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.

What’s In a Name?

Apparently, a lot.

I’ve been thinking it over for about six months now and have finally made a decision: I need a real name for my Web site/blog.

Maria Langer, The Official Web Site* and WebLog** is not cutting it, primarily because no one follows the asterisks to the footnotes in the footer, which say:

* Read with tongue planted firmly in cheek. (In other words, it’s a joke, folks. No, I’m not so full of myself that I think there are unofficial Maria Langer Web sites.)

** Don’t believe everything you read. (That’s my disclaimer, in case you find something inaccurate. It’s also for the folks who like to say that I’m making claims that aren’t true. Maybe I know that. Now my readers do, too.)

I think the name of my site is turning off people who don’t get it. And I don’t want them to get turned off by a name. I’d rather they get turned on or off by content.

Unfortunately, my imagination is completely tapped out and I can’t come up with any fresh, new, witty names for my site. This is what has taken me so long to make the name change decision. Obviously, if I already had a great new name, I’d just start using it.

Whatever name I do come up with must reflect the fact that the site is a mix of content, with everything from first person accounts of the things that go on in my life to illustrated how-to articles about using your computer or software. Visitors use Macs and Windows, so to include either operating system in the name just wouldn’t be right. Ditto for references to flying or Wickenburg or writing or any one specific topic I cover here. I need a name that’s more general.

I’ve got some ideas that might work, but I’d be interested in getting suggestions from the folks who have been following the site for a while. Use the Comments link or form or Contact Me with your suggestions.

I’d appreciate the help.

Webcam Timelapse – July 22, 2007

Missed us again!

The forecast actually called for rain here in Wickenburg. And the storm got ever closer, as you can see in this timelapse, with dark gray clouds and high winds. But, in the end, it past northwest of us.

Dang!

Here’s the timelapse:

Remember, after clicking this image, you may have to wait a few seconds for it to load before it starts playing. Be patient and click only once. It’ll play right in this window. QuickTime is required.

The good news is, the storm also dropped temperatures. At about 3 PM, when I stepped outside, I discovered that it was in the low 80s outside. That’s 20° lower than normal! Yippee! We shut off the air conditioner and opened as many windows as we could. Even slept with the windows open last night!

You Can Delete the Recycle Bin?

I guess so. I just did it.

My latest adventure in Windows computing…deleting the Recycle Bin. What I meant to do was empty the Recycle Bin. But I right-clicked and chose Delete. In a flash, it was gone. I couldn’t find an Undo command.

Oops!

I found another Recycle Bin in the Folders list when I double-clicked the Computer icon on my desktop. (I’m running Windows Vista.) I dragged it to the desktop and it turned into a shortcut icon for the Recycle Bin. Was the old icon a shortcut, too? When I opened the Recycle Bin, the one I deleted wasn’t there so I couldn’t compare.

Whoda thunk you could delete the Recycle Bin?

On a more positive note, I was finally able to print my FAA Operations Specifications from the IOPSS Web site. The software I had to use, which requires a Windows PC, is a client shell for accessing a system on the FAA server. It’s not at all intuitive. For the past four months, I’ve been trying, off and on, to print the 30+ page document that I’m required to have onboard my helicopter. I think the version I had in there was up-to-date, but I figured I could be sure by printing a fresh copy every once in a while. Today was the first time I’ve gotten it to print since I moved out of my old office. Oddly enough, the printer started running after I logged off the FAA server. How weird is that?

I do feel as if printing it was an achievement, since the printer in question is connected via Ethernet directly to my G5 Mac and the PC accesses it wirelessly through printer sharing. I’m always surprised when I can get that setup to work. The last time I successfully printed, I had to do a direct USB connection from one of my other printers to the PC.

Cruising

Life in a moving hotel.

Mike and I ended a week-long Alaska cruise this past Friday. We “sailed” on Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas from Seward, AK to Vancouver, BC, with stops at Hubbard Glacier, Juneau, Skagway, Icy Straight Point (Hoonah), and Ketchikan. The final day was spent cruising down the inside passage east of Vancouver Island.

This was our second cruise. The first was in the Caribbean about five years ago on — strangely enough — the same ship. We really enjoyed that trip, which we went on with another couple around our age. This trip, while enjoyable, was different.

What’s Good about Cruising

Let me start off by explaining why I like to cruise.

Float PlaneA cruise is the ultimate lazy person’s vacation. You get on board on day one, unpack in your own private room, and go to any number of onboard restaurants for free meals just about any time of the day. In the evening, your moving hotel departs the port and moves gently through the sea, arriving at the next port on the next morning. Once there, you can get off the ship and do all kinds of excursions, ranging in trolley tours of the local town, big production shows (the Great American Lumberjack Show comes to mind), active activities (such as biking or hiking), or “adventure” activities (such as helicopter landings on glaciers or sled dog trips or float plane flights). At the end of the day, you’re back on board in your comfy, maid-serviced room, eating free food, seeing free shows, and/or throwing money away in the casino as the ship moves on to the next port.

Cruise cost is determined, in part, by the type of accommodations you choose. The cheapest accommodations are a windowless cabin on a lower deck that gets really dark with the door closed and has barely enough room for you and your cabin mate(s) to move around. The most expensive accommodations are usually given names like “The Royal Suite,” and include several rooms, large windows, and one or more balconies on an upper deck.

On both of our cruises, we had the same accommodations: a “junior suite,” which is one largish room with a king size bed, sofa, easy chair, desk, coffee table, floor-to-ceiling windows, and small balcony. It was on the top cabin deck, 10 stories above the sea. At some ports, float planes landed right past our window (see above).

Cabin on Radiance Cabin on Radiance

A lot of folks say that getting a cabin with a balcony or even a window is a waste of money since you spend so little time in your cabin. I look at it the other way around. If you had a nice room, you’d spend more time in it. I’m a big fan of privacy and like the idea of having a private, outdoor space to relax in.

Hubbard GlacierWe spent much of our two “at sea” days in our cabin on the balcony, reading, talking, and taking photos of the things we passed. In fact, as the ship turned away from the Hubbard Glacier to continue on its way, we came back to the room to relax on the balcony with a bottle of wine and our cameras.

If you don’t care about private space and think you’ll be spending 95% of your waking hours outside your cabin, you should definitely go with one of the less expensive rooms. You see, that’s the only difference in onboard treatment. Once you’re out of your cabin, you’re the same as everyone else. You get the same food, see the same shows, and have access to the same services at the same price. So you can cruise quite affordably — sometimes as little as $600 per person for the week! — if you don’t mind sleeping in a closet-like room.

Cruise Limitations

Every cruise has a major limitation: you only visit the port cities on the cruise itinerary and you only stay in that city as long as the ship is at port. If you pick a cruise with the “wrong” cities, you can’t change your plans. You’re stuck with them.

Of course, since many people plan vacations out to the extreme — reservations every step of the way — this probably isn’t much of a limitation. I, however, like to wing it while on vacation. While this may mean that I don’t get to stay in a place I wanted to (because everyone else had reservations), it does give me the flexibility to stay an extra day at a place I really like or explore a place I learn about while on the road.

The best way to make sure the itinerary limitation doesn’t bite you is to choose your cruise carefully. We didn’t do this on our cruise. We just told the travel agent we wanted a one-way cruise in Alaska that began or ended in Vancouver. We didn’t know what we wanted to see. I have no real complaints about our itinerary, but now I know more about Alaska and where I want to go on my next visit.

“Hidden” Costs

Devils on the Deep Blue Sea : The Dreams, Schemes and Showdowns That Built America's Cruise-Ship EmpiresAlthough you can eat on board for free in most restaurants, there are a few costs that aren’t covered on a cruise. Alcohol is one of them. You pay for all of your drinks — unless you’re gambling in the casino. Drink prices are a bit higher than average, but made with top-shelf liquor. We were paying $8 a piece for our evening martinis (and downing two of them each night), but they were made with Grey Goose and other premium brands. Wine is typical restaurant pricing, but they offer a discount if you buy a 5-, 7-, or 10-bottle plan at the beginning of the cruise. The plan limits you to a shorter wine list, but we chose the 5-bottle plan and had perfectly good wine at most meals, with any leftovers to drink on our balcony later that evening or the next day.

The ship also has premium restaurants that cost $20 per person for a meal. There were two of these: Portofino, serving Italian food, and Chops, serving steaks and chops. We signed up for the Wednesday evening Mystery Dinner Theater at Portofino, which cost $49 per person and included champagne before dinner and wine with dinner, along with entertainment. The meal at Portofino was far better than any other I ate on the ship. (More about food in a moment.)

On our ship, we also had to pay for anything that came in a can or bottle, including Coke and bottled water. It really irked me to pay $2.01 (including a 15% gratuity automatically tacked on) for a can of Coke. The cruise cost us thousands of dollars and I felt that I was being nickeled and dimed. This kind of stuff could have been included for free in the fridge in our room — perhaps as a special perk for those who invested in a nicer cabin — but the fridge doubled as a for-pay servi-bar and it cost the same there.

Tatyana and LorendAnd speaking of gratuities, you’re expected, at the end of your cruise, to tip your lead and assistant waiters in the main dining room, the head waiter in the main dining room, and your cabin attendant. Our dining room service was very good — both waiter and assistant waiter were extremely professional without being stiffs. We joked about things, they gave us advice on wine for when we got home, and they didn’t have any trouble giving Mike and Syd (one of our two table mates) seconds and thirds of lobster tails on Tuesday night, when lobster was the popular choice on the menu. But the head waiter obviously only came around to be friendly and secure his tip, so we didn’t tip him. Many people didn’t show up for dinner on Thursday night, the last night of the cruise, to avoid tipping the dining staff. (More on cheapskates in a moment.) We tipped our cabin attendant the suggested amount, even though we didn’t like her. She did her job, but drew the line there. No special service, as we’d had with our last cabin attendant.

The excursions, however, can be the biggest cost of the cruise. They ranged in price from $12 per person for a trolley ride to more than $500 per person for some of the aviation excursions. Our costliest excursion was a helicopter trip with a landing on two glaciers; it cost $398 each. Anyone interested in saving money would probably not do a lot of excursions.

Our final bill for the extras on board (mostly alcohol and excursions) came to more than $1,800. And that doesn’t include the cost of the cruise itself, gratiuties for onboard staff, or the money we spent onshore for meals and other things. This isn’t a complaint; it’s just a note to those who think a cruise includes everything. A cruise only includes everything if you don’t drink or buy any extras on board and you don’t do more than wander around on foot when at port.

Food

If you’re on a diet and succumb easily to temptation, a cruise is not for you. You are guaranteed to eat too much of the wrong food.

Why the wrong food? Well, most of the food is the wrong food. The buffets and dining room menus are filled with fried foods and heavy starches and sweets. And since it’s all you can eat — even in the main dining room with table service! — if you like to eat a lot, there’s nothing to stop you. I gained 10 pounds on my first cruise and (fortunately) only 4 pounds on this one.

And there was certain scarcity to fresh fruits and vegetables. Why? Well, the cruise ship starts its journey in Vancouver, where it stocks up on all supplies for the next 14 days. It takes on passengers for the first 7-day cruise. Those are the lucky ones — they get lots of fresh food to eat. Then those passengers depart in Seward and the ship takes on its passengers for the return trip to Vancouver. Those passengers (which included us) are facing food that’s already been onboard 7 days.

On our Caribbean cruise, we watched them load fresh produce on board almost every single day. The food was good and fresh. But on this cruise, the food was very disappointing. I think that more than half of what we ate was prepared in advance and frozen, then defrosted or heated before serving. (Kind of like eating at some of Wickenburg’s fancy restaurants.)

The skinny (no pun intended) is this: the best food was in the for-pay restaurants, next came the main dining room, and finally, the buffet. But the only difference was the preparation: all of the food came out of Vancouver and was at least a week old.

Other Passengers

The vast majority of this cruise’s passengers were seniors in the 55+ age group. Of them, more than half were likely 65+. With more than 2,000 passengers aboard this full ships, that’s a lot of retirement money being spent.

Those of you who read this blog regularly probably know that the town I live in, Wickenburg, AZ, is a retirement town. I am surrounded by seniors every day at home. To be surrounded by them while on vacation was a bit of a disappointment. Our last cruise to the Caribbean had a better mix of guests, with age groups more evenly spread. I find younger people in the 25 to 50 year old age group more energizing and fun than the 55+ midwesterners we had on board this cruise.

How do I know they were midwesterners? I asked. Each time they sat us down with other people at meals, we’d talk. I’d ask where they came from. I got Michigan, Iowa, and Kansas more than any other state. Our dinner table-mates were from Little Rock, Arkansas. We didn’t meet a single other couple from New York or New Jersey or Arizona (our past and current home states), although we did meet a couple from Pennsylvania and another from San Diego, CA.

The interesting thing about most of these people is that they didn’t do much in the way of high-price excursions or for-pay activities on board. We never saw them in the Champagne Bar, which we visited for our evening martinis before dinner each night. It was easy to get reservations for massage, facial, etc. at the spa. There were lots of empty seats in the main dining room — two of the six seats at our table remained empty for the entire trip. My conclusion: many of these folks were trying to minimize the cost of extras by simply taking advantage of the free or inexpensive options on board and at port. And, by not utilizing the main dining room in the evening, they could avoid tipping the dining room staff. Cheapskates? Well, avoiding the dining room on the last night of the cruise to stiff the waiters is certainly the mark of a cheapskate. But I like to think that some of them were simply afraid of getting a $1,800 extras bill at the end of the trip.

Coupon Crazy!

I should mention here that these people were coupon crazy. Each evening, the cabin attendant put a daily publication for the next day in our cabin. The publication outlined hours for dining and activities and shore excursions. It also included one or more sheets of coupons. Many of the guests clipped these coupons and made it a point to take advantage of them.

For example, a coupon might say that if you went to Joe’s Tourist Junk Shop in Ketchikan (an imaginary shop) between 10 AM and 11 AM, you could redeem the coupon for a free gift worth $15 — while supplies last. I overheard people planning their day around this visit to Joe’s. And if we happened to walk by Joe’s at 9:45, they’d already be lining up. And the free gift? Perhaps a link in one of those bracelets they push at ports or a paperweight that said “Joe’s at Ketchikan” or something similarly junky. Joe’s hopes that these people will come in and buy stuff while they’re there. Some of them obviously do. T-Shirts seemed to be a hot item.

What’s B/Sad about Cruising

What’s bad or sad about cruising is what the cruise ship lines have done to the port cities. Sure, they’ve brought the ports lots of tourists and revenue. But what they’ve also done is created port shopping areas with the same stores over and over in every port. What local charm existed in these areas is completely blown away by cruise ship sponsored stores like Diamonds International, Tanzanite International, Del Sol, and too many others to remember. Every port has the same collection of shops and they’re conveniently located close to where the ships dock so all those seniors from the midwest don’t have to walk far to redeem their coupons.

Ketchikan Tourist AreaKetchikan was a good example. The day we were there, three cruise ships were lined up at the dock facing the port shopping area. This was roughly 6 to 9 blocks of solid shopping — mostly for jewelry and t-shirts — with the vast majority of shops owned by cruise ship companies or their affiliates. The Great American Lumberjack Show was on the outskirts of this — this tourist attraction does four or five or more shows a day with people lined up to see them. (We saw highlights of this on television, on a show purportedly about Alaska, so we didn’t need or want to see it in person.) This area was very crowded.

Creek StreetYet less than 1/2 mile away was historic Creek Street, the former red light district of the town, which had been converted into small, mostly locally owned shops. It was nearly deserted. And on the town’s walking tour was an interesting totem pole museum and fish hatchery, both of which were empty.

The excursion transportation — mostly buses and vans — comes right up to the port, making it completely unnecessary to step foot into town. So people who just want the bus tour don’t need to walk past tempting jewelry and t-shirt shops. They get door to door service and, on many excursions, don’t even need to get off the bus to “do” the port town.

Glacier LandingOf course, the beauty of Alaska still lies beyond all this. Sure, we did excursions, but we did the ones that took us away from the cruise ships and shopping cities they’d built. One excursion took us by helicopter to land and hike on two different glaciers. Another was supposed to take us by helicopter to a mountaintop, where we’d do a 4-mile hike with a guide and return to the ship by train. (That one was cancelled when low ceilings prevented us from getting to the mountain top; we later rented a car to see what we’d missed: on that day, fog.) Another excursion took us by float plane up the Misty Fjords, passing mountain lakes, waterfalls, and glacial snow before landing in a mountain-enclosed bay. (You can see now how we managed to spend $1,800 in extras.) And at the end of each excursion, we walked the town, going beyond the shiny gift shops to walk among the historic buildings and, in more than one instance, panhandlers and locals who weren’t fortunate enough to get jobs selling jewelry to tourists at the docks.

As usual, my cynicism is creeping in. I can’t really help it. We came to Alaska to see its beauty and learn more about its history. But at most port cities, we faced the same old tourist crap. I guess that’s because that’s what most other people on the cruise ships want to see. We had to dig to see what lay under all that junk. It was worth the effort.

Not All Ports are Equal

Radiance of the Seas at AnchorAn exception to all this: Icy Straits Point and the indian village of Hoonah. This port had no dock, so our ship anchored offshore and used three tenders (specially configured lifeboats) to ferry passengers back and forth.

There were a few excursions there: fishing, whale watching, bicycling. The main attraction was the old cannery, which had been converted into a fascinating museum with a sprinkling of locally owned gift shops. (Not a single Diamonds International sign in sight.) Hoonah also boasts the world’s longest zip line, which is over a mile long with a drop of more than 1000 feet. (I guess they felt they had to do something to get the tourists in.)

Bald EaglesMike and I did the 1-1/2 mile walk (each way) into town where bald eagles waited in treetops for the local fishermen to clean their fish. We stopped at a local bar, where a man had covered the pool table with old photos of the town and more recent photos of a 25-foot snowfall. Then we went to the Landing Zone restaurant at the bottom of the zip line and had a great lunch of chowder and fried halibut and salmon, prepared fresh and served by locals.

Back on the ship, I overheard one woman boast that she hadn’t even bothered to get off the ship that day.

Would I Do It Again?

With two cruises under my belt now, I have a good idea of what to expect on a cruise. (After reading this, you might, too.) With all the pros and cons, would I do it again?

I’m really not sure. The moving hotel aspect is very attractive. But the cost and limitations are a drawback. And the cruise ship line development of port cities is a real turn-off.

I’d consider it. But I’ll certainly do my homework before signing up next time.