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Reinventing the Writing Contest

Reinventing the Writing Contest

How one eBook retailer is making literature more social

Millions of people dream of making it big in literature, yet there are very few who actually manage to finish a book, let alone get published. One eBook retailer is taking a page from reality TV competitions by looking for undiscovered writing talent in a new contest format.

Winning a writing contest has always been one way to bypass the publishers’ slush piles of unsolicited manuscripts. But the problem with these contests is that winning is like playing the lottery: for each lucky winner there’s an enormous amount of losers. That makes the experience frustrating for writers and creates yet another way for their work to remain unread.

eBookMall, one of the most experienced independent eBook retailers, wanted to do something different. Inspired by the TV successes of American Idol and The Voice, they came up with an exciting approach to running a writing contest. eBookMall’s “America’s Next Author” contest is engaging, transparent, and entertaining.

eBookMall set about to do something new and asked: What if there’s a transparent alternative? What if each author could read the competition’s entries? How can writers involve their friends and family to help them win, without making it a popularity contest?

Martijn Leenders, eBookMall’s Managing Director explains: “In all these boring contests, you send in a story, wait a couple of months, and probably never hear anything again. That’s not very useful if you want to make it as an author. We also realized there are no writing contests where the most important factor of actually becoming a successful author, namely your mass appeal and marketability, play any significant role. America’s Next Author combines writing quality and popularity, all while offering authors a great platform for getting noticed.”

So how does America’s Next Author work? At first glance, it appears to be a well-designed collection of stories and author profiles, where visitors can vote for stories and post reviews. This is where things become interesting, because this contest combines several online and social voting methods into something eBookMall calls “Author Rank”. Each author’s rank is featured prominently on their profile page and is updated daily.

Leenders explains: “In addition to having the public decide which stories they prefer, we needed an advanced ranking system that would sort out quality and potentially great stories. In other words, what Google does for search, we are doing for authors.”

Human Factor

The ranking takes into account a large number of factors, including votes, Tweets, Facebook likes, reviews, and many more. eBookMall developed its own sophisticated ranking algorithm that is able to determine which reviews are written by more reliable readers, weeding out those that are seeking to unfairly manipulate results.

Bonnie Martin is eBookMall’s publishing manager, and says: “From the start there were authors who tried to outsmart the system. It turned out there was no need for us to worry, because the ranking system is able to cope with any unusual voting patterns. We’ve already had three weekly nominees with excellent stories, showing that the ranking system works well. And what I like most about America’s Next Author is that everybody can follow the progress every single day.”

Those daily updates to the Author Ranking turned out to be very popular amongst participants. “Authors check in daily to see how they’re doing. Some have told us it’s very addictive to see what their promotion efforts bring in terms of ranking and reader feedback. I’m almost worried we’re keeping them away from their writing.”

Leenders smiles, before adding, “For readers it might even be more fun. Since writers can still join while the contest is underway, readers get to discover new stories, see if their favorites are winning, and they even have the chance to win an iPad or eReader for their reviews.”

However smart their ranking algorithm, eBookMall does use a jury as well. Similar to popular TV contests, a jury is looking for hidden gems that didn’t make it to the top of the public vote. The jury will nominate four authors as wildcards, adding them to the eight that are picked by the public. These twelve authors will continue on to a battle round later in the competition.

“We needed a safety valve. This is the first time someone is doing anything like this and our ranking system was never tested in a large contest. With our system performing better than we expected, the jury can completely focus on helping out writers by giving additional feedback,” says Leenders.

Serious Interest

It wasn’t an easy path, Martijn Leenders explains. “We encountered some skepticism, mainly from people who were worried about how this would work and how we would deal with plagiarism and publication rights. That was not unexpected because this contest is something quite different from what they’re used to. Authors are not always accustomed to having their writing open to the public and presenting themselves as a brand. That takes a lot of guts!”

The contest has seen serious interest from the publishing industry. In theory, America’s Next Author and its underlying technology might be useful in engaging readers and discovering new talent.

Authors seem to like it so far. Leenders says: “After the first week we started receiving messages from participants who are seeing a sudden rise in interest on their own Facebook pages and blogs. That makes us proud of the work we’re doing. We’ve managed to create a new platform for authors to test the quality of their work and see if they’re up for bigger things in literature.”

Or as one participant posted on Twitter, “Your contest is an emotional roller-coaster!”

  • America’s Next Author has reinvented the writing contest, bringing it into the 21st century with social media and online voting.
  •  America’s Next Author removes the lottery-like effect of old fashioned writing contests by allowing participants to promote their stories.
  •  It’s not just a popularity contest! eBookMall’s “Author Ranking” algorithm uses many factors to determine the quality of the writing, too.
  •  Like American Idol or The Voice, America’s Next Author seeks to find undiscovered talent.
  •  In 2012 authors have to meet their readers where they are, on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other social media platforms. This contest pushes writers to do that.
  •  Honest reviews posted on stories give aspiring authors real feedback that they can use to improve their craft. It takes courage to be open to criticism, but it’s worth it.
  •  Writing is usually a lonely endeavor, but when you enter America’s Next Author you’re immediately involved in a community of writers and readers.
  •  Our jury members provide a safety net. They double-check the results of our ranking system and are looking for hidden gems that might have been missed by the public.
  •  It’s also fun for readers! Everyone can read all the stories for free, and there’s a chance to win an iPad or eReader for writing quality reviews.


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Self Publishing and Traditional Publishing – Which Is Better?

I’m kind of fascinated by the debate over traditional publishing vs self publishing. Some authors are saying that traditional publishers aren’t offering enough marketing help anymore, and that they end up having to do a lot of marketing themselves. If they were to self publish, they’d have to do all of the marketing but they’d make much more money on each sale. But I have to wonder if this is just coming from authors who haven’t been able to get a book accepted by one of the big publishers.

I also keep reading about authors who self-published and became extremely popular and made a ton of money. But real examples of this seem hard to find. It’s usually just “I heard about …” rather than actual examples. When Fifty Shades of Grey first became popular, I thought that it was book only available on Kindle, but it turns out that author was published by an imprint of Random House, one of the “big six”.

For example, in this recent article on the Huffington Post:

It used to be enough to be published by one of the big six publishers to sell your book. Now, a published author has to be an online marketing machine, just like self-published authors. And traditionally published authors are turning to self-published authors for tips to reach readers.

As Pittis wound down with her workshop, a woman turned to me. “I just met two women who self-published, and they are each making $40,000 a month,” she told me in a whisper. “Debut authors,” she added.

This is a good moment to explain that most romance authors — traditionally published or not — don’t make a lot of money. Many multi-published romance authors have day jobs and hope for the moment they can make a living with their books.

The same article then continues:

As we shuttled out of the luncheon on our way to more workshops, a woman got my attention. “Screw the Big Six!” she said to me.

“I’m published by the Big Six,” I said, sheepishly. … What was wrong with me, I worried. Was I stupid not to self-publish?

The woman’s mouth dropped open, and her eyes grew large. “Really?” she asked. “That’s fantastic. How did you do that? I’ve been trying for ages.”

I think this is probably a pretty universal thing. The feeling of acceptance an author gets from being traditionally published is a pretty large pull, whether or not that author still has to do some marketing on her own.

But what is an author to do? The standard advice has been to have a website, a blog, and be really active on social media. But now there are articles coming out saying that this might not be the answer. I found this article at The Guardian interesting. It’s kind of long, but this is the part that really stood out for me:

Self-styled eSpecialists such as Penn often invoke the 80/20 rule which advises that, as a sales person (in this case an author), you should spend 20% of your time writing and 80% of your time networking through social media. In tune with this, self-epublishing author Louise Voss recently informed me that the success of her ebooks came about as a result of spending about 80% of her time marketing.

And if that seems like a limitation on your creative time, consider the case of San Diego-based “book publicity and promotions expert” Paula Margulies, who is taking the 80/20 rule even further. She claims that when tweeting and Facebooking you should spend “80% of your time posting about things other than your book, and 20% selling. That’s right – 80% of what you post should not be a sales pitch.” Why does she recommend this? “Because readers are human beings, who long to make connections with others … They join social networking sites not to receive non-stop reminders to buy, but to develop relationships.” Margulies advocates that authors blog and tweet about hobbies and personal activities: things you like, and which you think will draw other people to you. Essentially, 80% of your tweeting should be about cats, food, sport, what’s happening outside your window – all the things that millions of non-writers tweet about. This theory is backed up by many other self-appointed social media specialists.

Let’s look at the stats. If we take Margulies and Penn seriously, how much time does this leave for actually writing? Most self-epublished authors hold down a day job, so let’s give them three hours a day, after work, for author activities. That’s 1,095 hours a year. Reduce this to 20% (since you have to spend 80% of your time covertly self-promoting online), and you get 219 writing hours a year, which works out as 18 12-hour days to write a book.

So … if you have to promote your book yourself it will be a HUGE job that won’t leave you enough time to actually write a book in the first place. If this is true, then my feeling is that being traditionally published is a better bet, in terms of marketing, at least, because your book will be on your publisher’s website, maybe even in some bookstores, and they will do some marketing for it.

On the other hand, if you just can’t get a publisher to buy your book, ebooks are now popular enough that self publishing isn’t a totally terrible idea. If you do sell any copies you will make more money because you don’t have to give a cut to a publisher, and maybe if you gain even a small amount of popularity a big publisher will take notice.

Burning eBooks

Fahrenheit 451 ebook downloadRay Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 has recently been released as an ebook by Simon & Schuster (available online Fahrenheit 451 ebook). The novel is about a future in which most books have been burned in order to keep the public “happy”. A world without books and the resulting lack of readily available knowledge and history is bleak indeed.

Ray Bradbury himself was against ebooks at first, saying that they were too distracting. From this article at The Guardian:

“In the past Bradbury has said that ebooks ‘smell like burned fuel’, telling the New York Times in 2009 that ‘the internet is a big distraction’. In an interview … he told the paper that he had been contacted by Yahoo eight weeks earlier. ‘They wanted to put a book of mine on Yahoo! You know what I told them? To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the internet. It’s distracting. It’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.’

But the author has now been convinced otherwise, with his American publisher Simon & Schuster announcing that it was releasing the first ever ebook of Fahrenheit 451, a novel which has sold more than 10m copies since it was first published in 1953 and in which Bradbury predicts a dystopian future where books are burned and reading banned.”

I’m glad that we don’t live in a future like that described in Fahrenheit 451 and I think that digital books and the internet in general will make it very hard, if not impossible, for the government to ever truly ban books or other reading material. When I read this book back in middle school, I visualized police overseeing large piles of burning books in the middle of town squares, while people looked on with blank expressions. I wonder what would happen if anyone ever tried to burn a pile of e-readers. The resulting melted pile of plastic would surely be enough of a mess that the government would have to find some other way to destroy books. Maybe that’s why Bradbury imagined that ebooks smelled like burned fuel?

Small Update on the Price Fixing Lawsuit

It kind of seems like this whole thing with the lawsuit over price-fixing of ebooks has just been blowing about in the ether lately. I found a small update today, though. From this post at the Guardian:

Apple and five major book publishers have failed to persuade a US judge to throw out a lawsuit by consumers accusing them of conspiring to raise electronic book prices two years ago. …

HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Hachette reached settlements, while Apple and two of the publishers, Macmillan and Penguin, said in court last month they want to go to trial to defend themselves against the government charges.

Publishers Sued Over eBook PricingSo the only real update I’ve heard so far is that they won’t be throwing the case out. It sounds like HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Hachette must have had to pay a fine, while Apple, Macmillan, and Penguin want to go to trial. The end result of that trial will be fairly important for the publishing industry. This article on The Atlantic does a good job of explaining the whole thing: Confused By the eBook Lawsuit? So Is Everyone Else

On one hand, it appears that the publishers who were involved with this alleged price fixing were breaking the law insofar as that you’re not supposed to team up with your competitors to decide on industry-wide prices. On the other hand, they were attempting to prevent Amazon from becoming an ebook monopoly. I’m no lawyer and I don’t really understand all of the technical details of this stuff, but it will certainly be interesting to see what happens in this trial.

I think that if I were running a big publishing company, I would just try to sell my books at the same price at each store, and then let the customer decide which store and ebook platform they wanted to use. That kind of thing shouldn’t be so difficult, and I hope that in the end things will be simpler for the consumer.

Major Publishers Being Sued Over the Agency Model

The United States Department of Justice is suing Apple along with publishers Hachette SA, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster, for conspiring to raise the prices of ebooks. This article at PC World does a pretty good job of explaining the basics of the situation. Here’s the core of it:

At issue is Apple’s use of the “agency” model of e-book pricing, which lets publishers set their own prices. Apple takes a 30 percent cut of sales, but requires that e-books are sold for no cheaper elsewhere. That approach came into conflict with the “wholesale” model used by Amazon, where the bookseller pays roughly half the recommended cover price, then sets its own pricing.

With the wholesale model, Amazon could offer cut-rate prices on e-books — often $10 for bestsellers — in order to build up its Kindle service. When Apple launched the iPad in 2010, publishers flocked to the agency model, fearing that the wholesale model would lead to a race to the bottom in pricing. Amazon was forced to adopt the agency model, and today, a $10 bestseller is much harder to find. New books tend to sell for around $13 to $15 instead.

Apple and publishers may argue that the agency model leveled the playing field for booksellers, forcing them to compete on hardware and software features instead of pricing. And as Bloomberg points out, e-book sales rose 117 percent in 2011, so it’s hard to argue that higher prices ruined the digital book industry. source

Publishers Sued Over eBook PricingOpinions on this could go either way, but if there really was a conspiracy by the big publishers to raise prices, that would be against the law. This is a big enough story that they even talked about it on the Nightly News with Brian Williams tonight. From my position as someone who works in this industry, it’s all kind of surreal because for the longest time ebooks were overlooked and not taken seriously. Now they’ve become popular and mainstream enough that there are serious legal issues being considered. I also know that the agency model created major headaches for independent ebook sellers, so for that reason it would be kind of nice if it was deemed illegal. However, I can also understand that from a publisher’s point of view, Amazon’s price cutting is very scary for them.

I wonder what actually happened. I remember that Amazon offered most Kindle ebooks for $9.99 in the beginning, and that suddenly stopped once Apple started requiring that publishers couldn’t sell their ebooks for a lower price than the price they set for iBooks downloads. But was that the only thing? Was it solely Apple’s decision, or was there some kind of secret meeting between publishing executives where they sat in a dark room around a table and agreed to raise ebook prices? The truth is probably something in between. It’ll be very interesting to see what comes of this and how it affects ebook prices and publishing in the future.

Harry Potter eBooks

The big ebook news this week is that official Harry Potter ebooks are now available on the Pottermore website.

When I read about this, the first thing I wondered about was what format the ebooks were being made available in, and what kind of DRM they were using. From looking at their supported devices FAQ page, at first it appeared that they were using typical Adobe DRM, since they mention the use of Adobe Digital Editions. Harry Potter eBooksHowever, it seems to be more complicated than that. In order to get ebooks onto a Kindle, for example, they’ve somehow set it up so that you link your account so that the ebook can be delivered to your Kindle. The same goes for your Sony Reader, Nook, or Google Play accounts. Additionally you can download an ePub to your computer. It also appears that you can transfer the ePub to other eReaders with ADE in the same way I’ve outlined on this blog before.

There seems to be more to it, though. Apparently when these ebooks were first announced, the people behind Pottermore claimed that the ePubs would be without DRM. Now it’s become clear that there is some kind of DRM on them, which people are calling “watermarking”. I’ve never even heard of that term being applied to DRM. The Digital Reader has a post about this DRM method and how it was already hacked.

This article on The Guardian is quite interesting. It talks about how Pottermore has managed to force Amazon to bend to its will.

“Instead of buying the ebooks through the Amazon e-commerce system, the buy link takes the customer off to Pottermore to complete the purchase, with the content seamlessly delivered to their Kindle device. It is the first time I’ve known Amazon to allow a third party to “own” that customer relationship, while also allowing that content to be delivered to its device. Amazon gets something like an affiliates’ fee from this transaction, much less than it would expect to receive selling an ebook through normal conditions.”

This is very unlike usual Amazonian practices. I assume it’s because Pottermore wouldn’t allow them to sell the ebooks in any other way, and it shows how much power the Harry Potter brand has. There is another article at FUTUReBOOK by the same author that delves more into this Amazon situation and how DRM is applied across different platforms. The whole system must have been a pretty big undertaking for all companies involved.

All in all, it’s cool to see that there are now official Harry Potter ebooks because that only enforces the idea that ebooks are here to stay, in one form or another. I probably won’t buy them myself since I already own the whole series in old-fashioned paper. Will you?

Recent Stories of Piracy and Plagiarism

eBook piracy and plagiarism are two of the worst fears of authors and publishers. Just like with music and movies, there are now websites that offer many pirated ebook downloads. Plagiarism has been happening for ages and it’s only become easier with books in digital format.

This article on The Guardian paints a new picture for plagiarists, though. Even though it’s easier to copy the contents of an ebook, it’s also easier to get caught now that everything can be scrutinized online. This article is about an author who discovered someone ripping off many of her romance books, only changing major details like names and places. After one instance was discovered, others joined the author in researching the plagiarist’s work, and more and more cases were quickly found. The plagiarist was outed online and forced to pull her stolen work.

In this age of blogs and Twitter, a reputation can be ruined pretty easily. It seems to me like all the trouble of trying to plagiarize isn’t even worth it. If you’re interested in being an author, write your own stuff. If you don’t have any talent for writing then find something else to do.

Piracy is probably the bigger threat since it doesn’t require any work like editing details of the story. Instead, all a person has to do is strip the DRM (if it even exists in the first place). Recently one company was caught selling $99 e-readers pre-loaded with 4000 pirated ebooks. From the article:

An Australian group-buying site owned by Microsoft and Nine sold e-book readers bundled with a treasure trove of thousands of pirated books including the full Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series.

The matter has prompted a rebuke from the NSW Fair Trading Minister, Anthony Roberts, who claims group-buying sites cannot simply blame vendors when they are caught running dodgy deals.The book industry has reacted angrily and HarperCollins, publisher of some of the major titles contained on the CD including those by J.R.R Tolkien, said its corporate solicitor ”will be ringing them today”.

The site,, this week advertised a $99 e-book reader that came with ”4000 e-books you can load from a CD”. Thousands of people signed up for the deal, but the company claims it discovered the books were pirated before orders were shipped.

Cudo’s advertisement originally linked directly to a list of books that came on the bonus CD, and the list contained thousands of books that were still under copyright and available in stores. The site later removed this link from the advertisement, but the original ad is still visible in Google’s cache.

”It’s extraordinary … there’s piracy taking place on a grand scale,” said Australian Booksellers Association chief executive Joel Becker when shown the list of books.

Whether you hate or just tolerate DRM, most publishers will continue to require it as long as they feel that their ebooks will be pirated without it. It’s unfortunate that the average law-abiding user is the one who gets punished by having to deal with DRM restrictions. Authors deserve to get paid for their work just like everyone else, though, so what are they supposed to do? And this time there won’t be another iTunes that comes along and sort-of-transforms the situation like they did with MP3s, because we already have Kindle software and iBooks and other paid ebook services. Unless all of humanity suddenly comes to a state of enlightenment where nobody wants to steal anymore, I don’t know how pirating will ever stop.

Smartphones, Tablets, E-Readers Become Physically Heavier With More Data

I just read this on TFTS: Smartphones, Tablets, E-Readers Become Physically Heavier With More Data [The More Apps, Ebooks, Information You Add to Your Kindle, Android or iOS Device, the Heavier it Gets].

Quotes from the article:

John Kubiatowicz, a computer scientist from University of California’s Berkeley campus says that the more data you put into your notebook computer, netbook, tablet, smartphone, ebook reader or any other electronic device, the heavier it gets.

It’s a matter of energy vs. matter. While downloading software and apps does not really increase the amount of matter in your device, it changes the amount of energy stored on your tablet, smartphone or e-reader, particularly the level of energy in its electrons. And given Einstein’s theory of relativity stating that Energy equals the mass multiplied by the speed of light squared (E=mc2) then the difference in weight between a full ebook reader and an empty one is about 10-18 of a gram, or what scientists call an attogram.

Studies say that dust that gathers on your iPad’s touchscreen will weigh more than loading thousands of e-books on your device.

This is an odd fact, of course, as devices will not individually weigh more, with more data. But consider the amount of data being transmitted around the world, such as through broadband cables, datacenters and ISPs. Does this make the world substantially heavier?

I find this really fascinating. I don’t fully understand the science behind E=mc2, but if more energy equals more weight, then it makes sense. It’s such a small amount that it’s nothing anyone would ever actually notice when holding their phone, but the idea that putting more digital content on a device increases the weight is so interesting because we all generally consider things like energy and digital files to be totally non-physical. There are even studies being done nowadays that show that thoughts are like little entities, and if they are made by electrical impulses in your brain, and if that has mass, then why not? Some people probably find this kind of topic way too “out there” but I love it. It’s very futuristic and I think it’s awesome that our science is starting to be able to explain these kinds of things.

One Year Blog Anniversary

This blog is one year old this month!

Technology evolves very quickly. Some big things about ebooks have changed in the past year. I think, overall, that the biggest thing has been the evolution of devices that you can use to read ebooks on. All major e-reader suppliers have released touch screen versions of their devices, and they are also moving into Android-based tablet-like models as well. I am actually surprised at the level of acceptance of tablet devices. Since they are generally not very necessary devices, I thought most people would consider them to expensive. But that’s another thing – the prices of these devices are dropping quickly. And, of course, Amazon keeps selling more and more Kindles and Kindle eBooks.

Some changes have also come in software. Microsoft recently announced it was discontinuing Microsoft Reader. I also expect formats like Mobipocket and the old Palm eReader will be gone soon. Because of that, I’ve moved them into a new category on this blog called “Obsolete Software”. I want to keep those posts around in case someone needs a reference later on, but there is no need for them to have their own categories anymore. ePub and PDF seem to be emerging as the most popular formats. ePub is so great because the text will move to adjust to your screen size, and everyone is just so familiar with PDF that they keep using it.

This isn’t meant to be a huge year-review of the state of ebooks, just a little ‘look back’ from where I sit. I think I’ve been pretty consistent in updating this blog about once per week on average. I expect that I will keep doing that. I might bring in some additional topics that are related. I am interested in how ebooks affect authors and publishers, for example. I am also always interested in how new devices and software will change the market and the user experience. So, we’ll see how it goes! Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

Steve Jobs

I am very sad today about the news of Steve Jobs‘ passing. He was truly a driving force behind the technology that surrounds us in our daily lives, and the world would have developed into a significantly different place without him. He is someone who will be remembered for centuries.

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