Friday Update #2: Adventures in Marketing Experimentation

I had planned on making this week’s update about Superheroes Anonymous: A Modern-day Fantasy, Year Two and its current rate of success on Smashwords and the affiliate sites, but there’s honestly not much to talk about at this time, so rather than talk about my disappointment in its current performance (okay, screw it, I will—I sold one copy so far, and it’s been out for a month, so now you’re updated :p ), I’d like to instead talk briefly about my plan to rework my marketing strategies for not just new, but existing titles.

A couple of weeks ago, I listened in on a webinar for Bryan Cohen’s Selling for Authors series and took to heart the lessons that he shared with attendees about how indie authors can increase book sales. For almost two hours, he and webinar cohost Kimberley Grabas discussed various strategies for hooking potential readers and gaining sales from people who might not otherwise care about or even find my book. Chief lesson in that series was to use copywriting to get readers’ attention. As a result of that webinar, I rewrote my description for The Computer Nerd to better entice readers to give it a chance. Here’s an example of what it used to say versus what it says now:

Old Description:

When Anston Michaels returns home from his stressful fishing trip weekend, he finds Rebecca, his latest would-be girlfriend, sitting on his porch. They have a date, which he’s forgotten about, and she’s here to collect. Sure, that morning he nearly lost his lucky fishing pole to a sea monster that would’ve taken it to the bottom of the sea had his friend, George, not been faster with the scissors. And sure, the thought of tangling with yet another adversary to his quiet livelihood before he even gets the chance to shower leaves him feeling anxious. But, he kinda likes her, so he’ll play her game.
While he gets ready for the date, however, he checks his answering machine to discover that someone more important called while he was away, and this person is someone he can’t ignore. Even though acknowledging the caller’s request means losing the date, and most likely the beautiful Rebecca with it, he has to take the meeting. It’s a matter concerning his ex-wife, who has just escaped from the mental hospital where Anston had her committed to a year ago. The caller is concerned she’s coming home to see him, and she may not be happy. [narrative story description]
What follows is a journey into the mind of woman who seeks murder or marriage, reconciliation or revenge, or something far more sinister than any of the above, and Anston must rescue her from her madness and stop her from ruining both of their lives before it’s too late. But is it actually madness that drives her? And is it really she who needs the rescuing? [story question]
The Computer Nerd is the suspenseful but quirky tale of a former married couple who seems to constantly walk out of step with each other, even when their love still lingers just beneath the surface, even when their livelihoods are at stake. Their journey is sometimes frightening and sometimes ridiculous, but no relationship is perfect, and they rediscover their range of feelings and their depth of understanding for each other while they work together to deal with a personal crisis that combines kidnap, conspiracy, and, worst of all, forced love into a tidy little demented weekend getaway package that neither is sure they’ll survive thanks to the sociopathic third party who’s tagged along for the ride. [sales pitch]
Also comes with a post-credits scene. [side note]

Okay, right? But not great? How about this:

New Description:

Complete safety in virtual isolation? Or likely destruction in a real romance? In the program of life, we must consider all of the variables. [hook]
Anston Michaels has spent the last year living quietly alone, content with his privacy and loving his slow-paced lifestyle. His is a life without drama. His days are filled with peace. He has two friends he spends once a month fishing with, and he goes on the occasional date to keep things from getting too lonely, but his social life is controlled to his liking, and he’s pretty sure he couldn’t be happier. So, when he returns home from his unexpectedly exciting fishing trip for a night of unwind, he is surprised to find Rebecca, his latest would-be girlfriend, sitting on his porch, collecting on a date that he’s forgotten about. And he’s definitely not ready for it. What’s worse, while he prepares to leave with her, he discovers that someone even more important has been calling while he was away, someone he can’t ignore. Even though acknowledging the caller’s request for a meeting means losing the date, and likely the beautiful Rebecca with it, he has to accept it. It’s a matter concerning his ex-wife: She has just escaped from the mental hospital that he committed her to a year ago, and now she may be looking for payback. [story introduction and emotional tie]
What follows is a journey into the mind of woman who seeks mutilation or marriage, reconciliation or revenge, or something far more sinister than anything Anston can imagine, and he must rescue her from her madness and stop her from ruining both of their lives before it’s too late. But is it actually madness that drives her? And is it really she who needs the rescuing? And does Anston truly know his ex-wife as well as he thinks he does? [story question]
The Computer Nerd is the suspenseful but quirky tale of a former married couple who seems to constantly walk out of step with each other, even when their love still lingers beneath the surface, even when their livelihoods are at stake. Their journey is sometimes frightening and sometimes ridiculous, but no relationship is perfect, and they rediscover their range for understanding each other as they work together to deal with a personal crisis that combines kidnap, conspiracy, and, worst of all, forced love into a tidy little demented weekend getaway package that neither is sure they’ll survive thanks to the sociopathic third party who’s tagged along for the ride. [sales pitch]
Also comes with a post-credits scene. [side note]
If you love human interest stories with unusual twists, and you’re wondering why your marriage isn’t great or if you’re dating the right person, then The Computer Nerd is right for you. [call to action]

[end descriptions]

I’ve tagged each paragraph according to its goal. The second example probably needs more work, but I think it does a better job hitting the primary notes needed to get a reader interested. According to Bryan Cohen, the four elements to a strong book description include:

  1. Tagline
  2. Synopsis
  3. Selling Paragraph
  4. Call to Action

It should be noted that in the two weeks since I’ve posted the new description, I haven’t gotten a single download. But to be fair, I released the thing back in October, so it’s probably not getting discovered as much as it used to, either.

But this is one of the places where I’m putting my focus at the moment.

It doesn’t mean I’m finished with this experimentation, however. Along with various copywriting techniques, I’m also working on new SEO techniques, which includes experimenting with genre listing. As of now, The Computer Nerd is listed as a Fiction > Thriller & Suspense > Psychological Thriller and Fiction > Literature > Literary on Smashwords, and Fiction > Psychological and Fiction > Thrillers > Suspense on Amazon. Even though it has had decent exposure on Smashwords once upon a time, and a couple of downloads on Amazon since its Amazon debut in December, I’ve also gotten only two reviews: one five-star and one one-star review. I’m pretty sure the one-star reviewer was expecting something other than what he actually got.

For reference, the keywords I have for it on Smashwords are suspense, programming, internet, marriage, relationships, quirky, humorous, marriage problems, mental issues, programming nightmare, and the ones I have on Amazon are marriage, quirky, programming, relationships, blackmail, sociopath, love potion.

So, in the coming week, I want to experiment with genre listings and keywords to see if I get an increase in traffic. According to all of the studies I’ve been reading and YouTube videos I’ve been watching these past few weeks, I should see some change in activity.

But, words alone won’t attract new readers to my words, and that’s what I’ve been studying this week. Yep, I’ve been learning more about appropriate cover design.

Now, I feel that cover design is worth talking about in a blog of its own, so I’ll save that discussion for later (maybe next Wednesday), but I did want to give you a preview of what I’m experimenting with in that regard.

As of now, my worst seller is the quirky adoption mystery, Gutter Child, and I have a feeling all of the ingredients to a first impression are at play ensuring that no one wants to take a chance on it. Even when I made it free for almost a month, I had gotten only seven downloads. The Fallen Footwear (my current best performer) still gets that many every 3-4 days. I think the copywriting for Gutter Child probably needs a stronger claw to the throat, as well, but I’m sure the cover is playing the primary reader repellant at the moment.

So, thanks to what I’ve been studying this week, I’ve been experimenting with new cover ideas, using techniques recommended by expert designers. As of now, I’ve got the old cover—

gutter child cover alt 4
Cover Image for “Gutter Child”

Looking like this:

gutter child cover alt 6
Cover Image for “Gutter Child”

And this:

gutter child cover alt 7a
Cover Image for “Gutter Child”

I’m not yet finished, or satisfied, with these changes, but I’m interested to see whether these increase my views and downloads once I do finalize them. Hopefully they may even generate sales.

So, that’s what I’m doing this week. I hope to report the results of these changes for my next Friday Update.

Stay tuned.

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The Art of Hyphenation

Recently, I revisited my novel, The Computer Nerd, to update its paperback version with the changes I had made for the e-books last month. Because print and electronic have two vastly different formats, simply porting one to the other is no straightforward task. Even with the foundation already set, I have to review how even the smallest change shifts everything around. At the end of the day, I find myself having to check and recheck the entire book to make sure nothing’s out of whack. Inevitably, something slips through, and now I completely understand the frustration that professional typesetters must feel when they piece a new book together. And though shelf space is cited as the number one reason why publishers don’t want to produce print books over 120,000 words (approximately 480 pages), I think the real reason is that their typesetters will up and quit if they have to deal with laying out anything over that mark. In short, it’s kind of a pain.

One of the worst parts about designing a paperback book is not so much setting the page size, or even determining which size best represents the book (something we can discuss in a future post), but the finicky hyphenation that one must consider if he wants to keep his lines from stretching too far across the page.

Consider:

compressed line
Hyphenation example #1

Over:

stretched line
Hyphenation example #2

I don’t know about you, but if I have to read a continuous stream of compressed, stretched, compressed, stretched, line after line, I’d get a little eye-fatigued. Nobody wants that.

So, the best way to handle the reduction of such a visual seesaw is to hyphenate the text.

But how?

Well, the first step is to consider your source file. It’s my understanding that the best program to use for any kind of book layout, whether you’re a professional or an indie, is Adobe InDesign. It supposedly has an algorithm that really gets close to accurate on the first pass (I’ll never claim that any program will get anything perfect by itself), but at a price tag of $19.99 a month (yes, you can only subscribe to it; you can no longer outright buy it), I think the professionals and the financially talented are the only ones likely to use it.

And good for you if you’re one of the successful people who can afford such a program. For the rest of us, especially those who are producing indie books on a tight budget from a spare bedroom in our parents’ houses, or at Starbucks because it’s the only place we can afford the Internet, or the bus station because…you get the idea, we’re stuck with the average quality hyphenation feature that Microsoft Word offers.

hyphenation selection
Example of how to hyphenate in Word

Okay, yes, it’s mediocre. But it’s there. It’s functional. If you want to hyphenate your self-published novel—because the only reason you would need to worry about the hyphenation feature is if you’re self-publishing—you’re going to have to get comfortable using it. It isn’t particularly fun. But it works.

Now, there are plenty of tutorials on how to use Word’s hyphenation feature out there. A particularly good one can be found here, and if you just need to learn how to hyphenate, I’d check that link out. It’s helpful. But, if you want to learn how to hyphenate effectively, then let me share with you what I’ve learned and put into practice.

Now, before I continue, I should emphasize the title of this post. It’s not “Hyphenation 101.” It’s “The Art of Hyphenation.” Understand that art is subjective. You can decide your own formula when you’re ready to hyphenate your own paperback or hardcover. I find that this formula works best for me. And again, this assumes that you’re using Word. If you’re using InDesign, then I’m jealous, and I’m guessing you operate by different rules set by your secret society of privileged layout artists.

First of all, you should consider why Microsoft Word’s “automatic” hyphenation feature is gross and terrible and the perpetrator of your book’s greatest eyesore. It hyphenates based on space used versus space free within each line. It guesstimates where the word you’re using may naturally split, even if it doesn’t understand the word or the syllables you’re using to form it. Even though you can set parameters on how often within a set range it chooses to hyphenate, chances are it will hyphenate in the most ridiculous of places, making your book appear messy and broken.

When you choose “manual” hyphenation, you have a lot more control, and thus, you can come up with a better plan for how your book should look.

manual hyphenation
Example of hyphenation in action

Notice, under manual hyphenation, Microsoft Word gives you the option to accept or reject its suggestion. You can also cancel the current session if you feel you need a break from the monotony. I like to cancel after every few changes to ensure that I’m happy with the layout so far. The thing to consider is that hitting “undo” on a hyphenation session will erase all changes you’ve made since your session began. By cancelling every few changes and checking your work, you reduce the number of words you’ll reset if you have to undo for any reason.

And because it’s really easy to make a bad hyphenation decision (it’s often difficult to see how this hyphenation works in conjunction with the surrounding text when your windows take up so much visible space), you’ll probably want your core draft and your hyphenated draft to be two separate files. That way, if you seriously mess something up along the way, you won’t cause any real damage.

Now, when should you accept the hyphenation? Again, this is up to each artist according to his need. But I find this system works well for me:

  • Never hyphenate a word that breaks on the first two letters. Ex: If you are hyphenating the word reiterate, don’t hyphenate if the suggestion leans on breaking it at “re.” Two letters won’t overstretch a line enough to justify a break there.
  • You can hyphenate a word that breaks at the last two letters, if you want. Even though it won’t affect your finishing line much whether you accept or reject it, it could affect your starting line if a word like straighten is moved down to the next line (creating an eight-character stretchmark) by a lack of hyphen.
  • Even though it’s okay to break at the last two letters of the word, it should probably be avoided if that means leaving only two letters for the last line of the paragraph (or worse if it’s the last line of the page or chapter). Really, unless you have enough letters leftover after the hyphenated break, it’s probably a good idea not to break the last word in the paragraph.
  • If the word has three or more syllables, then it’s a good idea to manually choose the break yourself if Word is suggesting a break on a two-letter syllable. For example, if Word suggests you hyphenate sporadic at “ic,” and you don’t think moving the whole word down is the right choice either, which is what choosing to ignore it would do, then you’ll want to highlight the hyphen between “spor” and “adic,” since that would more evenly distribute the word across both lines. Again, this should be common sense, but Word does not break according to common sense. It has none. It does things mathematically. It’ll split the first line that feels too stretched, then it’ll split the next line because the first change caused a new stretch, and it becomes a vicious cycle. Make good decisions when hyphenating. Second-guess Word’s suggestions constantly. Don’t form ladders.
  • When it comes to three-letter syllables, I tend to accept them, as long as I haven’t just accepted another one within the last three or four lines, and as long as it doesn’t suggest it at the last full line of the paragraph.
  • I rarely accept any suggested three-letter hyphenations on two-line paragraphs. I just don’t see the need for it. This applies primarily to lines of dialogue that run just past the word wrap threshold.
  • I never let Word break a word where it gets the syllable wrong. You shouldn’t, either. Doing so is just sloppy editing.
  • It’s best to skip breaks on capitalized words. Odds are you’re breaking at the start of a sentence, and that’s a weird place to break anything. But you also don’t want to ruin the integrity of somebody’s name. I also think breaking already hyphenated words, like two-digit numbers, is weird.
  • Using hyphenation to break a word at the bottom of a page is probably okay, but breaking it at the end of a chapter is a little ugly.
  • Lastly, I prefer to keep my hyphenation count per page to the barest minimum. The other reason I tend to cancel a hyphenation session often is because I want to double-check the frequency of the suggested hyphens that I’ve chosen to accept and make sure that I don’t have more than three or four to a page, especially if they’re in close proximity to each other on that page. I find that if I do have too many on a single page, or more than two in a four-line space, then I want to hit “undo” and try again. This minimizes the work I have to redo. But yeah, having too many on a single page gives it that cluttered and choppy look. It’s not worth it.

So, that’s a general overview on how I like to hyphenate my books, but this isn’t a hard and fast set of rules. Writing is a medium littered with exceptions, and the art of hyphenation is wide open to those exceptions. Sometimes the line stretches too long if you don’t break that proper noun or all caps word in half. Sometimes breaking the word on a three-letter syllable on a two-line paragraph looks better than not. Rules are nice to follow, but certain conditions may present challenges that require defiance. At the end of the day, you might just have to split focus between the fo and the cus in order to keep the following line from pushing Sweeeeeeet! down to a spot by itself and pulling its origin line across the floor like a tired rubber band. But if you can avoid it, you should. Or, if you’re struggling with the ethics of splitting a good word in half, look at how your favorite books handle it. Sometimes the best strategy is to emulate your mentors. It certainly makes the heart feel better.

How do you prefer to hyphenate yours? Sound off in the comments if you’d like.

If you want additional advice on putting together your own book, I’d recommend these articles:

“Book Design Basics—Use Hyphens for Justified Type” by Dave Bricker

The above article is Part 7 in Dave Bricker’s Book Design Basics series, and the other parts are just as helpful, so you should read them.

“Why Self-Published Books Look Self-Published” by Joel Friedlander

A helpful reminder on the elements you need to keep your book looking professional (including hyphenation).

Self-publishing: Expert Advice On Typesetting for Self-publishers

A decent overview. Take notice of its “Shift + Enter” advice.

Note that some of these articles use professional terms like “rivers” and “ladders” to describe phenomena within the hyphenation universe, and if you want to use these terms, too, then check out these articles to find out what they mean. We call that educating ourselves. 🙂

Today’s Image Credit:

Palette Graphic by Liz Aragon, submitted to sweetclipart.com

Direct Link: http://sweetclipart.com/artists-palette-paint-and-brush-583

License Information: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/

 

Friday Update #1: Teenage American Dream

It’s Friday, so I want to post a quick story progress update.

At some point I want to talk about Superheroes Anonymous: A Modern-day Fantasy, Year Two, as I released it three weeks ago, and discuss its performance, and discuss how it affects my future books. Maybe next Friday.

But this week I want to kick off the Friday update series with some news about Teenage American Dream, my next scheduled novel release.

I had originally planned to release it on April 30th, as that’s a great time for high school stories (some of my favorite high school movies were released in April of their respective years), but continuous swelling of previous works had cut into my time for finishing it, so I reset the release date for June 30th, thinking two months would be plenty of time to get it finished and polished.

But here we are just 13 days out, and I’m still not finished.

Here’s the thing: I want to get this right. I don’t want to produce something that I think is right. I want to get it right. And though I probably won’t go through a marketing campaign for this one (more on that in an upcoming blog), I still want the small few who find it on day one to have the satisfaction of knowing that they’ve discovered a true gem, should they take a chance on reading it.

So, I want to get this one right.

This means four things:

  1. I’ve reset the release date again, this time to August 25, 2016.
  2. Getting it right means this new date is arbitrary. I’ll release it when I deem it ready. But late August seems feasible.
  3. The books to follow it, Sweat of the Nomad and Zipwood Studios, will also likely get pushed back, quite possibly into 2017.
  4. Pushing the date back means I’m more likely to release a perfect version on the first upload, and not just on Smashwords, but Amazon, too, and it means I may have the paperback version ready with it, as well, so it’ll be a win for all readers.

But, don’t fret. You can still read the sample chapters if you’re itching to get an early taste. Keep in mind that they haven’t yet been revised to their final drafts, and the first chapter also contains the prologue, which jars the opening transition. However, these will be sorted out in time.

Thanks for your patience if you’ve been waiting for it. I am working on it, slowly but surely. I’m still on the third act (out of four), and have been for a while, but progress is progress. The slowdown at this point is making sure I don’t keep repeating the same types of scenes. I feel like I am, and that’s lame, and I’m trying to think of ways to keep the story fresh.

I’ll get there.

Next week, I hope to post an update on Superheroes Anonymous and the future of A Modern-day Fantasy Annual Edition.

Please keep checking this blog for new updates, writing tips, and other fun things.

E-book Innovations

Earlier today, I was skimming Digital Book World for some writing news and happened across an article about Amazon’s lack of innovation toward e-books. This relatively short article, “Amazon, Ebooks, and the Lack of Innovation” by Jason Illian, discusses how Amazon is known for innovations in technology, but chooses not to innovate in reading technology. It’s an insightful, and somewhat discouraging thought about the state of reading and the attitude that the major distributors of e-readers and e-books take on it. It’s definitely worth the read, as are the comments that appear from readers at the end of the article.

And it got me thinking about the topic of e-book innovation, not just on why they choose not to innovate, but also on how they could innovate if they were to choose to, as the article and certain articles linked to in the comments section, particularly one by Chris Meadows in his article “Whoever feels like innovating e-books, please raise your hand!” posted at TeleRead, address the question of how e-books can leap forward without becoming “spammy” with advertisements or cluttered with distracting materials that no reader actually wants.

Coming up with ideas can certainly be tricky, but the bigger problem, according to these articles, is that the e-reader manufacturers don’t want to innovate. They don’t want to because they don’t need to. If they’re not losing the market to paperbacks, then they are keeping the market on the backs of those who aren’t looking for innovative leaps in e-reading.

If the people are complacent, then so will be their providers of technology. I mean, why should they innovate if no one is asking for it?

To be perfectly honest, I’m okay with the lack of innovation in e-reading. I’m one of the massive many who prefers paper to electronic form. In fact, the only reason I’ve spent the last year writing for the e-book format is because I can, and because I can do it for basically free. Reading it is a different matter. I don’t have an e-reader of my own. Nor do I have a trendy phone that can read my books to me or for me. I’m still a technically backwards guy who does his reading in print or on a computer screen, thanks to Adobe Digital Editions.

But, I’m still an imaginative reader who has ideas on what could get me to start reading in electronic form more so than on paper (not that I would ever give up reading paperbacks entirely) if anyone were to take a chance on moving things forward. I’m one of the reasons why innovation in electronic reading should be considered more by those technical geniuses who know how to implement it. I’m one of the reasons why the e-reader market even has a slump.

What Readers Want

I’m going to make an educated assumption now. E-readers have lost a chunk of their audience to Androids and other well-adapted cellphones because, in many cases, these devices are better, clearer, and, let’s be honest, linked to something they already have. Some of these phones have the ability to “flip” pages according to where the user draws his or her finger, which I think is pretty cool. The first time I saw Shell Out on a friend’s phone and manually turned those pages, I was awestruck. I was turning pages of my short story, on a phone! For these people, why would they even need an e-reader, especially one that’s ugly, clunky, or archaic? Better question: Why would they pay for a dedicated e-reader when they can just press a button on their phone? If my phone did all that, I wouldn’t bother buying an Amazon Kindle. Well, not likely. Exclusivity poses its own issues, but I’m not going to focus on that here.

Now, I’m not usually so easily impressed by the latest innovations unless it makes something I like doing a lot easier. I had a similar reaction the first time I saw the computer program Sprout in action. But, when this new technology I generally don’t see in action is doing something special to something I’m responsible for (in this case, taking my favorite short story from my personal collection and making it electronically interactive in a physical world—use your imagination if you’re lost by that comment), then I’m colored impressed. I’ve yet to feel that way about the average e-reader. Maybe I thought the Kindle was cool the first time I saw one in action many years ago. But I’m more impressed with phones these days.

I agree with those who think e-readers, or e-books for that matter, lack innovation. But the accusations don’t end with this simple opinion. The argument they make is that readers aren’t crying for innovation. They further argue that readers want to be left alone with their books and don’t want the advertising blitz, or fancy videos or sounds to ruin their personal experience that a likely strain of e-book “innovation” may create. Honestly, I agree with these arguments. When I read a book, I want to be left alone, in a quiet place, with my thoughts on the story or the information I’m reading, not the series sales pitch or the related graphics that might try selling me the phone that the writer is writing about. Not really.

But, I think that part of the reason I don’t want these things is because I haven’t been given a world where I have these things.

Now, I don’t advocate bastardizing the reading experience with gimmicks, ads, or other intrusive things. But I do think the way to leap e-readers, e-books, and book reading in general forward is to innovate how reading is handled. And to do that, it’s important to understand two things:

  1. Readers don’t know what they want until you give it to them. Until Gutenberg developed the printing press, none of us knew we wanted our books in print. Until trade paperbacks and mass market paperbacks became a thing, none of us knew that getting the same story at a cheaper price was possible, or that getting that same story in slightly lower quality was somehow acceptable. We learned our ability to adapt after we were given the chance to experience it. I think the same goes for the first generation of e-readers. The idea driving the development of the Amazon Kindle was awesome, until people figured out it didn’t have the same personal touch as a physical book, yet plenty of readers stuck around to give it a fair chance. Eventually, it “caught fire.” Maintaining that fire is a different story, but the important thing to consider here is that, once upon a time, this technology was introduced and a particular population embraced it.
  1. Readers are innately personal. But they are also visionaries, researchers, explorers, and dreamers. They want the feeling that sitting on a beach during the summer with a good paperback brings, and they want to experience that feeling quietly, unobtrusively, and personally. But, they’re not going to bring their dictionaries with them. And they’re not going to bring with them the memory of what happened 100 pages ago to a minor character who did something terrible to the protagonist, or the recollection that the thing that happened was in fact 100 pages ago. They’re going into the reading wilderness the same way they have since the dawn of books. At some point, readers may want the extra help, the same way that farmers and hunters figured out that the world would someday need a Chick fil A or Applebee’s.

What readers want is the experience they understand. A point made in the article by Chris Meadows (which he links to in the comments posted under the main article by Jason Illian) is that one way to keep the e-reading experience different is to use scrollbars instead of page-flipping. I agree, that would be different. But, it’s not really what I want as a reader. I may be okay with them in web articles, but I hate scrollbars in fiction, so utilizing scrollbars as a selling point, for example, is not a good way to get me interested in e-readers. Of course, I’m one man. Maybe there are readers out there who do want scrollbars. So, for them, they should have one. For them, they should be allowed to check the preference box that says “scrollbars enabled,” where I may want to check the preference box that says “page-turning enabled.” The default, of course, would be a page shuffle. You get the idea.

Yes, custom options would be a great step toward innovating e-books and e-readers. Videogames use options like these all the time in their setup menus. Electronic reading devices would benefit from the same. And maybe there are some out there that are already programmed for that. I don’t know. As I said before, I read my electronic texts on my computer. Point is, it’s something.

But that’s a small leap forward. Having that scrollbar or page-turning application is great for single-screen devices. The problem with that is that it only enables the limitation that the average reader has with the average e-reader. It’s a single screen. Running your finger across the screen doesn’t provide the personal connection that grabbing a sheet of paper and flipping it has. It cannot simulate the joy of clumping entire groups of pages together and flipping them over to span massive chunks of story to more quickly access earlier or later parts of the book to gain insights on the details we have since forgotten. In short, it makes us feel robotic.

Giving Readers What They Want

To counterbalance that robotic feeling, we need an e-reader that makes us feel human again. So, here are my suggestions for making things more personal while jumping e-reader technology forward, and perhaps getting those who treat e-readers like pariahs more on board with the idea of reading things on a “screen.”

  1. Make a “real” e-book. Don’t give us a Gameboy from 1989 and change its programming to read books instead of controlling a plumber through Goomba-infested lands.

Perhaps this needs explanation. The average e-reader is a simple handheld device with an interactive screen. It’s cheap and functional, but not the least bit personal. A true e-book would serve as the electronic equivalent to a real book. And the way to do that is to give readers a real book. Let me clarify: a real book with programmable pages.

Wait, what?!

Okay, yes, if you’re visualizing what I’m visualizing, then you’re already counting the cost of producing such a thing. It would be expensive to buy, and maybe expensive to make. But, every new thing is expensive at first. Once upon a time, that bulky television you bought for ten bucks at the Goodwill would’ve cost you hundreds of dollars at your local retailer. The money you spent on that black and white in the 1950s would probably get you a nice 60” UHD flat screen today. Electronics go down in price eventually. Everyone knows that. In the early 1960s a pocket calculator would cost you over $2000. Kids get them in their Christmas stockings as a bonus item today, so don’t fret about cost.

But, while we wait for that beautiful day when a thousand-dollar e-reader drops down to the price of a Kindle or lower, we can have those publishers who without conscience raise the prices of e-books to the level of their paperback counterparts use the extra money they save on manufacturing to help supplement the production costs that go into the e-reader, and then take a small percentage of every e-reader sale. This would give it sustainable marketability, and serve to drive the price down for everyone eventually. I think. Sounds right. They won’t do it, of course, but it sounds right.

But back to the ideas, a true e-reader should be made up of an electronic cover (matte or glossy), with fiber optic pages that you can customize through add-ons. Each reader would come with a default 350 pages (as most novels clock in at just over 300) and adapters that would allow a reader to add a stackable group of 25 pages each (with limits depending on the digital spine, which should probably be flexible to allow for the adapters, or maybe the adapters add more spine—probably that) to accommodate long books, longer books, epic fantasies, and Stephen King books. Each add-on would cost the reader a little, but once they have it, they’re covered for the life of the true e-book (a brand name which I will henceforth use to describe this magical form of innovative e-reading technology).

Which brings us to the beauty of this system. Each page of the electronic book is hardwired to allocate the digital pages as defined in the .epub file (we’ll say .epub4, as that’s the next generation of .epub if I’m not mistaken). So, page one of the .epub will “print” only on the first electronic page of the true e-book. Well, no, it’ll print on the front of the first page. Obviously, page two will appear on the back side. Can you visualize that?

So, already we’re beginning to feel more like a real book. Add digital loading to the front cover, back cover, and spine, and you have yourself a truly customizable electronic reading device that gives the reader the feeling of reading a real book. That, of course, is because the reader is reading a real book. Just one that can change the content of its pages with a simple upload of a new .epub file.

This means that the true e-book would need a docking bay in which to change the programming. It could work the same way that modern e-readers use menus and online features and “bookstores” in which to shop for new titles. This docking bay would be the impersonal device that modern readers are used to today, the thing that serves as both storefront and book. Or, it could be their computers, as the one element the true e-book will have that a real paperback won’t is a USB port. I mean, even Neo in The Matrix had that input jack on his neck. We can’t escape computer technology in favor of reality entirely. But we can get really, really close.

Now, this enhances the visual appeal of e-books, but not the sensory appeal. To do that, all true e-books should come with a cartridge that emits that “new book smell.” The fiber optic pages, or “paper screens,” should also be meticulously crafted to feel like real pages and real matte or glossy covers. My computer screen feels almost exactly like a matte cover, so I know it’s possible. Shouldn’t be difficult to duplicate. I also think that pages should have Instagram style filters that make electronic pages look like real cream or white pages, with digital noise in the fonts to simulate ink. Or, you know, options for other styles. Make the look of the pages customizable. The modern e-reader already makes it possible to adjust for size and font. The true e-book can do the same, but it should recognize the defaults as set by the author or publisher. This assumes that the author or publisher cares enough about the title to put in these extra options. Unfortunately, a new kind of e-reader won’t necessarily create a new kind of publisher.

fake true ebook 2
Example of what a “true” e-book could look like. Basically like a real book, but electronic.
  1. Give readers features they want that real physical books can’t offer.

The modern e-reader already provides digital bookmarks, dictionary support, and highlighting options. I think it also provides keyword search. Certainly, the true e-reader would provide all of these things (though bookmarking won’t be as necessary, as the pages are now physical, but if the book automatically opens to the digital bookmark when you tap the bookmark sensor, then that would be cool).

But the true e-book would also provide advanced indexing options that would allow you to quick-find characters, events, or other details that might otherwise take away precious minutes from your narrative flow when searching for previous reminders about who these people are or what happened during these events. For example, if you double-tap on the name of the minor character that the protagonist is talking about, it can bring up a small menu with options, including one that highlights any page where that character’s name appears, and then highlight in a different color the name itself so that every instance he’s mentioned can be found in seconds. And for those who still want their foot in The Matrix while reading, other options can include reloading the current page with supplemental information, including other books or volumes the character may have appeared in (and where in the context of those books), basic character descriptions, and whatever else the author or publisher may preload into the supplements file, including an option to load up another book in the series (provided the reader owns a copy). And, if a book doesn’t come with that information, then the selection in that particular menu is disabled. It’s possible that the modern e-reader does these things already, or will soon enough, but the true e-book would most definitely have to do these things to stay on par with, if not ahead of the game.

And, I could go on, but I think it’s pretty clear: Digital books don’t have to be impersonal. And we, as readers, don’t have to accept their impersonal touch. I don’t love the idea of replacing paperbacks, and, as long as we have bookshelves and a desire to fill them, I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of them completely. Even in the age of Netflix and Hulu, we still have DVD and Blu-ray discs bought and sold daily. Even with iTunes dominating the music market, stores are still selling CDs (kinda). The demand for these things may not be what they were before digital markets invaded their turfs, but some of it still exists, and there are still people out there who want to stick to the classics. But regardless of how many want to innovate or how many want to keep to the systems they’re used to, the corporations involved in the production and distribution of these materials need to consider their entire customer base, not just the rich and the trendsetting, and create the kind of experiences that anyone could want, modern and retro alike. It starts by understanding human psychology.

To adapt the famous line from Field of Dreams, “If you [make] it, they will [use it].” Make the true e-book and drive its price down to something affordable, and I’d give it a fair chance. Heck, I might even like it enough to modify my current library of hardcovers and paperbacks. I may be technologically backwards, but I still have movies I like on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, and I suspect I’ll get them again on 4K UHD someday. I’m not against a good leap forward. Perhaps those in charge of e-reader design shouldn’t be either.

Branding: Some Things I Want to Try

Lately I’ve been reading up on social media, and gathering tips on how to use it to further my brand. Specifically, I’ve been reading Social Media for Writers by Tee Morris & Pip Ballantine, and taking note of its suggestions about the many platforms available to me, the writer, and the ways I can use those platforms to reach you, the reader. I’ve also been looking up insightful blogs from writers like Dave Bricker at The World’s Greatest Book, Joel Friedlander at The Book Designer, and Kimberley Grabas at Your Writer Platform to widen my range of understanding. And, I must say, I’ve learned a lot from each of these sources.

I’ve also learned that my “brand” is kind of a mess.

When I started writing many years ago, my interest was solely in telling stories. At some point, my range of stories grew from fiction, to personal narratives, to speculative philosophy, to speculative fictional philosophies based on personal narratives, mainly because my interests in connecting with people has changed much since that day I decided I wanted to give writing a try. And in that vast space of time, I have acquired a wealth of material, and pretty much nowhere to put any of it. Ideas may have been consistent to themselves, yet inconsistent to each other, and I’d keep building on them in the hope that someday I’d “crack their code” and turn them into something readers could experience. And sometimes I was pretty sure I’d cracked those codes, even if they didn’t systematically crack each others’ codes.

But I also had three problems going along with those assumed cracked codes:

  1. I have a hard time throwing things away. So, rather than let my good, if not inconsistent ideas linger in the void, I’d just put them on display like a proud adult man who shows off pictures to complete strangers of not just his kids, but also his dog, his truck, and his annual income.
  2. Branding requires consistency, according to the books and the blogs. Inconsistency confuses people.
  3. No one will care about the works I have on display if no one’s here to read it, and they won’t come to read if they don’t why they should.

Obviously, for someone who’s a better writer than marketer, specifically for one who makes his “brand” about whatever is currently on his mind, this is a conundrum. How do I keep doing what I’m doing and still get people coming back if what I want to write about today isn’t thematically in line with what I want to write tomorrow?

Well, I’ve been giving it some thought lately, and I want to try a new system. This system would inevitably focus on practical things, fun things, and other things as much as it would focus on my writing things. But how would it lean focus on such ambiguously defined themes and still somehow force a “brand” on me?

Here’s what I’m thinking:

My main goal for this site is to express my thoughts. It’s always been about that. Sometimes it includes a review of something. Sometimes it talks about an idea I’ve had. Sometimes it hypes something I’m working on or trying to sell. It’s all about the things that concern me.

But, not everyone who comes to this site is looking for every type of post I make. So, I think I want to give a calendar system a try.

For example, Sundays are usually relaxing days for some, church days for others, so I figure that can be the day I post inspirational things. Mondays start with M, so that can be a miscellaneous kind of day. And so on. Each day can have its own theme. BUT, let’s be clear that I’m pretty busy without blogging every day, so not every theme will be met every week. I would like to try to stay weekly or biweekly on one or two themes a week.

How ever it goes down, and however frequently I post, here is a sample calendar of themes I may try for soon:

  • Inspirational Sunday – includes quotes, spiritual matters, life advice, and so on.
  • Miscellaneous Monday – mainly fun things like “Beach Photos of the Week” and other things that have no real category.
  • The Tuesday Review – where I talk about the movie I saw or the book I read.
  • Writer Wednesday – where I talk about writing, books on writing, the life of writing and so on.
  • Throwback Thursday – because why not? I’ll probably use this as my reminder of past posts day, or my link to other bloggers I like day. I don’t know. This one’s in the air.
  • Friday Hype Day – when I talk about my books.
  • Saturday Fun – when I focus on fun things.

Now, I’m one man, and I don’t have machinery in my bones, so I won’t actually be posting every day. What I want out of this is to have a plan for the days in which I offer certain types of posts. So, if you’re here for some writing tips, check in on Wednesday to see what’s new. If you want to see a cool beach picture, check in on Monday. No promises that there will be something new that particular week, but check anyway! Maybe this is the day you’ll read that post you’ve always been hoping for.

Obviously, announcements and time-sensitive posts will be in the moment, regardless of day. Just keep checking for those as you think about it.

So, that’s what’s on my mind. If you like this idea, let me know in the comments. If you want to find out what’s new, subscribe.

Oh, and if you want a review on Social Media for Writers by Tee Morris & Pip Ballantine, come back here soon. Reviews on writing books will happen on Wednesdays (when they happen). I do plan to make that a thing.

And just for kicks, this postscript will make this post clock in at a cool, sleek, awesome, amazing, rounded 1000 words.