eBooks

Some thoughts from a writer (and reader).

Earlier this month, I wrote a post that briefly touched upon my experience as an author finding my copyrighted books freely distributable on a pirate Web site. (Refer to “Copyright for Writers and Bloggers – Part I: Why Copyright is Important.”) The post generated some comments that made me think more about the electronic versions of my books that my publishers sell: eBooks.

About eBooks

An eBook is an electronic book. While some eBooks are published in electronic format only, others are published in print and then are followed up with eBook versions of the same book.

Sometimes both print and eBook versions of a book are put out by the same publisher. This is common with modern-day titles. But there are also a number of eBook publishers out there who take older titles that are still in copyright and make arrangements with the publisher or author to create and sell eBook versions. And, of course, anyone can take an out-of-copyright book, like the works of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe — the list goes on and on — and publish them anyway they like: in print, electronically, or even tattooed on someone’s leg. Project Gutenberg came into existence by making out-of-copyright works available to the world and that’s what you’ll find among its thousands of titles.

eBooks are available in a wide variety of formats, from plain text to PDF to Windows Help Viewer format. They can include or exclude illustrations. They can contain hyperlinks to make it easy to move from one topic to another. They can be printable as a single document or by pages or sections.

My first involvement with eBooks was way back in the 1990s when I used a program called DocMaker on the Mac to create my monthly, freely distributable newsletter, Macintosh Tips & Tricks. I later moved to PDF format. 10 Quick Steps, one of my publishers, publishes all of its books as PDFs optimized for onscreen reading. I later published some of my own eBooks in the same format.

eBooks and Copyright

eBooks are usually sold with the same licensing used for software. One copy, one user. This is pretty basic stuff. Although I admit that I’ve never read an EULA for an eBook, I assume that if an buyer is finished with it and wants to give his/her only copy to someone else, he can. After all, that’s how books work. And, as someone who has legally transferred ownership of software by selling it (after removing the original from my computer), I’m pretty sure eBooks have a legal second hand market.

Unfortunately, due to their portable nature — pop them on a CD or compress them and send them in email or leave them on an FTP server for others to download — they are often the victim of piracy and copyright infringement. People put eBooks — whether they obtained them from legal means or not — on pirate Web sites, FTP servers, or other file sharing systems for free or paid download to anyone who wants them.

As this problem becomes more and more widespread, readers begin to think that there’s nothing wrong with downloading and sharing illegally distributed eBooks. They begin looking to illegal sources of eBooks rather than legal sources, hoping to save $10 or $15 or $20. They justify their participation in this illegal activity by saying that “knowledge should be free” or that the publisher makes enough money or that eBooks cost nothing to produce. And soon this affects the sale of both printed and electronically published books.

Who Suffers?

Are you an author concerned about illegal distribution of your eBooks? You may be interested in the new Authors Against Piracy group I’ve started to discuss the issue and share solutions. It’s a private group, so you’ll need an invitation to join. Contact me to introduce yourself. Be sure to identify your most recent published work; the group is open to published authors only.

The real victim of this is the author, who often makes less than a dollar for every book sold.

Most authors these days can’t afford to just write for a living. Some of them have regular day jobs. Others are consultants or speakers or programmers or some combination of those things.

About 95% of my net income comes from writing books and articles. My helicopter charter business, which is still in its infancy, eats up all the cash it brings in. (Helicopters are extremely costly to own and operate.) And between writing and flying, I simply don’t have time to do anything else to earn money.

So when I find my books being illegally distributed on pirate Web sites, I get angry. Can you blame me?

Is It Worth It?

In the comments for my “Copyright is Important” post, reader Nathanael Holt asked this question: “Do your digital sales warrant the increased risk posed by piracy?”

This is a really good question — one I had to go to my royalty statements to answer. And, after a quick glance at that most recent 60-page document, I’d have to say no.

For example, one of my recent titles sold more than 2,600 printed copies in the quarter ending March 31, 2007. That same title sold only 2 electronic “subscriptions.” Another title, which is older and which I have found online on pirate sites, had 9 copies of the PDF sold during the same quarter, earning me less than $15.

My conclusion from this: eBook versions of my books aren’t selling very well. And apparently the ones that get out there are going to pirate Web sites.

I’ve e-mailed my publisher’s royalty department to get lifetime figures for all of my in-print titles. I’m hoping the numbers they deliver will paint a more rosy picture. But I doubt it.

I’m an eBook Reader, Too

This is disappointing for me. You see, I’m an eBook reader.

A while back, I was looking for a book about .htaccess. That’s a normally invisible configuration file found on servers. I wanted to modify the .htaccess file for my Web site so it would do certain things for me.

This is an extremely technical topic and one I didn’t expect to find a book about. But I did: The Definitive Guide to Apache mod_rewrite by Rich Bowen. And after a bit of research, I learned that I could either buy the book from Amazon.com for $40 and wait a week to get it or buy it as an eBook in PDF format from the publisher’s Web site for $20 and download it immediately. I admit that the deciding factor was the length of the book: 160 pages. Since I like to be able to look at a computer-related book (rather than switch back and forth between a book and an application onscreen), I could print it for reference.

And that’s what I did: I downloaded the book as a DRM-protected PDF and sent it to my printer. Within an hour, I had the whole thing in a binder and was editing my .htaccess file to my heart’s content, with all kinds of notes jotted in the margins of my new reference book. (That’s another thing: I’m far more likely to mark up a printed eBook than a printed and bound traditionally-published book.)

I also read eBooks on my Treo (when I’m trapped somewhere with nothing to do).

The only reason I don’t buy and read more eBooks to read onscreen is because I think I spend enough time in front of a computer without using one to read, too.

What Does All this Mean?

Well, first I need some solid information from my publisher regarding lifetime eBook sales. Then I need to sit down with my editor (figuratively, of course — we never see each other in person) and decide whether eBook editions of my work are something we want to continue to publish. If we decide to go forward, we need to come up with a solution that will protect eBooks from piracy.

What Do You Think?

Have you ever bought an eBook? Why did you buy that version instead of a traditional print version? Did you like it? What do you think about eBooks in general: pricing, formats, licensing, etc?

Don’t keep it all to yourself! Use the Comments link or form to share your thoughts with me and other readers.

Could it Be? Monsoon Season?

Heat’s not enough. I want humidity and rain, too.

This morning, when I woke at 5:30 AM to the whistles of my parrot, I was surprised to see that Mike hadn’t opened the French door between our bedroom and the upstairs patio. He always opens it during the night this time of year. That’s the only time it’s cool.

But when I opened it, I realized why: it wasn’t cool. For the first time this season, the outside temperature remained in the 80s overnight. And that’s the first sign of what everyone in Arizona is waiting for this time of year: monsoon season.

A Monsoon? In the Desert?

Sure. I can’t make this stuff up.

Monsoon season in Arizona is marked by a number of meteorological events:

  • Dew point reaches at least 55°F for at least three days in a row. That’s the official indicator of the start of monsoon season in Phoenix. That means it gets humid outside. The “dry heat” isn’t so dry anymore.
  • The winds shift to bring moist air off the Sea of Cortez and Gulf of Mexico in a counterclockwise flow. This is why the storms, when they come to Wickenburg, come from the north or east during monsoon season.
  • My WebCamStorms build just about every afternoon. I can see them coming from my office window. (You can check out the WebCam image here; it’s usually available during daylight hours.) They’re isolated, severe thunderstorms, packed with high wind, lightning, and the occasional microburst.
  • It rains. That’s if we’re lucky. The clouds have lots of moisture, but if the ground is too dry, the rain dries up before it hits the ground, resulting in virga and, often, dust storms. But once monsoon season is underway, we get rain — although never enough of it to quench the thirst of our golf courses and swimming pools.
  • We get flash floods. That’s if we get enough rain all at once. A dry wash runs through our property and, with enough rain, it can turn into a raging river. For about an hour. Then it’s just a wet riverbed that, within 24 hours, turns dry again.

Want more info, you can get it here, here, and here.

And this is what most Arizonans are waiting for.

My Monsoons

I’ve experienced Arizona monsoons in three different places over the years.

Wickenburg
I’ve lived in Wickenburg for ten years now, and although I’ve been wanting to escape, like the snowbirds, in the summertime, I haven’t usually been able to. That means I’ve lived through a good bunch of monsoon seasons.

My office has always faced the mountains to the north (even when it was in a condo I own downtown). I’d be sitting at my desk, working away, occasionally glancing up out the window. I’d see the storm clouds building over the Bradshaw and Weaver Mountains, making their way southwest toward Wickenburg. The sky would get dark out there — while it remained sunny at my house — and lightning would flash. If the storm reached us before sunset, we were in for it. But in too many instances, the storm was just too slow and got to us after the sun set. Then it was a 50-50 chance that we’d get some storm activity — including welcome rain — before the storm dissipated.

Sometimes, the storms moved in more quickly — probably more moisture in the air. In those cases, we’d get a storm in the afternoon. What a treat! I’d stand under the overhang by my front door or on the patio at the condo and listen to the rain fall. Sometimes, if it looked rainy enough to get the washes flowing, I’d jump in my Jeep and head out into the desert, looking for a stream where streams don’t normally appear. I don’t drive through these — mind you — that’s dangerous. I just watch all that flowing water, remembering what it was like to live in a place where flowing water is a lot more common than dry streambeds.

On very rare occasions, a storm would move in just before dawn. I can’t remember this happening more than a few times, though. One time, it was the morning I was supposed to report back for work at the Grand Canyon, where I was flying helicopter tours. I had planned to take my helicopter up — the 1-1/2 hour flight sure beat the 3-1/2 hour drive. But with a thunderstorm sitting on top of Wickenburg, flying up was not a safe option. So I had to drive. I left two hours earlier than I would have and still got to work an hour late.

If you want to read more about the monsoon in Wickenburg, I recommend Lee Pearson’s excellent article for wickenburg-az.com, “The Monsoon Is Near“. It includes links to video footage he’s made available online.

Grand Canyon
In the summer of 2004, I worked as tour pilot at the Grand Canyon. I flew Long Ranger helicopters over the canyon 10 to 14 times a day on a 7 on/7 off schedule from April through the end of September.

My introduction to monsoon season came on my return from a flight in July. The storms had built up and were moving in toward the airport. I was about 5 miles out when a bolt of lightning came out of the sky less than 1/4 mile from where I was flying and struck the top of a Ponderosa pine tree. The treetop exploded into flames. I got on the radio, on our company frequency, and said, “It’s lightning out here. It just hit a tree about a quarter mile away from me.” The Chief Pilot’s voice came on and said, “Better get used to it.”

When you learn to fly, they teach you the danger of flying near thunderstorms. They advise you to stay at least 20 miles away. 20 miles! So you can imagine my surprise when I realized that the tour company had no qualms about continuing flight in the vicinity of thunderstorms.

And they were right — it didn’t seem to be dangerous at all. The storms were all localized — you could see them coming and usually fly around them if they were in your way. The rule we used was that if you could see through the rain, you could fly through it. Although it occasionally got a little bumpy, there were no serious updrafts or downdrafts. And although we were told that if things ever got too rough during a flight, we could land until the storm passed, I never had to. (Thus passing up my only opportunity to legally land a helicopter inside the Grand Canyon.)

The Grand Canyon with CloudsI do recall one other monsoon-related incident, though. The company I worked for had about ten helicopters on duty to do flights. Because of this, the company was very popular with tour companies, which would bus large groups of foreign tourists to the airport for helicopter flights. These flights were booked years in advance, so the company always knew when they’d need all helicopters to fly for a single group. One of these groups arrived late in the day during August. Nine other pilots and I were sitting out on our helipads, engines running, blades spinning, when the bus pulled up. Moments later, the loaders were bringing groups of five and six Japanese tourists to the helipads and loading us up.

It had been stormy most of the afternoon, with isolated thunderstorms drifting across the canyon. Farther out to the east, a controlled burn was sending low clouds of smoke our way. At the airport, however, the visibility was fine. We were scheduled to do a tour on the west side of the canyon, in the Dragon Corridor. One by one, we took off and headed west, making a long line of ten helicopters, all going the same way.

I was about six back from the front and could see we had a problem about five miles short of the rim. The north end of the Dragon Corridor was completely socked in with low clouds and falling rain. We couldn’t see across the canyon.

The lead helicopter announced on the company frequency that he was going to switch to an east canyon tour. He made a 180° turn. One by one, we all announced the same intentions and followed him. Now we were all heading back to the airport. We got permission from the tower to transition to the east, crossed about 1/2 mile south of the airport, and continued on.

Now we were in the smokey area. It wasn’t bad. Not yet, anyway. We crossed over the canyon and my passengers let out the usual oohs and ahs. And we proceeded to do the east canyon tour, which was reserved for weather situations because it normally ran about 35 minutes (and our passengers paid for a 25 minute tour). Of course, with the initial false start, their tours would be 45 minutes long.

The thing about flying at the Grand Canyon is that you have to stay on established routes. The only time I’d ever done that route was in training four months before, so I really wasn’t too clear on where I was supposed to go. Fortunately, there was a helicopter about 1/2 mile in front of me to follow. Unfortunately, the weather was closing in. It started to rain and visibility got tough. I focused on the other helicopter’s strobe light and followed it back across the canyon to the rim. Then I lost it in the smoke.

I pointed the helicopter in the direction I thought the airport might be and flew as if I knew where I was going. About a mile out, I saw the tower and other landmarks. I was only about a half mile off course. I landed safely, my passengers got out, and I shut down for the day.

I used to ask the Chief Pilot why we flew scenic tours in weather like that. His response: “If they’re willing to pay for it and it’s safe, why not?”

Howard Mesa
Howard Mesa is a mesa north of Williams and south of the Grand Canyon. It stands 300 feet above the Colorado Plateau. Our vacation property, with its camping shed, is at the very top of the mesa, with 360° views stretching out for 50 to 100 miles, depending on sky and dust conditions.

In the summer of 2005, I spent about a month at Howard Mesa, preparing our camping shed for its future duties. I lived in our old horse trailer with living quarters, a cramped space that was fine for one person, a dog, and a parrot. Mike came up on weekends to help out and escape Wickenburg’s heat.

Monsoon season atop Howard Mesa is a real treat. The clouds start building at around 11 AM and, because you can see in every direction, you can monitor their progress as they move across the desert. By 1 or 2 PM (at the latest), you can see rain (or virga) falling somewhere. This is where you can really get an idea of the individual storms because you can see them all, individually. I took this shot one afternoon around sunset. The view is out to the northwest. The mountain you see in silhouette is Mount Trumbull on the Arizona strip, 80+ miles away.

Monsoon Rain

The great thing about the monsoon up north is that when the rain comes, the temperature drops at least 20°F. I remember one day doing some work around our place in the morning. The temperature was in the 90s, which is pretty hot for up there. I was wearing a pair of gym shorts and a tank top. I hopped in the truck and drove down to Williams to do some laundry and shopping. While I was there, a storm moved in. In minutes, the temperature dropped down to the 50s. Needless to say, I nearly froze my butt off.

Of course, there’s also hail up there. Some friends of mine were on top Bill Williams Mountain south of Williams one summer day when a storm moved in. The golf ball-sized hail that fell did some serious damage to their car. And the fear of hail like that is what keeps me from leaving my helicopter at Howard Mesa, unprotected in the summertime. Rotor blades cost $48K a pair.

This Year’s Monsoon

Anyway, it looks like this weekend might be the start of the 2007 Monsoon Season here in Arizona. I’m hoping for lots and lots of rain — we really need it. And I’ll try to share some photos throughout the season. Sadly, I think all my old monsoon season photos were lost in my big hard disk crash earlier this year.

The Children of Men

Futuristic social commentary by P.D. James.

The Children of MenI just finished The Children of Men by P.D. James. James, who normally writes mysteries featuring her series detective, Adam Dalgliesh, wrote instead of a futuristic world 25 years after the birth of the last-born child. In the world of this book, there are no children, no babies, and no hope for new human life.

James paints a sad picture of that world. Schools are converted into housing for the elderly, colleges now teach courses of interest to adults who don’t have their time occupied by their offspring. Playgrounds are gone. The government is trying to centralize the population in big cities so it’s easier to provide services as the population dwindles and only a handful of elderly people are left.

[This might sound weird, but it reminded me a bit of the retirement town I live in. Of course, there are some children and young people here, but the majority of residents and voters are retired so there isn’t much emphasis on things that would benefit young people. The local school board, for example, was unable to pass a school bond in the most recent vote — people don’t want to foot the bill for education when they don’t have kids in the system. The local Center for the Arts released its 2007/2008 schedule last month, and for the first time since opening about 5 years ago, there isn’t a single family-oriented program on the schedule. Are they giving up on children here in Wickenburg?]

The book has a hero: 50-year-old Theo. Theo is first cousin of the Warden of England, Xan, a self-made dictator first elected as Prime Minister years ago. Xan makes extreme decisions that benefit the apathetic public, by enhancing safety and reducing the cost and bother of supporting the aging population. But a handful of people aren’t happy with his decisions and want to stop him. They go to Theo, hoping he can convince Xan to change things. To say much more would be a spoiler, but I will mention that there appears to be hope for the world when a woman becomes pregnant.

Netflix, Inc.Ad

I enjoyed the book’s fast pace after its initially slow start. A lot of background information was presented in the form of Theo’s personal diary before a third person narrator stepped in and picked up the story. It wasn’t a long book — I read it over a weekend — and the pages turned quickly. Now I’m waiting for the movie based on the book to appear in a Netflix envelope in my mailbox. I have a feeling that the movie will be a lot more exciting than the book, focusing on the events that occur after the pregnancy is discovered, Hollywoodized for maximum visual impact.

Did I like the book? Yes, I did. It made me think. And in today’s world of eye candy entertainment, that’s saying a lot.

Twitter Spam

Turning a fun thing into more marketing crap.

I’ve been using Twitter for about two months now. It’s part of my daily routine. Unfortunately, other people have also been using it — for their own selfish purposes.

How I Use Twitter

I start up my main Mac and Twitterific automatically appears. I use it to scroll back to see what the folks I’ve been following have been up to for the past few hours. Sometimes, their tweets include links to interesting articles on the Web. Other times, they give me ideas for articles or stories or just things to think about. And other times, they’re just plain boring. Let’s face it — we can’t all be interesting all of the time.

I tweet throughout the day while I’m working. I also have something set up somewhere (I forgot now) that automatically posts a tweet whenever I post a blog entry. That’s all automated, which is a good thing. On a good day, I can put out 5 or more entries.

I like the reassuring tweet and ping sound when a new tweet comes in on Twitterific. I work alone at my desk with only Alex the Bird (in the next room) and Jack the Dog (under my desk) for company. While Alex does plenty of talking, none of it is very meaningful. Getting tweets from people I follow is like hearing from the outside world. I may be physically alone, but there are people out there doing stuff and thinking about things and they’ve made me part of their world by tweeting. Andy’s doing his computer and hacking stuff all over the U.K. Miraz is raising her dogs while working at a desk in New Zealand, not much different from mine, 20 hours into the future. Leanne is practicing her saxophone, doing gigs, and teaching at a college. Mignon is researching and recording podcasts and getting interviewed. Mike, the good dad, is doing stuff with his kid and making plans for the next addition to his family. It’s digital but it’s live and real and it gives me company throughout the day. And, in more than a few instances, I’ve actually learned things from these people, most of whom are complete strangers to me.

I also tweet when I’m out and about. When I invested in my Treo, I also invested, for the first time ever, in a text messaging plan. I get up to 250 text messages a month. That might not seem like a lot to the folks who text to their friends and family members throughout the day, but to me, it’s a ton. So I post tweets via telephone. (I also use my Treo to post photos to my TumbleLog when I happen to see something interesting or funny.) For example, I tweeted whenever possible during my recent Alaska vacation and maybe — just maybe — I gave a few folks some ideas of what to see or do if they ever head up there.

Enter the Opportunists

If you use Twitter regularly, you’ve likely gotten e-mail messages from Twitter telling you that you have a new friend and offering a link to that “friend’s” tweets on the Twitter Web site.

At first, you might feel flattered — here’s a stranger that wants to keep track of what you’re doing. You might decide to thank him or her (or it — sometimes gender is unknown — by making him/her/it your friend.

But stop! Wait! Do your homework.

I’ve discovered that more than a few Twitter users don’t give a damn about anyone else’s tweets. All they want to do is suck other Twitter users into following their tweets. And their tweets are full of self-promotional bull or plain old advertisements.

Take, for example, PersonX. I won’t use this person’s name because, until recently, I was following her tweets and she may still follow mine. I didn’t realize it at the time, but PersonX had at least 3 Twitter accounts. It should have tipped me off when all three became my friends at the same time. Two of the accounts — I’ll call them AccountY and AccountZ — were for informational “services” posted as tweets. One, for example, provided quotes from literature. I can’t remember what the other one did — I didn’t stick with it long. PersonX’s tweets were all about how popular AccountY and AccountZ were getting. Or, if they weren’t getting popular, they were musings about why they were being ignored. It was pretty obvious that this person’s accounts were solely to promote herself and these useless services.

One particularly popular Twitter member tweets throughout the day with the latest on who he’s interviewing and what cool new product he’s been allowed to play with. Then, later in the day, he releases a bunch of @name responses to the people who have tweeted directly to him all day. Reading a dozen of these in a row — especially when you’re not following the tweets of the person he’s responding to — is a real bore. Thank heaven Twitter only allows 140 characters. I could see a person like this filling the bandwidth with one-sided personal conversations that no one else cares about.

A few other people I’ve followed in the past just tweet links to articles they’ve written or promotional material. Someone who’s curious might follow these links and, thus, waste a bunch of time reading ads. There are quite a few of these people out there. More than there should be.

All this, in my opinion, is Twitter spam.

Do Your Homework

It’s easy to prevent yourself from adding self-promotional opportunists as Twitter friends. Just do your homework in advance.

How? Simple. When you get an e-mail message telling you that PersonY has added you as a friend, click the link in the message that displays the person’s most recent tweets. (This will be something like http://twitter.com/username.) Read them. Decide whether this kind of content is something that interests you. If it’s not, ignore him. If it is, add him as a friend.

Removing a Friend

About Me on TwitterIt sounds cruel, but if someone you’ve added as a friend turns out to be someone who posts a lot of crap that you’re not interested in, it’s easy to remove their Tweets from what you see.

There are a few ways to do this. One way is to go to your Twitter home page (http://twitter.com/yourname/) and click the Friends link in the About box on the right side of the page.

This will list all of your friends:

Image

For each friend, you should see at least two links beneath the Friend’s name:

  • Leave username basically ignores the friend for a while by not displaying his links for you.
  • Remove username removes the friend from your list of friends. I’m ruthless, so this is the one I usually pick.

To my knowledge, the friend does not receive an e-mail message saying that you have left or removed him. So you don’t have to worry about insulting him or him bugging you about it.

Oh, and if a Twitter member is obviously using Twitter solely for spam-like communications, do us all a favor and report him. The Twitter team offers a form for assistance; you can use the same form to report a Twitter member’s unacceptable behavior.

I Still Like Twitter, Despite Any Shortcomings

I still like Twitter. It makes me feel as if I’m part of a community, even while I’m sitting alone all day in my office. I’m just very picky about who I follow — I have only 33 Twitter friends as I write this — and I’m quick to turn off the Tweets of the people too quick to promote themselves or their products.

And I think that’s vital for any serious Twitter user.

Using Creative Commons to Stop Scraping

An excellent article on PlagiarismToday.

As a blogger, feed scraping is one of my pet peeves. It irks me to no end that sploggers use automated tools to copy my copyrighted content from my site to sites that exist solely to attract clicks on AdSense and other ads.

Jonathan Bailey likely feels the same way. He writes about the topic regularly in his blog, providing well-researched and insightful commentary to help understand and fight the problem.

His recent article, “Using Creative Commons to Stop Scraping” on PlagiarismToday:

Many sites, including this one , have expressed concerns that CC licenses may be encouraging or enabling scraping.

The problem seems to be straightforward. If a blog licenses all of their content under a CC license, then a scraper that follows the terms of said license is just as protected as a human copying one or two works….

However, after talking with Mike Linksvayer, the Vice President of Creative Commons, I’m relieved to say that is not the case. CC licenses have several built-in mechanisms that can prevent such abuse.

In fact, when one looks at the future of RSS, it is quite possible that using a CC license might provide better protection than using no license at all.

The article then goes on to explain what a Creative Commons license is and what it requires of the licensee. As Jonathan explains, the automation tools that sploggers use simply cannot meet all of the requirements of a CC license, thus putting the sploggers in clear violation of the license terms.

If you’ve been wondering about copyright as it applies to your blog or Web site, be sure to check out this article. While you’re at PlagiarismToday, poke around a bit. I think you’ll find plenty of other good material to help you understand copyright and what you can do when your rights are violated.