Why I Bought a New iPad

No, I really didn’t need it. (Who does?)

I’ll admit that when I first heard the features of the new iPad, I was unimpressed. Although a lot of people made a big deal over the new retina display, that didn’t really interest me at all. After all, I don’t really use my iPad for graphics, movies, or anything else that really takes advantage of the display. But there were two features that really interested me:

  • MiFi
    Smaller than a pack of cards, this MiFi connects me to the Internet just about anywhere I go.

    4G connectivity with hotspot capabilities. I do a lot of traveling and have a MiFi unit that I take with me on the road. In fact, because I travel so much, I actually turned off Internet access at my house and use the MiFi there as well. I could imagine replacing my life I with the new iPad and transferring my MiFi data plan over to my new iPad and then using that as my hotspot. Not only would save me $20 a month, but it would give me 4G access instead of 3G wherever 4G was available. It would also reduce the equipment I need to take with me on the road — I would no longer need to take the MiFi and its power adapter.

  • The dictation feature. As a writer, one of the things that frustrates me about using my iPad is the keyboard. On a computer keyboard, I’m a very quick and accurate typist. I think it’s safe to say that I can type faster than I can write by hand. But that speed is completely lost on an iPad. I make too many errors that slow me down too much to use an iPad as a serious writing tool. That means that even on trips where packing light is very important, I still need to bring a laptop if I plan to do any writing. The dictation feature, however, changes all that. If it works well, I should be able to use it for some of my writing.

Because the feature set, as a whole, didn’t really impress me, I had no plans to buy a new iPad in the near future. Part of that was because my iPad 2 had been dropped when it was new and had a dent in one corner. Although it worked perfectly fine and the screen was not damaged, I knew that I would have trouble selling it. And without getting a few hundred dollars for it I just couldn’t justify the purchase of a new iPad to replace it.

All that changed the other day. Fellow author, Jeff Carlson, mentioned that Amazon buys back used iPads. I checked out the Amazon Trade-In Store, and learned that even if classified as “acceptable” (i.e., lowest acceptable) condition, I could still get $342 for my dented iPad 2. So I sold it to Amazon, went to the Apple Store, and bought a new iPad with Verizon 4G and 32 GB of storage space.

(And no, I didn’t have to wait on line. Those of you who know me should know how I feel about that.)

Getting my new iPad ready for use was very easy. I merely backed up the old one to iCloud and then restored the new one from iCloud. A few passwords and photos weren’t carried over properly and I lost a few free samples in my Kindle app, but everything was easily replaced. The new iPad was completely ready to use less than an hour after powering it up for the first time.

I had a $20 per month month-to-month data plan on my iPad 2 and, since I’d just paid for the current month period, I figured I’d switch that over to the iPad 3. It automatically utilizes 4G in areas where 4G is available. Before I leave to go to Washington for the summer, I’ll turn that plan off permanently and switch the 5 GB data plan on my MiFi I to my new iPad. Then I’ll be able to use that for all my 3G/4G wireless needs on a go forward basis, wherever I go.

Dragon Dictate
I wrote this book last year. Learn more.

In all honesty, I had forgotten all about the new iPad’s dictation feature. But the other day, after struggling to type a tweet early in the morning, I remembered it and decided to give it a try. This was actually very easy for me — last autumn I’d written a book about Dragon Dictate for Peachpit Press and the dictation features in the new iPad work very much the same way. The key is to speak slowly and clearly, and if you need to include punctuation you need to say the punctuation.

So I began using the dictation feature of my new iPad whenever I remembered to: for tweets, Facebook updates, and even e-mail messages. I discovered that as long as I spoke slowly and clearly, what I was saying would be pretty accurately transcribed by my iPad. Although I occasionally needed to make a few corrections to what was typed, even correcting that text was quicker than trying to type it on the iPad keyboard myself.

What’s good about this is it it has also reminded me to make more use of Dragon Dictate on my Mac. Dragon Dictate is an amazing software program, but there is a learning curve — the best way to tackle that curve is to use the software as often as possible. Once you get the knack of dictating what you want to write, it comes naturally. So when I decided to write this blog post about my new iPad and my desire to use the dictation features, it seemed natural to do this with Dragon Dictate.

While this blog post talks mostly about my new iPad, why I bought one, and how I’m starting to use its dictation features, I’ve also written a how-to post for the Maria’s Guides website where I explain how to use the dictation feature on an iPad. I’ve also included a link to a new video that shows exactly how this works.

Did you just buy a new iPad? If so why? If not, why not? I’m curious about what people are doing, especially people who already owned an iPad. (I’m almost embarrassed to admit that this is my 3rd iPad — I usually keep my electronic devices at least two years before replacing them, but circumstances have encouraged me to replace my iPads more frequently.)

I’m also curious to know how many people who purchased a new iPad are using it for dictation and what their results are. If you have something to say about this, I hope you’ll use the comments link or form to share them with the rest of us.

An Objective Comparison of Ebook Distributors

What I’ve noted so far.

I published, through Flying M Productions, my first ebook in October 2011 and have since published two others. (Learn about all of these titles here.) I went mainstream on all of the ebook distributions, choosing Amazon Kindle (custom mobi), Apple iBookstore (epub), and Barnes & Noble NOOK (epub). With about five months of sales and reseller experience, I thought it was about time to share my observations of these three platforms.

For each criteria, I provided a grade and notes to back it up. Remember, this is based on my experience with just these three books. For the iBookstore, I do not include my experience with iBooks Author-generated books in the table; that’s discussed briefly at the end of this post.

Criteria Kindle Store iBookstore NOOK Store
Ease of Publishing A
It’s very easy to get into the Kindle Direct Publishing program and publish books.
C
Apple’s iTunes Connect program requires a lot of paperwork and acceptance of agreements that are often updated. Its interface for publishing is surprisingly unintuitive (for Apple). It requires a unique ISBN for every book sold.
B
Getting into the B&N Pubit program is relatively easy, although there is an approval process that takes some time. Its online book submission process is easy.
Publisher Support D
Publisher support is nearly non-existent. It’s difficult to send questions. Most questions are answered with a “canned” response. Often, I’m told my question needs more research, but an answer never comes.
D
Publisher support is handled primarily through a menu-driven help system that’s poorly designed. It can take more than a week to get an question answered and it’s usually with a “canned” response.
n/a
I have no experience with B&N’s support system.
Ease of Creating Acceptable Documents B
I convert from epub to Kindle using the Kindle Previewer app. This usually goes smoothly the first time around, but it does require that conversion.
C
Apple is extremely particular about formatting and unusual characters in ebook files. For example, it doesn’t like uppercase filename extensions or spaces in file names. This often requires a lot of digging around in epub format files to fix problems. To be fair, I could probably improve my templates to prevent some of the problems I encounter.
B
BN.com accepts just about any epub I send, as long as it isn’t any larger than 20 MB (which I think is too restrictive.)
Appearance of Ebook C
The Kindle format inconsistently formats bulleted lists and font sizes and completely ignores some formatting. As a result, my books are not usually formatted as I’d like to see them.
A
My iBookstore books usually look very good. Apple is true to all epub formatting.
B
My NOOK books usually look very good, although I sometimes notice instances where formatting is ignored.
Speed of Review Process A
Amazon consistently makes my books available for sale within 24 hours of posting.
D
There is no consistency in the speed of Apple’s review process. I had one book appear within an hour of posting while I waited a week or more for others.
B
B&N consistently makes my books available for sale within 48 hours of posting.
Sales A
In most instances, Amazon sells the most books.
B
Apple sells reasonably well — unless a book has an unusual amount of appeal to Mac users, in which case, it sells best.
D
B&N’s sales are sluggish and rather disappointing.
Royalties D
Amazon offers the worst publishing deal. To get 70% royalties, you must price the book between $2.99 and $9.99. The 70% commission rate is only available for books sold to certain countries. All sales to other countries earn just 35%.You must also pay “delivery fee” based on the size of your book file for all books sold at the 70% commission rate. Amazon enforces price matching, so if your book is available for a lower price elsewhere, Amazon will arbitrarily lower the price of your book in the Kindle Store. And don’t even think of getting into the KDP Select Program; that’s something else I need to blog about soon.
A
Apple offers the best publishing deal: 70% flat rate on all books. No hidden costs, no exceptions to the 70% rate.
A
B&N also offers a good publishing deal: 70% flat rate on all books.
Sales & Royalty Reporting C
Amazon’s reporting system is inconsistent and confusing, although it does have up-to-the-minute sales figures. Amazon’s staff does not reply promptly (or at all) to sales/royalty report questions. Reports seem to indicate book sales at unauthorized prices, making me wonder whether Amazon is ripping me off.
A
Apple’s reporting system is updated daily. Reports can be viewed its iTunes Connect website as well as in an extremely well designed iOS app.
B
B&N’s reporting system is minimal but accurate.
Final Grade B
The only reason Amazon gets such a good grade is because it sells a lot of books. Its royalty structure sucks, but I can still earn more there for most titles than anywhere else.
B
Apple’s fair royalty rate and reporting help it score well, but its disappointing sales figures and inconsistent review process keep it from getting a better grade.
C
B&N is a nice platform, but low sales keep it from getting a better grade. In all honesty, if it weren’t for the fact that publishing there was so easy, I probably would’t bother.

Of course, it remains to be seen how well my iBooks 2 interactive (enhanced) books do on the iBookstore, since Apple is taking so damn long to approve them.

Do you have any experience with any of these publishing platforms? If so, what have you observed? Share your thoughts in the Comments for this post.

The iBooks Author Gamble

Taking a chance and not liking what I see so far.

iBooks IconIn late February and early March, I spent about 2 weeks porting my existing 242-page iBooks Author book to iBooks Author software for publication as an iBooks 2-compatible interactive (or “enhanced”) ebook.

Moving over the text wasn’t a huge deal — mostly copy and paste, followed by the application of styles I’d created or modified for my custom iBooks Author template. But rather than simply copy and paste the 100+ screenshots that are part of the print, epub, and Kindle format books, I decided to rely on videos to tell the story. So I spent most of that time recording a total of 3 hours of original video content based on the numbered step-by-step instructions in the book. I also used the Gallery widget and created an illustrated Glossary.

The final book turned out to be 150 pages and 1.3 GB in size. And it looked awesome (if I do say so myself) — the perfect example of how a iBooks Author could be used to create how-to content.

The Waiting Begins

Final Count
It took 55 days for this book to be approved by Apple.

I submitted the files to Apple via iTunes Connect on Sunday and began waiting for approval.

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday — I spent the week waiting. It’s now Friday and I’m still waiting.

In iTunes Connect, the book’s status remains:

Book In Review. This book is currently being reviewed for quality assurance.

A New Week brings New Developments

Final Count
It took 75 days for this book to be approved by Apple.

I’d already committed to converting my Making Movies book to iBooks Author format. Because the video for that book already existed — I used video clips taken from the example movie — the creation process was much quicker. I figure I put a total of 10 hours into the conversion process. I submitted it today.

And that’s when I discovered two things:

  • Apple no longer allows submissions of books created with iBooks Author 1.0 (or 1.0.1). It requires the latest version, released the other day, iBooks Author 1.1, which includes support for the new iPad. My iBooks Author book was created with the previous version. Is that what’s holding up approval?
  • A warning appeared on screen when I attempted to upload my 233 MB book, telling me that Apple recommends that books be no larger than 200 MB because some users might have trouble downloading a larger book file. My iBooks Author book was considerably larger than this. Is that what’s holding up approval?

Of course, there’s no way of knowing. Apple’s iTunes Connect/iBookstore support is absolutely dismal. If you ask a question, you’re lucky to get a response in less than a week — if you get any response at all. And that response is likely to be “canned” — in other words, boilerplate text possibly chosen at random by the support person who handled your request.

Rejection Could Be Painful

And nagging away at the back of my mind is a blog post by Seth Godin where he reported that his book had been rejected from the iBookstore because it contained links to printed books on Amazon.com.

While my book doesn’t contain any offensive links — at least I don’t think it does — what if Apple decides to reject it because it’s too big? In the wrong format? They don’t like my videos?

All I can think of is the hours and hours of work I put into that edition, possibly wasted on the whim of some reviewer at Apple.

Apple Needs to Get Serious

Today I read a blog post on TUAW about the antitrust lawsuit the U.S. Department of Justice is apparently mounting against Apple. In it was this line:

Apple says that it wants to sell as many ebooks as possible, which is totally believable since the company is still a relative bit player in the ebook market.

From where I sit, I don’t see Apple being very serious about this at all. If Apple were serious, it would have a much better process in place to review and approve iBookstore submissions. After all, you can’t “sell as many ebooks as possible” if dozens or hundreds of them are stalled in the approval process day after day for a week or more. It wouldn’t be rejecting ebooks because it doesn’t like the links they include. And it certainly wouldn’t generate frustration and dissatisfaction among content creators — the people actually creating the books they supposedly want to sell.

Call Me an Idiot

I’ll beat a few of you to the punchline by admitting that I look like an idiot.

Back in January, when everyone was voicing outrage over the iBooks Author EULA, I wrote a blog post that told people they were basically worrying about nothing. In response to concerns about the approval process, I said:

I see Apple’s approval process as a GOOD thing. Right now, there’s nothing stopping anyone from publishing any crap they want as an ebook and distributing through services like Amazon Kindle. This is a far cry from publishing as we’ve known it, where only authors and works approved and edited by an experienced, professional publishing company team would be published. Apple’s review process helps weed out the crap and make its library of content more valuable to iBookstore shoppers. While some folks might be fearful that Apple will not approve their work, I’m not — and you shouldn’t be either. People who can turn out quality work should have nothing to worry about as far as the approval process goes.

Now there is some concern over Apple using this power to censor content. For example, perhaps they refuse to publish a book that says negative things about Apple or its founders. (Remember how they pulled all of a certain publisher’s books out of the Apple Store after they published an unflattering biography of Steve Jobs some years back?) I’m not terribly worried about that, but I do admit that it is a possibility. Obviously, if there are documented examples of Apple not approving something that should be approved, I’d be willing to revisit this point. For now, however, I don’t think it’s an issue.

Yes, I’m an idiot.

I didn’t realize that Apple’s approval process had the potential to be slow and unfair.

I naively assumed that Apple was concerned with quality — after all, isn’t that what’s holding up my book: a quality review? And quality didn’t worry me because I know I can create quality work.

But what if it’s some other criteria that Apple’s reviewers are concerned with? Something other than links to Amazon.com? File size, file format. Or, worse yet, something I can’t fix? And how will I know? When will I know?

Every day that book isn’t in the iBookstore is a day that I — and my partner, Apple — don’t sell any copies.

What to Do?

What’s the right answer? The right approach?

Well, I can tell you one thing for sure: I’m not going to waste another second of my time assembling yet another title in iBooks Author and submitting it to the void via iTunes Connect.

Instead, I’ll wait — as if I have any other option — and see approach. And I’ll use this experience to guide me for future submissions created with iBooks Author.

Got any iBook Author/iBookstore stories you want to share? Comment on this post.

March 19. 2012 Update: It has now been more than two weeks since I submitted my first iBooks Author-created book for approval to the iBookstore. I am still waiting for approval. This is not a good sign, folks. If you’ve already gone through the approval process, please take a moment to tell us how long it took. And if you’re waiting, please let us know how long you’ve been waiting. I’ll update this when (or if?) my book is approved.

March 28, 2012 Update: I finally heard from Apple about the first book I submitted. It had a number of trademark-related issues that needed to be resolved. I wrote about them here.

May 1, 2012 Update: While I was traveling, my iBooks Author book was finally approved. I believe the final count of days until approval was about 55. I removed the count up timer. My Making Movies book has still not been approved. I feel completely idiotic that I actually believed my books would be reviewed within a week.

May 23, 2012 Update: My Making Movies book was finally approved. I believe the final count of days until approved was 75. The last 3 weeks was spent nagging Apple to explain why it was holding back the book for metadata issues without putting a “ticket” on it.

Is iBooks Author the Right Tool for Publishing Your Ebook?

Answer: It depends.

iBooks Author IconI’ve been working a lot with iBooks Author lately. Not only did I write and publish a 242-page book about it within 2 weeks of the software’s release, but I’m now deep in the process of converting that book into an iBooks Author file. The result will be a special iBooks 2 interactive edition that includes all the bells and whistles I can cram into it: images, interactive images, galleries, videos, tables, sounds, links — you name it. If I could figure out a way to use the 3D image widget to show something meaningful in the book, I would.

The Limitations of iBooks Author-Generated EBooks

Lots of folks wondered why I didn’t just create the original edition of my iBooks Author book with iBooks Author. Indeed, one reviewer on Apple’s iBookstore had the nerve to [unfairly] bash the book because it wasn’t created in that format. (As if I should write my Excel books with Excel or my Mac OS books with TextEdit. But I digress.)

Some people might think the reason is Apple’s “evil” EULA, which prohibits sale of an iBooks Author-generated ebook in any outlet other than the iBookstore. That’s not the reason at all. After all, if I wanted to sell to iBooks 2 users, where else would I sell it?

The reason I didn’t create the original edition of the book in iBooks Author is flexibility.

You see, if I created and published a book about iBooks Author using iBooks Author as my creation and publishing tool, the resulting ebook could only be read by people who meet the following criteria:

  • Have an Apple iTunes account.
  • Are willing to buy from the Apple iBookstore.
  • Have an iPad.
  • Are running iBooks 2 on their iPad.

What percentage of the population do you really think that is?

It’s All about Reaching the Biggest Audience

While I’ll be the first to admit that my book’s target audience is likely to be made up primarily of people who meet this criteria — after all, who wants to develop for a device when they can’t even test it on that device? — by publishing for just that audience, I automatically exclude all the people who want to read it on a Kindle or NOOK or the Kindle/NOOK apps that work on their desktop and laptop computers or other mobile devices.

I see the sales numbers. For this title, about 1/3 of all sales are being made to Kindle and NOOK readers. Do you really think I’d want to cut my sales by 1/3?

In addition, by using iBooks Author to create and publish, I’d exclude the people who might want to read it the old fashioned way: in print. The print edition is available on Amazon.com, BN.com, and at a wide variety of other online booksellers. Because I use a print-on-demand printer that handles all sales and fulfillment for me, I make money on every single copy sold. No, I don’t expect to sell 10,000 copies in print, but heck, even 100 copies is money in the bank. (And yes, I am doing this for money; I earn my living as a writer.)

I reasoned all this out before I began writing. And then I wrote the way I usually do: in InDesign CS5.5, creating a printer-ready document that could also be exported in a matter of minutes to formats for publication in the iBookstore, Kindle store, and NOOK store.

And Speed

Remember, my goal was to get this book done quickly and make sure it was available to readers as soon as possible. That means before my competition did the same.

I’ve learned over more than 20 years of experience as a computer how-to book author that the first book out on a new software product has a competitive edge that sells books. After all, if someone wants a book to teach them how to use software and there’s only one book available, what book do you think they’ll buy?

How do you think my first Mac OS Visual QuickStart Guide sold out at Macworld Expo and reached sales rank of #11 (for a short time) on Amazon.com back in 1997? I had a three month jump on the competition.

And I think that’s what bothered me most about the idiotic reviewer on the iBookstore. His comment said something like “why not take a few extra minutes to do it in iBooks Author?” A few extra minutes? This guy has obviously never actually worked with iBooks Author and is a victim of the Apple’s video magic in showing off software features.

The truth of the matter is that iBooks Author is not a quick way to publish a book. Sure, you can throw some text in there and get it out to the public without a lot of effort. But that’s not what iBooks Author is for.

What iBooks Author is Really For

iBooks Author is a tool for creating interactive, multi-media books. Using it for anything less is just plain silly.

Think about it. If you wanted to share just text and images with other readers, why would you use iBooks Author and limit your book’s audience?

Yes, you can argue that the layout features of iBooks Author make it a great tool for fixed-layout designs that can make design-centric books so amazing to browse. But are most books so focused on design that they must have a fixed layout? And aren’t such fixed layouts possible with other electronic book formats that can be read on all platforms? Like maybe PDF?

iBooks Author includes tools for creating interactive elements that can change the meaning of the phrase reading experience. Reading isn’t the important word anymore. Experience is.

Page 4
Page 14
Two pages from my iBooks Author “special edition” ebook in progress. The top page shows an interactive image; the bottom shows an embedded video clip.

iBooks Author’s tools help you communicate your message in ways that are simply not possible with other ebook publishing tools. I’m talking about interactive graphics that zoom and pan when the user touches a label. I’m talking about video and audio that can show how a task is done or provide additional information that no text on a page can convey. I’m talking about photo galleries that save space on the book’s page but can be zoomed out and enjoyed on command in a full-screen view at the reader’s own pace.

And these are just the tools I use in my work. If you’re writing about science or architecture, why not include some 3D views? If you’re an educator, why not include some fully-illustrated review questions? If you’re a corporate communicator, why not include your latest Keynote presentation?

This is what iBooks Author is for: creating multimedia, interactive electronic publications. It isn’t for distributing text and a handful of pictures in a pretty format that only a small percentage of readers can access.

And believe me, it’s not a matter of “taking a few minutes” to whip one of these ebooks up.

You Need Content

Apple’s videos make it look so easy. Sure — all you need to do is drag and drop a 3D image on a widget, set a few options, and publish so the reader can manipulate it with multi-touch gestures. Very cool. But what Apple fails to mention is that someone has to actually create that 3D image in the right format for use in iBooks Author. And that takes more than “a few minutes.”

Right now, I’m faced with the daunting task of creating approximately 75 screencast videos for my book. I spent several hours just setting up and testing my computer and recording software/microphone. Then another hour or two figuring out how I’d edit and save the files. Then it was time to script the videos and record them. And edit them.

Sure, once all that is done, it takes less than a minute to insert each video in an iBooks Author media widget and place it on a page. But it takes a good 30 minutes to create, edit, and save each video.

But the content has to be created before it can be inserted.

(By the way, I’d be recording videos right now if it wasn’t for the fact that my neighbor hired a work crew to remove most of the trees in his yard. Do you think my readers would enjoy listening to chainsaws in the background audio of the videos in my book? No, I don’t think so either. So I’ll be up tonight doing the work I should have been able to do today.)

I Love iBooks Author

Don’t get me wrong. I love iBooks Author. I love the power it gives me to communicate. I love the fact that it makes it easy for me — a words person who couldn’t design her way out of a paper bag — to create beautiful looking publications.

But I haven’t swallowed the Apple Kool-Aid on this one. iBooks Author isn’t the best solution for my publishing needs. After all, I need to earn a living. I need my work to reach the most potential buyers possible. And that means publishing with a tool that enables me to create for the most reader platforms.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t use iBooks Author to create “special editions” of my books — when I have the content to share that makes it worth the effort.

On Unfair Reviews

They destroy morale and businesses.

These days, many companies have created online rating/review services for a wide variety of things. There’s Google and Yahoo! of course, for just about any business or product that can appear in search results. There’s Yelp for local businesses and there’s Urban Spoon for restaurants. Angie’s List, which I’ve never visited, even advertises on NPR. Hell, back when I was writing Quicken books, even Intuit tried to get into the act — although I’m not sure how that went, considering how completely saturated the review market is.

There are also product ratings systems on many online services. All the online booksellers — Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. — have them. There are rating systems for computer applications built into services such as CNET Downloads and Mac Update. Even Apple has online ratings for the products it sells, from hardware and software in its Apple stores to iTunes content, to iOS apps, to iBooks.

Frankly, these days you can’t shop for a product, company, or service online without being bombarded with people’s opinions of said product, company, or service.

And therein lies the rub.

What Are Opinions?

Reviews are a matter of opinion. And, on the surface there is — or should be — nothing wrong with opinion. After all, everyone is entitled to an opinion.

In a perfect world, a person would research a product, company, or service to determine whether or not it should meet his needs. If he decides that it does and gives it a try, he becomes entitled to form his own opinion on that product, company, or service. His opinion should be based on how well the product, company, or service met his needs, based on his expectations, which should be drawn from his research. It should also be based on his actual experience with the product, company, or service.

Sadly, only a small fraction of reviewers these days seem to understand this simple fact: you are not qualified to form and share an opinion of a product you know nothing about, or one that failed to meet unreasonable expectations.

An Example

Suppose you like cherry pie. You do a bit of research and determine that nearby ABC Pie company sells pies. You go to its website. You learn that they have won awards for their pies at the county fair for the past ten years. You learn that they appeared on a morning talk show where they talked about their pie-making techniques — and they even have a video clip on their Web site for you to watch. You learn that they have all natural ingredients and that all of their fruit pies are made exclusively with fresh, US-grown fruit. You drive over to their pie shop and are amazed to see a line coming out the door of people who have come to buy pie. You wait fifteen minutes on line. You get to the counter and ask for a cherry pie, to go.

The woman at the counter is friendly, but tells you there is no cherry pie. She’s apologetic when she reminds you that it’s February and they are unable to get fresh cherries until June. She reminds you that all of their fruit pies are made with fresh fruit. She tries to interest you in some other pies, but you want cherry. She apologizes again and says she hopes you’ll be back in the summer. After making sure there’s nothing else she can help you with, she moves on to help the next customer.

You’re upset. You feel that you wasted your time going to a pie store to get a pie you think they should have had. After all, you assumed that a pie shop would have cherry pie.

Are you qualified to get on Yelp and bash ABC Pie Company for disappointing you? For making you wait on a long line? For having terrible pie?

Of course not. You had unreasonable expectations — based on your own research! — and you never actually tried their product.

Besides, if cherry pie was the only thing you’d buy, why not call ahead to make sure they have it before taking the time to visit?

To get on Yelp and fire off a one-star rating and a review that bashes ABC Pie Company for the long line and lack of cherry pie would be unfair. To further tarnish the company’s reputation by insinuating that their pies weren’t good or that the woman at the counter was rude would be tragically unfair.

Yet people do this all the time on Yelp and other review services. And it hurts businesses.

And that brings me to the motivation of today’s post.

I am a Victim

One of the things I learned early on a writer was to not read reviews of my books. The reason: although many of them were fair — positive and negative — there were always a handful of unfair reviews that would get my blood boiling.

The earliest of these was back when I wrote my first Quicken book in the late 1990s. The Amazon reviewer gave it 1 star and said that it didn’t include anything more than what you’d find in the manual. This was blatantly untrue. The book included several lengthy sections with advice on finding mortgages, reducing debt, shopping for insurance, and calculating loans. I wrote this original material at the request of my editor, who wanted the book to provide information to help readers get their finances in order. I drew upon my accounting experiences as a small business owner, as well as what I learned in college business courses. I created photo-copyable worksheets, each of which appeared in the book. None of this content was in the product manual. It was clear that the reviewer had never read the book — and possibly never even opened it. Yet, for some reason I couldn’t discover, he had taken it upon himself to bash the book and publish outright lies about it.

Talk about unfair!

I appealed to my publisher and they went to Amazon with the facts. The review was eventually removed.

It was then that I decided to avoid reading reviews of my books.

iBooks Author IconBut sometimes reviews get in your face. Yesterday, I checked the listing for my iBooks Author book in the iBookstore. I don’t even know why I did. And I was shocked to see a one-star review where the reviewer had taken the time to do some book bashing. His complaint: the book wasn’t written with iBooks Author. He claimed that it was impossible to write the book without using the software to write THAT book. (Almost as if he didn’t think I’d ever used the software at all.) I guess he never considered that the book provides instructions for creating another book with iBooks Author. Or maybe that’s not good enough for him.

It’s almost as if he’s suggesting that when I write a book about Excel, I should write it in Excel. Or when I write a book about Photoshop, I should write it in Photoshop. (A picture book, I guess.)

I should mention here that nowhere in the book’s description does it say that it was written with iBooks Author. Obviously, he had unreasonable expectations. (Kind of like assuming there’s cherry pie when there’s no reason to believe there should be.)

So he bashed the book. Even said “don’t waste your money.” As if the content didn’t count for anything because it wasn’t written in iBooks Author.

(Don’t waste your money on this Toyota because it wasn’t built in a Mercedes factory.)

Why would someone do such a thing?

Is he stupid? Does he simply not understand what a review is supposed to be? A summary of how a product met reasonable expectations?

Or just inconsiderate? Does he have a mean streak that makes him want to hurt people by making unfair comments in public?

Or have it in for me? Is there something about me personally that he doesn’t like? Something that makes him want to hurt me?

Does he understand the impact of his actions? My book had steady sales for four days in a row, but after his “review” appeared, sales dropped off. While I don’t know for sure if his “review” caused the drop, what am I supposed to think?

And what am I supposed to do?

I should mention here that the only other review (with words in addition to stars) was a five-star review that had glowing praise for the book. (And no, it wasn’t written by me or any close friend.)

Obviously, I’m going to try to get Apple to pass judgement on the review. I think I have a case, but I don’t really think Apple will do a thing. As I mentioned at the start of this post, things like this happen all the time. Apple would need a full-time staff just to handle complaints about unfair reviews.

I’ll just have to live with it and hope potential buyers can see just how unfair it is.

And if you think book reviews have been the only source of angst for me, think again. This telemarketer’s “review” was so over the top, I had no trouble getting it removed.

Fight Unfair Reviews

As a business owner and author, all I can do is present my case for the other business owners and authors out there. Many of us work hard and seriously do our best to make customers and readers happy — or at least satisfied.

If you have a legitimate gripe about a product, company, or service, by all means, share it. If a product, company, or service did not meet your reasonable expectations, tell the world.

Throughout the years, I’ve gotten feedback about my work from people who have read and commented on my work. Not all of it was good. In every case possible, I took the negative points — the fair ones, anyway — to heart and used them to improve my work in the future. I’ve added new content to later editions of the same work, I’ve changed the way I present certain material. I want my work to be the best it can. I want my readers to be happy with my work. Legitimate, fair reviewers can help me — and others — be the best we can be.

But unfair reviews don’t help anyone.

See an unfair review online? Mark it unhelpful or report it (if possible). Weed out those unfair reviews so the fair ones get the attention they deserve.

Small business owners are depending on it.

More Self-Publishing Insight

With project #3 done, I have a few more experiences to share.

Late last month I wrote a typically lengthy post about my experiences to date as a self-publisher. At that time, I’d finished two book projects and was in the middle of my third.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m not new to publishing. My first self-published book was my 79th book. I’ve been at it for 20 years. But as my publishers begin to cut back on their publication schedules, I had to do something to find a market for my work. My self-publishing solution seemed like a good idea.

The jury is still out, however.

What Book #3 Taught Me

My third and biggest (so far) self-published book.

My most recent project, iBooks Author: Publishing Your First Ebook, taught me a few things:

  • I don’t write as fast as I used to. Sure, I knocked out a 242-page book with 274 screenshots, all laid out in InDesign CS5.5, in about 10 days. But they were grueling days that never seemed to end. And the whole time, I was racing against the clock, doing what I could to be the first book out about iBooks Author. I’m not sure, but I may have succeeded. But I’m really tired.
  • An InDesign to EPub conversion process doesn’t always work as smoothly as it did the last time I did it. Indeed, Apple’s iTunes Producer program kept choking on the epub I created, even though it proofed fine in multiple tools. (Note to self: Make sure the name of the InDesign file does not include spaces. Further note: Make sure all filename extensions are in lowercase. Sheesh.)
  • None of the ebook sellers are interested in providing support for publishers. Amazon.com sends an automated response, follows it up with a canned response two days later, and then ignores subsequent requests for help on the same issue. Apple’s Contact page takes you through a list of possible FAQ responses and then tells you to get an aggregator. Barnes & Noble won’t allow pubs over 20 MB in size. Period. If you don’t know their rules or have a clue what you’re doing, you’re screwed.
  • Amazon.com will squeeze every single penny they can out of a publisher. My final book was huge — after all, it included 274 color screenshots. Amazon.com’s “delivery” fee ate up half of my royalties. I had to recompile the book with all images converted from PNG to JPG to regain about 50¢ per copy in royalties.
  • DRM might not be a good idea. I’d been sitting on the fence about this option and decided to try it for this book. I really thought Amazon.com and Apple’s iBookstore would have had this figured out, but apparently they don’t. On the third day after publication, I was getting complaints from readers. I wound up republishing the iBooks version with DRM turned off. We’ll see what happens with the Kindle version.
  • I hate indexing books. Well, this book didn’t teach me that. Other books taught me years ago. But it did remind me. Unfortunately, when there’s no advance and no guarantee of sales, I can’t afford to hire an indexer. So I have to do it myself.

I Like My POD Printer

A few days ago, I searched for my first self-published book, Making Movies: A Guide for Serious Amateurs, on Amazon.com and was pleasantly surprised to find both the print and Kindle versions. Apparently, the Amazon.com Website is automatically populated from data in the Ingram Catalog. Since my print books appear in that catalog, they also appear on Amazon.com. The second book was there, too.

What was odd, however, is that the book is available from other booksellers who sell through Amazon. They’re discounting it. I don’t personally care what they sell it for because I don’t earn based on a fixed wholesale price, which is 55% off the retail price. The POD printer gets the money they send, subtracts the cost of production, and sends me the rest. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. We’ll see, I guess.

I should mention that the print books are on Barnes & Noble’s Website, too. BN.com even showed the correct cover photo. (I had to contact Amazon to get the cover photo to show up for the print book.)

Books Do Sell

Although sales for my first two titles were a bit sluggish — and remained so — the third book is selling quite briskly, especially on the iBookstore. I’m able to monitor sales at Apple, Amazon, and BN on a daily basis for the previous day’s sales. I’ve sold about 100 copies in 3-1/2 days.

Oddly, it’s also the most “popular” of my books on Amazon.com right now, even beating out my Lion book. It’s currently #9 in the Graphic Design category in the Kindle store; it was #16 yesterday. (Of course, one of my Mac OS books once hit #11 storewide on Amazon.com, but I fear those days are long gone for me.)

But I’m no fool. I figure I need to sell an average of 80 books a day to make a living doing this. So, in a way, I’m back to where I was when I started my writing career 20 years ago. Back then, I realized that if I wanted to make a living as a writer, I’d have to write a lot of books.

What Are Your Experiences?

Someone recently commented on my first self-publishing post to thank me for sharing my experiences. But I’d like to read what others are going through. Why not use the comments link to share your experiences with me and the others who read this? Surely we can all learn from each other.

I don’t know about you, but I never stop learning.

About Style Guides…and a Tip for Writers

A writer’s cheat sheet — and how I maintain mine.

One of the challenges facing writers — especially tech writers — is maintaining consistency and proper usage of words and phrases that describe the things we write about. Is it toolbar, tool bar, ToolBar, or Tool bar? Is it Fonts panel, Font panel, Font window, or Fonts Pane? Is it iBookstore or iBookStore? Is it inspector or Inspector?

This might seem trivial to most folks, but for writers and editors, it’s very important. Inconsistent or incorrect use of established terms is one of the things that mark the work of an amateur. Professional writers do everything in their power to get things like this right — and editors help.

Style Guides

Chicago Manual of StyleStyle guides help, too. A style guide is a collection of words or phrases that might be used in a work, all presented as they should be in writing. You may have heard of some of the more famous style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook. These are style guide books published for professionals who write about a wide range of topics.

But there are also style guides for more narrow topics. Apple, for example, publishes a 244-page document called the Apple Publications Style Guide. This is one of the books I turn to when I write my Mac OS books and articles. Written for developers and Apple’s in-house documentation teams, it lists the right and wrong ways to use hundreds of words, product names, and phrases. Not only does this include a correct list of all Apple trademarks, but it goes into tiny details. For example, did you know that you can “click the icon” but you can’t “click on the icon”? Page 37 of the latest (2009) edition is pretty specific on that point.

Microsoft Outlook 2011Individual publishers also have style guides. For example, when I wrote Microsoft Outlook for Mac 2011 Step-by-Step for Microsoft Press, I was handed not one but two style guides. They covered all of the product names and program terms I might use, as well as rules about usage. For example, I wasn’t allowed to write a sentence like this: “Outlook enables you to send and read email.” Why? Well, the word enables (in that kind of usage) was verboten. (The average reader has no idea what writers deal with when writing technical books for well-established publishers.)

My Style Guide Needs

Microsoft Outlook 2011Although I never used to have trouble remembering the proper forms and usages of the words and phrases I included in my books, as I’m aging — and as my life becomes more complex — I’m having trouble remembering the little things. So this past summer, when I worked on Mac OS X Lion: Visual QuickStart Guide for Peachpit Press, I developed and maintained my own style guide for the book.

The trick was to put the style guide in a place where it was easy to consult as I worked. I wrote (and laid out) the book on my old 24-inch iMac. I was living in my RV at the time, comfortably parked at an RV park with full utilities, but my workspace wasn’t large enough for the luxurious dual 24-inch monitor setup I have in my home office. I experimented with keeping the list of words and phrases in a Word document file, but the amount of overhead — Word running all the time, big window with all the trimmings, etc. — made it an awkward solution. Ditto for Evernote. All I needed was a tiny window where I could list the words I needed to use — these applications made maintaining and consulting such a list multiple times throughout the day a real chore.

The Solution: Stickies?

Stickies IconI stumbled onto the solution while writing the book. One of the apps that comes with Mac OS X is Stickies. This is an app whose sole purpose is to put virtual sticky notes up on your screen.

I never liked the app. I thought it was kind of dumb. After all, who would use an app to put a sticky note onscreen when you can just put a real sticky note on your screen?

But then I realized that the tiny windows Stickies creates were perfect for the simple lists I needed to consult. I could easily fit them on my screen, beyond the area I needed to work with InDesign.

Style Guide in StickiesAnd so I began creating and maintaining my style guides in Stickies.

And I continue to do so today.

There are a lot of benefits to using Stickies as a solution for this problem:

  • The contents of Sticky Notes are saved, even if you quit the application.
  • Stickies are easily modified and updated.
  • Stickies supports formatting, so if I want to remind myself about a word or phrase that should never be used, I can format it as strikethru text.
  • Stickies can be exported as plain text, so I could, theoretically, save a style guide list before closing the Stickies window when the book is done.
  • Stickies take up very little room onscreen.
  • All active Stickies notes open automatically when you open the app.
  • It’s easy to set up my computer so Stickies automatically opens at startup.

Sounds good, no?

For me, it’s a win-win. I get a solution to my problem. But what I also get is a reason to use a silly little free app like Stickies.