Just a quick commercial message with the Official Gift Giving Season upon us: The RagTime Traveler makes a great gift for your mystery-reading friends. Available at all the usual outlets–if your local store doesn’t have it in stock, they can order it–and I believe Borderlands still has signed copies. End of commercial.

Since we’re on the subject of book sales, let’s talk about piracy. It’s been a hot topic in the genre publishing world for the last couple of months thanks to Maggie Stiefvater‘s tweet about the cancellation of plans to publish a box set of one of her series.

I’ll be honest here. I don’t know Ms. Stiefvater, and I haven’t read the Raven Cycle. But they’re well-reviewed and quite popular.

And that’s the core of the problem. The books are popular, but they’re not selling well enough to make that boxed set economically viable.

Ms. Stiefvater attributes the disconnect to piracy, and as that tweet shows, she’s got evidence to support her position.

Then there’s the contingent of writers who shrug off piracy as free advertising. That’s the position that says “If they can get books free, maybe they’ll try something new, decide they like it, and buy the sequels.”

That group tends to point to the Baen Free Library. SF publisher Baen Books made (and still does make) some titles available free. When the library was introduced, sales of paper copies of the free books jumped, as did later books in the same series.

The trouble is, you can’t generalize from the BFL, which generally only includes the first book of a series, to the broader world where everything is available free. If a reader can go back to the same website where they got Book One and grab Book Two, Three, Four, and Five, there isn’t much incentive to shell out thirty-five or forty bucks for them.

And don’t forget: those early numbers from the BFL that everyone cites came from a time when pirating a book meant scanning every page and then going through a tedious process of OCR conversion and proofreading. Today, it’s a thirty-second task to take the legit ebook and strip off the copy protection. It’s gotten to the point where everything is pirated.

Yes, even TRTT. I know it’s out there–I’ve seen it. Pirating has gotten so quick and easy that totally unknown authors’ works are made available on the off-chance somebody might want them. It’s easier to grab everything published and crack the encryption than to decide what you actually want.

In fact, pirate copies of TRTTstarted showing up on June 7, the day the book was released. That suggests the whole process is automated, and it wouldn’t surprise me if one of the major distributors has a backdoor somewhere.

I’m not suggesting beefing up the encryption. Music, movies, and games have all tried increasingly-tougher copy protection, and all the attempts have failed. It doesn’t stop the pirates, and it inconveniences legitimate buyers.

I don’t have an answer. I’m fairly sure there isn’t one beyond occasionally reminding everyone that if books don’t sell, publishers and writers won’t be able to put out more.

I can’t stop anyone from pirating. But if you do, how’s about you have a heart and buy a book occasionally? Thanks.


Let’s get the obligatory disclaimer out of the way, shall we?

I’m not in favor of piracy. IMNSHO, information does not want to be free. And, while I believe the music, movie, and publishing industries, have, to varying degrees, bobbled the transition to a digital-dominated marketplace*, I don’t believe that justifies an attitude that all audio, video, and written material can be “shared”, guilt-free.

* Especially when it comes to the methods they use to enforce copyright.

That said, I had to laugh when I saw this story. You read it correctly. Warner Bros. issued DMCA takedown requests against its own websites because the content violated its own copyrights.

To be fair, the requests didn’t come from WB directly, they came from Vobile, a company whose homepage claims their goal is to “Protect, Measure, Monetize the best movies and TV content in the world” Advertising mis-capitalization aside, that’s a remarkably elitist statement, isn’t it? Do they decide whether your content is among “the best” when you engage with them, or–as seems likely–is the fact that you want them to work their PMM magic sufficient evidence that your content is superior?

Regardless, they use the usual sort of digital “fingerprint” technology to identify their clients’ content–and then, apparently fire off a barrage of DMCA takedown requests with little-to-no human oversight. “Fair use? What’s that?” “Verification? Never heard of it.” Yeah, I’m putting words in their mouths.

Hey, do you suppose Warner has told Vobile that they should stop searching for unauthorized distributions of “Happy Birthday”? After all, the song was only placed in the public domain seven months ago…

Anyway, it’s a nice bit of gander sauce.

Moving on (briefly).

Rumor has it that Google is preparing to release a successor to the extremely popular Nexus 7 tablets. Ars, among many other tech venues, suggests that it’ll be announced at Google’s big October 4 launch party, along with new phones, Chromecast, and VR hardware.

If it’s true, I’m very glad to hear it. The world needs more seven-inch tablets. It’s an excellent size for reading, it’s large enough that watching video and playing games isn’t an exercise in annoyance, and it’s small enough to be carried easily.

I don’t expect to be getting one immediately–I’m still quite satisfied with my $50 Amazon Fire tablet for reading and my Nexus 9 for anything that needs a larger screen–but if the new “Pixel 7” (or whatever they decide to call it) is as affordable as Google’s earlier seven-inchers, I’d give it a strong recommendation to anyone who is in the market for a tablet.

Words About Words

I don’t talk about the publishing industry very often on this blog. That might seem a little odd–this is a writer’s blog, after all. But in reality, most publishing news is concerned with royalty rates, rights management, and corporate mergers and acquisitions. Riveting for writers, but sleep-inducing for 99% of my readers.

However, every so often a story with more general appeal appeal turns up. Oddly, they seem to travel in packs. Today, we’ve got a quartet of publishing stories with technological angles.

Over at Publishing Perspectives, Mark Piesing has a piece on robojournalism and robowriting. Fascinating, really. Yahoo uses software to write thousands of stories every week for its Fantasy Sports sites. AP uses programs to generate thousands of quarterly earning reports. Some companies use the technology to produce company reports and online customer service. If you’ve ever thought the customer service rep in your online chat seemed a bit robotic, you might have been right. But perhaps not: Mr. Piesing cites a study in which readers found a robot-written report of a football game more credible than one written by a real reporter.

Mr. Piesing seems to believe that robojournalism is the future of the industry–he tells us that, according to unnamed commentators, “90% of journalism read by the public will be written by robots” within a decade.

My immediate reaction was that he was hopelessly pessimistic. I–and Mr. Piesing’s experts–don’t believe software will ever be able to replace investigative reporters. Can you imagine a program replacing our buddy Jaxon: uncovering and reporting the multitude of human failures that led to the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch?

But then I started thinking more deeply. There’s a key phrase in that quote above: “read by the public”. How many people are actually reading Jaxon’s articles? How many more people read the headline, think “Another boring bridge problem,” and move on to the Sports section?

Next time you go shopping, take a look at the magazines near the register. How many people do you see sneaking a peek inside? The circulation figures don’t begin to give a full picture of how many people read those journals.

Can you honestly tell me that any of the articles were written by humans?

Moving on.

Amazon is getting a fair amount of press for its Kindle Convert software. Stories are billing it as the text equivalent of CD ripping software, in that it allows you to convert your physical books into ebooks (Kindle format only, of course), just as a CD can be converted into mp3s.

Never mind the fact that the user reviews are uniformly negative, or that scanning books is considerably more labor-intensive than ripping a CD. News stories talk about Amazon’s encouragement of piracy and conspiracy to steal from authors. Let’s face it: ebooks are already easily available across the Internet. Kindle Convert isn’t going to make a bit of difference in either direction. The current Amazon sales rank (#41 in Software, squarely between Norton Security and H&R Block Tax Software) is a direct reflection of the current free publicity and heavily discounted price ($19, previously $49). My suspicion is that the overwhelming majority of the copies sold since the price drop will either never be used, or will be used to convert illicitly-downloaded books into a Kindle-friendly format.

Speaking of Amazon, have you considered the implications of their recommendations? When you look at a book, they suggest others you should buy. Those recommendations come, not from any similarity between the books or any assessment of quality, but from purchase records: other people bought them at the same time they bought the one you’re looking at.

A company called trajectory thinks they have a better mousetraprecommendation tool. According to a piece in Publishers Weekly, their software classifies the content of books with regard to more than thirty attributes, including mood, pace, and intensity. That allows them to recommend similar books in very much the same way that Pandora recommends similar music. And, as with Pandora, the more books they’re able to classify, the better their recommendations will get.

Currently, trajectory’s focus is on selling to libraries and booksellers, but they’re also looking to sell recommendations to self-published authors. That’s a little worrisome. If writers can bias the system to preferentially promote their book when certain attributes come up, what’s the point of trajectory doing the analysis in the first place? And, speaking from the author’s point of view, if trajectory catches on with booksellers, getting that preferential placement could become a “must do”. Can you imagine the bidding wars for keywords that would link to your book from the current bestsellers?

Finally, here’s an art project that completely misses the point. Thijs Biersteker has created a book cover that uses facial recognition software to decide whether to allow you to read the book. If you have a skeptical expression, the cover engages a lock, preventing you from opening the book.

The artist explains that the book has “already been judged and awarded by an international jury, so all that is left is to approach the content of this book without any judgement.”

Excuse me? I should abandon my own critical faculties and make my reading decision solely on the basis of a stranger’s opinion?

I guess that’s one way to avoid bad reviews. If I can’t form my own opinion, I certainly can’t do a proper review.

Hey, maybe I can put a mask showing the proper “serious reading expression” on my scanner, use Kindle Convert to convert Biersteker’s book into electronic form, and then feed it to trajectory’s software, and pass the output to a roboreporter to write my review.

Bets on the number of stars RoboReviewer will give?