Monthly Archives: May 2013

5 Simple Steps Amazon Could Take to Improve Reader Experience

The quality or lack thereof in self-published e-books has been the topic of many a forum thread over at the Amazon sites, and many other places on the web. Customers have complained about lack of editing, and general shoddy quality, including bad formatting. When anyone can “publish” a “book” on Amazon’s free digital publishing platform, many bad books will be published, leading most readers to avoid anything that smells self-published – even when the download is free.

Here are five simple steps Amazon could take to improve reader experience with self-published works:

    5. Stop allowing uploads to the Kindle platform using Word. Word is buggy and formatting errors are likely to occur. Most savvy writers are uploading from HTML. Allowing Word uploads is asking for formatting problems. It’s not too much of a hurdle for writers to convert to HTML, or read a formatting guide explaining how to do this. Writers who lack the technical “expertise” can easily find someone (a grandchild perhaps) who can figure it out.
    4. Format Check. Related to above – Have a program that reviews formatting and automatically stops badly formatted work from being accepted for publication. It only needs to be sophisticated enough to differentiate purposeful playfulness from complete messes, including scans supplied by rip-off vanity presses like Publish America and Author House.
    (In fact Amazon needs to crack down on companies like Publish America which publish unproofed and badly formatted manuscripts on Kindle and then charge their authors for “corrections” and to get back their publication rights. These practices don’t simply rip-off authors, they leave Amazon customers unsatisfied, and may turn off customers.)
    3. Use an advanced spelling and grammar check. Sure one would imagine that any manuscript being uploaded has been proofread a number of times, and that  all manuscripts have been through simple automated checks. However, this is not always the case. Amazon is now experimenting with a spell check that gives the author feedback about possible errors after they submit a manuscript to Amazon’s “preview” feature. This may help, but I’m not sure how good it is at spotting wrong words, grammar issues, punctuation problems, and other technical errors. Nor will any automated system work on fiction where authors may purposely use phonetic spelling or bad grammar in dialogue or for other purposes – not to mention sci-fi and fantasy where entire new languages may be created. However, Amazon should continue to develop the feature, and require publishers (whether they are micro-presses or individuals) to “sign-off” that they have actually viewed the feedback, and anything being left uncorrected is intentional.
    2. Book length and pricing: Right now any length is acceptable for a Kindle book, and many bestselling Kindle books would be too short to sell in print as a stand alone book. Recently, many authors have begun uploading single short stories, including short-shorts. Nothing wrong with that, except they’re mixed in with full-length books by genre, leading to some consumers feeling “ripped off” when they discover they’ve just purchased a 1,000 word work. Amazon has introduced a “page count” feature for e-books to help make consumers more aware of what they are getting. That’s great. However, the flood of short works still makes it difficult to sift through if you are looking to buy something that takes more than an hour to read. Here’s a simple suggestion – novels and even novellas and short story collections of at least 20,000 words are books. Anything less than that is a mini-book, or a short, or a single or whatever you want to call it, and should be somehow separated from full-length works, and clearly labeled. Price limits on shorts would be a good thing. Amazon prices its own “singles” imprint at less than full-length book prices, so why shouldn’t independent authors be subject to these controls?
    1. Help consumers find quality self-published work that will appeal to them. Amazon already has many proprietary secrets for targeting products to customers. They also have started several of their own imprints to help promising work get attention. But with so many books being uploaded every day, more filters are needed. A couple of months ago, I wrote a post on how Amazon could use paid readers to find self-published work likely to appeal to target audiences. The short version is that Amazon should offer an option for writers willing to pay a reading fee. The reader should be a consumer who falls into the target audience for the book. The writers would have receive a genuine reader review, and the reader could either “approve” or “reject” the book. Amazon would have a browse feature for approved books, and might promote them in other ways.  (Rejected books could still be self-published without “approval.”) This would give self-published authors a legitimate, objective review at a lower price than Kirkus or other services charge. It would be more relevant to Amazon readers since the reviewer would be one of their own and not a paid review service. It would help readers find books they are more likely to enjoy.
    (Like this post? Why not check out more on this blog, or take a look at Marion’s books?)

Your Saturday Book Review — TBR

Another week that I didn’t read a book. But I pledged to write a book review every week, so what to do? I could do what I’ve been doing and pick a book I read at some point in the past, but that’s gotten old, so instead I’m going to be completely self-indulgent because it’s not like anyone I don’t know actually reads this blog, and I’ll discuss some of my to-be-read-books because not knowing anything about a topic has never stopped me before. I will not, however, be really funny, like that lady who’d never seen an episode of Lost.

Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance – This is a DTB that the better-half insists I read. He keeps saying stuff like, “You haven’t read it yet, have you?” I get the feeling that his dream girl has read it already, and they have lots of great imaginary discussions about it in their bed of roses. I can see why it appeals to him. Per the blurb, it’s short stories about “ordinary people” set in many different parts of the world. Per the review excerpts, the stories are “darkly funny” and “highly entertaining.” I get the impression they have edge, so if you like edge, this may be for you. If you like brands, it’s published by Picador, an imprint of Macmillan aimed at the international high-brow market.

There are also several “indie” books waiting to be read on my kindle. I here and now pledge to Continue reading Your Saturday Book Review — TBR

The Office — Escape from Scranton

When the American version of The Office first appeared, it was condescending in a Hollywood way, written by people who may have once, briefly, worked in a setting similar to Dunder-Mifflin, but always believed they were destined for better things, and got the hell out as soon as they could.

Over time, however, it became habit-forming. Steve Carrell made Michael Scott’s need to be loved idiosyncratic, terribly funny and somehow a reflection of everyone’s inner-narcissist. Contrary to rumor, he was not the terrible boss we’ve all had. He might have shared some traits with bad bosses, but most truly horrific employers want to be feared, not loved. There was also, of course, Jim. From the beginning Jim, and to a lesser extent his beloved Pam, were our surrogates. They were young.  They were not weird. They were more than their jobs, and they fell in love. Communication was not great. It took Pam a while to see what should have been obvious.

Other characters also developed into full-fledged human beings although it took some longer than others. Angela, the office mean girl, needed to be taken down a few dozen pegs before we could consider liking her. As for Oscar, if I’m not mistaken, until the last couple of seasons, he seemed mostly to be there as two-fer, and to make Michael’s jokes that much more embarrassing. Dwight remained eccentric, but matured. Andy’s arc was the strangest. He started out as Continue reading The Office — Escape from Scranton

You Can’t Reboot Character

I may be talking out of my butt here because I haven’t seen the latest Star Trek movie, but here’s why I’m having doubts about the whole “reboot” enterprise. (Warning: There is an unavoidable BIG spoiler coming, regarding Into the Darkness. I will give two more warnings.)

When I saw, the first Abrams’ version, I liked it because it offered the promise of new adventures with the original characters. Not only that, but because it was a reboot – anything could happen. Characters we love could die without messing up the old timeline because the old timeline had already disappeared, which is not the same as saying it never happened. It did. Old Spock is proof of that.

Did I have reservations? Sure. I hated the idea that Spock – moral, upright Spock, was somehow responsible for the destruction of his entire planet – or rather setting in motion, inadvertently, the forces that led to its destruction. That felt like too much for him to bear. But it was an entertaining movie, and the parts I might have thought about went by too quickly for me to think about them.

However, this past weekend the better half and I watched Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home, and combining that with reading meh reviews for Into the Darkness, I’ve been thinking about what might have gone wrong.

We don’t love original, old-timey Star Trek for the cheesy sets, the mini-skirts or the way the computer screens light up. We love it because of the accidental chemistry between Kirk and Spock. We love it because as Edith Keeler said to Spock regarding where she thinks he belongs, “at his [Kirk’s] side as if you’ve always been there and always will.”

It’s about the characters, stupid.

And here’s the thing about iconic fictional characters, the more we get to know them, the deeper we love them. Experience changes them. Maybe not in big ways, but in subtle ones we watchers and readers track. We learn information over time. Holmes has a brother, Moriarty is his mortal enemy. There are cases that don’t go the way they should and these leave a mark forever. For Holmes, Irene Adler will always be “the woman.” Picard takes up an alien flute after his probe experience, and is never the same after the Borg’s get him. We know what it means when he plays that flute. Spock takes Jim out of “this damned place” (Spoiler is coming on next page. There’ll be a final warning!) Continue reading You Can’t Reboot Character

Don Loses Control

Until last week’s merger was born, Mad Men was shaping up for its dullest season. As Meagan continues to assert her independence, Don turns for comfort to a neighbor’s wife. Don cheating. Who would have ever seen that coming?

Now there’s a new hitch, the reality of the merger, proving once again, that Faye had Don’s number – he is all about beginnings. Suddenly there’s Don and there’s Ted and it’s not clear who is on top. Don has no problem with collaboration, as long as he’s in control, but Ted’s very presence undermines him. Roger, in contrast, has found his long-lost twin in his counterpart. The Rogerness is doubled. I look forward to the two of them dropping acid together, but Don is in an immediate pissing contest with Ted, one he may not even be conscious of, and Ted, being a somewhat more functional individual, is mystified.

First, Don makes an afternoon assignation with Sylvia and misses 90% of the first creative collaborative meeting, leaving Ted wondering how good an idea any of this was. Next he makes a “peace” offering with alcohol, that leaves Ted drunk and dysfunctional. Then Peggy, making her loyalties clear, reads her old-new boss the riot act for getting Ted drunk and being an asshole.

Ted goes to his dying colleague for advice, and then gets the upper-hand, piloting his own plane to a meeting with Mohawk Air. All Don can do is sit, terrified in the passenger seat as Ted takes off in a rain storm.

Round one is over. Ted wins.

So Don asserts control, or tries to, in the one place he can, with Sylvia, improvising a set of slightly kinky instructions for her. At first Sylvia is enjoying the novelty of submission, but then, this being real life, and not a trashy novel, she’s kind embarrassed by it, prompting her to tell Don it’s time to end the affair. There’s nothing a stricken Don can say to her because ultimately his domination of her is a game she is under no obligation to play.

The entire series might as well be entitled The Fall and Decline of Don Draper. While we’ve seen him increase his salary, make partner, upgrade his wife and start a super-agency, we haven’t seen him change in any way that counts. He’s grown increasingly out of touch with the times. Last season he couldn’t recognize The Beatles. Maybe he thought marrying Meagan would be his pipeline to the younger generation, but it hasn’t worked out that way. While Ted Chough can use the word groovy and not sound awkward, Roger can drop acid, and Pete can get sideburns, Don hasn’t lost the buttoned down Madison Avenue look even if he was shtupping a beatnik-artist when we first met him. That wasn’t part of Don’s daytime persona, that was his time off from being Don Draper. Don can’t change, because he doesn’t really exist. He’s always been a cardboard cut-out.

How will it all end? It wouldn’t surprise me if one day the man who was never really there, simply disappeared.