Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

Publishing links roundup #1

The publishing world is always full of new and interesting announcements. Here are some articles that have caught my eye recently:

Update, 11:30 AM: The CBC has just announced its longlist for this year’s Canada Reads competition.

This year the gimmick is a “turf war” between the various regions of Canada – what are the best books originating from each of 5 regions (BC & the Yukon, the Prairies & North, Ontario, Quebec, the Atlantic), and which region’s book will be the ultimate winner?

Here are a few thing’s I’ve noticed about this year’s selection:

  • Although the Quebec longlist contains The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (a crime/detective novel), I don’t any other genre books in the running – just staid, “serious” books from the CanLit monolith. If I’m wrong, let me know in the comments.
  • The Ontario longlist incudes books by Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, and Michael Ondaatje, 2 of which I had to read in high school. How adventurous!
  • The Quebec longlist contains only 3 novels originally published in French. Fittingly, one of the English novels on Quebec’s longlist is Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes.
So, what are your thoughts on this year’s crop of Canada Reads selections?

Emily White, Music Piracy, and Bookstores: Some Thoughts

Two nights ago, I spent the evening at the Scarborough Town Centre with my fiancé. As we walked back from the movie theatre after buying our tickets for Brave, I noticed for the first time that the HMV store had closed. Dark shutters were drawn over the windows and the door was locked. I was sad at first, but when we walked further into the mall we noticed that the HMV sign was visible on a new storefront.

As we got closer and closer to the new store, I grew worried. The HMV had taken over the location of Cole’s, the mall’s sole dedicated bookstore. As we walked inside, the smell of fresh paint was inescapable. The carpets were spotless. The place was brand sparkling new – so new, in fact, that there were still people on ladders in the middle of the store dealing with wiring in the ceiling. When I asked an employee when the new location opened, their answer was startling: only a few hours ago.

The old HMV store had a huge entrance with large display windows, and was nestled between the food court, the Old Navy store, and the theatre. In other words, it was large, visible, and in a prime retail location on the main floor. Now, the new location is on the lower floor far away from the main entrance. A store with a smaller square footage in a less visible location means lower rent. With this in mind, isn’t it telling that one chain store having to come to grips with the digitization of entertainment was ousted by another chain store dealing with the same issues – and the store that lost out wasn’t the one that sells music, but books?

Standing in the HMV and realizing the comment it made about the viability of being a bookseller placed some other things in a weird context. At once, I thought of the rumours about the closure of the World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto (the store’s parent company, Indigo, also owns Cole’s). However, I also thought of the online discussion that erupted in the wake of NPR intern Emily White’s admission that she’s engaged in extensive music piracy, particularly David Lowery’s measured response.

The concerns about how piracy affects the music industry are similar to those from the publishing industry. Should readers and listeners just expect free online access to something that cost money to produce? I admit that I’ve downloaded my fair share of pirated music, but for at least a year, I’ve bought almost all my music through venues like iTunes or Zunior. I’m also proud to say that every single eBook I have was obtained through legitimate means, whether that meant a purchase from an online eBook distributor like Kobo or Smashwords, or a purchase directly from a publisher, or a visit to Project Gutenberg.

Emily White’s admission of how little she’s paid for her music collection should paint a troubling picture for the publishing industry. How many eBook readers could make the same claim as hers, that their libraries consist almost solely of pirated material? And how many of them would be willing to pay the authors who worked so hard to get their books made in the first case? I bet the number of people in the former situation will vastly outnumber those in the latter.

Perhaps the saddest thing about the closure of the Cole’s store was that I didn’t even notice until after it was gone. The customer service desk at the mall said that the store closed down on April 7th – over 2 1/2 months ago – and that it was unknown if a new branch of Cole’s would be built. For 2 1/2 months, I didn’t notice. And if even dedicated book buyers like me don’t notice the disintegration of Canada’s largest bookstore chain, will our crows eventually come home to roost? Will we be just like the village described in David Lowery’s article, where we’ve been sold on the idea of “free content” without realizing how thoroughly the costs of the system we’re using have been externalized, and how our actions benefit those who control technology, instead of those who create art?

Attending the Editors’ Association of Canada conference in Ottawa

It appears that when I watch a movie three times in the theatre, it causes me to drop off the face of the earth for nearly a month. But don’t worry – I have been productive during my absence.

A week ago I attended the annual conference for the Editors’ Association of Canada. The last time I went was two years ago in 2010, when it was hosted in Montreal. This year, it was in Ottawa.

My reaction to it this year was similar to when I was in Montreal: the conference was exciting and informative, but also overwhelming. There were so many sessions to attend, people to talk to, and things to write down that I’m surprised my hand didn’t cramp up from all the note-taking and live-tweeting I did. These were the sessions I attended this year, in order:

Day 1 – June 2nd, 2012

Adult Literacy: Why it Should Mattter to You (presented by Mary Wiggin)
This seminar focused on what we mean when we talk about literacy, and the challenges that adults with literacy problems face. Much of the advice in the final portion of the seminar about editing text to address literacy problems – using short sentences, removing jargon, using the active voice, and so forth – was already familiar to me. More interesting was the discussion of the various types of literacy that exist, the various definitions of literacy, and the statistics regarding functional literacy in Canada.

Editing eBooks (presented by Greg Ioannou)
This seminar focused on the basics of eBooks – their history, the different types of formats they come in, and so forth – and how a publisher produces an eBook. I hoped it would guide us step-by-step through the process of creating an eBook. Instead, there were some general tips about how to properly format things like punctuation (open em-dashes!) and columns (don’t even try!). This was still useful, but I was really looking forward to a hands-on demonstration.

Creating a Professional Development Revenue Stream (presented by Emily Dockrill Jones)
This seminar attracted a very large audience. However, the title didn’t match up completely with the subject matter. I thought that it would talk about how to build a business through providing professional development services to others. Instead, it focused on how to be a good, engaging presenter when running a PD program. Despite the mismatch between title and content, the information within was useful and applicable to many fields.

Day 2 – June 3rd, 2012

The Great Text-Talk Debate (with Ian Capstick and James Harbeck)
Ian Capstick argued in favour of text-talk, and James Harbeck argued against it. Unsurprisingly, most of the audience took the “anti-text” side at the start of the debate, but Ian’s points were so persuasive that by the end, the room had almost completely flipped its stance on the topic.

What convinced me was Ian’s argument that text-talk is just the latest solution to limitations built into our methods of communication. For example, when printed books were introduced in Europe, the binding technology was so poor that most books had spines so thin that the only way to accommodate the text was to use an extremely small font. This made me think of all the time I spent in WoW raiding Kara with my guild, speed-running noobs through Zul-Farrak, and rezzing priests with my Goblin Jumper Cables.

In other words, I remembered the years I spent playing a game with slang (text-talk) designed to convey a lot of information (communication) quickly (limitation). Ian Capstick won me over because 3.5 years later, I still can’t stop thinking about World of Warcrack.

Technical Writing and Editing for Usability (presented by Kerry Surman)
“Usability” is a topic I’ve researched at my day job. Much of the information in this seminar was already familiar to me, like the importance of using white space, bullet lists, and bolding to make text easy to skim. However, the discussion of how perception affects usability was interesting. Also, this seminar introduced me to the term “Web 3.0” – I remember “Web 2.0” being bandied around a lot a few years ago and thought that the term had become outdated. It’s interesting to know that instead it’s evolved to mean web customization and personalization. A really good example of the applications – and pitfalls – of trying to personalize the Web and commerce can be found here.

How SEO and Editing Can Wreck Each Other (presented by Greg Ioannou)
SEO is something that I’ve been learning about a lot both inside and outside of work. Imagine my chagrin when Greg went into the “do’s” and “don’ts” of editing web copy to improve web traffic, and I found that I had been guilty of committing some SEO sins on this website! Once I returned from the conference I followed his advice and edited my landing pages to reduce the number of times certain keywords were repeated. In the seminar, Greg used humour to great effect in the case studies he showed the audience.

Freelance Editing: The Top 10 Things I Wish I’d Known (presented by Elizabeth D’Anjou)
Elizabeth D’Anjou runs a very popular workshop about “taking the plunge” and becoming a freelance editor. This seminar was on a similar topic. I won’t go into all 10 lessons here, but I did find Number 9 – “A good read is not the same as a good editing project” – surprising. I’ve been trying to reposition my own editing services and work with fiction writers because they’re the kind of writers I find myself coming into contact with the most often; it was weird to see her advice so directly conflict with my own choices.

DRM, eBooks, and the ethics of eBook sharing

A few months back, I wrote a blog post talking about whether eBooks should have Digital Rights Management software, and stated that given the option, I’d prefer to buy DRM-free eBooks.

It turns out that Tor Books is of the same mindset – yesterday they announced that come July 2012, all Tor eBooks will thereafter be sold without DRM. This also applies to other imprints published by Tor’s parent, Tom Doherty Associates.

So what does this mean?

It means that publishers are starting to get the message that readers don’t want DRM on their files. I’d like to think that this would strengthen the viability of the ePub format against the Amazon onslaught, but I don’t know enough to make that prediction with certainty. It also means that publishers are starting to realize the futility of DRM – when a free program like Calibre is at your fingertips, it’s hard to argue that DRM offers a fool-proof anti-piracy method.

One big question remains: Will other publishers follow suit? I hope so, and soon. However, it makes sense that Tor, of all places, would be the torchbearer here. It’s an imprint that specializes in science-fiction – a genre that questions and comments upon how we use technology. Isn’t it fitting that a sci-fi imprint is the first one to recognize when a poor technology isn’t working and change courses in favour of a more rational alternative?

This is also the best time I can think of to introduce some new research I’m doing: I’m looking for authors, publishers, and eBook distributors to interview regarding the ethics of sharing eBooks.

I want to understand how various stakeholders in the ePublishing industry think about the prospect of sharing eBooks in the same way that people currently share print books. Is sharing considered a loss in current revenue (because that’s one less person who will pay for your book), or a herald of future revenue (because now your writing is on the radar of yet another reader).

The people I’ve spoken to so far are somewhat divided on the issue, but I want to hear more opinions. Are you interested? Have your own books been pirated? Email me or let me know in the comments  – the more viewpoints, the better.

Addendum: Here is an excellent, insightful article on why it makes sense for publishers to drop DRM.

Should eBooks have DRM?

I bought myself a Kobo Touch last year for Boxing Day, as I figured that reading eBooks would give me a better understanding of changes within the publishing industry. I chose the Kobo over other eReaders for a number of reasons, but I liked the fact that it supported ePub, the (current) industry format, and that you could expand your library by inserting a MicroSD card into the device. A homegrown alternative to Amazon could do all that and get excellent reviews from Wired in the process? Sign me up!

Once I started using the Kobo, though, Digital Rights Management (DRM) software reared its ugly head, and things weren’t so simple. Books bought through the Kobo store can’t be transferred onto a Micro SD card – instead, they are automatically stored on the Kobo eReader itself. The innate storage capacity of the Kobo Touch is 1 GB, which is good, but not great, hence the allure of being able to expand your library through the Micro SD.

However, books from the Kobo store are normally formatted with Adobe’s DRM, and the Micro SD can store eBooks only if the stored files contain no DRM at all. This means that I can’t save space on my Kobo by transferring Kobo’s ebooks to the card. Sure, I can delete the Kobo books once I’m done and then download them again for free if I wish, but that’s an unpleasant solution at best.

Isn’t having a huge number of books at your fingertips one of the biggest reasons why people buy eReaders? Maintaining a large collection is rather hard to do without the extra storage capacity the Micro SD provides, and the Micro SD card is incompatible with Kobo’s own store. This is critical to understand.

So, here we come to today. The next series of Canada Reads debates starts in a few days, and I haven’t read any of the books in the lineup. I want to read at least a few of them, so I researched what eBook options were available. Here are the results:

  • All 5 books are available at the Kobo store
  • One of those books, Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce, was available only from the Kobo store
  • Two of those books, Ken Dryden’s The Game and Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran, were available for purchase from the publishers’ websites
    • Wiley, publisher of The Game, explicitly stated on the purchase page that the eBook had Adobe DRM enabled
    • Penguin, the publisher of Prisoner of Tehran, didn’t state whether the eBook had DRM, but a subsequent search of the site revealed that Penguin books do have DRM enabled
  • The two remaining books, Dave Bidini’s On a Cold Road and John Vaillant’s The Tiger, were available for download from the Sony eReader store at much higher prices

The result? I didn’t buy any of the five books promoted by Canada Reads, and placed eBook holds through the Toronto Public Library instead.

This evening I encountered something completely different. Quite by accident (thank you, Strange Horizons book reviews!) I stumbled upon The Bone Spindle published by Aqueduct Press. I hadn’t heard of either the book or the publisher, but the review was so intriguing that I bought the book once I found out that Aqueduct Press specialized in publishing feminist science fiction.

It turns out that Aqueduct Press sells ePub books without any sort of DRM. Finally, a publisher whose wares I could buy without using up my Kobo’s limited storage!

Poking around on Aqueduct’s blog led me to Fantasy Magazine (now merged with Lightspeed Magazine). And Lightspeed led me to Weightless Books. Let’s take a look at Weightless’ About page, shall we?

We sell DRM-free ebooks because we believe those who buy ebooks here should be able to move them around between their devices at will.

What we’re hoping to do here is to make this the first site to go to for interesting ebooks from independent presses.

Let’s go over that a bit more slowly:

  1. None of the books or magazine subscriptions that Weightless Books sells contain any DRM.
  2. They sell books from independent presses, meaning that the books have gone through some sort of editorial process before publication.

Weightless Books is okay with selling quality books without subjecting me to the anti-piracy hassle that traditional publishers would typically force down my throat? You mean to say that because of this policy, I can buy as many books as I want and store them without any fuss on my capacious Micro SD card? How amazing! It’s difficult to explain how much peril my credit card is in now.

Because of the lack of DRM on both sites, I bought both The Bone Spindle and a year-long subscription to Lightspeed Magazine. Those purchases cost just over $30 total. And it was precisely because of the existence of DRM software (and what DRM meant in terms of my eReader’s storage capacity) that I decided against buying bestselling books offered by the traditional publishing establishment.

This leads me to wonder: How many others are there like me with the same concerns about DRM, and how much do we represent in lost sales? More importantly, will publishers ever regard DRM software as a limiting factor in the way that I do?

An eBook-shaped hole in my education

In a recent blog post I talked about my writing and editing goals for 2012. However, I forgot to add one very important goal to the list: I need to learn more about eBooks.

The course I took on electronic publishing in 2010 didn’t help me. In fact, it was downright misleading. It contained absolutely no mention of eBooks or eReaders at all. This is rather odd, all things considered – shouldn’t students entering the fast-changing world of publishing be given at least a rudimentary understanding of eBook formatting, eReaders, digital rights management for eBooks, or eBook piracy? This information is becoming increasingly relevant to both self-published authors and publishing houses. Ryerson will have a course in the summer of 2012 called “Publishing in Transition” which I hope will bridge the gaps in my knowledge, but that’s still a way off, and I want to start paving over the holes in my education right now.

So, here is a very basic sketch of how I plan to do that:

  • Bookmark websites and blogs that discuss ebook production, distribution, and marketing, and follow their content.
  • Buy lots of eBooks. (If there’s one thing that’s wonderful, it’s rationalizing entertainment consumption as a form of professional development!)
  • Understand how eBooks work in action and get a grasp of what formatting issues are unique to them. (I just bought a Kobo, but that’s fodder for another post.)
  • Learn about other facets of the self-publishing industry, like price points, royalties, and budgeting

The plan sounds simple in theory, but the amount of information about self-publishing and ePublishing  is increasing so quickly that it’s easy for anyone, especially a newcomer like me, to get overwhelmed. Here are some sites I’ve found useful so far:

Oddly enough, a number of the blogs I’ve been following have talked about the importance of good cover design for eBooks. Synchronicity or not, the news is welcome.

A review of the Ryerson publishing program – Part 2

Last week, I wrote a post outlining my opinion of some of the Ryerson publishing courses I took. This week, I’m following up with a discussion of two other courses I took at Ryerson. I’ll round out the course summaries in a third post, and also talk about other facets of the Ryerson program.

(Update, August 7, 2011: Post #3 is here!)

Production for Books, Journals, and Reports

Perhaps the best thing about this course is the teacher I had – David S. Ward. He works for McLelland and Stewart. He’s got a major in Celtic Studies and listens to industrial  music. He’s charismatic as hell. And oh yes – this is the man who loves Caslon and hates Comic Sans with a fiery passion.

All joking aside, this was a very useful course because it talked about what happens to take a book from a (possibly messy) pile of pages to the fully-bound, typeset thing that we all know and love. In other words, it goes beyond the typical face of publishing (book launches! authors! schmoozing!) and goes right into the messy, ink-ridden bowels of it all: trim sizes, typefaces, scheduling, and shipping.

Even though I don’t plan to work in-house in a production department, I consider this course to be one of the most satisfying, because it allowed me to look at books in a new way: not just as collections of words, but as physical objects. After learning how paper is pulped, how a printing schedule is determined, and what an actual printing manufacturer looks like, it’s hard not to savour the texture of paper or the crispness of a book’s trim.

(Note: I took this course on campus during the winter of 2010.)

Publishing in the Electronic Age

Do you want to learn about eBooks and how they’re changing the publishing industry?

Do you want to learn about digital rights management?

Do you want to learn about the format war between .epub and .mobi?

If so, then you’ll need to look elsewhere. Because honestly, this course either doesn’t discuss, or barely scratches the surface of, these topics. Instead, it talks about how digital data is created, stored, and managed. Except that there are major holes in this education too. For example…

  • You’ll learn what XML is, but not how to write code in it.
  • You will learn about programs like Flash, Shockwave, and Director, but you won’t be told that the developer of those programs, Macromedia, was bought out by Adobe over 5 years ago.
  • You’ll learn about how Netscape Navigator stores cookies (seriously!), but not that Netscape’s current browser market share is around 1% and that Firefox’s current share is around 30%.
    • Actually, scratch that – you won’t hear a peep about open-source software at all.

However, I must admit that I took the online version of this course – it’s possible that the on-campus version is quite different.

In short, while this course does teach useful things, it doesn’t live up to its name. “Publishing in the Electronic Age” implies learning about how the publishing industry is reacting to things like the self-publishing movement, print on demand, and eBook piracy. Instead, what you’ll get is a discourse on content management, file types, and metadata. These things are good to know, but I think a far more accurate name for this course would be “Content Management in the Electronic Age” – however, I doubt that would get as many bums in seats.

(Note: I took this course online during the summer of 2010. However, I have been informed that this course was discontinued in 2011. It has been superseded by a course called “Digital Publishing and Production”, which I haven’t had the chance to take.)


What Gives?

The excitement of the last post was fleeting, to say the least. On my way to work this morning, I passed by a suspiciously empty storefront at the corner of Front and Church. I was puzzled, and did a double take: the lights were off, and all of the goods inside were either gone or in cardboard boxes. Further inspection revealed a sign saying the store was closed, and handwriting stating the location of all the remaining branches of the chain.

Things like this happen all the time, depending on where you live. So why be troubled by a fact of economic life? Well, one, I’m right in the core of downtown Toronto, and two, the store that closed was a bookstore. And not just any bookstore, mind you – one that sold discounted first-run books. The books that maybe just hadn’t made it in Chapters, but were still perfectly serviceable.

Which makes me think, My God, will nothing survive the digital revolution?

This particular store has (had?) been a fixture on my morning commute ever since I started working for my current employer. Even if I didn’t go inside very often, it was always reassuring to know that a wide variety of first-hand books in different genres was always available. I bought biographies, memoirs, and books on ancient history there. Plus, they had a small but serviceable reference section where I ended up getting a number of useful books on writing style, including an old copy of the official style book for The Globe and Mail that I still keep on my official “editing references” bookshelf.

It feels like nothing is sacred anymore. Sure, some books may be expensive, and eBooks are becoming more common, but seriously – people can’t even be bothered to buy books that are half-price? What’s the world coming to?

Introducing the Writer’s Circle

The last few days have been very encouraging from a professional development perspective.  Not only have I made some new contacts, but I’ve got a nice advertisement up, and I’ve also got leads on some new projects. So, the good news, in no particular order:

  • My first editing client from a few weeks back has informed me that she’ll send me some new articles to edit by the end of the week. Project rates are yet to be ironed out.
  • I am now a member of the Writer’s Circle of Durham Region, and I attended their monthly breakfast meeting yesterday. My thanks for the extremely warm welcome to go Rich Helms, Karen Cole, Susan Reynolds, Thomas Moss, Victor Demko, and many more.
  • I’ve just started to talk to a local real estate agent about redesigning his community news website. Right now I’m in the process of reviewing the site to figure out how it could be streamlined and made more user-friendly.
  • My editing services are now being advertised on WCDR’s member services page.
  • The deadline for the EAC’s Claudette Upton Scholarship has been extended, so I now have plenty of time to prepare my application and get a recommendation letter.
  • I’ve been offered a chance to write a short article for the next issue of one of the EAC’s newsletters

Other than all of this, something happened to me that has given me a lot of food for thought. At yesterday’s Writer’s Circle breakfast meeting, I bought a copy of The Best Laid Plans available for sale. Now, this is a book that is available for free as a podcast, and my friends and family know that I love, love, love hearing podcast fiction – so why would I buy something that I could get for free?

Well, there are multiple reasons. One, I just never got around to downloading it, even though its success proves the viability of podcast fiction. Two, the book was right there, just waiting to be purchased, and at a reasonable price to boot. Three – and this is the biggie – it was a signed copy. The book would have been a steal without it, and the signature made it an even better value.

So, I guess there’s a lesson here for you publishing wonks: signatures are a value-added feature that you just can’t provide outside of book form.  People like the idea of owning things that have been handled by someone famous, and a signature provides a nice tactile way of proving contact. If any eReader manufacturer ever get the idea of adding digital signatures to eBooks, I guarantee it’ll go down like a lead balloon – the intimacy of physical contact, of the author writing something specifically for you is not there.

eReader Essay Done

So, I handed in my essay on new media in higher educational publishing today. Looking over it, I feel I’ll have to substantially rework it to make it blog-ready. For one thing, it sounds too much like the sort of essay any competent university student could write on autopilot. For another, I didn’t really come out with an opinion about eReaders in the end – I assessed the pros and cons, but ended by stating nothing more than that eReaders are a potentially huge sea change in publishing, and that it’ll take a while for things to sort out.

While it’s the truth, it felt wishy-washy.  So here’s my bold prediction:

If publishers don’t act fast, they’re going to get screwed.  They’re going to get screwed because eReaders are going to be popular, and if they get popular enough, people will find a way to get around whatever DRM measures publishers put in place – remember the old trick of running a marker around the edge of a CD to make it burnable? People are innovative, and they are cheap. The majority of books published in Canada don’t make money as it is – how will the Canadian industry suffer once books inevitably make their way onto P2P networks even more than they already have? It’ll cause publishers to rely even more on a tiny elite cadre of moneymakers to shore up their losses, concentrating the industry and leaving new talent out in the cold.

I say this as someone who has only a few qualms about downloading torrents – I’ve gotten lots of albums for free, and even movies, miniseries and TV shows. I have no doubt that if I get a digital reader, it’ll be more than easy to find content to fill it without spending a red cent.