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In Search of the Great Unifier

I’ve been in book publishing since long before there were ebooks. Print was always primary, and you saw to print first. Once ebooks became practical, ebooks were derived from print book content. The tools were dicey, and the renderers (in ebook readers and apps) were very dicey. (I think they still are. Will any common ebook reader render a drop-cap correctly? If so, let me know. I have yet to see one that does.) The way publishing is currently evolving, this has to change. Ebooks are becoming the afterthought that wags the industry, and print, where it survives at all, looks to become an extra-cost option.

I’ve been watching for that change for some time, while continuing to use the same system I learned in the 1990s. I write and edit in Word, and then do layout and print image generation in InDesign, which I’ve used since V1.0. I’m willing to change the apps I use to generate books of both kinds, but it’s got to be worth my while.

So far, it hasn’t been. I do intuit that we may be getting close.

What rubbed my nose in all this is my recent project to clean up and re-issue my novel The Cunning Blood in ebook format. Although it was published in late 2005, I actually wrote the book in 1998 and 1999. Even when you’re 62, sixteen years is a long time. I’ve become a better writer since then, and beyond a list of typos I’ve accumulated some good feedback from readers about booboos and awkwardnesses in the story that should be addressed in any reissue. So the adventure begins.

There’s a common gotcha in the way I create books: Final corrections to the text in a layout need to be recaptured when you return to manuscript to prepare a new edition. I was in a hurry and careless back in 2005. I made literally dozens of changes to the layout text but not to the Word file. To recapture those changes to the manuscript I’ve had to go from the layout back to a Word file, which with InDesign, at least, is not easy. I don’t intend to make that mistake again.

That said, avoiding the mistake may be difficult. Word processors are marginal layout programs, and layout programs are marginal word processors. The distinction is really artificial in this era of eight-core desktops. There’s no reason that one program can’t maintain two views into a document, one for editing and one for layout. The marvel is that nobody’s succeeded in doing this. My only guess is that until very recently, publishing drew a fairly bright line between editing and layout, with separate practitioners on each side of the line. Few individuals did both. What attempts I’ve seen are shaped by that line.

Consider InCopy. Adobe introduced InCopy with CS1. It’s a sort of allied word processor for InDesign. It never caught on and is no longer part of CS. (Only one book was ever published about InCopy CS2, which is the surest measure of failure on the part of an app from a major vendor.) I have CS2 and can guess why: InCopy requires a great deal of what my Irish grandmother would call kafeutherin’ to transfer copy between the two apps. InCopy was designed for newspaper work, where a lot of different writers and editors contribute to a single project. I consider it it a multiuser word processor, for which I have no need at all. For very small press and self-publishing, we need to go in the opposite direction, toward unification of layout and editing.

There is a commercial plug-in for InCopy called CrossTalk that sets up InDesign and InCopy for single practictioner use, but the damned thing costs $269 and may no longer support CS2.

I’m still looking. A couple of my correspondents recommended I try Serif’s PagePlus. I might have done so already, but the firm’s free version installs crapware toolbars that most people consider malware. The paid version does not; however, I’ll be damned if I’ll drop $100 on spec just to test something.

I know a number of people who have laid out whole books entirely in Word, and I could probably do that. With Acrobat CS2, I could generate page image PDFs from a Word file. Atlantis edits Word files and generates good-quality .epub and .mobi files from .docx. That’s not a bad toolchain, if what you want is a chain. I already have a chain. What I want is a single edit/layout app that generates page images, .epubs, and .mobis.

Etc. The tools are definitely getting better. Solutions exist, and one of these days soon I’m going to have to choose one. As I said, I’m still looking. I’ll certainly hear suggestions if you have some.

Odd Lots

The Manhattan Hardcover Conundrum

Judging by the online commotion, people are still arguing about whether Amazon or Hachette (and by implication, the rest of the Big Five) will win the current fistfight over ebook pricing. The media has generally positioned Hachette as the plucky little guy trying to take on Saurazon by getting everybody in the Shire to stand up, face east, and yell, “Huzzah!” It’s not that easy, heh. But then again, nothing is.

My position? I think the fight may already be over. The Big Five lost. I say that for several reasons:

  1. The Feds are against them. The whole fight is about how to keep ebook prices from falling, which in antitrust law hurts the public and becomes actionable when producers collude. Even the appearance of collusion will start that hammer on its way down again. Hachette has one leg in a sling before the kicking contest even begins.
  2. The public has already decided that ebooks can’t be sold at hardcover prices. In fact, this decision was made years ago. Although the issues are subtle, it’s completely true that producing ebooks is considerably less costly than producing print books, especially hardcovers. What publishers have tried to declare the floor ($10) is probably now the ceiling. That ship has not only sailed, it’s folded into hyperspace.
  3. Monopsony power (one buyer facing many sellers; e.g., Amazon) is not illegal. I’ve read in several places that Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act does not outlaw monopsonistic practices unless they are acquired by exclusionary conduct. There’s not a lot of settled case law about what sorts of conduct are considered exclusionary by a goods retailer, as opposed to an employer. Future cases may change this, but it’s going to be a near-vertical climb.
  4. Virtually all recent technology works in Amazon’s favor. Ebook readers, cheap tablets, fast ubiquitous broadband, POD machinery, thermonuclear sales data collection, online reviews, you name it: Amazon has almost no legacy baggage.
  5. Almost everything works against print publishing generally, and the Big Five in particular. I’ll come back to this.

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the whole business. In general, letting publishers set their own prices via agency agreements with retailers is a good thing because it allows startups to undercut them. The value to the public of any individual publisher (or conglomerate) is low, as long as startups have access to markets and can replace them. Access to bricks’n’mortar retail shelves has always been and still is tricky. Access to other retail channels has never been easier. If I were ten years younger I might be tempted to try again.

Now, why is Big Print in such trouble? Somebody could write a book (and I wish Mike Shatzkin in particular would) but here are some hints:

  1. Trade book print publishing is a big-stakes wager against public taste. It’s hard to predict what the public will want even in categories like tech. Literary fiction? Egad. Guess wrong, and you’ve lost what might be a million-dollar advance plus the full cost of the press run and any promotional efforts.
  2. The economics of trade book publishing are diabolical. Trade books are basically sold on consignment, and can be returned by the retailer at any time for a full refund. This makes revenue projection a very gnarly business. Books assumed to be sold may not stay sold.
  3. Online used bookselling reduces hardcover sales. Buying a hardcover bestseller soon after release is a sort of impatience tax. The impatient recover some of the tax by listing the book on personal retailing sites like eBay or Amazon Marketplace at half the cover price. The patient get a basically new book for half-off, and then sometimes sell it again…for half the cover price. This would not be possible if online searches of used book inventory weren’t fast and easy.
  4. Related to the above: Remaindering teaches the public that new hardcovers are cheap. Most print books are eventually remaindered. The remainders are generally sold online for as little as three or four bucks. They’re new old stock books with a marker swipe on one edge. The more publishers guess wrong about press runs (see Point #1) the more books are remaindered, and the more hardcovers lose their mystique and (more important) their price point.
  5. Fixed costs for the Big Five are…Big. There is a very strong sort of “Manhattan culture” in trade book publishing. Big publishers are generally in very big, very expensive cities, which carry high premiums for office space and personnel. My experience in book publishing suggests that none of that is necessary, but as with Silicon Valley, it’s a cultural assumption that You Have To Be There, whatever it costs.

Bottom line: The Big Five need the $25 (and up) hardcover price point to maintain the business model they’ve been evolving for 75 years. If hardcover sales ramp down, they need ebook sales to make up the difference. Ebooks are cheaper to produce and manage (i.e., no print/bind costs, shipping, warehousing, or returns) and it’s quite possible that a $20 ebook price point could stand in for a $30 hardcover price point. However, Amazon has trained the public to feel that an ebook shouldn’t cost more than $10. Indies have put downward pressure on even that, and the demystification of hardcovers via used and remainder sales hasn’t helped.

What options do the Big Five have? Culture is strong: They’re not going to cut the glitz and get out of Manhattan. (That may not be invariably true; Wiley US moved from Manhattan to New Jersey some years ago. Wiley, however, does not publish trade fiction and has never been deep into glitz. I doubt, furthermore, that they would have moved to Omaha.) A reliable midlist might help, but midlist titles now exist mostly as ebooks. Most publishers, big and small, have long since outsourced design and production to third parties, and are already doing a great deal of printing in China. Beyond that, I just don’t know.

Don’t misunderstand: My sympathies are with publishers, if not specifically large publishers. I was in the trenches and I know how it works. Books can only be made so cheap before quality suffers, especially ambitious nonfiction like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. We may be in a race-to-the-bottom that cannot be won by either side. What I’d really like is honesty in all quarters about the issues and (especially) the consequences. Rah-rah tribalism helps no one.

Both sides have points in their favor. Amazon has done something not well-appreciated: It’s made it possible for self-publishers and indie publishers to reach readers. Physical bookstores have long been barriers to entry in publishing. Quality remains a problem, but hey, is that a new problem? Traditional publishers claim that they guarantee quality, even though “quality” is a very tough thing to define. Most of my life I’ve abandoned a fair number of print books every year as unreadable, not because I dislike the approach or the topic but because the writing is bad. This is supposedly the value that publishers add. The adding is, shall we say, uneven.

My suggestions sound a little bit banal, even to me:

  • Publishers need to pay more attention to objective quality. Bad writing is a fixable problem; you either don’t buy it, or you fix it after you buy it if you judge the work important enough to go forward. This is the edge traditional publishers have over the indies.
  • Amazon needs to consider that book publishing is an ecosystem in which many players have important roles. Market share won’t matter if you kill huge segments of the market. They may not care; there’s plenty of money in selling thumb drives and diapers.
  • Readers need to meditate on the realities of writing. Writers need to be paid. Cover price isn’t everything. Quality matters.
  • The hardcover as the core of trade publishing must die. Hardcovers need to become a luxury option. If I read an ebook or paperback of a truly excellent work, I may want a hardcover, and we’re very close to having the machinery to do hardcover onesies at reasonable cost. I’ve upgraded to hardcover many times, but generally on the used market, since by the time I read a paperback the hardcover may already have been remaindered and unavailable new.
  • Publishers need to ask themselves if Manhattan and San Francisco really deliver benefits comcomitant to their astronomical cost.
  • Amazon is a given. The Internet leans toward channel capture. If it weren’t them it would be someone else. Grumble though we might, we need to start there and figure out the best way forward.

In the meantime, remember: There are countless sides to every argument, and no easy answers to anything. You are always wrong. And so am I. Get used to it.

Print and Ebook from the Same PDF

I’ve been tinkering with a recast of my 1993 book Borland Pascal 7 From Square One since 2008, for the excellent FreePascal compiler. One reason I set the project aside after a year or so is that I wanted to see if the Lazarus IDE would mature a little. I had originally planned to use the text-mode IDE bundled with the compiler, but it had what I considered dealbreaker bugs. Besides, if Lazarus became usable, I could create a tutorial for it as well. Lazarus is now at V1.2.2 and (at least to the limits of my tests so far) works beautifully. I’ve gone back to the FreePascal From Square One project, yanking out all mention of the text-mode IDE, and deliberately tilting it toward a prequel tutorial for a future book on OOP and creating GUI apps in Lazarus, Delphi-style.

One of my goals with the project has been to create a single PDF that can be used as both an ebook and a print image. I’ve experimented with implementing it as an epub, with disastrous results. Layouts containing lots of art just don’t work as reflowable text. On the other hand, PDF images are painful to read and navigate unless the reader device can render a full page legibly. Back in 2008, we didn’t even have iPads yet, and the target display for my PDF ebooks was my 2005-era IBM X41 Tablet PC. You could read the PDF…barely. I spun a couple of page layouts that used smaller pages and larger fonts. They were readable, but looked bizarre (almost like children’s books) when printed to paper.

I left it there for some years. Come 2010 we met the iPad, with the multitude of Android slabs hot on its heels. Displays improved radically. I got an Asus Transformer Prime in 2012, and found the 1280 X 800 display startling. I took the page design that I had originally created for my X41 and tweaked it a little. The page size is A4 rather than letter or standard computer trim, for three reasons:

  • Whereas some POD houses can give you computer trim, sheets aren’t readily available at retail and thus can’t be printed at home.
  • A4 paper is the default paper size in Europe, where I suspect that most of my readers will be. It can be had in the US from the larger office stores, and modern laser printers will take it. Lacking A4 paper, the book can be printed to letter sheets with only a little bit of reduction.
  • A4 paper is taller and narrower than letter, and maps a little better to the wide-format displays that dominate the non-iPad tablet segment.

The layout still looks odd to me. Half a century of reading has made me used to fine print, so the larger type jars a little. However, the layout has plenty of room for technical art and screenshots, and full pages read very well on the Transformer Prime. (This is not true on the much smaller Nook Color.)

With print publishers struggling terribly, I’m guessing that this is one possible future for technical publishing: new layouts that allow the same PDFs to be either printed or rendered as ebooks. More and more specialty books that I buy are POD (I know how to spot them) and the customary high prices on computer books leave plenty of margin to make POD copies profitable.

You can help me out a little. The ebook is far from finished, but I’ve posted the PDF here. I’d be curious to know how legibly it renders on other tablets, particularly those smaller than 10″ but with 1280 X 800 or better resolution. Again, it’s not a complete book and there are plenty of typos and layout glitches in it. What I want to know is whether or not technical readers will find it usable on modern tablets. Thanks in advance for any feedback you can provide.

Odd Lots

  • This is where we stayed on Grand Cayman last week. Unless I misrecall, it was about $150 a night. Don’t forget that it was not air conditioned.
  • For deep reading, print may be the way to go, for reasons we don’t yet understand. In looking back a year or so, I realize that I generally read fiction on my Transformer Prime, and nonfiction on paper. It wasn’t a conscious decision–and may simply be due to a reluctance of nonfiction publishers to issue ebooks–but it was probably the correct one.
  • Here’s yet another reason why I’ve decided to let the Sun actually reach my skin.
  • It’s starting to look like diet has little or no effect on cancer risk. This has been my suspicion for a long time. Obesity, yes. Diet itself, no. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
  • Ohh, Ancel Key’s beautiful wickedness is all starting to unravel. Saturated fat has nothing to do with heart disease. This has also been a suspicion of mine for some time, along with the suspicion that eating fat will make you lose weight more quickly than simply going low-carb. It certainly worked that way for me. I now weigh only eight pounds more than I did when I was 24, and a good deal of that is probably muscle I put on via ten years of weight training. (Thanks to Trevor Tompkins for the link.)
  • Interesting paper on why the Neanderthals died out. They didn’t necessarily die out becausethey were inferior. (Maybe they didn’t die out at all but are still here, pretending to be ugly Saps.) If I had to guess, I’d say their skulls got so big as to make childbirth problematic. But what were they doing with all that gray matter? (Thanks to Erik Hanson for the link.)
  • I stumbled on a year-old article that pretty much captures my reaction to weather.com. I will add, however, that weather.com beats the living hell out of The Weather Channel.
  • I’m still waiting for reports of cataclysmic pwnage on XP machines. The number “2000″ comes to mind.
  • Speaking of which, I still need XP because my HP S20 slide scanner has no driver that will run on Windows 7. Haven’t tried the VM trick yet, but ultimately that’s the way I’ll have to go.
  • I knew there was a reason I only lived in Baltimore for 23 months.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Ars has the best article I’ve yet seen on the recent ruling in the Apple ebook price fixing trial. Insight: Publishers get less under agency than they do under wholesale, but they’re willing to accept it to keep control of pricing. Book publishing is a freaky business. This may not work out as planned for the publishers.
  • Also from Ars: Weird search terms that brought readers to the Ars site. I used to publish these too, but I don’t get as many as I once did. Web search has always been a freaky business. I guess the freakiness just wanders around.
  • The sunspot cycle still struggles. Cycle 24 will be freaky, and weak–even with our modern tendency to count spots that could not be detected a hundred years ago.
  • Not news, but still freaky if you think about it: The Air Force tried building a flying saucer in 1956. The aliens are still laughing at us.
  • Actually, the best flying saucers are all triangles. In the greater UFO freakshow, these are by far my favorites.
  • There’s a quirk in the insurance industry that will allow young people to opt out of the ACA and still get health insurance–while paying much less they would buying traditional health policies under ACA. Life insurance policies often allow for accelerated payouts of benefits while the insured is still alive. My insight: Such a policy would be a way to finesse limited enrollment windows by paying for catastrophic care until enrollment opens again. (Which would be no more than ten months max.) And you thought publishing was a freaky business.
  • We thought we knew how muscles work. We were wrong. Human biology is always freakier than we thought.
  • As is washing your hair–in space.
  • Streaming is the ultimate end of the DRM debate. Music, movies, sure. Could one stream an ebook? Of course. Would people accept such a system, or would they freak out? Well, we thought DRM for serial content was dead, too. (Book publishers have become much more aggressive against piracy lately. More tomorrow.)
  • And finally, if you want freaky, consider the humble cicada killer, which vomits on its own head to keep from frying in the summer. We had them living under our driveway in Baltimore. I didn’t know what they were and they scared us a little until I called the county ag agent, who said, “They’re cicada killers, but don’t worry. They’re harmless.” I immediately called Carol at work to give her the good news. The receptionist at the clinic wrote down: “Jeff called. The things living under your driveway are psychotic killers, but don’t worry. They’re harmless.”

Summer Doldrums

Yes, I’ve been gone for awhile, and for any number of reasons found it inconvenient to put anything together until this evening. I’ve been having some trouble with that old book-hauling injury in my left arm, spent ten days in Chicago, fixed some stuff (including an interesting repair on a dog grooming hair dryer) and learned some new things that I didn’t expect to learn, including a few that I probably didn’t need to learn.

In short, I’ve had nothing much to report, and in the summer heat just felt better reading books and taking it easy in the cause of getting my whiny supinator to shut the hell up. The gruel here is on the thin side, but that’s summer.

My younger niancee, Justine, made me aware of something called Prancercise by demonstrating it in front of the whole family. Damn. I thought she was kidding. Then I watched the video. Wow. It has nothing on the Invisible Horse Dance, but it could be the next craze at weddings. Or maybe not.

Weddings. We did attend a terrific wedding, of the daughter of my oldest friend Art. At her reception I saw something called the Casper Slide–not to be confused with the skateboarding stunt of the same name. And if you are confused, you’re not alone. I think this is why the real name of the dance is the Cha-Cha Slide, developed by a Chicago DJ named Casper. I watched the dance, and apart from some stomping, it looked a lot like the Electric Slide. But hey, what do I know about cultural tropes?

Another bit of knowledge that was true but unwelcome is that Barnes & Noble comtinues to come apart at the seams. Their CEO quit the other day over the failure of the Nook tablets to capture any significant part of the tablet market. The Nook division is for sale, and Microsoft is making slobbering noises. The Nook guys have been on my you-know-what list for some time, for pushing down updates that freeze in mid-install and can’t be removed. (I don’t use AMV, but I wonder if it works at all after the installer gets stuck.) Leonard Riggio wants to take back the retail division. A lot of stores are closing, and half the remaining stores have leases that expire in 2016. And everybody’s wondering what happens after all this happens. Especially publishers.

I learned that the Chicago Tribune has a page dedicated to documenting every single homicide that happens in Chicago. That this would be a big, frequently updated page is bad enough. That is exists at all is worse. I guess Chicago is a terrific place to be from.

There’s a video on domesticated fox, pointed out to me by Pete Albrecht. I mentioned the Russian research on Siberian fox years ago, but this is the first time I’ve seen videos of the animals themselves. It’s sad in a way; the poor things are stuck somewhere between fox and dogs, and are at best unreliably tame. It’s pretty clear to me, however, that this was the same process our ancestors used to turn wolves into dogs. And it didn’t take thousands of years.

I learned that the backlight behind the controls of my new car stereo changes color continuously.

Ok, ok, I can see eyes glazing over. That’s it for tonight. I hope to get back on my usual schedule shortly.

Odd Lots