Saturday, 23 July 2011

eBooks & the Sleeping Giant - India

Tiny Tech Store in Mumbai
Photo by AG Claymore

With Kobo moving into the German eBook market with their carefully built German library and soon-to-come German language reader, I have to wonder what’s next?  Germany may be the second biggest book market in the world, but the second biggest population is in India. With just under 1.2 Billion people, they run a close second to China and thirty percent of the population is urbanized. Think about that for a second. India’s urban population is bigger than the total population of the US and Canada, or the entire 17 country Euro Area. Talk about a massive market.
English enjoys the status of subsidiary official language in India. This has less to do with their colonial past than you might think. English is now the language of major parts of their economic engine. Due to their international nature, the IT and software sectors tend to work in English and they pay quite well.
Internet access is ranked at an impressive number six globally (roughly 60 million). That has them running just behind the Germans for total number of users. What the number doesn’t show us is the vast number of Internet CafĂ© users. Give it another five years and that number will grow into the hundreds of millions.
So, where is the bottleneck that’s keeping this sleeping giant from becoming the dominant market for electronic books? I believe it’s the eReaders. I see prices in the Indian market hovering around five to eighteen thousand rupees. A reader at Rs 18,000 represents 13% of per-capita GDP. If you compare to the North American Market the same reader will cost only 0.4% of per-capita GDP. This isn’t just a case of exchange rates in different economies. Comparing in dollars, the same reader is sold for at least three times the price in India. I sure wouldn’t buy an eReader if it cost more than a tenth of my income.
Pricing like that is an incentive to the strong IT sector to follow the example of the auto industry. India has a very strong automotive industry and it has gone shopping in the West. Companies like Jaguar and Land Rover now fall under the Tata brand.
 Sooner or later, (if not already) a domestic entrepreneur will launch a decently priced reader and become the first to properly serve this potentially massive market. This isn’t a slow country with tech adoption either. Once a local start-up dominates this market, they will have enough economic clout to do a little off-shore shopping of their own.
Should the current players look at partnering to develop a locally built reader? Will any of them recognize the huge potential in this market, or the risk of waiting too long?

Friday, 22 July 2011

Publishing an eBook from a Beginner's Perspective

When I started writing Prometheus Bound I had blithely assumed that I would go the traditional route. I had planned to search for an agent and go shopping about for a publisher but the prospect was a daunting one. Every day, as I wrote, the sheer improbability of the whole thing loomed before me like the cliffs of my childhood home. It was frightening, to say the least.

After six years of trying to write part-time, sneaking in an hour of work every now and then on a decrepit old laptop, I found myself in a situation where I was finally able to work full time. Now the idea of having to find an agent at some point in the next couple of years was replaced by the need to find one right now.
How do you know if the agent gushing with praise about your story is the right one? For all you know, this may be the guy whose submission causes the commissioning editor to roll his eyes and chuck it straight on the shred pile while thinking yet again about taking that job at his brother-in-law`s used car dealership.
As I surfed the web, looking for hints and tips on how to find a good agent, I stumbled onto Joe Konrath`s blog. I stopped and scratched my head for a while. Where had I heard of this guy? Then I realized that I had read his article in one of the writer's periodicals about how he got his first publishing deal. I figured that his blog would be a good place to learn a bit more about how to get a foot in the door. Talk about an eye opener. The door is on my own house. I`m already in; I just have to do the work.
 I always viewed self-publishing as a good way to blow your life savings to have a pile of unsold books in your basement. What store wants to take a box of books from some unknown? At best, they might let you sit at a little folding table in the front of their store where customers can pretend not to see you and your neatly stacked piles of books. I always feel bad for the unknowns sitting there like some kid with a lemonade stand. Boy was I missing the point.
Back when Johannes Gutenburg invented movable type and then took it a step further and combined it with an adaptation of the wine press, he started a revolution. Until then, books were copied by hand in scriptorums and were prohibitively expensive. No doubt some monastic pundit was heard to say, ``I think there may be a global market for perhaps five books`. Let`s call him Brother Watson. Gutenberg`s work led to a revolution – for publishers.
Don’t get me wrong, Gutenberg`s work helped lay the foundations for the renaissance, and he made it easier for authors to get published but the publishers still held the keys. This latest revolution has put the keys in the hands of the authors.  
Online publishing houses like Smashwords represent a game changing concept. Not only do they sell and distribute eBooks, they convert them as well. In Smashwords` case, their `Meatgrinder` application  will convert your word file for free and allow you to place it for sale on their website for a small commission.
When I learned about Smashwords, I knew immediately that I wanted to try them out. Who wants to struggle through the arduous process of finding an agent, searching for a willing publisher and then waiting for over a year for the book to hit the shelves? Especially when you can sell your eBook for a third of the price and get four times the commission.
So, fool that I am, I happily banged away at the keyboard knowing that I would simply go to Smashwords, convert the file and put it up for sale. Then I finally read the Smashwords Style Guide. This is a great document, written by founder Mark Coker, and it really does tell you everything you need to do if you are going to use their conversion process.
The trouble is, I was up to ninety thousand words before reading the guide. I had to go back through the whole thing and search for all the little things that can make the conversion process stumble. At the time, it seemed an arduous process but, looking back, it all makes sense. For the second book in the series, I plan to go with Smashwords again and I will review the guide before setting up the new Word file. Second time around should be a breeze!
So, at this point, I have the files waiting for human review as there are no auto-vetter errors to correct. If all goes well, it should go into their premium distribution catalogue which ships to the major distributors such as Kobo and Apple.

Now I have to concentrate on the wonderful world of eBook marketing.
Fingers Crossed…

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

National Debt Reduction Plans - Change Management & Title Loans

Obama at American University by diggersf under
Attribution 2.5 Generic License

In a surprise move, the President announced the formation of the ‘Change Management’ department. This new agency will be responsible for the collection and rolling of spare change donated by citizens in the name of debt reduction. 

“With all the concern over the national debt, we felt we had to take some concrete action,” stated an unidentified staffer. “And we were able to re-use some campaign signs for the launch, so there’s some savings there as well.”
Full funding for the new department has yet to be approved by the Republican dominated Congress, but estimates range between 900 Billion and 1.2 Trillion annually. “You have to spend money to roll money,” stated the same staffer.
Speculation now centers around the Republican backed plan to get a title loan for the state of Alaska. In a bipartisan, emergency, all-night session, a series of big screen televisions were set up in a congressional hearing room. Session members took it in turn to call in to the various title loan ads that run mostly in the wee hours of the night. “It’s really a no-brainer,” a congressional aid was overheard saying during an off-the-record meeting over drinks at someone else's table. “We have fifty states, so we can keep that up for quite a while.”

Okay, so it's an obvious parody, but maybe it could help?

Brick and Mortar Book Stores – Legacy Publishing Houses

Over the last few days, we have been watching the Borders saga unfold with a grim fascination. It’s kind of like the crowd at the 2001 Melbourne Grand Prix watching Schumacher barrel roll into the fencing. There’s the same feeling of uneasy guilt, watching a Titan fall. A lot of good people will find themselves jobless as this crash unfolds.
So how are the other Titans doing? Is there any hope for their kind?
I have been looking at the quarterly statements of Indigo, the store that I like to buy my hard copies from, and the picture that emerges is not necessarily one of doom and gloom. It’s not all sunshine and roses either.
Although they report a revenue increase over their previous year, they also show a dip in same store sales. The smaller the store format, the worse the sales dip. They credit the increased revenue to the new superstores that they opened during the reporting period. The first thing that I notice when I walk into the store down the street is the vast array of general merchandise for sale. Perhaps that is the saving grace of their superstore format; the smaller stores have little room for GM even though it provides a higher profit margin.
One thing I can’t miss at the front of the store is eBook readers. More specifically, you cant miss the Kobo. The older Kobo is readily available and you can play around with the new Kobo touch but you might have a hard time getting one of your very own to take home and show off to your friends.  Every time I check with the many stores that serve our city, I get the same story, Sorry, we got a load in on Friday but they sold out over the weekend. I want to be angry about this, but I find it hard, as a writer of eBooks, to get too upset when eBook readers are selling like – well like something that sells a lot (lets face it, hotcakes have had their day as the exemplar of good sales).

So why are they selling so well when you can get an iPad and use it to read as well as surf the web and manage your entire life as long as you keep it compatible with Apple? Two things come to mind: price (no explanation needed here) and eye strain. I wouldn't want to read a ninety thousand page novel on a backlit screen, hence the eInk touch.
It’s not something that Indigo is blind to, either. They own a majority share in Kobo and though they attribute a 7% decrease in online sales to eBook migration, they indicate that Kobo readers and eBook sales are the major driving force behind a revenue increase that is more than six times the online sales loss.
It doesn’t stop there. Rather than sit back and see how it goes, they have raised cash and invaded the German market (second biggest book market on Earth) with plans to release a German language reader in August. This reader, giving access to the biggest German library of titles, should do well against the English operating systems of the competition. This is covered in depth in an excellent article by Laura Hazard Owen that was recommended in a tweet by Derek Haines.
I think we will see a future where the only brick and mortar book retailers that survive will be the ones with a healthy eBook footprint. They will carry a different assortment from what we see today because the tail will start to wag the dog. The legacy publishers who manage to come out of this shakeup may well end up mining the eBook market for titles to print. Let’s face facts, commissioning editors make as many bad choices as good when sifting through the thousands of submissions that land on their desks. If they can look at sales stats to find performing authors in the eBook market, they can put together an offer with a reasonable expectation of successful sales. Of course that leaves the eBook Marketing entirely in the hands of the writer, and maybe that's where it should be.
This would leave us with stores that sell a smaller selection of high volume titles at the back of  the store, behind all the general merchandise…
Or maybe I’m wrong.
(by the way, Schumacher went on to win the 2001 Melbourne race despite having a second car destroyed when one of my own countrymen hit him from behind…)

Sunday, 10 July 2011

What'll it be - The moon or the Stone Age?

How robust is civilization? I don’t just mean individual societies; I’m talking about the whole planetary system. We take it for granted but does civilization have an Achilles’ heel?  What would happen if the whole thing began to unravel? One shudders to think of the impact to the commemorative plate industry.  People ask the same thing about our ecosystem. Some claim the environment is like a fine watch and any disruption could bring the whole thing crashing down around us. Others claim that the environment is more like the business world; if a species dies, another, stronger species will take its place (Note to self: find image of grizzly bear wearing a blue vest, welcoming visitors to the park). Even if this is the case, you end up with a monopoly and when that species dies off you end up hungry; wishing the small mom and pop species were still around.
Which brings me back to civilizations. What if we had a species that got up early every morning and worked their butts off (They don’t really have butts but ‘Worked their cloacas off’ doesn’t have the same cachet) supporting our civilization? Bees pollinate our crops and we tend to take that for granted. The commercial colonies of European bees have pretty much displaced the domestic wild colonies that used to do the job for free, which gives them a monopoly. Those European imports are now starting to die off and no-one is quite sure why.
So, what happens if we don’t have enough of them left to support our crop production?
Sure, there are other methods for pollination, but can they keep up as the colonies that currently service our crops die off? If not, does civilization carry on or should I stop caring about my student loans? Maybe I should re-amortize my mortgage to forty years and use the spare cash to buy a small island in the Juan De Fuca straight - set up some domestic bee colonies, stock up on seeds…
If it comes apart on us, it could be worse than the fall of Rome. Back then, technology was more sustainable. A blacksmith could still get his hands on ore and produce iron. Farmers carried on with their lives, trading continued…
Nowadays, everyone is a tooth in a gear that meshes with another gear and so on. There are no blacksmiths, there are massive multinational steel conglomerates. Fifteen hundred years ago, one man could make iron, nails, hinges, horse-shoes, wagons (heck my Grandfather did it all that two generations ago), but we have progressed too far beyond that level of technology. Everything now requires the cooperation of thousands of highly specialized individuals.
So the question that I am slowly getting around to is this: How far would we get knocked back if our food production failed? Would we be able to halt the slide at the Iron Age level, or would large areas of the world fall all the way back to hunter gatherer clans with stone tools?  There could be a few isolated pockets where the Iron Age survives. Those wild west theme parks with the working blacksmith shops might just end up being the shining beacons of human achievement in an otherwise dark world. Then again, they might end up being over run…  
I’m asking because I am writing a series of stories that relate to the subject and I am wondering what folks think about it. What is the most likely outcome of my doomsday scenario? Life can be crazy, but fiction has to be plausible so I really want to hear what thoughts you might have on the subject.
I think I’ll check out the prices on some small islands in the meantime. If everything turns out for the best, I can at least pretend to be an evil super villain…

See? I was serious about the bear…