The Descent: an Innovative Contest Where the Indies Win

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Kobo fanboy. Kobo was my introduction to e-books, and I’ve never tried another platform (beyond installing other companies’ apps on my Kobo), and I don’t really care to. I’ve found a nice home there, and that works for me.

One thing I really like about Kobo as a company is that they truly support their Indie Writers. Kobo Writing Life is a great program, as many Indies can attest. But for the most part (and this is just my opinion), Indie books are still somewhat underground–someone has to point them out to you. Fortunately, that’s changing quickly–and Kobo has an innovative way to help bring about that change.

J.F. Penn is well known enough in the Indie world that she doesn’t need an introduction. Suffice it to say that the author of the Arcane series is at the forefront of our industry, and an incredible representative of the Indie Community. She’s a powerhouse, to be sure, and a concrete example of how writers like us can make this work.  Now, Penn is working with Kobo to present a truly unique contest: The Decent.

The short of it is this: for three weeks, Kobo will release a short story written by Penn. Within those stories is a series of clues which the reader has to ferret out and assemble. This will lead the reader to a secret web page where they can enter to win a grand prize of $5000. Sounds like fun, right? Well, here’s the best part: all of this is part of a promotion for Dan brown’s coming novel, Inferno.

Okay, hear me out before you browse away from me. I can hear you now: this blog is about the Indie community, why are you writing about a contest for a Dan Brown book? Believe me, I had my own reservations at first. I enjoy Brown’s novels, but let’s be honest–they’re not the pinnacle of English Literature. And he’s about the furthest thing away from an Indie writer you could imagine. So why write about it here?

The reason is that this puts Indie writers squarely in the spotlight. Well, one writer in particular, but this is important: J.F. Penn, a voice of the Indie Community, is being advertised alongside Dan Brown. People who are lusting after Brown’s book will learn about Penn–and when they learn about Penn and her self-publishing success, they may explore more Indie writers. Even better, it validates our industry; if Dan Brown is in the big leagues and Penn is playing ball with him, it reflects very well on the rest of us.

Now, to be honest, there are those who will read Penn’s stories, click through to the contest without realizing who she is in the Community, and never give Indies a second thought. But there will be those who are intrigued enough by her work to explore her other books; they’ll see that she operates under her own imprint, The Creative Penn, and isn’t attached to a large publishing house; they’ll visit her webpage and see that she offers marketing advice for people wanting to publish their own books. And that is a direct open door to the Indie Community. And besides all that, the very fact that Kobo is associating Brown with an Indie writer in this way is very telling: it shows that they have a stake in the Indie community, and are willing to invest in us in a real way. This contest might be going out to the world, but really, I think the Indie Community has already won.

I thought about reviewing Sins of Temptation, the first of Penn’s three stories, but have decided against it. I wouldn’t want to inadvertently give spoilers that turn out to be clues. If someone wants to enter this contest, they should run the gamut themselves. I will say this about it: it’s decent, and left me wanting more. It’s rather short, though it’s intended to be. And it has a distinct flavour to it that is more than reminiscent of Brown’s novels. Which, I should add, I think is a good thing.

But don’t take my word for it. You can find the first entry here, and it’s free! The second entry was supposed to be released today, but was available online Wednesday–you can find Sins of Violence here. The third and final story will be released next week. This contest is exclusive to Kobo, however, so if you don’t have an account you’ll have to make one. The account is free too, and Kobo has a great store, so you won’t be disappointed.  Finally, if you don’t have a Kobo, keep in mind that they have several apps that can be run on different devices, or even on your computer.

So go out, pick up the books (supporting a fellow Indie) and spread the word–the more people who see this, the better it is for all of us. Happy sleuthing!

This contest is run and operated by Kobo Inc. You can find the full rules and conditions here.

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Indie Review: Emperor’s Edge

I’m going to cheat a bit today–this Indie Review features not one, but five books. And, as this is going to be something of an overview, I’ll probably revisit each of them in time. But seeing as Lindsay Buroker is a large part of why I got into the Indie Writer’s community in the first place, I thought it was high time to review some of her work in depth (though I’ve touched on one of her short stories before).

Last summer, I received a free book from Kobo: a collection of short stories and excerpts from Indie writers designed to entice people into their new Kobo Writing Life publishing program. Buroker’s Ice Cracker II was the second story, and was easily the most memorable of the bunch. I found that the first book in the Emperor’s Edge series was free, so I picked it up and gave it a read. Making this book free is a stroke of brilliance on her part–it does a great job of drawing you into the story, and clearly sets up the next book–which explains the fervor of her fans, who wait with baited breath for each new entry.

The series concerns Amaranthe Lockdon, an Enforcer for the empire of Turgonia who finds herself on the wrong side of the law–not by choice, but by circumstance. She spends the series trying not only to redeem herself, but the names of her rag-tag teammates–not an easy feat considering one of them is the legendary and universally feared assassin, Sicarius. This quest for redemption is the overall arc of the series, but each book of course has its own unique plot.
There’s a common enemy too, though I won’t go into too much detail for the sake of spoilers. They’re known as Forge, and Buroker is great at giving just enough information about them book to book to keep the reader guessing–and wondering when it will all be revealed. What’s more, there’s no let down when much of it is revealed in book five, Blood and Betrayal. In the hands of a lesser writer, the revelation would have fallen flat with such a drawn out buildup; here, it’s satisfying and actually left me wanting to know even more. Which won’t be a problem for the work-in-progress book six, as book five lays down some tantalizing clues for what comes next.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t want to give a book-by-book blow-by-blow; suffice it to say that it’s a great series, and well worth reading. Buroker is one of those Indie Writers who serves as an example to others–she’s made a comfortable name for herself already, and her stock is only going up. She’s one that new Indie Writers should be looking up to.

Back to the series. There’s a lot to like about these books, though I find them difficult to define. Most people would tell you they’re Steampunk/fantasy, but there are a lot of elements of detective/crime, romance, sci-fi and pulp adventure (in a good way) as well. And yet despite the mixing of genres, they don’t seem piecemeal at all; in fact, this diversity is a strength for the books. It shows that Amaranthe and company are adept as many different situations, and that Buroker is good at not writing her characters into pigeon holes. They’re versatile and always fresh–as is her writing style–and this versatility is a hallmark of the series as a whole. If I hesitate to categorize these books into a genre, I can safely say that whether you’re a fan of sword and sorcery, rom-coms, or 1950’s pulp scifi/adventure, you’ll find something to like here.

The setting is decidedly Steampunk, and this is probably the easiest way to define the books if you want to do that. Turgonia is a militaristic empire with a long Imperial history of war and conquest, which has taken precedence over the arts, business, or scientific advancement. But that’s changing. A new Emperor–Sespian–has been crowned, and though he’s too young to officially take the throne, he’s established a new paradigm that many of the more conservative people of the Empire find hard to swallow. While this conflict isn’t really at the heart of the series, it plays a large part, and serves nicely as a sort of “dynamic backdrop.” It causes ripples that affect the characters indirectly, and as the series progresses, those ripples get larger–or, rather, we start to see the turbulence beneath the waves.
The science of Turgonia is based, of course, on steam; you have trolleys that require a furnace, mechanical beasts guarding enemy hideouts, and stream trains galore. There’s also a healthy helping of the other trimmings one would associate with steampunk; swashbuckling fops, a system of magic that borders on science, great costumes, urchins and aristocrats. And did I mention a kraken? In addition to this, there’s an undercurrent of a mysterious alien technology. All of it makes for a vibrant and simply fun setting.

But the real strength of these books are the characters. Amaranthe is the perfect example of the type of female hero so desperately needed in fiction. She’s not helpless eye candy always in need of rescue, and she doesn’t depend on the male figures for her strength; in fact, the men in the books look to her for guidance, without her asking for such reverence. It’s simply earned, because she’s a strong, intelligent presence, and she knows what she’s doing. She has her faults, too, but even these turn into strengths in terms of the way she’s written. She’s impulsive, takes unneeded risks, and has been known to let her emotions get in the way of the mission. But none of these faults are because she’s a woman, like so many other women in fiction–they’re because she’s human. I have a lot of respect for Buroker for writing such a strong female character, and I hope to see a lot of writers follow in her footsteps.
Amaranthe’s counterpoint is the brooding and dangerous Sicarius, long ago the Emperor’s personal assassin, but now exiled with the coming of the new regime. He, too, is looking for redemption, though he doesn’t know it until Amaranthe comes along–or at least doesn’t believe it’s possible. Their relationship–and yes, there’s a certain romantic spark–is convoluted, mostly because Sicarius is so reluctant to express himself. He comes across as a cold, unfeeling killing machine, but the scenes he shares in private with Amaranthe are touching and sweet. The great thing about Sicarius is that he’s a well textured character–but only Amaranthe and the reader know it. He’s easily my favourite character in the series because of this, and I delight in every snippet of information we’re tossed as readers. The mystery is what drives his character, and that’s something I always enjoy–but there’s another layer here because despite the mystery, we get a clearer view of him than the other characters.

On a side note, I can’t help but imagine Sicarius as Wesley/The Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride. Which, I suppose, would make Basilard the giant Fezzik, with Maldynaldo cast as Inigo Montoya.

Which brings me to Amaranthe’s band of misfit teammates. As supporting characters, they’re remarkably well rounded, and they serve as a further counterpoint to Amaranthe and Sicarius. Akstyr is a young street kid with a criminal past who’s teaching himself the “mental sciences” (magic); Books is the…uh, bookish librarian who excels at research, but not so much in fighting; Maldynaldo is an unapologetic womanizing fop with a heart of gold (and knows it); and Bassilard is the mute muscle, erstwhile bouncer, and surprisingly good chef. There are other companions introduced in later books, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. All of them make a great team; they’re diverse enough that they stand well enough alone, but together their skills combine in surprising ways to get the job done.
The best part is how they relate to one another–Bassilard is a friend to all, though he distrusts Sicarius more than some; Maldynaldo makes a show of teasing everyone, including Amaranthe, though he’s not as shallow as he puts on; Akstyr refuses to show how much he cares, or how much he appreciates that others care, but hides it so poorly that everyone can see through him; and Books always seems uncomfortable, though you can tell there’s no place he’d rather be than at Amaranthe’s side. It’s a wonderful cast, and reading about them bickering or teasing or performing mundane tasks is half the fun of the series.
One of the things I like most about this series is that each book centers on one of these secondary characters, sharing the Point of View with Amaranthe. In their featured book, we get to see into that character’s thoughts and background in a much more intimate way, elevating them from secondary character to front runner. This has the result of making all of them seem like fully realized main characters, which is no small feat. It’s rare (George R. R. Martin and Stephen King being the only examples that come to mind) that a writer can have so many compelling characters sharing the spotlight without any of them seeming washed out. Characterization is certainly one of Buroker’s great strengths as a writer.

There’s an added bonus to these books–Buroker has started a second series based in the same “world,” 20 years earlier. I’ve only read the first book, Encrypted, which is about Tikaya Komitopis, a cryptographer (and another strong female character) who is sent on a mission to decrypt an alien artifact. This one focuses a bit more on romance, but there’s a fair amount of action and fun in the same vein as the Emperor’s Edge novels. And, a certain young assassin makes an appearance as well. Recently another novella–Enigma–was published in this series, and a sequel to Encrypted is coming soon.
I love it when writers visit their world through different characters and viewpoints because it gives the reader a much more rounded view of the setting. Any story has to concentrate on something “world changing,” otherwise it’s not worth telling–but this can throw a pair of blinders on the reader as they concentrate on the only story being told. When a writer examines the other side of the story, the world suddenly becomes much more real. David Alastair Hayden and J. M. Ney-Grimm are other examples of writers who do this well.

So there you have it. It’s only touching the surface of these wonderful books, but as I said, I hope to revisit them individually here for a more thoughtful review. In the meantime, I hope this serves as a decent overview, enough at least to convince you to check them out if you haven’t already.

You can find Lindsay Buroker at her blog, or on Twitter. Her books are on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords,  and Kobo–and the first book, The Emperor’s Edge, is free!

A Revelation in Reading: the Kobo Arc Experience

When I bought my first Kobo in December 2011, I was wary. Would my eyes get tired reading on a screen? Would it be weird to not have to turn physical pages? What about the weight of the device vs the familiarity of a book balanced in your hand?

The experience on the Kobo Touch was by no means perfect, but my hesitation was allayed immediately. It was a revolution for me–the ability to hold hundreds of books at my fingertips alone was worth the investment. And my concerns were unfounded; my only real gripes with e-reading were that the response on my Touch was sometimes laggy (or crashed completely–eventually causing me to replace the device) and some books are just way too overpriced (pricing a “traditionally published” book at full jacket price is ridiculous compared to $1 Indie books that are just as good–or better).

But some of the same questions came to light when I had to replace my device this weekend. I had a choice between getting another Touch–a device I was overall very pleased with–going with their new Kobo Glo (which seemed much like a Touch with a ‘night light’ feature), and going all for broke with the pseudo-tablet Arc. Which is what I did.
I did an amount of research on all three devices before coming to this decision, and it was only after playing with the Arc after purchase was my choice validated. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the reviews and comments on the Arc are about the tablet features, not the reading experience–but it is, first and foremost, an e-reader. So I thought I’d explore my experience with that today.

If the Kobo Touch was a revelation for me, the Arc is a revelation. It took no more than half an hour for me to decide this was an excellent reader. And yes, a lot of the reason behind that are the tablet features, which I talked about on Monday. But I’m very pleased with using eBooks on the device too, and this is what I’ll be using the Arc for most, voracious reader that I am.

The first–and potentially biggest–plus of this device is that you can access more than just the Kobo Store. Yes, the Touch and other Kobos allow you to sideload books, and even .pdf files–but because the Arc has access to Google Play, you can also download the Kindle and Nook apps. There are a number of Indie authors who use Amazon almost exclusively, including a favourite of mine, Ryan Casey. I used to have to read his books on my computer, which wasn’t as convenient–now I’ve got his books in my library, alongside all the others.
Another great app is Overdrive Media Console, which allows access to many public library systems. I have this on my desktop; with the Touch, I’d have to download a borrowed eBook to my computer and sideload it. With the Arc, I can do everything on the device–and I have access to audiobooks as well. It’s a truly amazing feature, which only gets better as my public library expands its eBook collection.

Reading on a backlit screen was one of my major concerns. The Touch used e-ink technology, and looks about as close to a real book as an electronic gadget can get. The Arc is definitely a computer screen, and this can cause eye strain. But in practice, I haven’t found this to be an issue. I’ve logged more than a dozen hours of use over the last several days, and haven’t had a problem. Part of the solution was the option to change the page colour to sepia–this is a bit easier on the eyes than black text on white. You also have a “night mode,” which is white text on black, but I think this would just be worse. The screen is just fine for reading.

The Touch was compatible with ePub files, and could also read /mobi and a few others. You could read .pdfs, but it was cumbersome; you had to drag the image across the screen to zoom/pan and change the page, and the responsiveness of that screen wasn’t too hot. And of course, it was all in greyscale.
The Arc, being a colour device, has a definate advantage. Pdfs look just like they would on a computer screen, and the Arc’s screen in particular is very sharp. Images and colours really pop. Kobo says the Arc can’t read pdf’s natively, but I don’t remember downloading a pdf reader, and I’ve been reading them since I got it. This is a feature I can see myself using a lot.

On top of pdfs, the Arc has access to Comic readers in the Google Play Store. I’m not a huge comic fan, but I like certain titles–Conan and Star Trek among them. The Touch would read these if prodded, but again, it wasn’t a great experience–the Arc on the other hand was made for this kind of thing. Images are crisp and vibrant, and scrolling is a breeze. Many different apps have different features too, so the mileage you get from this will depend on what you use.

Now the downside.

My absolute favourite feature on the Touch was the option to create a “Shortlist” of titles. I used this to line up all the books I wanted to read next, and I got into the habit of reading two or sometimes three books at a time, depending on the mood I was in. The Shortlist made it easy to switch form my “tired and want to escape” fantasy titles to the more “I wanna learn something” non-fiction choices.
The Arc doesn’t have this feature, and to be honest, that almost made me considering the Glo. If not for the Arc’s other features, I would have gone that way for this feature alone. But, although there’s no Shortlist, the Arc has a similar feature: Tapestries. Check out Monday’s post for a discussion about that; in short, it’s essentially an interactive folder. I made a new one, called it Shortlist, and filled it with my next read books. Problem solved. What’s better is that I can add as many Tapestries as I want–I have another in which I’ve collected all my Indie books for quick reference.

Another downer is the Discovery Bar. I was actually looking forward to this feature; the Touch had something similar, but because the internet was spotty at best, I didn’t use it much. On the Arc, it actually works.
The Discover Bar basically gives you reccomendations for new things to read or webpages to explore, based on what you use with your device. It’s a great idea, albeit one with an obvious commercial aim. But I love finding books I never otherwise would have, and this feature is great for that. Sadly, it’s not always accurate; I’ve marked several items as “not interested” multiple times, and they keep popping up–and for some reason, the Arc thinks I’m crazy about romance novels (clarification: I’m not. At all). Kobo says this feature needs to be used for a week or so to properly report your interests, so I’ll give it a chance–but so far, I’m not too impressed.

The final negative is the battery. My Touch could go on average three weeks without a charge–the Arc requires a full charge every day. If I time it well enough (i.e. overnight) it’s not a big deal–and with the colour screen and multiple uses, it’s not a surprise. It is, after all, almost as much a tablet as the Galaxy Tab or Nexus. Still, it’s a glaring change, and one that will take some time getting used to. Fortunately I’ve taken to using it as a calendar and music player at work, so I can plug it in all day as it sits on my desk. Problem solved.

As if it wasn’t apparent, I’m very much a fan of this device. I loved the Kobo Touch and because a dedicated Kobo customer over the past year, and this product only cements that further. If you’re in the market for an e-reader and are thinking about a tablet, you can’t go wrong with the Kobo Arc.

Next Monday, look for my first regular weekly review!

A Different Tapestry: The Kobo Arc

A little over a year ago, I bought myself a Kobo Touch e-reader. I’ve been using it, on average, close to two hours a day since then–it’s easily one of the most useful electronic devices I’ve ever invested in. Which is why it was so disappointing when it crashed last week.

I was sending emails back and forth to Kobo Customer Care for the better part of the week, trying all sorts of tricks to get it working again–but sadly, it had run its course. With the amount of use it’s gotten, I can’t say I’m surprised! Kobo was very helpful, although in the end, nothing could be done–and unfortunately, I had just gone over warranty.

So on Saturday, I decided to bite the bullet and replace my Kobo. While I was at it, I took the opportunity to upgrade to the Kobo Arc. And I couldn’t be more pleased with the choice.

The Kobo Arc, while still primarily an e-reader, is really a tablet with a reading focus. It’s stock Android, but Kobo had given it a custom UI called Tapestries (the irony is not lost on me!). Essentially, these amount to folders in which you can organize your apps and media–in practise, it’s an excellent tool for the Indie Writer.

It works something like Pinterest. You can ‘pin’ almost anything to a Tapestry–apps, webpages, pictures, books, you name it. You can pin something to multiple Tapestries, and even nest them within one another. They appear on your home screen with an image of the last item you used–so for example, if I was just in the Kobo store and go back to the main screen, I’ll see the icon for the store at the front of my Reading Tapestry. The Kobo learns which apps you use most, and pushes them to the top, where they’re easy to find.

But it goes deeper than that. As with all Kobos, you can highlight passages in a book and make annotations. This is a feature I used often on my Touch, as it’s a great help to research. I often found myself comparing annotations; I’d make a note in one book, then open another and compare passages to get a more rounded view of whatever topic I was studying. But it was cumbersome. You needed to close the book you were working on, then open another and sift through the annotations until you found the one you wanted. A lot more convenient than paging through actual books, but still not exactly simple.
So the really awesome bit about the Kobo Arc is that you can pin these highlighted passages. I’ve created a Tapestry called Research which sits in my Reading folder; when I open it, I have all of my annotations in one spot. Each shows as a small snippet of text, and tapping on it opens the book to that page of the book. It couldn’t be easier.

Even better, you can still pin images and other items into that Tapestry–which means I can also pin images from my Pinterest boards. This makes Tapestries a robust feature for writers–I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of how useful this can be.

Because the Arc runs on Android, there are thousands of useful apps you can download, many of which are free. The Arc comes pre-loaded with Pinterest, which I’ve already found useful. It also has Twitter, which will make it easy to follow fellow Indie Writers–and much easier to follow the links they post than using my phone (and, incidentally, I can pin their blog posts or tweets to Tapestries as well). There’s a Goodreads app, and I’ve found a neat RSS reader called Pulse with which I can follow Indie blogs. There’s a score of Memo apps, some of which can be dictated to; Evernote is a popular choice for writers, though I’ve personally never found it useful. I found a few word processors too, though I can’t imagine they’d be useful for the Arc unless I were to get a separate keyboard–at which point I might as well use my computer.
There are also  WordPress and Wikipedia apps, though apparently they’re not compatible with the Arc.

The Arc is also great for browsing the internet. It comes with the stock Android browser and with Chrome–but Firefox is available too. And of course, any pages or images you bring up can be pinned to Tapestries as well. I’m very happy with this feature, as my phone–a Blackberry Torch–shows dismal performance when opening webpages, and I’m not always at a computer when I want to look something up. The Kobo Touch had a browser as well, but it was eternally stuck in Beta, and it was pretty slow. My focus for the Arc isn’t surfing the ‘net, but as a writer’s tool, bringing up webpages for research or shopping for books is going to be dead simple.

And that brings us to the reason I bought this device in the first place–the Reading Experience. We’ll get into details on Wednesday, so stay tuned for that!

And, as promised, I’ll be writing a weekly Indie Review starting next Monday with Lorne Oliver’s Red Island. He’s posted the first chapter on his website, so go give it a look!

A well spent holiday

I have a confession to make.

I had a good ten days off this holiday season, but didn’t write a word.

Oh, I intended to–I figured I’d at least finish off the first draft of my Courts series (which you can read more about on my Books page). It’s my habit to get up a bit earlier than my wife each morning, take the dog out, and do some writing before the day starts–but this holiday, I found myself with different priorities.

Just as the holiday started, one of my favourite indie authors, J. M. Ney-Grimm, released a short story called Perilous Chance. I picked it up right away. I also found a couple books at the library that I’ve been wanting to read for some time–Captain Nemo and Death Warmed Over by Kevin J Anderson. After Christmas, I used a gift certificate to pick up another of his books, Clockwork Angels, which has been on my reading list since the release of the Rush album it was written alongside.

Needless to say, I had a lot of reading material this holiday. I didn’t get any writing done, but I read several books, almost all of them indie. And you know what they say. A writer should always be reading.

So this gave me an idea. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that occasionally (once or twice a month) I offer an Indie Review–a look at a book written and published by an indie author. Since I’ve not been posting over the holiday and got so much reading done, I figured I’d catch up with a special series of reviews this week.

So, over the next four days, keep your eyes open for some great Indie work, featured right here! We’ll start tomorrow with a writer I was introduced to by happy accident after mistyping a title in the Kobo search bar–Leah Cutter.

 

On the shelf or in the Aether?

KoboLogoNot so many years ago, I was at home watching the local breakfast news show on TV, as was my habit then before running off to work. I was watching a segment about the best “tech toys” to pick up for the holidays–and one of them was a new-fangled technology that promised to revolutionize the way people read: electronic ink. Yes, it was one of the early e-readers that was commercially available to a wide market. I chuckled through the segment, saying to myself “that will never work.”

You see, I’ve always been a heavy reader. I can’t remember the last time I left the house without a book or two, and that’s not an exaggeration.I love books; there’s just something about living vicariously through another character or learning about something I didn’t know before that captivates me. But a big part of that experience is holding a physical book–the smell, the turning of pages, watching your bookmark migrate towards the end. Why would anyone give that up?

And so I was strongly seated in the “dead tree” camp, and never thought I’d make the transition to e-books. I’m still not sure what made me want to take the plunge last December when I bought my first e-reader–curiosity, mostly, I suppose, and the fact that my local library had started their e-book program. At any rate, I tried it…and I’ve never looked back.

Oh, I’ll still buy paper books. They’re not something I’ll ever want to rid myself of. But my Kobo is one of the best electronics purchases I’ve ever made–it’s by far the most used piece of electronics in our house. As of today I’ve spent the equivalent of 18 consecutive days reading on my Kobo.

So what made me a convert? For anyone who’s still sitting on the fence as to why you should bother with an e-reader, here’s my top five reasons:

Convenience

Using an e-reader is simple. There are things that annoy me about the Kobo–it used to be terribly slow going back to the home screen before their latest software update, it crashes occasionally–but when I look at what I’m getting out of it in the end, it’s a no brainer. Having the ability to read almost whatever I want, whenever I want is an incredible boon for someone like me. I finished a book last night, and was deciding what one I wanted to start next; usually this would entail spending an hour in the library or going over my To-Read list and seeking out a particular title; with the Kobo my library is diverse enough for any mood I’m in. I have several hundred books at my fingertips–a few million if I turn on my wifi. All of it from my comfortable spot on the couch with a dog in my lap.

It’s also simple to switch between books. I started reading an esoteric text on Kabbalah last night, in researching my Tapestry Project; I wasn’t in the mood, so I switched to Brak the Barbarian. When I finished a story there, I went to a sci-fi tale by Sam Best. My bookmarks in all of them ensure that I’ll never lose my place, even if I don’t get back to it for another few months. So easy.

Price

When I was in University, I was accustomed to spending an arm and a leg for textbooks. Fortunately, I was an English/Theatre major, so most of my texts were books I’d read over and over again, and still have in my library. Still, I spent a lot of money. Now that I’m all grown up, I can’t afford to drop a hundred dollars on books.
Ebooks, though, are cheap. Generally. At the very least, most popular titles are several dollars below the cost of a paperback–and a huge number of titles are priced at $2 or under. You can find almost any book published before 1900 for free, and an increasingly larger group of people are publishing current works for free as well. You don’t have to spend a lot of money for great books, and with the way the self-publishing world is going, I have a feeling that the Big Four are going to start lowering their prices as well. Having a decent sized library can carry an incredibly small cost. This is great news for anyone who loves to read. Of course, the initial investment can vary from $80-500, depending on what kind of e-reader/tablet you buy, but it’s a very worthwhile investment.
On top of all the free ebooks out there, most public libraries have jumped on the bandwagon. This is something that will become even more accessible soon–currently, it costs libraries a ridiculous amount to purchase ebooks, but it’s changing.

Study

When I read, it’s not just fiction. I love to study–anything from quantum mechanics to religious texts to history books. Some of my favourite memories at school was hunkering down in the library with dozens of books and doing research all day (and not always because I had a paper to write). Nerdy, yes–but delightful.
With the Kobo, research is incredibly simple. I no longer have to bring a notebook–I can make annotations right in the text from my device. I can highlight passages, bookmark specific pages, and cross reference footnotes. Best of all, I can organize my current research into bookshelves so relevant topics are in the same accessible group–and I can compare versions of a text by going between them in seconds.
One of the best examples of this is my ongoing study of the Tao te Ching. It’s an ancient Chinese spiritual text–but because it’s 2500+ years old, there are many different versions. I have several of them on my Kobo (most of them were free, see above) and can go from version to version to study each verse. Looking at other people’s interpretations of a text is the best way to draw your own conclusions. Now, if i could only link the annotations from one version to the others…

Portability

I said it before, and I’ll say it again: I have several hundred books at my fingertips. All in one little device that weighs less than a pound. It’s not even close to full–and if I were to add an optional mini SD card, I could pack it with another couple dozen gigabytes of storage. An ebook is generally a few hundred kilobytes at the most–you can do the math. For a bibilophile like me, it’s a dream come true.
E-readers are also getting smaller, to an extent. Mine doesn’t fit into a pocket, though it’s just larger than a typical paperback. It’s the right size for me, and it’s easy to take with me anywhere I go. I take public transit a lot, so it’s wonderful to be able to have all of my books in one place. When I travel, I don’t have to agonize over which books I’m going to bring, or how many can fit into my suitcase (I once had to unpack in the middle of an airport because I had so many books that my luggage was over the weight limit). If someone had told me ten years ago that this was possible, I’d have thought they were crazy. Now I don’t want to be without an e-reader.

Discoverability

This is the biggest one for me. One of the cool features of the Kobo–and I’m sure many other readers as well–is that it suggests titles for me based on my reading habits. Really, it’s similar to the Amazon “you might also like” widget. Some people find it annoying, but I think it’s great–I’ve come across so many books I never would have found if not for this feature. If you haven’t guessed, I’m that guy who goes to the bookstore or library for a particular title, and spends two hours browsing the stacks because one thing leads to another. This kind of algorithm is right up my alley.
But the best part of this is that I’ve been introduced to this incredible community of indie writers. If I hadn’t bought a Kobo, I never would have found out about the great writers who are working outside the ‘traditional’ system–and I never would have bothered to step into that world myself. And while there are those out there who are still skeptical of so called self-published authors–the stigma is wearing away, but there’s still a hint for some people–the quality of writing really is amazing. Some of my now favourite books are coming from indie authors, and I’m starting to follow them like I used to follow Stephen King or Michael Crichton. The best part is, not only is the quality excellent, the authors are accessible. They want to interact with their readers, and encourage them to join their community. I’ve never sent an email to Stephen King, and wouldn’t expect a resonse if I did–but I’m in regular correspondence with some of my favourite indie authors. How is that not a great thing?

Well. There’s my rant. I promise I’m not on the Kobo payroll! But if you’re looking for a gift this holiday season, consider giving someone an e-reader. I’ve always thought that a book is one of the best gifts one can give, because it’s a sharing of knowledge and imagination that goes far beyond a simple tangible thing. What better way to top that than with a device that facilitates the wondrous adventure of reading?

Last Minute Changes

The Astrologers

Update: It appears that something has gone amiss with either the uploading of the file or the conversion process Kobo puts the book through; when you turn the page all you see is the cover. The file debugged fine, but still isn’t working, so I’m de-listing it until we can fix the issue.

So we’re just over a week away from the release of my first official eBook–save the date on October 23, where you’ll be able to pick it up at the Kobo store and Amazon. I’m working on putting it through Smashwords as well, but that may take a bit longer–they have a different submission process, which we’ll talk about soon.

But! There’s been a slight change in plans.

A friend pointed out that the four stories I intended to put into the collection–one fantasy and three horror/weird fiction–don’t fit together thematically. I’d thought it wouldn’t matter, seeing as The Astrologers (my fantasy tale) would be offered separately anyway as a freebie. But her point was that it muddles the branding, which is a very important thing to consider when making a first impression on a reader.

It reminded me of an article I read recently about JK Rowling, and the release of her most recent book, The Casual Vacancy. The post on MarsDorian.com talked about the unfortunate mistake in branding; people bought it expecting more of the same YA fantasy fun–but got a raunchy book filled with sex, drugs, and profanity. It’s all very well and good for a writer to branch out, says Dorian, but Rowling’s foundation as a YA author was so solid that young people are buying the book without even reading the dust jacket.

Which is all besides the point for me. The point is, selling a fantasy story alongside a few horror stories doesn’t really make sense. So I’m going in another direction.

The Astrologers will be released as early as tomorrow, and will remain a stand-alone short story. Instead of offering the horror stories alongside it, I’ve included a preview of Court of Sand, the first release of my upcoming Tapestry series–which takes place in the same world as The Astrologers, albeit a few centuries earlier. That makes a lot more sense.

(Update: There was apparently a mix-up at the Kobo Store; although I set the release date for October 16, it came out this morning. There’s no sense in taking it down, so you can get it here. Did I mention it’s free?)

But I’m not ditching the other stories!

The Ancestor and Other Stories will be released on October 23, as planned, for $1.99. This is a collection of three stories from the same genre, which makes it more cohesive. I still want to be writing in the horror/weird genre, but separating them from the fantasy books at least allows readers the choice between them, if they don’t like one or the other. Call it diversifying the product.

You’ve heard all about The Astrologers by now, perhaps even read the first draft on this blog. Over the course of this week, we’ll take a look at the stories in The Ancestor in anticipation of the release.

Finally, you may ask: what about the promise of a free copy of The Astrologers and Other Stories if you sign up for my Community List before October 23? You’ll still get them, but they’ll be two separate eBooks. Plus, you’ll receive the complete first draft of Court of Sand as an added bonus within the next couple weeks! But the offer will only last until the official release, so sign up now!

(Since the release of The Astrologers happened a bit earlier than anticipated, those of you who signed up for the list will receive their copy sometime within the next 24 hours).

Formatting eBooks–for Newbs

Last time, we spoke about the very basics of doing a book cover–today, another integral piece of the puzzle, formatting!

Before I got into e-publishing, I thought I knew what publishers wanted when you submit your manuscript. There are certain protocols you’re supposed to follow–name in the upper left corner, word count in the upper right, etc. The purpose of this is for the agent or publisher to have a quick reference, and for the editor to be able to easily get around your work. In e-publishing, though, the writer is filling most of those roles, so the game is completely different.

So why not just write the book in MS Word the way you want it to look, upload it to Kobo or Amazon, and press publish?

If you do that, I’ll guarantee you one thing: the end product will look horrible.

The thing is, a lot of the formatting in MS Word–or other word processors for that matter–is done in the background, where you can’t see it. Here’s an experiment: go to the View tab,

Word Formatting Marks

Formatting Marks: note there are even dots to indicate the space between words.

and find the option that shows your formatting marks. (In Word, go to Options, Display, and Show All Formatting Marks.) Your manuscript will be riddled with symbols; this is coding Word inputs into your file as you’re writing to determine what the output will look like. What many people don’t realize is that Word is not a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get program. Far from it!

Here’s another experiment. Copy a paragraph of your manuscript, open a blank file in Notepad, and paste it. The text should go, unbroken, on one line, and you’ll have to scroll to the right to see it all. This is because .txt files, unlike files from word processors, don’t have “Word Wrap,” meaning that the text will go on forever until a new paragraph is started. Looks hard to read, right? Surely we want our manuscripts to “wrap” when we format them for eBooks, right?

Actually, no. The thing is, there’s no standard for electronic books. Many–I’d even say most–go with the ePub format, while others–like the ubiquitous Amazon Kindle books–are .mobi files. There are several other formats; the point is, they’re all programmed differently. So when you upload a particular file to, say, Kobo, it might look vastly different when Amazon gets a hold of it. The difference comes in how those files interact with the formatting marks I mentioned earlier.

I haven’t experimented with every kind of file, so I can’t tell you yet which works best–what I can say is that, for the sake of your own sanity, the easiest thing to do is start with a raw file. I do a lot of my writing in MS Word through Google Docs–because it’s accessible anywhere, even on my phone–and copy and paste the text into Scrivener. Scrivener can output into several file types, including Real Text Format (rtf) or the MS Word .doc. Of, you can export it as a text file. This is the raw text–no formatting at all.

What I’ve been doing is exporting as a text file, then opening up a program called Sigil, a WYSIWYG editor (unlike Word!). Sigilis basically an HTML editor, meaning you’ll be coding in the same way you would a web page–or an eBook. It’s really simple to use, and you don’t need any experience with HTML. Just copy and paste your work, create headings (which will create a table of contents for you), and images if you have them, italicize and bold your text if need be. That’s it! There’s a handy tutorial here, and the whole process isn’t very long or arduous (though poetry is another story–it took a while to get Muzak for the Metro to look right).

It might even be simpler, though. I haven’t tried it yet, but I imagine you could output your Scrivener files as an eBook, which would open in Sigil. This way, you do most of your formatting as you work in Scrivener, and use Sigil for touch-ups.

Once that’s done, you use Calibre to tweak things like metadata and making sure everything is “just so.” But that’s a topic for another post.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to eBook formatting, but it’s a start, and it’s a lot easier than some might lead you to believe. If you want to check out a sample of just how this turns out, you can go to Amazon to find the eBook I created with this process (including a cover) this weekend, Muzak for the Metro. It’s only $0.99, and it includes a poem that wasn’t in the original collection–plus an excerpt from “Room With a Corpse,” a short story which will appear in my forthcoming collection The Astrologers and Other Stories. Check it out!

Publishing through Kobo, Step by Step

Visit the Kobo Writing Life site by clicking on the pic.

Yesterday, I talked about my first e-publishing experience. Today, I thought I’d walk you through it.

For my first venture into e-publishing, I’m going with Kobo Writing Life. I’m Canadian and Kobo the primary source for buying eBooks up here, and because I own a Kobo myself it seemed a natural first step. Kobo also has agreements to distribute your work to several different eBook sellers which—while it doesn’t yet include Amazon or iBooks—is growing quickly. Finally, Kobo also doesn’t hold you to rights, meaning I can upload the book to an aggregator and get it into other major retailers anyway.

Step One:

Do your research. You can find the FAQ here, and there’s a helpful User Guide once you sign up. Also, be sure to go over the Terms and Conditions. Know what you’re getting into; lots of people use this service and it’s in Kobo’s best interest to work to your best interest, but if you don’t know all the details you could get caught by surprise.

(I’ve gone through the T&C, and they’re solid–still, read them. For a horror story on why you should read Terms and Conditions as a writer, visit this link. They don’t have anything to do with Kobo, which is a fair and honest service!)

 Step Two: Rights.

Kobo requires that you own the digital rights to your work, but doesn’t claim rights to it. This means that they will let you distribute the book on your own, without their interference (as opposed to, say, Amazon KDP, which requires you sell only through them), as long as you own the rights. If it’s something you wrote yourself, you won the rights automatically, and it’s copyrighted. If it’s a book someone else wrote, you’ll want to make sure you get the rights…but we’re writers here, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

Step Three: Your account.

Enter your contact information. One thing that caught me is the optional field for your Publisher name. Kobo encourages this if you’re an individual doing business under a different name, i.e. a publishing house. I’m not sure this is strictly necessary, but I imagine it would come in handy if you’re uploading books for which you own the rights, but haven’t written yourself; for example, there’s a (look up that company that does copyright fee books). I put my Publisher Name as Eloquent Eyes Books, a spin on the title of this blog.

Here is where you need to accept the Terms and Conditions, which, of course, is a requirement of signing up. If you don’t agree to the terms, you’ll need to go somewhere else. Now, we’re all guilty of just glossing over T&C forms in our haste to just install the software or whatever, but–at the risk of repeating myself–in this case you really need to familiarize yourself with them. You wouldn’t want to get your account suspended because you went against them, or find yourself in breach of contract somewhere. I would add some pertinent notes from the conditions, but one of the conditions is that I don’t publicly share them without their consent. So if you’re interested, check them out by signing up!

 Step Four: Payment Details.

Once you verify your email address, you’ll be asked to set up payment details. Go to Your Account, and a drop down menu will show you where you need to go. From here you can enter your banking information. Kobo pays you royalties on every book sold, depending on the price—if you fall between a certain price range and conditions, you’ll get 70% royalties; if it’s outside that range you get 25%. You’ll get paid by direct fund transfer into the account your specify about once an month-though Kobo will hold your payment if it’s less than $100 a month, in which case you’ll receive it at the end of six months. Kobo also notes that it may take as long as 45 days to receive payments, though I’m not sure why this is.

Step Five: Publish Your Book.

This is the fun part, and Kobo makes it painless. There’s a link that says “Create new ebook;” clicking on that will start you on a four step process. First you describe your book by adding a title, subtitle, and series name if applicable; writing a synopsis that will appear in the store; and giving your eISBN number. Purchasing an ISBN is the subject of another article–but note that if you’re a resident of Canada, you can get one for free through the government. You also put your book into a number of categories, which will help buyers find it by browsing through the store. Finally, you can add a cover–we’ll go over that in more detail in another post, but you’re basically just uploading a .jpeg that will show as the book cover in the store.

Next you upload the book–Kobo accepts a number of formats, and if you don’t upload it in an .epub file, they’ll convert it for you.Then you set the rights; you have the option to allow the sale of the book in other countries (though I don’t see why you’d restrict that), and whether or not you want DRM protection.

Finally, setting the price. Again, that’s a topic for another article; suffice it to say that you can set whatever you like, and Kobo will automatically convert currencies for you for sale in different countries. Or, you can set each country’s sale price individually–though again, I’m not sure why you’d want to. Note that the royalties you receive differ depending on the price you set–for example, if it’s less than $1.99 or more than $12.99 you only get 45% royalties; otherwise you get 70%.

*Also note that, for a limited time (until the end of November), Kobo is offering a bonus incentive: 80% royalties on all books within the range noted above.

And that’s it. Nice and simple–even as a guy who’s completely new to this e-publishing thing, I had no issues. I’ve also found the Kobo staff to be extremely helpful, and quick to answer questions via email. The only real negative I can give is that they don’t publish your book to Amazon, B&N, or iBooks–but really, they’re not an aggregator, and that would be outside the scope of their business, so you can’t fault them for it. They do put your book out internationally, so there’s still a lot of exposure–and there’s nothing preventing you from also uploading your book to Smashwords or LuLu.

So there we are! Next up, we’re back to my current project. I’m in the midst of professional editing now, so I want to take the next few articles to talk about that process. Stay tuned!

Publishing on Kobo Books

Available at Kobo Books!

Now that I’m well on my way to publishing my first eBook, I decided to give myself a “dry run” through the e-publishing process. I’d hate for my first professional release to be fraught with issues as I learn how to do this, so I thought I’d put together a small collection of poems, work up a cover, and upload it, just to see how it’s done. You can find this attempt–Muzak for the Metro–at Kobo Books.

This is a bare bones release, and certainly isn’t perfect–which is why it’s free–but it served its purpose of walking me through the process. I found it to be a simple and painless operation, though it highlighted some areas I’ll have to learn more about.

Tomorrow I’ll take a more detailed look at the process, but for now, I’ll note two things:

I did this cover myself, just for the sake of having something besides a blank image to put in the store. It’s a photo I took in Paris several years ago, cut to size and doctored up in Paint.net. It was dead easy–but this isn’t the way to get a cover for your book. I admit it’s not great quality, but being a test of sorts, it’s not supposed to be. My upcoming collection will be a more professional job, which is important–despite the cliche to the contrary, many people will judge your book by the cover, so it should be a good one!

The second issue I had was with formatting the eBook. I used Scrivener to create the .epub file, and although it showed fine in Calibre, once I uploaded it to Kobo the line spacing changed. In Adobe Digital Editions, there are no line breaks at all except for between poems; on my Kobo device, there seem to be extra spaces and line breaks in random places. I think the issue has to do with the fact that it’s poetry, and so has abnormal spacing anyway; but I’ll obviously need to learn more about formatting.

Edit: I’ve read on other blogs that this formatting issue isn’t unique, and in fact is relatively common. One suggested solution is to upload the book in a .doc file, instead of an ePub.

So there we are: my first published work. I’m not really counting this, of course–in fact, I intend to take it down in a day or so, because I don’t want this example to seem indicative of my work. But all in all, I think it was a worthwhile experiment, and ‘m glad I cut my teeth on this, rather than fumbling through something I plan to sell.

You can find it at the Kobo store for a day or two, so check it out!