Recipe for pundit response to Hugh Howey’s suggestions

Recently, Hugh Howey wrote two interesting blog posts that outline what changes he would enact if he became the benevolent dictator of a large publishing company.

Don’t Anyone Put Me in Charge

I recently posted an audacious claim that major publishers are bound to emulate indies, which would be quite the reversal. I want to now explore how publishers could actually do this, how they could learn from self-published authors. Because I want publishers to do well. I want them to help new authors break out. I want them to keep bookstores open and readers happy. So what I’m going to do, in a very rambling fashion, is pretend that someone just put me in charge of a major publishing house. Let’s say HarperCollins (just to pick one at random). Here’s how I would blow the doors off my competitors and become the #1 publisher in the land (overtaking indies, which I estimate now rank #1 in total sales).

The post is full of suggestions on community, formats, bundling, contracts, schedules, marketing and locations that publishers really should take to heart. The slightly embarrassing part, though, is how many of them are common sense observations that should have been implemented years ago.

My Second Month on the Hypothetical Job

But now we’re in the second month, and we’ve got the easy changes behind us: DRM is a thing of the past; hardback sales have shot up with the ebook bundling; our authors are using the forums and coming up with great ideas (that we actually listen to and implement). Things are great. But they could be better. Now that we’re #1 and have some leverage, we’re gonna drop the bunker busters.

The second post then tackles returns, print on demand, free books, more marketing, branding, and authors. All of which is good.

So, here we have a couple of excellent, well reasoned posts on what needs to be done in the publishing industry. The best part is that we can already guess how the responses will go. The incumbent response to common sense suggestions is a genre of blog posts that really doesn’t get the credit it deserves, considering how incredibly widespread it is. So, to make the task easier for all of you pundits and publishing industry insiders, instead of picking the posts apart or responding to them (I mostly agree with them anyway) I’m going to give you an easy recipe for how to write a standard pro-industry response to blog posts like Hugh Howey’s.

Recipe for generic publishing industry insider response to articles demanding change

  1. Call common sense, toned-down blog posts ‘controversial’ or ‘provocative’. Especially if everybody with sense agrees with it and has expressed public support for its ideas.
  2. Pretend that things have already started to change so much that some of the suggestions are redundant, then mention how the issues mentioned aren’t that big a problem anyway and, actually, the way publishers have been doing it in the past is much better that what is suggested.
  3. Pick an inconsequential detail and deny it. Make sure it’s something that has no bearing on the overall argument but serves to subtly discredit the blogger without attacking them directly.
  4. Respond to a suggestion, making sure to waffle on by bringing in random observations as if they were counter-arguments. Pick one of the points made and write around it without addressing it directly. Try not to attack the suggestion head on but draw in non sequiturs and pretend they are relevant arguments. (‘But if that were true about book retail, all cats would be Sagittarians, wouldn’t they? Also, university professors. I mean, university professors!’)
  5. Act as if the suggestions aren’t based on independently verifiable critical observations by a third party on the publishing industry in general, and instead act as if they are wholly subjective opinions based on a single blogger’s personal experience and therefor not generally applicable.
  6. Make up a huge, big issue that isn’t in the post at all and then take the blogger to task for being for or against it (make it look like it was the post’s main topic even though it wasn’t mentioned at all) or lambast them for not going into such an obviously vital and important issue (derail it, baby!).
  7. Finish off by pretending you’ve just explained why the status quo is inevitable and also why that is the absolute best way that things can ever be and that any change is bad. So, so bad. And difficult to accomplish.
  8. Bonus points if you do any of the following:
    1. Imply that self-publishing is a bubble.
    2. Trot out the ‘ebook growth is stalling’ idea.
    3. Tell a story about somebody doing something stupid and then pretend that’s a strong counter-argument to whatever you want to argue against. Because stupid people are always relevant.
    4. Imply, or even outright claim, that self-published books are of a substantially lower quality than than the trite, homogenous, celebrity-obsessed output of other-publishing (as opposed to self-publishing). (‘Not a celebrity? Fine! We also love has-been and burned out celebrities. Niche markets! Loadsa money in them.’)
    5. Hint at every opportunity that this or that reform is expensive and requires a lot of work. Gotta make sure they know they should be hiring consultants!
    6. Hint at every opportunity that this is a complex problem that needs to be properly understood… by sending your staff to workshops, conferences, etc..
    7. Imply that other-publishers are somehow responsible for keeping the general quality of books high.

Just follow this recipe and you’ll have a kick-ass post that guarantees you a few more rides on the publishing industry consultancy gravy train. After all, would publishers give shit-loads of money to people who tell them that their stupid mistakes are stupid? Would they hire consultants who unnerve them with ideas and suggestions that require actual cultural change to implement?

Of course not. Publishers only give money to people like that by accident, like when their books turn out to be bestsellers.

Pessimistic ramblings and other fun links (week overview + further reading)

My stuff

  1. I wrote an end-of-year, start-of-year post

    Lot of people thought it was pessimistic and depressing. It’s probably depressing, but that’s because life is depressing (economic collapse, environmental collapse, corruption, plutocracies, etc., etc., it’s sensible to be depressed about the state of the world).

    Is it pessimistic? No, I don’t think so. I can think of a lot worse scenarios (lot lot worse). In this scenario at least people are writing.

  2. I announced the end of the Knights and Necromancers series

    And made the last two stories available for free. I hope to explain what I think of how the project went.

  3. I talked a bit about how to approach new kinds of products

    In a nutshell: stop following others and start doing research. It isn’t hard. Hire somebody to do it if you’ve been in management too long to figure it out.

  4. Stumbling into publishing

    I wrote about the genesis of the Knights and Necromancers self-publishing project. Hopefully a start of a series. We’ll see.

I may have lined up almost thirty posts to publish on the blog over the next month or so.

Fun stuff by others

Angelo Badalamenti explains how he wrote “Laura Palmer’s Theme”

Noelle Stevenson explains why Frozen is a reason to be slightly hopeful

I enjoyed Frozen. I don’t condone its failings, I had my issues with it, but in the end I saw a movie aimed at a mainstream audience where the central relationship is between two sisters, who love each other and try to save each other and have their own distinct personalities. A movie where the romantic interests are secondary and relatively incidental to the love between two women.

More here…

Judge says Arthur Conan Doyle estate can’t bend the law to suit their business model

There was one other part of the ruling that was somewhat important. In our post about the the Conan Doyle Estate’s response, we noted that the Estate tried to argue that every work after the initial Sherlock Holmes story should not be considered a “derivative work,” so various case law concerning derivative works should not apply. As we noted, there was no legal basis for this, and the only real reason the Estate seemed to come up with was that it was somehow insulting to suggest later works were “derivative.” Thankfully, the judge rejects that argument as well.

From “Judge Says That Sherlock Holmes Is In The Public Domain”.

Then some crazy-ass idiot over at Publishing Perspectives argues that the judge was a busybody for adjudicating based on law and legal precedent instead of storytelling logic:

When Courts Adjudicate the Quality of Literary Characters

No, he wasn’t adjudicating the quality of literary characters. That’s just stupid. And even if he were, the quality of literary characters should never trump the law. According to this line of reasoning judges should always make decisions based on what would make a better story, which isn’t just stupid, but also insane. The Arthur Conan Doyle estate wanted him to base his ruling on vague ideas like literary quality but the judge rejected it for good reason: it’s a very stupid idea.

Apparently the gender neutral term for niece/nephew is nibling

The publishing industry’s new product categories

(This is the first post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

A while back it was popular at many of the bigger publishers out there to release apps that they called ‘enhanced ebooks’. Some of them were branded as ‘book apps’, but that name too suffers from the same basic idiocy.

Enhanced ebooks is quite possibly the worst possible name that anybody could have thought of for a piece of media. It misses out on the one thing that is that particular genre’s greatest strength: it isn’t a book, not in any way shape or form. It’s an app.

And by virtue of being an app, it can have a structure and form that is entirely unlike the book, gaining in the process the business model flexibility that ebooks don’t have.

The state of play

The publishing industry has a set of standard bling that they use in place of interactivity whenever they implement something ‘enhanced’ or app-like. (Video, maps, slideshows, 3D widget crap, etc..)

Some of these approaches are confusing to say the least. Others are just plain dumb.

Commercial interactive textual content is a genre without direction. Everybody seems to be throwing stuff randomly against the wall to see what sticks.

Which would be fine if they didn’t keep picking up the spaghetti strands that didn’t stick just to try them again.

—Maybe I didn’t throw it hard enough?

Or, you just picked the wrong thing to throw.

—No, really. Jack over there is doing the same thing. I can’t let him get a lead in case this turns out to be a big market. I just need to throw harder.

No, you really don’t. Jack is making a mistake.

—Are you absolutely certain he’s making a mistake?

No, of course not. It’s impossible to be certain here, there are too many unknowns.

—Ah, so he could be right! Okay. I’ll try my best to throw harder next time. [Bends to pick up a cluster of spaghetti strands that hadn’t stuck to the wall and pitches it at the wall again.]

Nobody wants to be left behind so they all run as fast as they can in the wrong direction.

What to do, what to do?

Before you run, you first need a direction. Before you start an interactive project, you need to decide on what sort of project, and don’t just jump on whatever bandwagon you think others in the industry are on.

I don’t really care what your ‘why create’ reason is. As far as I’m concerned you don’t need a reason to create. But, if you want to create and if you want to do it on a regular basis, you need two prerequisites:

  1. You need projects you can figure out how to make.
  2. You need to have a sensible idea for how to fund project after project.

Costs and revenue. Two things that, at the very least, need to balance out.

If the projects are simple enough, then you can make them yourself and funding won’t be much of a problem. This lets you experiment and iterate your way towards discovering a genre, form, or medium you like.

But, a lot of the time you can’t do that. Especially not if the ‘you’ in that previous sentence is a corporation whose owners need it to stay relevant in a changing world.

There are three ways to slice the problem of deciding what to do.

  1. Look at the genres of interactive content (all of them, not just the crap publishers release). See if you find a few that inspire ideas.
  2. Look at the individual bits and features that make up the genres, go more granular than just looking at apps as a whole. Sometimes the approach and style is more important and inspiring than the whole.
  3. Look at your means and capabilities. It’s not a question of staying within your comfort zone but of making sure you don’t stray into mediocrity. If your ambitions vastly exceed your own capabilities, then you need a plan for how to grow them yourself, without outsourcing them to somebody who doesn’t give a damn and is just out for a buck.

(Yes, this is a lot of work even before you start planning the project. What did you expect?)

Finally, once you have a set of ideas and aspirational projects, you need to whittle them down, or at least prioritise them. That means you need to look at the cost-revenue balance for each one. And to do that you need to figure out the business model, often from scratch because, unlike print, interactive media doesn’t come with a business model attached.

The last two Knights and Necromancers stories

(This is the first Stumbling into Publishing post.)

A while back I started an experiment where I self-published a series of sword and sorcery novellas.

I’m ready to declare the experiment a failure for a variety of reasons.

The biggest reason isn’t that I didn’t get any readers (although they were very few and far between) but that I’m dissatisfied with the product. When I started I had what I thought were six decent novellas. But, the more I’ve looked at them the more obvious their major flaws and deficiencies become.

My plan for 2014 is to spend the year rewriting the novellas as a single story, fix everything about the setting, characterisation, and plot that isn’t working for me (which is a lot), and then figure out what to do with it once that’s done.

But, for those few of you who have been following the series, below are the final two stories in the series as originally planned, in EPUB and in MOBI.

I’ll be taking down the first four ebooks from sale and the web over the next couple of weeks. And I’m also going to write a few blog posts discussing why I consider the experiment a failure, all the things I did wrong, and all that went wrong.

  • Knights and Necromancers 5: EPUB or MOBI
  • Knights and Necromancers 6: EPUB or MOBI

Random, loosely connected, thoughts on the future

Some end-of-year thoughts. Few of them happy ones.

Rule of thumb, anybody who hesitates to spend $10 on a product that will improve an activity is performing that activity as an amateur (i.e. isn’t earning an income on that activity or doesn’t see it as an income-earner). This is a rule of thumb for the producer, not a judgement of the buyer. The idea is that if you produce a work that improves somebody’s professional activity your price, even discounted, should be much higher than that of an entertainment product. Much, much higher.

I think in the long run we’ll come to see EPUB3, fixed layout especially, and IDPF’s work in general as a very costly mistake, sort of as if XHTML2 and ECMAscript 4 had actually become the minimum baseline for web development.

We are poor and have no money for joy. Youth unemployment is at a long term high and will not go down in the near future. Guess who are the biggest media consumers around? Long-term under-employment means that those under thirty today face a lifetime of struggling on the edge of poverty, owning nothing, owing everything.

Wattpad might not be the future, but the future will look more like Wattpad than it will the publishing industry (current self-publishing clique included). It will look the same to casual readers: one or two books a year break out into mainstream awareness and, backed by a large publisher, it will sell tonnes through bookstores, Tescos, and Walmarts.

Added benefit: we who are poor and have no money for joy can get stories for free if we want to.

The fiction publishing industry’s future is likely to look similar to the present day comics industry:

  • Sales one-tenth to a hundredth of their heyday.
  • Caters exclusively to pre-existing fans that grow older and fewer every year.
  • Storytelling so derivative and so creatively inbred that if they were human they’d have three arms and nostrils on their backside.

The truly innovative comics are largely prestige projects that don’t sell that much (like the current run of Hawkeye comics or FF), published by loveable nutters (like Fantagraphics, the world would truly be a sadder place were it not for loveable nutters like them), or translated (e.g. Naoki Urasawa). While at the same time the only truly mainstream publishing efforts are webcomics which get little credit from the ‘real’ industry: they reach larger numbers, have a greater variety in genres, have a much greater variety in audience, and are released for free.

Most webcomics are labours of love that never earn money. The revenue streams are ads (largely exchanges with other comics, only really lucrative for some genres of comics), merchandising, and Kickstarters for print books (the only way most fans can get a ‘real-life’ souvenir for the comics they love).

The only problem with Wattpad’s crowd-funding platform is that it might be a bit too early. Everybody involved will learn a lot over the next year or two, and these platforms will begin to attract established talent. A Wattpad-oriented crowd-funding platform will be a lot more interesting in a couple of year’s time. If Wattpad can keep their effort going through the awkward first years, they stand to be very big.

Theres a good chance that, as now, the future publishing industry will have a sharp divide between writers who make a living from writing or illustrating and the rest who earn very little, but with one big difference: you—every other profession in the publishing industry—will be unemployed and earning nothing. Corporations and publishing organisations will be fine. They just won’t be staffed with editors, proofreaders, designers, or illustrators. It’ll be a world of management and creative serfs, with the occasional serf rewarded with elevation, keeping the rest eager and pliant.

What would new iterations of the Wattpad-model look like? What form are future disruptors likely to take?

Three ideas:

  • Mini-wattpads. Either focussing on a niche or on a specific audience.
  • Curator-locusts. Small publishing entities that hover around wattpad and similar projects and gobble up projects to arbitrage to their audience.
  • Thrillbents. Coop-style publishers. Do stuff online for free, mixing in with your audience. Give them ways to pay you (subscriptions for insider extras, pay what you want digital sales for convenience, Kickstarters for print).
  • Blogs plus Topatoco/Make That Thing. Authors working from their own sites but all use a service company for merchandising, sales, and product management. Cafepress for those starting out and unproven. Graduating to more high end services such as Topatoco as they mature and gain audiences.

The ‘End of Scarcity’ dogma is profoundly evil in a world where investment banks and hedge funds make billions and kill thousands by jacking up food prices through speculation. I don’t care if the marginal cost of all media goes down to zero, that does not herald a world of abundance.

Great text transcends nothing


Working on ebooks is how I make my living. Therefor you should take everything I write about ebooks with a grain of salt. Anybody whose economic future depends on specific viewpoints is more likely to hold those views, if not for any other reason than to avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.

Yes, that does mean you should be sceptical about bankers on banking, real estate agents on real estate, and insurance salespeople on insurance, especially when they are defending the societal value of their profession as a whole. Assume they are biased and compensate accordingly. Of course, that can backfire when the professional in question is aware of their own biases and has already tried to compensate.

With that in mind…

There’s a peculiar sort of joy that comes from reading a good print edition of a great book.

@AthenaHelivoy said this here thing:

If Ebooks looked good, this sudden “novel” devotion to “intrinsic worth” wouldn’t have sprung up. … “Great lit transcends blahblah” is an uralt non-argument revamped for Ebooks.

From here and here.

There we have the problem with ebooks today in a nutshell (that and the fact that none of us actually own the ebooks we’ve bought, we only own licenses).

That isn’t to say that the ebook reading experience can’t be as good as reading print in some cases. The accessibility features of many reading apps open new titles up to those partially or wholly without sight. Changing the font size similarly helps those with bad sight. Those who read a lot of books appreciate the ebook’s relative weightlessness.

But for the vast majority of readers, ebooks as presented by Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and co. have only three real advantages. They are:

  • Cheaper
  • Immediate
  • Lighter

That’s it. Those are important advantages and, in many cases, all people need to pick an ebook over print. But ebooks still have miles to go.

Ebooks generally look worse than your average trade paperback or hardcover book. If competently done, they can manage to match or exceed the quality of a cheap paperback.

But if you pick an ebook at random and compare it to its print versions, odds are the ebook will look worse:

  • Typography will generally be worse. Automated pagination in existing ereaders ignores quite a few details that print typesetters pay a lot of attention to.
  • The resolution will be slightly lower, even on retina display screens.
  • The typeface will look worse and be less readable. Most fonts are designed for print and will look too thin and wispy on a high resolution screen. Odds are none of the fonts your app lets you choose are properly designed for screen reading.
  • On a lot of devices and many apps (Android and older iOS devices) your interaction with the ebook will have a slight but infuriating lag in even text-only novels. And if your book has a lot of images you can expect a substantial infuriating lag.

Moreover, as I’ve written about before, for many readers ebooks the experience as a whole will be worse because tactility is an important part of how we experience and remember things.

Some of these problems are solvable in practice. We can embed fonts that have been designed to look good on screens. We can mark the ebook up properly and pay attention to screen-specific detail in the stylesheets. And we can make sure to read our books in apps and devices that are responsive and render the ebook well.

Other problems are solvable in theory. LaTex and similar systems show that automated pagination should be a solvable problem. And there shouldn’t be any reason why we can’t match the overall typesetting quality of print.

The problem is that we manifestly don’t. And that’s because none of the key players care. It isn’t an issue of can’t but one of won’t.

Publishers don’t care about ebook quality. They’ll scrutinise every detail of the print edition while, as @liza quipped at the Books in Browsers conference the other day, not bothering to mark up a list in an ebook as a list. Ebooks, even from big publishers, are full of OCR errors and other mistakes. Almost every ebook backlist title I’ve read so far has had an OCR error in it somewhere (a numerical ‘1’ replacing an uppercase ‘I’ being the perennial classic). Publishers quite simply do not care what the ebook version looks like.

Ebooks are often hidebound by the demand that they match the styles of their print edition, even when many of their print design choices are grossly inappropriate for digital. (Like drop caps. Drop caps simply do not work in digital since they can’t be done without compromising accessibility where they break up the word.)

Hang on…

The Drop Cap rant interlude

Modern drop caps are a nostalgic affectation by people keen on spicing up their books with decorations but who are too stingy to pay an actual illustrator to draw an actual goddamn illustration.

Originally most drop caps were proper illustrations. Each was lovingly rendered with an awareness of its context, often commenting on them in witty and clever ways, and they did a marvellous job of spicing up the reading, as all well-made illustrations do. Reusing the drop caps from a book made about as much sense as reusing the illustrations.

Then drop caps became homogenised, pasteurised, blended, stamped, and cookie-cut into standard typographic forms. They got pre-made as fonts for people who wouldn’t know decent illustrations even if they were beaten into their heads at a picket line. People who think they can get the same effect as an illustration by buying something pre-fabricated from a font foundry.

You can’t. Never. The only effect you get from a modern pre-fabricated drop cap is vacuous nostalgia and the joy of being able to piss on the grave of the art of book illustration.

Then add to that the fact that they simply do not work in a cross-platform and accessible way in digital and you get only one conclusion:


Yes. I hate drop caps. Unless you’re doing them properly as custom illustrations, of course. Then you get a pass.

The Joy of Reading

There’s a hard to define thrill that comes out of reading a good book that is well supported by it’s context and design. It’s like those moments in theatre where everything comes together to bring you a well-written play, with a great set design, perfect costumes, fantastic actors, with tone-perfect direction. The text of a play cannot transcend its actors or its staging no matter how great. Its words cannot dispel the curse of a mumbling actor or wash away the colours of a garish set. No phrase, no matter how beautifully crafted, can tone down an overacting diva.

A novel, no matter how great, cannot transcend its typography, packaging, or design.

Ebooks, quite simply, have to improve.

Quarantine all ebooks

Michael Kozlowski had this here reactionary fit:

I think its very important for all major bookstores to have an indie section because small publishers and indie authors are abusing the system.

Others have highlighted the problems with this plan.

The short version of the counter-argument: what’s a self-publisher?

Most of the major ebook retail platforms direct small publishers to use their self-serve platforms not everybody who uses them is a solo author publishing his own work.

But, there’s still an set of obvious problems here that needs to be solved:

  • Most search results in ebook retail are full of crap. You search for an author or a title and get shitloads irrelevant titles. Amazon isn’t as bad as the rest at this but they all suffer from it to some degree.
  • Dishonest publishers lie in their metadata so that they crop up all over the place, often inappropriately. (This is the cause of the recent PR disaster that caused WH Smith to shutter their website temporarily.)
  • Dishonest publishers choose author names and book titles a little bit too close to popular ones.
  • Well, lets’ just say there is a lot of general purpose gaming of the system by dishonest people.

You can try and solve one thing but then the dishonest will just find a new exploit. It’s like the arms race between Google and black hat SEO folks all over again.

Instead I have a simple suggestion:

Quarantine all new ebook titles, even those from big publishers. Only remove the quarantine when either the ebook or its print counterpart has sold more than 100 copies.

Quarantined titles only appear on Author pages and if you follow a direct link to their page. This means that most publisher online sales and marketing campaigns would still work as normal.

Once a title has sold 100 copies it is reviewed by a human to see if it fulfils the ebook retail platform’s quality requirements. If it does, quarantine would be lifted. If it doesn’t, the publisher gets a notice as to what it is that needs to be fixed.

–But this would destroy the sales for most self-publishers.

Not really. It would smash everybody who doesn’t have the platform, PR, or sales mojo to sell more than a 100 copies down to zero. But it would increase search discoverability and the sales of those who do sell more than 100 copies. Consider it a ‘you must be this tall to ride’ kind of thing. The ebook retail platform would probably increase their overall sales with the added bonus of preventing forever PR disaster like the one that took place last weekend.

Would it piss everybody off? Absolutely, and on that basis alone I think it should be implemented on all major platforms.

The self-publisher’s perspective of the ebook market

The writer Rosen Trevithick said this here thing:

For goodness sake Kobo, I took a risk publishing some of my titles with a relatively small eBook vendor. It took days to jump through your formatting hoops and I lost my bonuses for being exclusive to Amazon. I did this because I wanted to support an alternative to the market leader. You reward me by stabbing small publishing companies in the back. I’ll think twice about publishing with you in the future because you clearly aren’t ready to earn a larger share of the market.

Everything she says is true. But… I’d like to use this current crisis and her point about Kobo shafting small publishers as an excuse to look at what the ebook market looks like for a self- or small publisher.

  • Kobo’s search has always sucked (discoverability is non-existent) and they clearly have some sort of infrastructure problem (otherwise they’d have done the ‘purge’ the same way Amazon did, by flipping all suspect titles to Draft and forcing people to submit via a tighter process). They’re also clearly willing to completely shaft everybody using their self-serve publishing platform Writing Life whenever it suits them, PR-wise.
  • WH Smith. Non-existent as far as most self-publishers are concerned. No sales. No love. And now their site is shuttered.
  • Waterstones. Again, non-existent as far as most self-publishers are concerned. No sales. No love.
  • Foyles. Ditto.
  • Insert random bookstore’s Adobe DRM-based ebook platform. Ditto.
  • Feedbooks. Love the people behind Feedbooks but most self-publishers won’t even have heard about them, and you can only offer your stuff for free.
  • B&N Nook. Volatile as hell. Seems to be in terminal decline. Also unavailable to non-US self-publishers.
  • iBooks. A major hassle to use and submit. And, for most people I’ve spoken to, near non-existent sales.
  • Smashwords. Only really useful as a way to get into the above stores. Otherwise, meh.
  • Kindle. Stagnant platform. Almost all of the new features (series, Kindle Shorts, etc.) belong to Amazon Publishing and aren’t self-serve (and after the WH Smith porno brouhaha, two guesses as to why that is). But, it is where all of the sales are. And exclusivity offers several features that are likely to increase reach, visibility, and sales.

For those of us interested in a more open and varied ebook market, there is a singular harsh truth we must accept:

Amazon is playing the game better than the rest. That’s why they have the biggest share of the market.

I’d bet that even if Amazon abandoned discounts across the board, they’d still have their current marketshare simply because they seem to be doing a better job. Even their Kindle for iOS app has improved into borderline tolerability after the latest update.

So, if the EPUB crowd wants to compete, they need to up their game.

But, no. Instead they are either in a tailspin (B&N, WH Smith’s ecommerce side) or seem to be perpetually operating with all weapons set to ‘bland’ (Kobo, iBooks).

And, which is the fun bit, whenever something goes wrong, they don’t seem to hesitate to shaft the self-publisher.

So, I find it hard to blame any self-publisher who decides to go exclusive with Amazon. Nor do I blame any consumer who decides to buy a Kindle device or sticks to Kindle ebooks only. You don’t win customers by appealing to their charity. You have to give suppliers a reason to work with you, and buyers a reason to buy from you.

ETA: At the moment, the most sensible strategy for consumers is to buy from Amazon (and make DeDRMed backups if they are computer literate enough to Google and then use a drag and drop app). KF8 files convert nicely to EPUBs is you plan on moving to an EPUB-based platform in the future. At the same time the most sensible strategy for a small publisher is ‘it depends’.

Light evening trauma

One of the guilty pleasures me and my sister have is our enjoyment of crap TV, usually chatting on IM as we do, shaking our heads at the crap we’re watching.

—OMG, I can’t believe X did Y to Z.’

—I know! That is sooo out of character, the writers must have it in for X.

And so on.

Last year Grimm and Warehouse 13 served the purpose nicely. Mostly inoffensive silly fun. And judging by episode three, Agents of Shield might join them this year.

Of course, this only works if the experience of watching these shows is largely disposable.

One series that used to be on this list was Downton Abbey. Less realistic than Warehouse 13. Characters so two-dimensional that they make extras on Buffy seem like they have epic backstories. Soapy story lines. Incredibly reactionary and conservative politics portrayed in such a ham-fisted way that it borders on parody. It’s been one of the greatest ‘laugh at’ TV series in recent years. Perfect.

(Many of you know exactly where I’m going with this.)

Anybody who has been in a serious accident knows the psychological effects of trauma. If you’re lucky you come out of the incident mostly unscathed, if a bit keyed up and disoriented. You think you’re fine.


  • You don’t stop being keyed up, even days later. Your body is still in stress mode.
  • Your sleep is disrupted, you wake up more often, and don’t feel as rested.
  • Because the cause of the stress isn’t immediate, you are likely to misattribute the stress as anger or resentment towards those around you or your circumstances. Our brains aren’t more sophisticated than that.
  • You can sometimes become hyperaware of potential dangers, to the point of being touched off by trivial things. Because you can’t make sense of what’s happening to you, instead of realising you’re overreacting, you blame somebody close to you, taking offence to something trivial.
  • These negative effects can last for a very long time, often until the trauma sufferer is taught how to process them.

A traumatic experience has long-term and far-reaching effects. The psychological aftereffects of major traumatic incidents can ruin lives just as much as the trauma itself.

We are complex empathic animals whose mental processes can be ‘hijacked’ by exterior forces. Otherwise storytelling would be pointless and ineffective. For this reason portraying major trauma in a story can have significant effects on the audience.

There is a difference between trauma and violence in storytelling. It’s a matter of perspective, narrative distance, psychological detail and duration. If the character is one which the reader has ‘embodied’, i.e. feel a strong empathy for, then any act of violence against that character risks being traumatic.

This trauma is entirely psychological but the audience can still feel the full psychological consequences of trauma.

Yes, every trauma effect I listed above can be induced by simply reading something in a story or watching a scene in a movie. Sleepless nights. Constant stress. Irrational anger. Broken friendships.

Having experienced similar trauma in the past increases the likelihood of being affected. Ask, for example, anybody who lived through 11 September 2001 in New York what it felt like to watch the disaster porn sections of Avengers or Man of Steel. There’s a strong chance it ruined the movie for them.

But you don’t have to have experienced the act in real life if the depiction is severe enough and if you relate strongly to the character.

I’ve never been raped but watching the Swedish movie adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor) was a nauseating experience for me. I’d gone in forewarned about the major rape scene and so planned on skipping it (which I did) but I wasn’t warned about an earlier scene in the movie.

The aftereffects I suffered from cover most of the list I outlined above. Sleepless nights. Misdirected anger. Physical discomfort due to stress. It took me a couple of weeks to fully process and recover the experience.

(Yeah, I related a lot to Lisbeth in the early parts of the movie. I didn’t have her fashion sense but many of her characteristics reminded me of myself when I was a teenager.)

Strangely enough the novel was easier to deal with. I found it easier to flip past the rape scenes there as I churned on in disbelief about how incredibly badly written the book is. I don’t know if it was the English translation, but the book I read was rubbish and Lisbeth becomes increasingly caricatured as the story goes on. And, of course, the more cartoonish the book became, the less effective the depictions became. (Thankfully.)

Why did I read the book, even with skipping through major sections? To be able to look people in the face and tell them that I not only thought it was rubbish but that it is an actively and brutally misogynistic novel. I’m annoying like that.

The last time I was this badly affected by a movie was when I watched American History X. Rape scenes always do this to me. They are a surefire way to ruin the week, not just a single evening. The more closely I relate to the victim and the more graphic the depiction, the more severe the effect.

Unfortunately for me, rape is for many writers the go-to mechanism for female character development or as a way to spice up the drama in the story. Even in comics (DC, I’m looking at you: “They did what to Sue Dibny?”). So, it’s not just offensive but also a cliche. This means I need to be careful about what I read or watch, often requiring research on my part so that I can avoid having my light evening entertainment ruin my day.

But it’s not just light entertainment.

One recent example is the apparently excellent Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. Highly recommended by a lot of people, its core concept hinges on a rape. An act that is apparently depicted. Of course, I’m told Nnedi Okorafor handles it all with deft and flair and substantial skill—it’s not the work of a hack looking to spice things up. But a little bit of research convinced me that reading this book would be an incredibly traumatic experience and so I dropped it from my to-buy list. No book is good enough for me to subject myself to that willingly.

Who Fears Death sets itself apart by having a strong conceptual reason for depicting rape. Most of the time it is gratuitous, a sign that the writer doesn’t consider women to be fully human and is only capable of thinking about them as sex objects.

For somebody with that perspective, the only possible tragic backstory or life-changing event for a sex object is sexual trauma. Their only valid experiences are sexual. And their punishment for not acting like sexual objects is always rape or some other form of sexual assault. In these stories women never have female friends or relatives, only romantic rivals and maybe a mother (you have to have her to do the mother-in-law jokes, obviously). Their power and importance is always either sexual or linked to their fertility. No woman in these stories gains influence and relevance through skill, practice, wit, or experience.

The flip side of this are writers who portray women as deified cyphers put on a pedestal. Portraying them as mysteries is just as dehumanising. (Oh, and if women are indecipherable mysteries to you it’s probably because you are a narcissist who doesn’t actually care what the women around you think. Women are no more mysteries than men or children. People are always partially indecipherable because we aren’t a telepathic species. Men just think they know what their male friends are thinking. Most of the time they’re wrong even about that.)

The depiction of women in most fiction (and so-called ‘literature’ is often just as guilty of this as genre fiction) is horrifyingly bad. Which is bad enough, if it wasn’t also often actively traumatising.

The pivotal scene in last week’s episode of Downton Abbey (episode three of series four) was the rape of a major character. Fortunately, me and my sister don’t watch the ‘silly series’ we watch as soon as they’re out and so encountered spoilers before the fact. We won’t be watching the episode, nor are we likely to watch the series ever again.

Watching or reading things as they premiere—being early to a story—is increasingly risky as more and more writers buy into the idea that rape is a narrative inevitability for female characters in stories that are pretending to be ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’.

Which would be fine—you can always just wait a bit and read the first online reviews which usually warn you about these things—if that same narrative inevitability of rape wasn’t fast becoming an article of faith among the writers and producers of ongoing series (comics, TV, or novels). As the series plod on and the creators look for ways to spice things up, the probability of a writer, editor, or producer proposing a rape scene approaches one. Then, out of the blue, a rape scene injects itself into a series you otherwise considered a known quantity.

And what was a silly, stupid, and trivial piece of entertainment suddenly stops being silly, stupid, or trivial and instead become light evening trauma.

Just say no to ebook CSS and JS

You think I’m joking?

One of the biggest issue publishers face with ebook production is the somewhat adversarial attitude ereader and app vendors have taken towards publisher stylesheets.

Publisher styles are largely overridden by default at Kobo, B&N, and in Aldiko. Even iBooks requires you to slot in a set of proprietary meta tags before it respects your font and image decisions.

Problems with vendor stylesheet overrides:

  • They are inconsistent from platform to platform, vendor to vendor, and device to device.
  • They are partial and only cover a portion of the meanings and structures you can express in even basic HTML.
  • Some of them are only applied when the ebook is loaded through the vendor’s service, not when opened directly by an app (I’m looking at you Kobo).
  • They make regular CSS unpredictable. CSS is a complex language so mixing regular CSS in with a set of aggressive overrides can have unforeseen results, like low-contrast element colours, invisible text, badly sized or even indecipherable images, and more.

Vendor overrides are one of the biggest time sinks in ebook development. Because they are only partial, we have to include our own styles, but the mix is often unpredictable. The number of basic things that break, seemingly randomly, in Kobo, iBooks, or whatever random RMSDK-based ereader you have this week is too high to be disregarded. So, we test, and fix, and test, and fix.

(The simpler your stylesheet is, the less you have to test, obviously. Which is a decent motivation to make your styles as minimal as you can. Unfortunately, too many publishers and authors are dead set on forcing ebooks to mimic the styles of their print edition, filling it with all sorts of stylistic crap that’s patently inappropriate to digital. I draw the line at drop caps, which just can’t be done properly in an accessible way in digital. They are a trite Victorian affectation that compromises readability.)

To make matters worse, a lot of the ebooks publishers are releasing are full of insane crap that even the worst hack web developer wouldn’t dream of trying to pull off. Like making every element of a book either a P or a SPAN.

Which is a practice that makes the noise people at the IDPF make about non-xml HTML5 being tag soup pretty ridiculous, XHTML is just as capable of non-semantic tag soup as HTML. Oh, and it also makes any claim of EPUB3’s superior accessibility rather silly as there’s no way for screen readers to tell which P is supposed to be a heading and which is actually a paragraph. Complex accessibility features are meaningless if all the publisher gives you is a indistinct blob of tags.

Then there’s the tendency of some systems to output ebooks where the only styles come in the form of style attributes on every single element, making any attempt to work with the styles of the ebook impossible.

The biggest problem with these ebooks is that everybody thinks they are okay because they look okay when opened. Headings are bold and large, because that’s a bit of CSS most vendors respect. Quotes are indented. Italics are italicised. The basic structure of the ebook looks preserved and the stupid crap in the ebook is ignored. Vendor overrides basically work for crap ebooks. From both the publisher’s and the vendor’s perspective this is a success. The vendor is happy because an atrocious ebook file is made readable and a large portion of their inventory remains sellable. The publisher is happy because they are short-sighted fucks who just got away with not giving a flying toss about ebooks and feel fine about making zero investment in the biggest growth area in publishing since the introduction of the paperback (yes, they are morons).

But, they are both wrong. That ebook is broken and needs to be fixed. It’s inaccessible to screen readers. It’s an opaque blob to text analysis like Amazon’s X-Ray. It’s an indecipherable mess to search engines (which are going to be damn important in the future). An ebook that doesn’t have structure is broken and unacceptable.

I propose a conditional surrender

The more I discover about existing publisher ebook production processes, the more I talk to people ‘on the inside’, the clearer it becomes that a substantial portion of existing ebook inventory is quite simply rubbish. No structure. Crap stylesheet. Broken markup.

So I propose that ereader vendors simply turn all publisher styles off and never even consider enabling javascript. Considering how much of a mess these clowns are making of basic markup and CSS, how likely do you think it is that they can do javascript safely?

Not bloody likely at all.

In exchange, what we need you to do is to improve your built-in stylesheets. We need you to support common markup practices like figures and captions, headings and subheadings, horizontal rules that don’t look like a 90s flashback and so on. Best if you support them both in markup patterns and as class-based microformats.

WordPress’s classes for captions and images with .alignleft .alignright and the like are a good start. As are common microformats such as hAtom and hNews.

And if you can support basic HTML5 structures such as:

    <p>Tag line</p>


    <img blablabla />
    <figcaption>The image's caption</figcaption>

If you manage to render every bit of those patterns appropriately (e.g. subheadings, tag lines, captions, etc.), that would be nice as well.

Oh, and don’t forget some nice styles for tables. Standard syntax highlighting for CODE elements would be a bonus.

–You aren’t serious?

I absolutely am. The key here is a full-featured built-in stylesheet that correctly styles all major structural elements of the book. This would mean that the only thing you need to do to make sure an ebook is okay is to load it and see. If it looks like a heading it will be a heading, etc.. Everything will be what it looks like. Books with crap, inaccessible, structure will have crap inaccessible styles and so be exposed immediately. Books that are properly structured will look as great as the vendor and reader (with their chosen settings) intended.

It would do to ebooks what RSS and SEO did to websites.

(In case you weren’t around in the web industry over a decade or so ago: the structural quality of web development tools and CMSes didn’t begin to improve until client apps that required structural quality began to be important, namely RSS/Atom readers and search engine crawlers. Before that most tools generated markup that was an atrocious mess of tables and font tags. Any publisher who thinks search engines won’t be important to ebooks is very mistaken.)

Ebook production would be dramatically cheaper and simpler, largely consisting of making sure that the structure of the ebook is preserved throughout the editorial process. Little to no testing required and people can focus on bikeshedding the cover design instead.

—You can do this already by just not including any styles in your book.

That only solves my problem (production costs) and it only solves it if my book is only plain text with a few headings, italics, bold, and maybe some quotes. Existing built-in stylesheets are inadequate to the job.

It doesn’t solve the problem of how to motivate publishers to improve their ebooks without making them unreadable. By robbing the faux-headings and the like of their styles you surface the blobby soupy nature of the book without destroying it. And knowing how crap the ebook in general will be, it’d probably still look a lot nicer than if you enabled all styles and let the publisher’s incompetence shine through.

The built-in stylesheets provided by vendors cover too little of what an ebook needs. Add in figures, captions, table styles, code highlighting, some structural awareness—headers, footers, article, and the like—a few microformats, and some nice horizontal rules and we’d be mostly sorted.

Then, once you got your built-in stylesheet in order, just turn off all publisher CSS completely and tell everybody to go and fix their fucking ebooks.