Eighteen Classic Albums

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about a process I had developed for producing ebooks. While dabbling in a few projects (none of which are anywhere near being finished) I established that the process worked and I was able to produce ebooks in various different formats.

But what I really needed was a complete book to try the process on, so that I could push it right through the pipeline so it was for sale on Amazon. I didn’t have the time to write a new book, so I looked around for some existing text that I could reuse.

Long-time readers might remember the record club that I was a member of back in 2012. It was a Facebook group where each week we would listen to a classic album and then discuss it with the rest of the group. I took it a little further and wrote up a blog post for each album. That sounded like a good set of posts to use for this project.

So I grabbed the posts, massaged them a bit, added a few other files and, hey presto, we have a book. All in all it took about two or three hours of work. And a lot of that was my amateur attempts at creating a cover image. If you’re interested in the technical stuff, then you can find all the input files on Github.

There has been some confusion over the title of the book. Originally, I thought there were seventeen reviews in the series. But that was because I had mis-tagged one. And, of course, you only find problems like that after you create the book and upload it to Amazon. So there are rare “first printing” versions available with only seventeen reviews and a different title. Currently the book page on Amazon is still showing the old cover. I hope that will be sorted out soon. I’ll be interesting to see how quickly the fixed version is pushed out to people who have already bought the older edition.

My process for creating ebooks is working well. And the next step of the process (uploading the book to Amazon) was pretty painless too. You just need to set up a Kindle Direct Publishing account and then upload a few files and fill in some details of the book. I’ve priced it at $2.99 (which is £1.99) as that’s the cheapest rate at which I can get 70% of the money. The only slight annoyance in the process is that once you’ve uploaded a book and given all the details, you can’t upload a new version or change any of the information (like fixing the obvious problems in the current description) until the current version has been published across all Amazon sites. And that takes hours. And, of course, as soon as you submit one version you notice something else that needs to be fixed. So you wait. And wait.

But I’m happy with the way it has all gone and I’ll certainly be producing more books in the future using this process.

Currently three people have bought copies. Why not join them. It only costs a couple of quid. And please leave a review.


Reading the News

I’ve always considered myself to be a Guardian reader. For probably twenty years I bought a Guardian most days and read it on the tube on my way to college and, later, my job. The routine was always the same, I’d read the Guardian in the morning and a book on my way home in the evening.

Ironically, it was working at the Guardian that broke me of the habit. There are plenty of copies of the Guardian hanging around their offices so it seemed a little wasteful to buy one from a newsagent when there would be free copies waiting for me at the end of my journey. So my routine reversed itself. I was reading a book on the way in and the paper on the way home.

Then when I stopped working at the Guardian I just never got back into the habit of buying the paper. I started reading books in both directions on the tube. Of course, something else had changed. At about this time I had started using Bloglines (and later Google Reader) to read news feeds from web sites. And, probably more importantly, newspaper web sites started to publish news as it happened to their web sites (and, hence, web feeds) rather than saving it up and putting it all in the print edition first.

So I didn’t really miss my daily paper. I was getting more news that I had been by just reading the Guardian. I was getting a wider view of the news as I was subscribed to feeds from all of the UK newspapers. And I was getting my news sooner. Against all that paying 50p a day for old news seemed a pretty bad deal.

I kept on reading books on both of my commutes and keeping up with news through web feeds during the day. About a year ago I switched to reading my books on a Kindle.

And then a couple of weeks ago I saw the Guardian had released a Kindle edition. For a tenner a month you get each day’s edition of the paper sent automatically to Kindle early in the morning. There was a two week free trial subscription, so I signed up.

After ten days I cancelled the subscription. It seems that reading a daily newspaper no longer fits into my routine. I found myself more interested in reading the next chapter of my book than the Guardian. And on the couple of occasions I forced myself to read it, I kept thinking to myself “But I’ve already read this. This is yesterday’s news.”

And I think that’s the key point here. I’m now so used to reading news within an hour or so of it happening, that I’m not interested in reading news from twelve or twenty-four hours ago. I’m spoilt by having near instant access to all of the world’s news agencies.

I’m no longer interested in reading a daily newspaper.

There are, however, a couple of things that I’m missing out on. Firstly, a good newspaper (and I consider the Guardian to be a good newspaper) won’t just report the news. It will explain the news and give it context. Look beyond the first dozen or so pages of the Guardian and you’ll find interesting in-depth analysis of the news. I’d like to read that. But, to be honest, I often didn’t have time to read that when I was a regular reader. So often I’d see a couple of interesting articles, mentally mark them as “to read later” and then completely forget about them. What I want is access to those articles in the evening or over the weekend when I have time to read them.

The second thing I’m missing is those serendipitous articles that catch your eye when flicking through the Guardian to get to something that you’re looking for on page thirty-two. That strange headline that draws you in and ends up with you buying some interesting-sounding musicians entire back catalogue. I discovered some of my favourite bands that way.

So maybe what I want is a newspaper with the news taken out. Perhaps a weekly magazine that contains the Guardian’s in-depth news articles along with its non-news content. That I’d be willing to pay a tenner a month for.

But I don’t want a newspaper any more, thank you. That’s so last millennium.


Amazon Kindle

I’ve had my Kindle for about six weeks now and I love it. It’s lightweight enough that I take it pretty much everywhere with me and I always have plenty to read. The screen is great for reading books and the battery holds its charge for days – I’m currently only charging it about once a week.

The technology is great – but there’s a small issue. Content is hard to come by.

Ok, that’s not really the case. There are thousands of books available in the Kindle store. What I really mean is that content is hard to come by in a format that I’m happy paying money for.

Remember when buying music online was overcomplicated? When you had to be careful which web site you bought your music from because you might not be able to play it on your computer or your portable music device? When buying a track from one computer meant that you might not be able to play it on another computer? In short, do you remember DRM?

Well, that’s the stage that the ebook publishing seems to be at currently. They’re paranoid that people will share ebooks with each other and therefore they treat every customer as a criminal and place massive obstructions in the way of us using the products that we’ve bought. It’s really easy to buy ebooks from the Kindle store, but having bought that book you can only read it on your Kindle (or on other Kindle applications associated with your Amazon account). If in two years time I decide to buy a different ebook reader from a different company, it’s likely that I won’t be able to use it to read books I’ve bought for my Kindle. This is unacceptable to me, so I’m looking for alternative sources of ebooks.

The Kindle will happily read books that aren’t in the Amazon DRM format. It reads PDFs (although they don’t reflow in the same way as a real ebook) and Mobipocket files. So the problem becomes finding a better source of Mobipocket ebooks. Actually it’s easier than that as there’s a wonderful program called Calibre which will convert between various ebook formats.

Going back to the comparison with music, when music files were all DRMed, there were two sources that we all used to get music. We ripped our existing CDs and we (well some of us) used service like Napster to get hold of other music. Can we take a similar approach to books?

Of course, converting your existing library to ebooks is a bit of a non-starter. Scanning books takes far too long – and you’d end up with something that might well be difficult to convert to an ebook. I hear there are companies in Japan who will do the conversion for you for about a dollar a go. But you have to send the books to them and they do it by destroying the books. So that’s not really an option for most people.

So how about alternative sources. The first place that many of you will be thinking about is Project Gutenberg. Since 1971, they have been building a digital library of out of copyright material. And, yes, they produce Mobipocket versions of their books. In fact they recently changed the description of their Mobipocket versions to Kindle versions. You can get thousands of books from their site. I’ve already stocked up on Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen and dozens of other out of copyright works. If you want classic literature, then this site is all you’ll need.

But I don’t just want classic literature. I want other kinds of books too. As a geek, I like to read technical books. O’Reilly (one of the best technical publishers out there) make a huge selection of their books available as ebooks. Buying an ebook from O’Reilly gives you access to a pack of up to five DRM-free formats – which includes Mobipocket. So for technical ebooks I’m pretty much sorted. O’Reilly also allow you to upgrade from a paper copy of a book to the ebook edition for $5.

But this still leaves me missing some books I want. This lunchtime I was in Waterstones and I could easily have bought a couple of dozen new books. The new David Mitchell novel, Stephen Fry’s autobiography, the new Derren Brown book and many many more. Those are the books that I want to be able to buy DRM-free.

And let’s be clear here. I don’t want them DRM-free so that I can put them on a web site so that anyone can take a copy. I don’t even want to give copies to my close friends. I just want DRM-free ebooks so that I’m not tied to using an Amazon Kindle for the rest of my life.

When I asked about this on Twitter this afternoon I got basically two types of reply. Firstly, there were people who suggested bittorrent sites and other dubious ways of getting hold of ebooks. I’m not hugely comfortable doing that, but I’ll do it if that’s the only option. And some people pointed me at other sites that sold ebooks in various formats – for example Mobipocket’s site. These sites are ok if they have the books that you want to read. But I haven’t been able to find any of the three examples I listed above on any of these sites. I should also mention authors like Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross who always make free copies of their work available in various formats. These people are the exception rather than the rule and their trendsetting doesn’t solve my problem with getting the books that I want.

So it seems that we’re stuck where the music industry was five or six years ago. The publishers are all so paranoid that we’ll steal their content that they’ll make it unreasonably difficult for us to use the versions that they deign to sell us. And that’s a real shame. It’s pretty much a certainty that eventually they’ll realise that what they’re doing is stupid and at that point they’ll start making DRM-free content – as the music industry has done over the last couple of years. But it’s frustrating to have to go through all the same pain for a different medium. Why can’t the publishers learn from the record labels’ mistakes and skip ahead to their inevitable change of heart?

To summarise. I don’t want books for free. I don’t want pirate copies of books. I want to pay a reasonable price for an electronic copy of a book that I can read on any device that I choose. And that I’m free to convert to other formats as my reading devices evolve and change in the future.

Why is that so hard to find?