Thursday, April 21, 2011

Book Review - Foundation

It has been 60 years since this book was first published in novel form in 1951.  It has been 45 years since this series (the original Foundation Trilogy) won the Hugo award for "Best All-Time Series" in 1966, beating Lord of the Rings.  Whether Tolkien should have won is another story, but the fact that it's debatable should say something about the regard in which the series is held.

It has also been 25 years since I first read this book in 1986.  It seemed like a good time for a re-read.  I still have my original Del Rey copy from 1986.

Another of Asimov's books, The Stars, Like Dust, got me interested in reading science fiction.  The Foundation series cemented that interest for the past 25 years.  I was rather anxious to see if I felt it held up over time.

The novel is set far into the future, as a galactic-wide empire, which has ranged for 12,000 years is on the verge of collapse.  Predicting both the fall of the galactic empire and to prevent a possible dark age lasting 30,000 years, psychohistorian Hari Seldon, created two Foundations on opposite sides of the galaxy.  This book covers the next 155 years after their creation.

If you're looking for continuity of characters in this novel, you won't find it.  In fact, it's not even really fair to call it a true novel.  It's more like several short stories and novellas that occur in this same universe, arranged chronologically.  Given that it was originally a series of shorts published during World War 2, this shouldn't be too surprising.  The ideas are still very fascinating, though, despite the age.  I remember being enthralled with the idea of psychohistory, using complex mathematical models to predict sociological change on a massive scale.  Today with the prevalence of data mining in a number of fields, it's not looking so foreign.  Companies like Amazon using statistical models to try and predict what's going to sell at what price points, and what you might like.  Google mining you for data to try and find what ads would be the most appealing to you.  And where would politics be without statisticians and pollsters trying to guess the vagaries of direction of public opinion politics at any given moment.

There are a few drawbacks, however.  In describing some of the technologies, the series does show it's age. Also, Asimov's role of women was hopelessly stuck in the 40's.  Something my 12 year old brain didn't really pick up on during my first reading.

Still, this was a classic book.  I would consider it a must-read for anyone that considers themselves a true science fiction fan.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Book Review - Discovery of Witches

I wanted to like this book. I really did. Unfortunately slogging through this one was a chore. If it wasn't the book of the month for my book club, I wouldn't have bothered finishing. Where to begin? 

What I liked about the book. 

The author clearly knows her history. 
The author is obviously well versed in scientific history and it shows through in her work. 
The writing itself is well done. 
The story and pacing started to pick up a lot at the end. 
The parts that had nothing to do with the romance were at times extremely intriguing. 

What I didn't like about the book. 

The parallels between this book and a certain other book were too similar. It seemed almost derivative because of those similarities. 
Female lead: You're handsome 
Male lead: Your scent drives me insane. 
Female lead: I want to be with you. 
Male lead: I'm dangerous. I could hurt you. 
Female lead: But I love you Edward Matthew. 
Male lead: I love you too. Now everyone must risk their lives and put everything in jeopardy because of our extra-special love. 
Female lead: I might have the first vampire baby. 

Honestly, although some of the plot devices differed, and the story was much better written, too much of it was similar for my tastes. 

Oh, and did I forget to mention that every single historical figure in history was a supernatural "creature". Part of the allure of the great figures, is they were human, just like us. By removing their humanity, the author is saying that you aren't going to amount to a hill of beans, because obviously if you're great, you must be supernatural. 

The two main characters, BellaDiana and EdwardMatthew were just awful. With Diana, I started out liking her in the beginning and by the end, I just couldn't bring myself to care. First of all, the characters are too perfect. 

You have Diana, who obviously is going to be the most powerful witch in the universe. She's fit, she's athletic, she's a scholar. Everyone (including herself) keeps saying how brave and independent she is, and by the end of the book, she's just doing whatever Matthew says. For all the talk of feminism, all the decision making ends up being made by the men. 

Matthew, the 1500 year old vampire is even worse. Naturally he has the body of Adonis. He's strong and brave and protective. He has multiple doctorates. In fact, he is a doctor, in the MD sense. He's a huge wine connoisseur, a great cook, has multiple estates all over the world. He's French. He's a fellow at Oxford (and honestly all the Oxford-worship got a little old as well). He runs a genetics lab. Has his own private jet. And helicopters. Everyone fears and worships him. He is The Most Interesting Man in the World. (with apologies to Dos Equis) 

And of course, despite having an empire to run, science to research, etc., he has to devote all his time to giving Diana foot massages, taking her to yoga, and generally making sure she gets fed and tucked into bed. (No, I'm not kidding.) 

I keep wondering if the author realizes that not only does an audience not relate to perfect characters, perfect characters are never well liked. Something high school should have taught her, as it did for the rest of us. 

And of course one of my favorite quotes, "I've seen courage like yours before - from women, mostly... Men don't have it... It's merely bravado." Seriously? A man said that? And are we really taking gender relations back to the "I'm better than you" stage? This was one of the many places I had to put the book down and just step away. (Along with all the cringe-worthy Twilight similarities.) 

Pacing left a lot to be desired. At nearly 800 pages, I thought Justin Cronin could have trimmed a good 100-150 pages. At nearly 600 pages, I thought this book needed about 200 pages trimmed. The first 150 pages were just excruciating. It started out fine, and then 150 pages of rowing, what I'm wearing, what I'm eating, yoga, look at manuscripts that aren't pertaining to the story, "My, isn't Matthew dreamy?". Rinse and repeat. The book did finally pick up at the end though. 

Despite my dislike of it, I'm sure that this book will sell a billion copies. It's really too bad. The plot devices of the witches and especially alchemy were really quite fascinating, and could have lent to a very original story, instead of just another (albeit well-written) me-too. 

I'd give it a (very generous) 2 stars out of 5.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The $0.99 and $2.99 ebook.

In my previous blog post I ran a little informal survey of the Amazon's top 100 kindle ebooks.  One of the things I noted was that 41 of the books on the list were priced at $3.00 or less.

It also lines up with what I've been seeing with my own purchase history for my Nook.  I do have a tendency to buy a lot of books priced at $2.99 or less.

A writer friend pointed me in the direction of JA Konrath's blog, where he goes into extraordinary detail about pricing and publishing and royalty rates etc.  One of the points he makes is royalty rates.  The average royalty ebook rate from a publisher is 25% of net.  So on a $12.99 ebook, the retailer will take 30% or roughly $3.90, leaving a net of $9.09 to the publisher.  The author then makes 25% of that or $2.27.  The agent then takes a 15% cut from that, leaving just $1.93 for the author.  (All numbers are from Konrath.  Well except the retailer 30%, that's public knowledge on the whole agency model.)  On Amazon, a self-published author makes 35% if the book is less than $2.99 or 70% if it's priced at $2.99 higher.  On Barnes and Noble, an author makes slightly less, just 65% at the $2.99 price point up to $9.99, and 40% if it's higher or lower than that.  So basically at a $2.99 price point, an author will net $2.09 from the sale.

Which brings us to the staggering conclusion, an author will make more from the sale of a self-published book priced at $2.99 than they will from a publishing house that prices an ebook at $12.99.

What does that mean for me as a reader? Not much.  Most of my book recommendations come from book blogs, goodreads users, friends and family.  I actually find the math interesting, but I mainly peruse Konrath's blog because there's a lot of self-published authors on there and it gives me ideas about new books.

I'm a 36 year old male.  My shelves are mostly full of science books, science fiction, fantasy and urban fantasy books with a healthy dose of classics and the occasional literary fiction book club-type book.  I do have a large amount of science fiction and fantasy books on my nook.  In the $2.99 category, I do have B.V. Larson and Jon  Merz.  The interesting thing is, I also have 3 Amanda Hocking books, 2 JA Konrath books and 1 John Locke book.  Why is that interesting?  When I go to Barnes and Noble, I don't give a second glance to the young adult section, let alone young adult paranormal romances.  I've also seen Konrath's print books and passed them by.  I usually don't read too many thrillers either.  (Sorry Joe if you ever read this).

So what makes the $2.99 price tag special?  It's a complete impulse buy.  It costs more in gas to go to the library to check out a book.  It costs more to drive to the bookstore to browse.  It costs the same amount to have Amazon ship a book to me.  It's significantly less than the price of a value meal at your favorite fast food chain.

I've seen a lot about Amanda Hocking signing a seven figure deal with a major publisher.  I've also read about Barry Eisler turning down a $500,000 deal to self publish.  What does this mean to me as a reader?  Will I be one of the people that goes out and buys Amanda Hocking's books in print at $10 or more? Nope.  Will I buy her ebooks at $7.99, $9.99 or $12.99? Nope.  She was never my primary genre to begin with.  I will probably work my way through her backlist of self-published items at that magical prices of $0.99 and $2.99.  I haven't read Konrath's yet (it's next on my TBR list).  As long as I don't think he's awful, I'll probably work my way through his backlist of cheap titles as well.

So what does this mean for the rest of my book buying habits?  Well I only have a finite amount of money to spend on books.  If the ebook costs as much (or nearly as much) as print, it goes on my to-buy list from the bookstore or Amazon.  The problem is, there's a lot of books on that list now.  I'm more selective about what I buy in print.  But, if I'm bored and browsing titles on my nook, and that $2.99 book catches my eye, it'll probably still get bought.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Thoughts on ebook pricing and an unscientific sampling of data.

After my recent post about boycotting some publishers regarding their ebook policies towards libraries, I ended up in a discussion with a friend about "Big Publishing", "Smaller company publishing" and "Self-publishing".  I know that I now buy more self published and smaller publishing house books than I buy "Big Publishing" books. I never did this before I got my nook.  This got me to thinking about what exactly do Kindle readers buy?  I use Kindle information here, as Barnes and Noble separates out the "self-pubbed" authors from "normal" or what others like to call "legacy" publishers, and I was curious about the intermixing of the two.  I was also curious to see what percentage the "Big 6" publishers sell, as there are 3 publishers I refuse to buy new books from.

So my unscientific survey:
Out of the top 100 ebooks sold on Amazon as of roughly 1230am MST 4/1:

  • 41 were $3.00 or less, 6 were $3.01 to 6.00, 9 were priced at $6.01 - 8.00, 11 were $8.01-10.00, 7 were $10.01 to 12.00 and 26 were priced greater than $12.00.
  • 48 of the titles were from the Big 6 publishers or their imprints, 52 were not. (On the New York Times ebook best seller list, I counted only 8 fiction and 6 non-fiction books that weren't Big 6 out of the 70 titles listed.)
  • 65 had their ebook pricing less than the lowest price of the available print copy on Amazon, 19 had no print copy available, 7 had the same pricing, whether ebook or print, and 9 had ebook pricing higher than print. Of those where ebooks were the same or higher than print, all 16 were from the Big 6.

So what are my hypotheses regarding this informal survey?

  1. If your ebook is priced higher than what Amazon or a big box store can sell a print copy for, you won't sell many copies of your ebooks.
  2. The Big 6 do not have near the market in ebooks that they have in print, right around 50% of the market by volume.
  3. The New York Times is hopelessly out of the loop regarding ebooks (or deliberately ignoring data).
  4. Despite Amazon making a fuss last year about a $9.99 maximum price for ebooks, there is a market for $12.99 ebooks, provided it's still cheaper than what the corresponding hardback sells for on Amazon.
  5. Although there is a market for $12.99 ebooks, it's not a very large market as fully two thirds were priced at 9.99 or less.
  6. There is something almost magical about the $0.99 or $2.99 ebook, which I think I'll save for another blog post.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Very Brief Book Review

What if Flannery O'Connor had said to herself, "Screw it, I'm going to write a zombie novel"?  The result might look something like Alden Bell's, The Reapers are the Angels.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Libraries are wonderful, magical things.

As a kid growing up... I should rephrase.  As an extremely nerdy military brat that moved around constantly, libraries always felt like home.  They were a refuge.  Enlisted military families have never made a lot of money.  My parents always did right by me, but we rarely had the money and toys thrown at us that seem to be commonplace now.  We also didn't have the money to afford all the books that my voracious reading required.  Libraries became a god-send.  I read anything I could get my hands on in the sci-fi section.  Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlen, Herbert, Hubbard.  Starting with the Narnia Series, I eventually branched off into fantasy as well.  First with Tolkien, then the original Dragonlance series, Piers Anthony, David Eddings and finally in high school, Robert Jordan, along with many, many others.  None of this would ever have been possible without libraries.

I recently read a book by Jo Walton, Among Others.  Although for the first 40 or 50 pages, I was afraid I was reading yet-another-teen-diary-novel, I plodded through based on good reviews from others.  It was worth the effort.  The protagonist performs the occasional "magic", leaving the reader wondering if it's really happening, or if it's all in her head, or if any of that really matters.  More importantly though for the topic of this discussion, the book read like an ode to libraries and librarians, with the "diary entries" containing little short reviews of various 60's and 70's scifi books that the protagonist read.  For me, some brought back nostalgia, others had me reaching for my browser to look up the titles on Amazon.  It was a fun time.

Recently though, there's been a rash of articles on the wars that various publishers seem to be waging on libraries and their ability to lend ebooks.  Somehow lending an ebook is drastically different to a publisher.  Selling books to libraries, well it would be impossible to stop, but since ebooks are licensed and not sold, they feel that they're taking away from their sales.  Harper Collins recently put a limit on the number of times a library could "check out" an ebook for lending to 26, based on the average check out time of 14 days.  Basically causing that ebook to self-destruct for the library after, at most, one year of checkouts.  Since checking out a book for a day or only a few hours is not uncommon, often once the reader realizes the book isn't what they want, the actual time they can be checked out goes down even more.  Somehow in the mind of Harper Collins, a year is what they predict all a regular print book will last, a fact many librarians find laughable.  Macmillan and Simon and Schuster don't license their ebooks to libraries at all.

In response, many libraries and librarians are boycotting Harper Collins.  Sadly, I don't think it will work.  They really don't want to sell to libraries.  At best, these publishers probably see libraries as a necessary evil for their print books, and taking away from their sales.  I hate sitting idle and watching bad things happen.  Screwing over libraries just feels bad.  It's like screwing over an orphanage or a soup kitchen.  It's like drowning kittens or using puppies for batting practice.  So in addition to contacting Harper Collins, Macmillan and Simon and Schuster, I've decided to join in with the libraries.  I won't be buying any new books from the various imprints  (there's a lot of them) of Harper Collins, Macmillan and Simon and Schuster.  This includes hardcovers, paperbacks and ebooks.  These publishers won't see another dime from me until their policies have changed.

Am I overreacting? Probably.  Will my actions have any effect on them? Nope.  Just as paperbacks are currently the preferred method of reading now, ebooks are growing in popularity and I still feel will end up replacing paperbacks as the dominant way of reading in the future.  I hate sitting by and watching libraries be unable to lend books.  I have to do something, even if I'm just chasing windmills.

Oh, and Jo Walton's book, Among Others, the one I felt was an ode to libraries and librarians? It's a Tor book.  A Macmillan imprint.  You can't check her ebook out from your library.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

My Nook Color

So, I finally broke down this past Christmas, and bought a Nook Color.  At the time I bought it, I wasn't sure if I was even going to make the plunge with an ereader this year.  Anyone that's ever been to my house (or had the misfortune of helping me move), knows that I love books.  I never throw books out.  I've occasionally traded in books for other books at used bookstores, but most of the time I just keep them.  I am definitely not afraid of books.

I had begun to read a few of the free books out there on my Nexus, my little android phone. By the end of the year I had read about ten or twelve books on my phone.  The phone, however is certainly less than ideal to read on.  The screen is tiny.  The battery life is atrocious when running that bright screen that long.  To make fonts big enough to see I was having to turn "pages" every second or so.  So, I decided to look into ereaders.  So why did I get the nook color, and not one of the other ereaders?  Well, being the slightly obsessive person I am, I actually looked into a few different readers.  The Kobo, the Sony's, the Kindle, the iPad, the Nook and the Nook Color.

The Kobo.
Kind of like the bastard step-child.  What did I like about the kobo? I liked the price.  I liked that I could load library ebooks onto it.  That was about it.  The screen seemed to load slower than either kindle or the nook.  The older eink screen couldn't compare to the Sony's or the Kindle.  There was no way of taking notes on it.  Kind of blah at best.

The Sony's.
These were actually pretty.  I loved the "pearl" e-ink screens.  The only eink screens that could hold a candle to the kindle.  I liked that you could do the library thing on it.  I liked that you could load other purchased books onto it.  I loved having a touchscreen since I was so used to it from using android.  The web browser was pathetic.  It was pretty easy to read on, though.  The price was pretty high compared to other offerings.  I didn't like that Sony seemed to have a smaller collection than Barnes and Noble, let alone Amazon.

The Kindle.
I loved reading on the kindle.  I loved the huge selection of ebooks available from Amazon.  I loved how fast the pages loaded.  I liked being able to type out notes.  Amazon has the best selection of ebooks hands down.  I didn't like being stuck with just Amazon though.  I didn't like the lack of epub support or the ability to get library books easily on it (blah blah, without circumventing DRM, etc.). I also liked the read-to-me feature. As an ereader, it was my second choice.  However, as much as I really like Amazon, I don't really want to be married to them.

The iPad.
I actually went and played with the iPads for a while.  I did like the ability to have color on occasion.  I did like being able to use it for things other than reading books.  I didn't care for the screen.  Even though the screens on the nook color and the iPad are similar (both IPS screens), the nook did a much better job at viewing angles, and the pixel density is much higher on the nook color (iPad at 1024x768 on 10.1 inches and the Nook color at 1024x600 on 7 inches).  I seriously did not like the price tag.  I'm also really no fan of Apple's Big Brother ways lately.  I did like that you could have multiple reader programs on the iPad.  How long those stay on the iPad is anyone's guess.  Apple is starting to turn into an evil little company.  And as it turns out, I'm not even sure how much longer the nook and kindle apps are going to stay on the ipad.

The Nook.
Referring here to the black and white version.  I'm sorry, but I had a hard time reading on this one, like I did on the Kobo.  The black and white eink screen was an older version, so was harder to read the sony's or the kindle, it was a bit slower than either of them as well.  I did like being able to shop at barnes and noble, read in-store, check out library books, sideload books from other companies (Sony, Kobo, Google, etc.).  The only ones it wouldn't do were Amazon's.

The Nook Color.
I loved the viewing angles on it.  I liked having color.  I liked having a touch screen.  The price, though more than the kindle or regular nook, wasn't outrageous like an iPad.  It was eminently hackable.  It was easy to read on.  I could stream Pandora on it.  Like the nook, I liked that I had choices with it.  In the end, this is the one I chose, and I'm pretty happy with my decision.

As to normal objections to the nook color:
"You're locked into Barnes and Noble."  Not really.  I can load pretty much any ebook out there onto it.  The notable exception is Amazon's kindle books, but even that is easily possible if you hack it.

"Barnes and Noble doesn't have as many books as Amazon".  True.  But that gap is narrowing.  Also, as above, it's easily hackable.

"The screen is harder on your eyes than a Kindle/Nook/eink reader."  I still have never found that to be the case with my eyes.  After eight hours of reading my eyes feel pretty much shot, whether it's a hardcover, paperback or my nook.  I don't really notice any difference.  That, and the screen is amazing.  You should really try one out sometime.

"It's not as big as an iPad".  This is true.  However, I prefer the reading size of the kindles and nooks and nook colors over the iPad.  The iPad always felt unwieldy for reading books.

"It's not an Apple product!"  Go away, fanboi.  I'm not going to buy something just because it has a logo printed on it.

"You can't read it in direct sunlight."  I'm Irish.  I burn to a crisp in direct sunlight.  Reading while tanning myself has never been a consideration.  Like my phone, I can read it for the most part outside.  Just max the brightness.  Frankly, I'd rather that I have that nice little backlight that everyone complains about, because I'm more often reading in a dimly lit room, or reading in the dark waiting to fall asleep.  No need for a book light.

"The battery life isn't as good as the kindle".  This is true.  And it was a consideration.  However, with reading just an hour or 90 minutes a day, it's good for several days.  If I read until the battery dies, my eyes are completely and totally shot by that point anyways.  And having my android phone (and using it near-constantly), has me putting devices on the charger overnight more.  I don't frequently take transatlantic flights so not sure how one would fare on a transatlantic flight and don't really care either.