Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Mom Always Told Me to Share

I’ve been using Google Analytics to observe traffic on my blog and website. In all honesty, I haven’t been able to figure out how to get it to do much else. There are specific events I want to watch for and I was hoping Analytics could do it. I am still not certain how to specify for G.A. to watch for those events—or even if it can—so all I really use it for is to watch real-time reporting. That in itself is still pretty interesting.
A couple weeks ago, I opened the real-time reporting page and within a second or two of signing on, someone visited my blog. That was a bit of a thrill. Actually catching the moment a visitor came to my page!
The visitor was from Umbertide, Italy. (For you paranoid types, that’s as close as I can get to seeing where someone is coming from: just the name of the city.)
A couple thoughts went through my head. First was what a great name for a city! That—or some variation thereof—will definitely find its way into Aggadeh. Second, what drew someone from Italy to my site? Actually, that was fairly easy to answer. The referring link was included as the point from where they entered my site, and I could see it was a Google search about one of the subjects I had written about. I can only hope that what I wrote was of some use to my visitor.
That did make me think about what drew people to my blog or web site.
A blog is a promotional vehicle for a writer. It promotes the writer’s work. It gives readers an insight to the kind of person the writer is and what goes on in the writer’s mind. And if kept interesting, it draws in readers. The more readers, the more sales later on.
At first glance, that sounds cold and impersonal. It isn’t. Anyone wanting to become a professional writer must come to grips with the fact that your income is going to come from people willing to part with their hard-earned cash in exchange for your book. In order to make a living, you need enough people to not just buy your book, but like it enough so they will buy the next book, too. People who don’t like your book will probably never buy your next book. With people liking your book and people not liking your book, the only way to get enough people who like your book to buy it is to reach out as far and wide as possible to let people know about your book.
A while back, I engaged two friends to assist me in an experiment. That experiment was to find an answer to the question, “What does it take to spread the word using social networks?”
Arguably, the largest and most active social network in the world right now is Facebook. That became my target.
On Facebook, when you post something, your friends and readers can only take three actions relative to that post: they can Like, Comment, or Share. It turns out, only one of these three is really effective when you want to spread the word around.
On that evening, I shared my latest post in my blog and began the experiment. I asked both friends to “Like” my post. For the most part, nothing happened. After about thirty minutes, there were a couple of new visits to the blog, but no more activity.
I signaled to my friends to actually make a comment about my latest post. Both commented at different times, and this step of the experiment had a much stronger effect. After each comment was posted, there was a noticeable increase in traffic visiting my blog. Here was a definite positive reaction to their comments. It was only about a dozen visits, but that was a very good result.
After forty-five minutes had gone by, it was time for the last stage of the experiment. I asked my friends to actually share their thoughts about my post rather than just comment on it.
When you comment on a post, only the people connected to the owner of the post actually see it. But, sharing goes to a whole new level. Sharing allows everyone who is friended to you to actually see the post, as well as people connected to the original owner.
The result was spectacular!
Within ten minutes, I had a massive surge in traffic to my blog that totaled more visits than the last three blog posts combined! To give you an idea of the magnitude of that surge, it took my blog three months before it passed 100 visits total for my site. In ten minutes, that count nearly doubled.
To like someone’s post on Facebook, that is a signal from me to the original poster that I liked what the poster had to say. But liking something on Facebook only results in a small blip on the wall. It’s there and it is gone.
Commenting goes a little farther than that. But as far as the general public goes, all anyone really sees is the realtime stream on the right of the screen.
Sharing your comment about a post puts that post on your wall, and everyone who is friended to you can also see that post. It has a much greater significance than the other two.
The trick to promoting things on Facebook is to get your friends to share your post. That is what gets the greatest reaction. The greater push is to ask your friends to ask their friends in the share to do the same. This way, your post gets two shares, and that spreads the word significantly!
Comments do work, but nowhere near as much as a full sharing does.
When the time comes—and it is coming soon—I will need to lean on my friends and ask them to go the extra mile and share their comments, and at the same time to ask their friends to do the same. And then beg their patience and understanding as I continue to push for a few weeks.
It doesn’t take much beyond that to accomplish the goal I’ve set. Once other people have heard about my book, the curious will step up on their own and continue to check in on my site. At the end of the above experiment, that was when the traffic on my site really began to grow on its own.
Of course, the flip side to this action is to not overdo it! That tunes people out very quickly. It's best to moderate your actions and carefully ration announcements.
Like my mother always said, "Share!"

Saturday, May 5, 2012

My Hovercraft is Full of Eels!

Have you ever played Google Translate Ping-Pong? That’s when you pass something to be translated through Google Translate to another language, copy the result, and have it translated back into your own language. Repeat this several times and observe the gibberish that is generated.
After six passes between English and Japanese, the above paragraph was reduced to this:
“Has played a ping-pong in front of the Google translation of you! For example, if it can not be translated or Google, but you pass a copy of the translation in other languages, it has been converted to it in your own language. Repeat this a few times, will be generated. Observe the gibberish.”
It does seem to reach a point where the translation stabilizes and doesn’t change anymore. I should try passing it through a number of different languages and see what comes out.
I’ll probably use this technique in the future to create dialogue for a character who doesn’t have a full grasp of the native language of a story's main characters. 
It does highlight the fact that machine translation is not anywhere near as good as having a living person do it. A person can understand the nuances and context of a conversation far more easily than a computer can. Understanding that limitation, I think the service does a decent job. I can certainly copy text from something and have it translated well enough that I can understand what was being written.
If you are wondering where the title of this post came from, you can enjoy the source here.
I just added the Google Translate widget to my blog. You can find it on the right side of the page, just after the search window.
I did this because I’ve noticed over the months that I’ve been getting an awful lot of traffic on my blog from regions of the world that I find very surprising. I’ve seen visits from Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and others. Not exactly centers of the English language. Since I was seeing so much traffic from non-English-speaking regions, it made sense to add something that might make it easier for some of these readers to read what I write.
Not to mention, it’s kind of fun seeing how my writing looks in Japanese!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Libraries and Lending Ebooks

I have written on this subject before, lending ebooks from libraries.
Now there is a small movement to try and encourage publishers and libraries to work together to find a common solution. I’ve been able to give it a bit more thought, and what follows is how I think it should work.
My town’s library and the regional system it is connected to does have an ebook lending system. But the functionality of it is awful. The interface for getting an ebook to borrow is not intuitive at all, and then once the file has finally been extruded from the system, I have to run it through a third-party application to process the file and stick it onto my Nook. 
This could be done so much more easily, though it requires cooperation from all parties involved: the libraries, publishers, and ebook reader manufacturers.
On the surface, I should be able to walk into my library and plug my ebook reader into a kiosk via my ebook reader’s USB cord. Alternatively, I could also use a USB thumb drive.
With my Nook (or iPad or Kindle, etc.) plugged in, I scan my library card and begin to peruse the list of available books for borrowing. Once I find a title I’m interested in reading, I select it, and it gets pushed onto my Nook and is available for reading.
After, say, three weeks, when the expiration date is reached, my Nook will automatically delete the ebook. If I wasn’t finished reading it for whatever reason, then it behooves me to go to the library and borrow it again.
…Or get on the waiting list if it was a popular title.
The way to make this work is to use Digital Rights Management (DRM) in a constructive way.
It starts with my library card.
My library card has an ID number on it for my library system. That number could be used as part of a public/private key encryption for the DRM.
When I log into the library kiosk using my library card and make my title selection, the process begins.
The kiosk first unzips the ePub file of the ebook I want to read. It inserts a small XML file containing the expiration date into the unzipped data and then re-zips the files along with the XML file into the ePub file again.
Or, more simply, the kiosk takes the ebook and the expiration date file and put together into a directory, zipping up the directory into the archive file. This gets around Amazon.com having to adopt the ePub format.
In the second step, the kiosk software then encrypts the ePub file using my library card number as the key. At this point, I would suggest changing the filetype to an eLibrary-book file, designated with the file suffix .elib or something else appropriate.
When my ebook reader sees the file is an eLib file, it knows it needs something to decrypt it. That something is my library number. My reader asks me to input my library card number and that unlocks the ebook for use in my reader. (An iPad could just scan the barcode with its camera.)
Knowing it is an eLib file, the reader also knows there is an expiration date.
When the expiration date comes due, my reader would hopefully give me timely notification that it is about to expire and I should finish reading the book already. When the date is passed, the reader simply deletes the file. If I try to copy the file again from a thumb drive I might have used, it just won’t work because the expiration date is passed.
This also avoids someone unscrupulously putting a borrowed book available online. The encryption of the book would be tied to that person’s library card, making it trivial to identifying the malfeasant responsible.
Also, public-private key encryption is strong enough to work as a deterrent. Sure, someone with enough computing power at his fingertips could crack a public-private key pair. However, it still takes considerable computing capacity and time to do so. Enough, that it makes it economically useless to do it. Why expend several thousand dollars on computer equipment and a few weeks running it while driving up electricity bills, when you could just go out and buy the book for a couple dollars in the first place?
My idea does require that ebook reader manufacturers add the ability to recognize and decrypt eLib files. That means they all have to agree to accepting it as a standard and adding the software into the operating systems of their devices.
On the library side of things, they would be limited to lending only the number of copies they purchased of a given title. So, if a library only purchased three copies of Nobody, then they would only be allowed to loan three copies of Nobody. If all three copies were out, then patrons would have to wait until the first expiration date was reached.
Simple and elegant!
Someone with decent coding skills could probably hack out a functional version of the above in a few hours. I, on the other hand, could probably hack out a pseudo-functional demo in a month or two. Just a simple matter of programming…
Sure, people could use the above through the web as well. As I see it, the kiosk-based system could continue to encourage people to visit the local library and help keep libraries relevant and viable in the digital age.
Easily borrowing ebooks from a library would also be a huge boost for the ebook market. The key market that most publishers shoot for are those top end readers who buy many books over the year, and are apt to read their favorite books over and over again. Many of these people got their start in their love of reading as children. The vast majority of children do not go out to buy books for themselves, they go to the library to borrow them. It isn’t until they are teens and young adults that these readers begin buying books and building their personal libraries. I should know, I’m one of them!
Hey! Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble! Wanna get long-term customers who buy many titles on a regular basis? Do what the tobacco companies do: target children as early as possible!
And the best way to hook children on reading books in an ebook reader is to make it as easy as possible for these children to borrow the books from the library! That’s where your top readers come from!
When you’re riding a motorcycle, you don’t look at the asphalt just in front of your front tire, you look at far ahead as you can—even looking trough the trees to see if any hazard might be ahead. The further you look ahead, the more time you have to plan and adjust. Business people need to stop looking at the asphalt in front of their toes and start looking up and out to the horizon and start working on long term planning and long term profit. By making it easier for people to borrow ebooks from libraries, you guarantee future sales and profits by encourage people to read!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Setting Up Shop

Preorders for Nobody!!!

…Are not being accepted yet.
But everything is in place for that to happen. Almost. There are still a few things in the background that must be tweaked for the whole thing to happen.
At the simplest level, I set up a PayPal button on the Shop page of my website. Clicking on this button will take the customer to the PayPal page to confirm the transaction and then return the customer to my website again.
Currently, the button—while it is a live connection—results in a null tranasction. I set the inventory to “zero,” so no purchase will be allowed until that condition changes. When I change it so a purchase can be made, the customer will not need to have a PayPal account to use it. The customer can pay via PayPal or credit card. If you are curious, go ahead and give it a try. Actually, it would be helpful if people did give it a try, because it will also help me test the accounting system.
PayPal makes a very convenient clearing house for credit card purchases and it is fairly inexpensive, too. The only downside is the lack of a shopping cart system on my site. It can be done, but I need to study up on the programming necessary to make it happen correctly and securely. At the moment, writing has a higher priority.
I could use the built-in shopping system supplied by my ISP. But if I want to accept credit cards via their system, I would be required to open a business banking account to act as a clearing house for credit card purchases. That starts to get expensive.
What I will probably end up doing is use my ISP’s provided shopping cart services and use PayPal’s API (Application Programming Interface) to provide the transaction system. For a monthly fee, PayPal allows for purchases that don’t leave the primary website. As I noted above, PayPal already acts as a credit clearing house, so I don’t need to open a new bank account to manage that end of things.
The last piece of this puzzle is I need to learn how to generate the actual download when the purchase has been completed, so the customer can actually download the file. I have actually worked with Point-of-Sale (POS) internet sales systems in the past. But those were meant for purchasing physical products, not for downloading computer files. The former would simply send a purchase invoice to the warehouse and there collectors would gather the necessary items for purchase and send it on its way.
Obviously, I still have some homework to do before everything is ready.
The easy path, of course, is simply to load the ebook onto Amazon.com, Apple, and Barnes & Noble and let their systems do all the work. So why should I bother with setting up a shop on my own website?
That answer is easy to show.
If I do everything myself, the transaction fees work out to 45¢ per purchase. If I use the big three ebook distributors, each transaction will cost me $1.50. My goal is to sell a minimum of ten thousand copies of my book. The difference in cost between the two means a $10,500 gain if I do it myself through my own website. Plus, I can (I hope) declare the transaction fees as business expenses and deduct them from my taxes.
Currently, the big three simply take 30%–35% off the top and send me my share as a royalty. Technically, that means I cannot claim that other percentage as a transaction fee, so I have cannot declare it as a business expense.
It seems pretty obvious that I should just forego using a third party sales system and just sell through my own website.
Yet, there is still something that must be considered.
The fact that using their distribution services is such a convenience does make it worth the expense of using those services.
Of much greater importance, there is also the added benefit of the promotional services they offer.
Apple’s iTunes Music Store has propelled many dozens of unknown artists to success just by featuring their songs as a free download of the week. Both Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble send out emails to their subscribers a few times a week, featuring recommended ebooks to readers.
Just to have my title featured in one of those emails would expose me to millions of potential readers in the United States alone! If only 5% of those people were interested, it would still blow out my minimal expectations in my sales figures significantly by many orders of magnitude.
A 2005 SWOT Analysis estimated Amazon.com’s customer base was around 30 million consumers. Amazon.com has grown exceptionally since then. A single email to their customers could potentially reach over 70 million people.
I figure through my own efforts on social web sites, I can get word of my book out to about 140,000 people. If just ten percent of those people are interested enough to buy my book, that means potentially 14,000 sales.
Ten percent of 70 million is 7 million sales! Just through one distributor alone!
Is that worth 30% off the sales price of my ebook?
Plus, sales figures, reports, etc.—things I would have to generate on my own, would all be taken care of for me by their accounting systems.
There are advantages to either way of selling an ebook, just as there are disadvantages. To me, I see excellent balance between the two sides. For that reason, it makes sense to me to be ready for both as each has strengths that cover the weaknesses I think are there.
Unfortunately, the fact that I am setting up the sales systems is not a sign that Nobody, Aggadeh Chronicles Book One is about to be released. But it does serve as a notice that I am at a point where I am getting close enough to completion that I want to have these services in place.
The question begs to be asked, “Why not just open prerelease sales if Nobody is getting to be that close to being ready for release?”
A couple friends have asked that question. I’ve asked myself that question! After being so long without a paycheck, my financial reserves are about dry. I certainly could use the income.
My answer is, because it isn’t close enough.
I cannot in good conscience ask people to hand over their hard-earned cash when I do not yet have a clear, set date for release. I have a firm dislike of vaporware; I would rather not be accused of doing something similar.
I will activate preorders for Nobody when it enters final editing. That means I'm done writing the story and the last pieces are out for editing review and it is time to work in the corrections and adjustments to the story. I estimate the final edit should take me about four weeks. A couple weeks to make the fixes, then it goes out to my editors in one final form to test readability. When that is done, the final tweaks will be made and then the story will be encapsulated into an ePub file, making it an ebook.
Once that file passes muster, it'll be pushed up into the internet and Nobody will be officially published.
So when you see Nobody open for preorders, that means the actual release shouldn't be much more than a month after.
Until then, you'll just have to put up with this blog for entertainment….