Category Archives: Books

Disillusioned

I am a creature of many passions, two of which are playing games and writing. So last year I decided to combine those two passions and write a book about a game that I enjoyed playing. And so the Assassins’ Creed: Pirates Game Guide was born.

I originally released it in two versions: a free version and a paid version with ten extra pages of personal research and information that was not available anywhere else. I figured that if folks liked the free version that they would pay a few dollars for the paid version.

I was wrong.

The free version got hundreds of downloads, but in spite of my lowering the price from $4.99 to $2.99, there were only a handful of sales. The market has spoken. Or more specifically, the freeloaders have made their point. I made a mistake, one that I will not make again.

As a result, I am reducing the free version to a “preview” version that features only the first twenty-five pages of the book.

This will doubtless upset some people; you may thank the huge number of freeloaders who do not value the many hours of work I have put into writing and publishing this book.

Don’t blame me, blame the freeloaders.

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There is an elephant in the room

More than two years ago, there was a battle royal going on between Amazon and the book-publishing industry. The fight was over who gets to set the price. The general consensus among authors at the time was that Amazon (who wanted to sell e-books at a discounted price of $9.99) was evil, and that the Publishers (who knew the writing business best) should set the price.

At the time, In a blog post entitled “When Elephants Fight” I opined at the time that the publishers should not be allowed to set the price, because they would push prices up and blame the resulting drop in sales on “piracy”

Two years on, e-book prices have gone up, but that has not affected me. Although I have purchased two Kindles since then (and run Kindle software on several other devices), I have not spent more than $3.99 on a Kindle book.

Oh, and the DOJ has hauled half a dozen of the major publishers, along with “Co-conspirator” Apple, into court.

As Jim Carrey once said: “I’m sick of being right”

Why I love — and hate — the Kindle

I recently purchased a Kindle for Her Ladyship. Stop sniggering in the back, you — it wasn’t a trade! I picked up a third-Gen Wi-Fi+3G Kindle from a seller on Craigslist for $75 as a surprise for her.

I am no stranger to e-books; I have been reading them since 1991; first on a variety of Psion PDAs, then on a collection of Palm machines, and more recently on Her Ladyship’s iPod and my new Android phone. On the last two machines I have been able to install Kindle Apps. Both work well, but the screens are too small for extended reading, and she, understandably, never really got into them.

The Kindle, however, is another matter. It is the first dedicated e-book reader that I have ever bought. She loves it; she says that the display is easier on the eyes than paper. She takes it with her when she goes out if she thinks that she will waiting around for any length of time. The sight of her sitting up in bed wearing her cute li’l “librarian” glasses and reading on her Kindle has become a common one.

We have downloaded plenty of free classics, that she is wading through at an accelerated rate of knots; she is currently in the middle of Paul Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”; the original version written in seventeenth-century English; just one of the many free books that I have downloaded from the Kindle store.

What we have not done, however, is purchase any full-priced e-books from the Kindle store. Nor do I plan to. And this the underbelly of the Kindle. The e-books are too damned expensive.

Those who work in the publishing industry will no doubt disagree with me, saying that e-books represent a great value proposition, giving me convenience and portability at a reasonable price. I cannot agree; to my mind, they are charging me more while offering me less.

To understand why I feel this way, you need to examine the publishing industry; how it has worked in the past, how it is changing and where it is headed. Just like the music industry, the publishing industry has become so fixated on the medium that it has been left flat-footed when that medium changed beneath its feet. As a result, it is now trying to make the new model fit into the old one that they know and love.

Historically, the book publishing industry has had the Writer at one end, the Reader at the other, and the Publisher in the middle. Scattered elsewhere along this continuum are various other parties, including a printer, a seller and various wholesalers and a bunch of other folks whose livelihood revolves around moving the product between the major players and marketing them to the consumer.

Then along came outfits like Amazon with their e-readers and their e-books, their websites and their networks. This represents the Trump of doom to the publishers. And so began the battle for the middle ground. Amazon and their ilk represent a serious threat to the publishing industry; a writer who self-publishes on Amazon can sidestep the publisher entirely and go straight to e-publishing.

Last year’s very public spat betweeen Amazon and MacMillan shows how serious this battle has become. The real issue here is about who sets the price of the books; Amazon, whose focus is selling more Kindles, wants cheap books — while the publishers, who represent the established way of doing things — want higher prices, particularly for the new “hot” titles.

What we are seeing is a battle between the old bosses (the publishers) and the new ones (the web distributors). The former are used to selling lovingly-crafted books, while the latter pass around blobs of data. That battle will not be pretty.

My fundamental problem is this: When I buy a physical book, I can read it, resell it. lend it out, give away or use it as a firelighter. When I buy an e-book, I am acquiring a blob of data whose ownership is always in doubt —  in the past, Amazon can, and has, remotely removed books from Kindles, which renders the entire concept of “ownership” moot. For me that outweighs the convenience of electronic publication. This has a strong influence on the value proposition.

To me, an e-book that costs more than about $5 is overpriced. By way of proof, I point to games. A simple PC game typically costs $10-50. But a typical game on an iPhone or Android phone ranges from $1 to $3. The reason that they can do this is in the numbers; a phone game sells millions. As books move towards massive distribution, prices must come down. Like their cousins in the music and movie industries, the book publishing industry will oppose such measures tooth-and-mail.

Bottom line: Until they price ebooks at less than the cost of a paperback, they will get very little money out of me.

Book Review: “Your Money or Your Life”, By David Cutler

I haven’t done a book review in quite a while but I just finished reading this one and I felt so strongly that I had to put down my feelings on paper.

While this book, by David M Cutler, purports to suggest how to fix the healthcare crisis in the US. It is always wise to consider the source.

In 1993 I was in Washington D.C., working on the Clinton administration’s health care reform effort. Remember the secret group of 500 people out to reform the health care system? I was one of them

Given his history, it would be easy to assume that he would push “Universal Health Care” – also known as Socialized Medicine – and he does not disappoint. While the book comes up with many good suggestions, the main thrust of the argument is strongly in favor of fixing the problem by adding more “insurance” – this time for everybody, provided by the Government.

I would counter that Insurance actually makes healthcare more expensive, but adding an extra layer of bureaucracy. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I don’t need help paying the small bills – Doctor Visits, Blood Tests etc. Removing insurance from these transactions would reduce the cost to the Doctor, as well as giving me an incentive to negotiate. What I need help with are the big bills – my one-day stay in hospital last year generated a dozen bills and came to $16,000.

Why is health care so expensive? That is an obvious question, but one that Cutler never asks in his book. Nor does he mention the effects of taxation, litigation and the free market.

Most Americans who claim to favor socialized healthcare do so because they can’t afford what is on offer (or are trying to elicit the support of those who cannot). Most have no practical experience of how it works in real life. Having been raised in Britain’s NHS (National Health Service), I have seen socialized healthcare from the inside. I have seen the waste, the incompetence and the sheer chaos that inevitably ensues when the Government is allowed to take charge of healthcare.

Yes, I am adamantly against Universal Healthcare. Why? Let me count the ways:

  • We can’t afford it.
  • Government intervention in the free market makes things worse. Why is it that the price of LASIK laser eye surgery – which is hardly ever covered by insurance – has fallen by about 80% in the last 10 years?
  • Universal Healthcare will not lower costs – yet another layer of bureaucracy and regulation will inevitably push costs up. All that it will do is change who pays the bill.
  • Any attempt to forcibly take control of healthcare will result in Doctors retiring or leaving the profession in huge numbers.
  • We can’t afford it: Yes I already mentioned it, but it was so important I thought it worth mentioning twice.

Do I have a better Idea? Actually, I have several; and they will be the subject of an upcoming blog post. And none of them involve getting somebody else to pay my bills.

Book Review: Barak Obama, “The Audacity of Hope”

For those who do not know, Mr Obama is the Junior Senator from Illinois, elected to the Senate in 2004. He is widely tipped as potential presidential material.

This is his story, his philosophy and his manifesto.

His writing style is both candid and readable, and he comes across as surprisingly “normal” for one who is a professional politician.

The book opens with an account of his birth and background. Unlike most of his colleagues in the U.S. Senate, he has actually seen how the other half lives, having grown up overseas (in Indonesia). This gives him a unique perspective among his peers.

As I read the early pages of this book, I found myself wanting to see this man elected as president. That was until he touched on the constitution, referring to as “a living document”. That was when we parted ideological company.

The Constitution was drafted over a number of years by a bunch of very smart people who believed in small, limited central government, low taxation, individual rights and minimal governmental intervention.

Last time I looked, was a legal document that said what it meant and meant what it said. It is about as negotiable as the Ten Commandments. It is not intended to be interpreted and reinterpreted according to cultural whim and contemporary fad; if it were there would be no need for a mechanism and procedure for changing it.

This document is what the President swears to “preserve, protect and defend” in his Oath of Office. Not “America”. Not “The American People”. The Constitution.

From this point on, the book goes steadily southwards, as he advocates government help in various areas that obviously need improvement. Help that comes out of the pockets of Mr. and Mrs. You and Me.

This is not a pro or anti-demopublican rant – I would vote for neither. There used to be a time when the two parties had major ideological differences (small/big gov’t, taxation, States rights etc), but now it seems that their only real difference is who their friends are.

In conclusion, I have a lot of admiration and respect for this man, and I think that he will bring a bit of horse-sense to the Senate, as long as he remains in touch with reality. However, I cannot bring myself to seriously consider any man for the presidency whose oath of office would be meaningless.

Now Reading: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

Now reading…

From time to time, I come across a blog entry or a discussion thread that ends with a one-line statement or tagline informing the reader about what the writer is currently listening to. Nothing wrong with this, to be sure, but I think that what a person is reading will tell you far more about them than what music they are listening to or what movies they most recently watched.

This year alone I have read many interesting thought-provoking and sometimes disturbing books, including…

You’re probably thinking that I only read books that have a colon in the title, so I will add Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson to the list.

Often I will read several books at once… typically there is a book on the treadmill that I read while working out; sometimes there is another book on my bedside table, with several older books on my PDA in e-book format.

That said, this is not about blowing my own trumpet or going on an ego rampage. While the links are to Amazon, most are available at your local library.

Any road up, from here on out, I will be ending my scribblings with a “Now reading…” message.

That is all.

Now reading…

Some good advice

Some tips for saving money

I also recommend the book “The Millionaire Next Door

Why e-books never caught on

In the movie Ghostbusters, Dr Egon Spengler (played by Harold Ramis) uttered a phrase that has remained in my head ever since.

"Print is Dead".

He was right, even then.

Here are two excellent pieces on the subject, from e-week magazine.

  1. E-Book Publishing Is Foundering for Good Reason
  2. Excuse Me, Mr. Coursey, But E-Books Rock

In the above articles, two pundits pontificate and disagree over whether or not e-books are succeeding. I agree with Mr Coursey's sentiment, but not with his reasoning.

I have been reading e-books for about ten years on Psion and Palm machines. I believe that the reason that e-books have not caught on has more to do with money than anything else. Like the RIAA, the book publishers believe that they are entitled to the same amount of money per copy that they have traditionally enjoyed, even through their costs with e-publishing will be almost zero.

The consumers, on the other hand, see the lower production costs and expect them to be passed on to them, and are unwilling to pay full price for a book with no spine, pages, shipping, production or retail costs/overhead.

If a Hardback costs $15-$25 and a paperback costs $4-5, an e-book should not cost more than about $2.50. Good luck finding one at that price.

To put it bluntly, e-books have failed to catch on because of the intransigence of the publishers (who want a license to print more money) and the stubbornness of the public (who won't pay more for less). The publishing industry has an annoying tendency to expect the public to pay more for less, while their customers expect just the opposite.

I believe e-books can catch on, and quickly. However, it is unlikely to happen until the publishers do three things:

  1. Agree on a common format. People will want to read their e-books on different devices, ranging from PCs to PDAs to dedicated e-book readers. Ignore this and they will ignore you.
  2. Quit trying to use restrictive DRM to "lock down" their products to individual devices. In the real world, stuff happens – hardware breaks or gets stolen; people upgrade. Do you really think that people will repurchase their entire collection of e-books if that happens? No – they will expect to be able to transfer or assign their purchases to another device at will, without hassle. That's called fair use rights, and the customer will demand them. Unless you have infrastructure to give it to them, don't bother.
  3. Lower the price to half the price of a paperback at most. Your customers know what you pay the Authors, and have a pretty good idea of how much you should make – remember that electronic publishing cuts out all sorts of middlemen and material costs – and what is left is almost pure profit. Those saved costs should be passed onto the customer, and not used to line the pockets of the publishers and their lawyers. Don't make the same mistake as the RIAA.

Until these three things happen, do not expect e-books to be universally accepted.

Book Look: Your Marketing Sucks, by Mark Stevens

I consider myself to be a Geek (when a capital G – according to this test, I am a “supergeek” whatever that is). As such, I have what I consider to be a healthy disrespect for those I consider “marketing types”. That is not to say that they are useless, but I feel that they are, as a breed, a little too full of themselves. I am pretty sure that the antipathy is mutual, and I am ok with that.

Perhaps the biggest reason that geeks dislike marketing types is because geeks stand for truth – the facts, the data, the provable – while marketing types tend to deal in sentiment, desire and psychology.From my standpoint, geeks make the products that the guys and girls in marketing have to sell… and yet a VP of Marketing invariably has a bigger salary and more clout than, for instance, a VP of engineering. It seems almost upside-down, but people who make things are often looked down upon by those who sell them.So what exactly is marketing? My best definition is the creation and identification of sales opportunities and trends.

In this book, the author openly accuses prominent marketers of not doing their jobs – of doing marketing that sucks. He suggests that most marketing campaigns do not result in increased sales, and are therefore a pointless waste of money that is more concerned with keeping marketing budgets well funded than with generating new sales.

The book is not perfect, and has several shortcomings; for instance, some have described the book as a blatant pitch for the author’s marketing consultancy business. While there is certainly an element of self-promotion, most of it is more of a challenge – a dare to try his services and see if he cannot do better.Others have said that the book is long on criticism and short on encouragement. This is true, but given the title of the book, one cannot reasonably expect much else. Bear in mind also that there are many marketing “how-to” books out there.

Even if you are not into marketing – or even, for that matter, a geek – this is a very entertaining read and well worth checking out of the library – or even buying. Marketing types, however, may want to give it a miss, though, as they take themselves way too seriously (another diffeence between Geeks and Marketing types), and will not appreciate a book that pokes fun at most of that which they hold so dear…

Book Look: Out of America – Keith B Richburg

Keith Richburg is an American. He is a reporter. And he is black. This book is his travelogue of Africa, where he spent several years in various countries on the dark continent.

  • Being black, he thought that he could “blend in” with the local populace. That was before he found out how the local populace lived.
  • He believed that the western powers could fix things…. until he saw them try and fail disastrously in Somalia.
  • He believed that sending aid to poor countries helped… until he saw most of that aid being diverted into the pockets of the local warlords.

This is the story of a man who has seen, first-hand, the devastation caused by the wars that have wracked nations where no-one counts the bodies. A man who returned home proud and grateful to be an American.

If this book does not move you to tears, not a lot will.