Says It Should Be)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my writing career, and by career, I mean the one novel and one novella I’ve managed to publish with some degree of professionalism. I’m a fast writer. Why is this all there is? It’s not for lack of material. I’ve got roughly a dozen novels and half as many novellas in various planning stages.

For a long time, I could blame the Black Dog of clinical depression. I’ve had a lot of stops and starts over the years, and countless missed opportunities in both fiction and nonfiction. And in most cases, a combination of abnormally low serotonin in my brain along with cynical, self-defeating thought patterns kept me from making any significant progress. As I’ve said before, clinical depression isn’t being sad. It’s an overwhelming fatigue and sense of helplessness/hopelessness that makes actually doing anything insurmountable.

But I beat depression and put it behind me for good last year. With meds and cognitive therapy to change my thought patterns, I’m cured. I simply don’t let myself sink back into that mire. And yet, my writing output (in fiction, anyway; I’m doing pretty well with this twice-a-week blogging thing) could still only charitably be called “occasional irregularity.”

I want to tell these stories. They still excite and entertain me. So what will it take to produce consistently rather than fits and starts?

I’m tempted to launch a Kickstarter campaign for the sequel to Revelation, Crusade. For several reasons:

  1. To see how much demand for the further adventures of Daniel Cho there really is.
  2. To give me a financial incentive to write Crusade rather than something else.
  3. To guilt the hell out of me when I slack off and don’t work on Crusade.

I think the reason I haven’t done it yet is that I’m afraid of the answer to question one. Revelation still only has nine reviews on Amazon. I managed to give away 776 copies in my one-day free promotion earlier this month, but I wonder how many of those downloaders will actually read it. I’ve got dozens of books in my Kindle library I snagged because they were free (or even cheap) that I haven’t even opened, much less read all the way through.

And even that is just a dodge. Because consistency has to come from me, from inside. The nice thing about ebooks is that there are no hard word count boundaries like there are in print, where a book has to fit on the shelf with all the other books. So it really doesn’t matter if an ebook is 50,000 words or 500,000 words, rather than the “standard” 80,000-100,000 for a novel. Because of that, I don’t really pay much attention to word count anymore when I’m writing. Instead, I focus on butt-in-chair time. Completion percentage on a project is directly related to how much time I’ve actually spent writing. Not thinking, not planning, not noodling over cover ideas, but writing. And that’s something I’ve done precious little of recently, at least in fiction.

I know what I have to do. I have to find a way to build a butt-in-chair, fingers-on-keyboard habit. I have to put in the hours, even if it would be easier to browse through my reading queue. Consistency is a matter of will. I either want it, or I don’t.

Text Editing – Dropbox or Evernote?

Never trust anybody over 30 (million).

That’s been my gut feeling recently. Big companies scare the bejeezus out of me, because I don’t think I can trust them to do what’s best for their customers if it ever conflicts with what’s best for their bottom line. In particular, publicly traded companies are required by law to return as much value to their stockholders as possible. And more and more of them do that by squeezing the consumer.

So when I heard Evernote has a valuation of $1,000,000,000 en route to an IPO, I started squinting at them. Yes, they look trustworthy now. In fact, CEO Phil Libin has said on several occasions that he wants Evernote to be a hundred year company, and the only way they can do that is if their users trust them for life. But can they stick to their principles when the shareholders are screaming for more profit?

As it happened, this news hit right about the time I was getting annoyed with Evernote personally. It’s awesome on my Windows laptop. It’s arguably even better on Android. But their iOS client needs a lot of work, and that’s where I’m spending most of my time these days. On any note with more than 1,500-2,000 words or so, the iPhone version of Evernote slows to an unworkable crawl. This is with Markdown-formatted ASCII text, too, not rich formatting. Maybe this was a sign from the universe that I should be moving my writing to a safer, more controllable location. Like my own hard drive, synced to my other devices via Dropbox.

There are lots of Markdown-friendly plain text editors for iOS. Perhaps too many. Like any good former software developer, the first thing I needed to do was nail down my requirements. I needed to have a universal app that worked on both the iPhone and the iPad (I don’t have an iPad yet, but as soon as I can afford one, I’m getting it). Syncing to Dropbox needed to be automatic, not manual via a button. I don’t really care about export as HTML as my blog supports Markdown directly and I’ll be doing my own post processing for fiction, but HTML preview would be really nice. And given the small screen of the iPhone, I’d really like a full screen option; no UI chrome, just my words and the keyboard. Lastly, I need to be able to search for a specific phrase or some other way to navigate round in a large document.

That narrowed down the list to a handful.

Byword almost made the cut, but I couldn’t find a full screen option. Elements also gets honorable mention, but it has no search. And while the others technically met my needs, I discovered after days of testing that each one also had some kind of dealbreaking annoyance I couldn’t live with. Nebulous has a really clunky UI. Writing Kit is cluttered from trying to do too much. Notesy takes too long to refresh/sync every file in a folder as soon as you open the folder, whether or not you had any intention of opening that file. Et cetera.

And frankly, why is Dropbox charging almost five times as much per gigabyte of storage as Google Drive and Microsoft’s SkyDrive? Are they really five times better? Am I made of money? Will these damn kids ever get off my lawn?

So I took another look at Evernote, and hit upon a little known Evernote feature that might solve my problem. Note links.

If you right click on a note in Evernote, on of the options on the popup context menu will be “Copy Note Link”. You can then paste that into any note you like. I think you can paste it anywhere that supports hyperlinks, as long as you tell your computer to open Evernote to handle links starting with Evernote://

So here’s how I use note links to make writing fiction in Evernote manageable on my iPhone.

I have a “main” note for the full length work. For Crusade, book 2 of the Unification Chronicles, I’m doing something weird and writing the major plot threads independently of each other, planning to weave them together later. So I’m starting with Daniel’s story, and the main note is called UC2 Daniel.

Now I start cutting and pasting from the outline into separate notes. The first one is called Totally fake first thing in my outline and contains whatever notes or prose I’ve already written for that scene. Then I copy the note link in Evernote, and paste it into UC2 Daniel. Then I skip a line to make it finger-friendly on the iPhone, and do the same thing for the second scene, and so on.

When I’m done, I have a copy of my outline where every line item is linked to a note containing that scene. Want to edit that scene, I just click (or tap) on the link, and I’m taken to that note. When I’m done with that, I hit the back button in Evernote’s toolbar on the desktop, or the back arrow in the upper left of the iOS client, and I’m immediately back to my outline.

I can jump around the whole novel quickly this way, never losing track of where I am. I can reorder the chapters just by cutting and pasting the links within the main note (no renumbering!). And since each note remains around 1,000-1,500 words (I write short, punchy chapters to keep readers turning pages), the notes are never so big that they get clunky to edit.

Since the main note is a note and not just a table of contents, I can also add things to it to help me through the long process of drafting a novel. I put a checkbox in front of each link so I’ll know at a glance which ones are done and which ones I still need to write (like many novelists, I don’t necessarily write a book from beginning to end, but jump around). I can further organize the checklist into three acts, lining up the act breaks where they need to be. I can annotate the outline with notes to tighten this section up, or that something else is moving too fast. I can be as simple or comprehensive as I want, since this note itself won’t be in the final manuscript. (This would also be the ideal place to write the synopsis, since the outline is right here.)

And here’s the really cool part. This integrates cleanly into my Evernote GTD system I detailed on Monday. The links are independent of whatever tag or even notebook the note is in. So I can tag the notes with my GTD context tags (@anywhere, @computer) and move the current one and only the current one from my Writing notebook to my Action notebook so it shows up in my task lists. The links still work!

Of course, as I was writing this, Evernote updated their iOS client with major UI improvements on the iPhone. It’s now much easier to edit, file and tag notes on the iPhone. So maybe if I’d just waited, none of this would have been necessary. I’m glad it was, though, because linked notes are perfect for long-form document organization.

Ecosystem Agnostic

Ecosystem Agnostic

I mentioned on Monday that Google has started to skeeve me out. Really, all the major digital ecosystems have started to skeeve me out. I don’t want to be beholden to any one company for everything. Putting all your eggs in one basket is no wiser now than in the analog age.

When I was handed an iPhone recently for my new day job, I decided to take the opportunity to see what other options are out there. To build my own ecosystem out of smaller, independent companies I can replace as necessary, and make it cross-platform wherever possible. To make my eggs work in any basket.

Getting Things Done

Exchange 365: When I started writing this article, I was using Google Calendar and Gmail for my “productivity” apps. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see how many tendrils from the Big G I could disconnect. And the obvious answer for Calendar, Contacts and Email was hosted Exchange.

I’d had a hosted Exchange account years ago for my Windows Mobile devices. Technically, Google is also hosted Exchange, since they use Microsoft’s ActiveSync protocol. But I wanted my own data store, my independence. So I looked around a bit and found that the cheapest hosted Microsoft Exchange service I could find was actually from Microsoft directly.

Exchange 365 is $4/month per user. Since I’m only doing this for myself, that’s $4/month. I get a full Exchange implementation hosted on my own subdomain (if I end up keeping it I’ll probably move it to my kirv.in domain) with mobile syncing and Outlook Web Access. Exchange syncs flawlessly with all my mobile devices, so this is working out nicely for me.

Evernote: Here’s another place I really divert from the Google Way. I used to keep my tasks in Google Tasks and my notes in Google Docs (and before that, Google Notebook, before it was shuttered). But Evernote does what I need so much better.

For notes, Evernote is an obvious choice. That’s what it’s for, after all. But what makes it a better choice than the Google offerings is how easy it is to dump stuff into Evernote from everywhere else. I can mail stuff into it, save from my browser, from my reading queue, pretty much everything else I do supports Evernote as a destination.

Which makes Evernote heads and shoulders above Google Tasks, too. I have a notebook in Evernote called “Action.” It’s my default notebook, so new notes appear there by default. For each note, I go through the normal GTD steps and use them as reminders of what I have to do. If they’re independent actions, I keep them in the Action folder until they’re done, then move the note to whatever folder is appropriate for reference. For projects, I make checkmarked lists in the notes and file them only when everything is checked off. This works better for me than any traditional to do list I’ve ever used, Google Tasks included. I’m working on an article describing this system in more detail for those of your who are interested in using Evernote for GTD.

Reading

Twitter: I get a lot of links to interesting reading material from the people I follow on Twitter. While I’ve tried getting everything this way by following the Twitter accounts of the blogs I generally follow, I’ve found that the ephemeral nature of Twitter means I miss too many links that way. So this is for stuff that I’ll find interesting, but that I probably wouldn’t have seen on my own. I use the stock Twitter client on all platforms, and just email the tweets linking to something interesting into my Evernote account.

(I used to use Google+ for this sort of thing, but it’s just too hard to get stuff out of G+, especially on iOS, and into Evernote where I want it. Further evidence of the “lock in” mentality that’s driving me away from Google in the first place.)

Google Reader: I keep all my regular, must-read blogs in Google Reader. Google’s just the best tool for the job for this, and I’m not going to ignore them out of spite. On iOS, I use RSS Flash g, an average GReader client that has one killer feature for me. I have it set up so that anything I star in GReader is automatically sent to Evernote, put in my Action notebook, and tagged with @reading. It literally could not be simpler to get the stuff I want to read later where I need it to be.

On the desktop, I generally open those articles in new tabs in Firefox and give them a closer look while I have the larger screen. If they really look interesting, I use the Firefox extension Clearly (by Evernote) to simplify the formatting and send the page and source URL to Evernote.

Evernote: Once everything’s in Evernote, the hardest part is finding time to read it all. I have a context set up as @reading and a saved search called “Reading List” defined as every note tagged @reading in the Action notebook. When I’m done reading an article, I just move it from the Action folder to one of my reference folders, along with adding any tags I feel are relevant. I try to keep my Evernote tags to a minimum, but I do have tags for each of my writing projects, so if an article is particularly applicable to some aspect of the Unification Chronicles, I’ll slap that tag on it to group it with the rest of my UC reference material.

Kindle, Calibre and Dropbox: For longer form reading, I’m sticking with Amazon’s Kindle platform for now. I’ve tried Nook and iBooks, and Kindle just does a better job of giving me what I want to read (books I bought from Amazon as well as those I bought elsewhere) everywhere I want to read it (iPhone, iPad to be procured later, Android phone, Windows PC, physical e-ink Kindle).

That said, I also download every book I buy on the Kindle store, strip it of DRM and file it in Calibre. I use the portable version of Calibre, and store both the app and my library in my Dropbox. Most books are stored in epub, mobi and zipped HTML formats for safe-keeping, and I can email any of the books I didn’t buy from Amazon directly to my Kindle library whenever I want to read them.

Writing

Evernote: It makes sense to keep my drafts together with my reference material, so I do all my actual writing in Evernote as well. While Evernote supports editing rich text notes even in the mobile apps (finally), as it turns out I don’t use it. I keep my drafts in plain text and use Markdown for rich text markup. This keeps things simple and I don’t have to worry about losing the formatting should something hiccup. The Evernote Windows client even supports word count, something I wish they’d add to the iOS client. When I’m done with a draft, I either paste the Markdown-formatted text directly into my blog (which understands Markdown thanks to a WordPress plugin), or convert it to HTML for conversion to ebook formats.

The Elephant In The Room

Between writing, reference and task management, I spend most of my day in Evernote. This may seem like putting all my eggs in a different, yet still consolidated, basket, but it’s worth pointing out that I could dump Evernote and switch to Simplenote or just a collection of plain text files in Dropbox at a moment’s notice if needed. Evernote is the most convenient for me, but certainly not the only option.

Social Networking

Twitter: As referenced above, Twitter’s pretty much the only social network I have time for anymore, and even that is mostly skimming for interesting links. For what I do with them, the stock iOS and Android clients are fine. I was really enjoying Flipboard on my iPhone, but there doesn’t seem to be a good way to get links out of it and directly into Evernote, so it fell by the wayside.

Google Voice: This will probably be the hardest Google dependency to shake, assuming I ever do. My phone number is a Google Voice number, and that’s how people call and text me. Efforts to find a similar universal texting solution, like Apple’s iMessage, have met with a collective “meh” from my friends, so I’m stuck with how they know to contact me. At least using Google Voice means I’m not locked in to any particular carrier or local phone number.

Web

FirefoxThis one’s easy. I need a modern standards compliant, cross platform web browser that doesn’t phone home and share everything I do online with Microsoft, Google or Apple. That leaves Firefox. (Shush, Opera users.) There’s a lot to like in Firefox over even Chrome, much less IE 9. In particular, I can set the fonts to what I want them to be and override the web site fonts. It’s a small thing, but I like consistency.

And of course Firefox now supports Sync, so I can have the same settings on both my work and personal laptops, and Firefox for Android on my Galaxy Nexus. It’d be nice if there was an iOS version of Firefox, but I guess we know who to blame for that one. As a stopgap I use Firefox Home for iOS, which at least gives me my bookmarks and tabs open on other devices.

Lastly, I like how Firefox is the most Fitts Law compliant browser on the market. Little things count.

Finance

CoinKeeper: I wish I could say I used Mint.com to keep track of my finances, but alas, they don’t get along with my bank’s security policies. For now, I’m using CoinKeeper for iOS, which does sync to their own cloud service so it’s interoperable between devices (this is less useful now than it will be when they release their iPad and Android clients, but it’s good for backup now). I’ll have a full review of CoinKeeper soon, but for now let’s say it’s the first mobile finance app I’ve really liked since QuickBudget on Palm OS, and for largely the same reasons.

Audio

iTunes: I know it’s old school, but I still have an iTunes library of almost 5,000 songs (DRM-free MP3 files), and sync a good 10% of that locally to my phone. I don’t always have good data coverage, and even when I do, I don’t always want to use part of my precious monthly data cap on streaming music.

Rdio: Not all of the music I like is music I own, however. My Rdio collection is much, much larger than my iTunes library, and I use this liberally to listen to stuff I either don’t have in iTunes, or want to listen to right now but don’t have synced to my phone.

Pandora: I also pay for a Pandora account and have a few dozen stations set up for various things I might be in the mood to listen to. Most of my Pandora usage, however, isn’t music at all, but stand up comedy, which I listen to via my iPhone (on wifi) on my nightstand as I fall asleep.

Stitcher: Probably at least half (or more) of the time I’m listening to audio on my phone, I’m listening to podcasts on Stitcher. What puts this podcatcher above the rest is that it’s multiplatform (iOS, Android, web browser) and syncs your queue and where you left off on each podcast across devices. Start listening to Tech News Today on my iPhone, finish listening through my laptop speakers in Firefox when I get home.

Audible: And of course for listening to actual audiobooks, there’s nothing better than Audible. I can listen on my iPhone, in iTunes, on Android, on my Kindle. And even though I’m no longer a monthly subscriber, I managed to collect over 500 audiobooks when I was, and I still haven’t listened to all of them.

Video and Photos

Dropbox: Until I decided Google had too much of my stuff, I kept all my photos in Picasa. As an Android and Google Plus user, this was almost default and automatic, since Google Plus would upload any photo I took with my phone to Picasa anyway. I’m in the process now of downloading all my photos from Picasa, filtering out the duplicates or the stuff I just don’t need anymore, and moving these into my Dropbox account. In Dropbox they’re still sharable, in a more independent location, synced automatically to all my PCs (local copies are important) and Dropbox will even add to my storage allowance to compensate for the extra space taken up by all the photos. I believe the same thing (within limits) applies to video, so I might upload some of my must-have videos there too.

Netflix: I’m a big fan of Netflix. They’ve had their issues recently, and lost a lot of content that I miss (come on, Warner, give back Babylon 5!). But for less than $10/month, I still have access to way more entertainment content than I can possibly watch. I’m working my way through all the Star Trek at the moment (halfway into DS9 season 4, then on to Voyager after DS9), and I still have all the various Stargate series to go through, all 300+ episodes. And people keep telling me how good Arrested Development is; I should probably watch it before the new episodes, commissioned by Netflix, air.

Amazon Prime: I bought my Amazon Prime membership mostly for the free shipping, kept it for the Kindle Lending Library (and more free shipping). But a useful side benefit of Prime is that I also have a large library of free video I can stream as a backup if I’m having problems with Netflix. Prime also has reasonably priced rentals of newer TV and movies.

Life Rolls

Kris Rusch has an interesting point in this week’s Business Rusch column. She talks about how writers can be sidetracked from writing, often for extended time, but major life upheavals.

My brain was busy these past eight months with Real Life. Imaginary worlds just weren’t as vivid or as important as they usually were—and that included other people’s books, television, and movies. I had little patience for anything that didn’t grab my attention immediately.

I’ve felt guilty as all hell since, well, since last summer, for not writing more fiction. I tell myself I want to write. I tell myself I’ll get back to it, really. I’ve even been excited about new projects. But I’ve actually written very little.

It wasn’t until reading this column by Kris that I realized I wasn’t writing because I’d had a heckuva life roll. I lost my job in January. For reasons I don’t want to get into here, I couldn’t fall back on unemployment insurance. I had no source of income and bills to pay, a roof to keep over my head.

Yet it didn’t occur to me why made up stories weren’t very important to me, except out of habit and guilt. Even my reading material over that time was almost entirely nonfiction.

My life is back on track now, and the urge to write has come back with a vengeance. I’m probably going to start posting WOYP colums twice a week for a while, on Mondays and Thursdays, and see how that goes. I’ll also be blogging about non-techie things, like this, as the mood strikes me.

And slowly, the urge to write fiction is starting to stir. Not just feeling guilty that I’m not writing, but actually wanting to write it. And of course, the way to get back into writing after a life roll is the same as breaking out of a writer’s block.

You write a word. Then you write another. Repeat as necessary.

Do non-white heroes hurt book sales?

Harlequin had done extensive market research, she said.  They knew which titles were hits and which were flops.  And whenever they published a book with an Asian hero or heroine, no one bought those books.  They might be the best stories in the line, but they invariably failed in the marketplace.

“I want your books to be bestsellers,” she said.  “And this will hurt your sales.”

Tess Gerritsen

It struck me as odd, years ago, when I got the first “thank you” for making the protagonist in my Between Heaven and Hell series, Daniel Cho, a Korean-American. I wanted Daniel to stand out, and I thought Yet Another White Guy would be cliche as my hero. Especially considering that as the series plays out, Daniel becomes one of the most important human beings to ever live. I thought giving that destiny to Biff McWhitebread would be a waste of a good opportunity to do something else. So being a big fan of Margaret Cho, I gave him her surname, and a somewhat stereotypical Asian-American background, which Asian readers have ended up lauding for its authenticity.

But it never once occurred to me that it could hurt my sales.

Apparently, ignorance was bliss. Tess Gerritsen, whose Rizzoli and Isles novels I’ve loved for many years, posted today that the next R&I book will have two prominent Asian characters, and she felt like it was a breakthough being able to include them. Fortunately, the comments (now closed, alas) allowed many of her fans to cite examples of some of their favorite fiction that featured non-white leads. So it would seem I’m not in bad company.

But still, why did it come to this? Is this another example of publishing imposing a view on their readers that isn’t really there? After all, in the late 90s New York publishing declared that Horror and Westerns were dead genres, despite the fact that readers seem to continue gobbling up whatever slips past the conventional wisdom and gets published anyway. Did the same publishers “know” that their readers wouldn’t accept non-white leads, because books like that never sold, forgetting that they never sold because they were never published in the first place?