Discovering the Right e-Book Format

As I start to get more involved in planning my first self-published e-book, I’ve been looking into the requirements for putting such a document together. When you write for a living, you get used to having a whole plethora of skilled individuals to help you put a nicely rendered document together. There are a number of editors to help, along with the production staff that takes the document from ethereal bits to actual paper. So, the thought of doing everything myself is a bit daunting because I really want the final product to look great.

There are several considerations and reading about self-publishing online usually fails to break these elements into manageable pieces. The first piece is the document itself. I’ve read a number of sources that suggest using HTML or a direct output format, such as EPUB. However, I’m starting to believe that while they leads will work, they aren’t necessarily optimal if you want to publish your work through a number of online vendors. The advice offered in Clearing Up Confusion About Self-Publishing seems to ring true—using the .doc format will work best. Actually, the article mentions both .doc and .docx formats, but I have good reasons to use .doc:

  • The format is used more often by third party products.
  • It’s easy to scan a file in .doc format using a utility such as FindStr.
  • There seem to be fewer glitches with the .doc format.
  • I have more templates that work well with the .doc format.

Of course, you can just as easily use the .docx format if that format appeals to you. The choice is one of personal taste in this case, but choosing one of the two seems to be best because it’s accepted by three major online vendors.

Another consideration is the actual content and formatting of the document. I have years of experience with the content part of the question and have a good idea about formatting. However, self-publishing and going exclusively after the e-book market puts a few twists into the picture. After reading a lot of documentation online about the issue of formatting, I found a lot of good material in Creating an e-book: Tips on formatting and converting your document. Although all five pages of this article are good, the best formatting information begins on page 4. However, what a lot of these articles fail to mention are the obvious sorts of things that some people fail to do:

  • Create a comprehensive outline for your book.
  • Actually stick to the outline as you write.
  • Format the outline when you put it together so that you can use the same formatting in the book.
  • Ensure you collect the resources needed to make your outline work and note them in the outline.

If you’re seeing a pattern here, it’s that outlines are important. The better you define the outline, the better the book will come out. Part of formatting your e-book is creating a good outline and then sticking with it.

After you decide on a document format, the formatting of the book content, and the content itself, you need to consider one other element—presenting your book to others. Of course, the presentation starts with a great cover. Most of the material I find online for creating covers is negative. For example, avoiding the use of book services. I’m used to thinking about how to market my books because it’s part of what the publisher asks me to provide, but I’m also having to start to think about the cover in more ways than simply the content the cover provides. Actually, it’s a creative process that I plan to enjoy.

I’ll keep you updated as I work through these first several self-published book projects. However, for now, I’ve been putting some content together and thinking a lot about what I need to do to get the book out there and make it sell. Let me know your thoughts on self-publishing at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

A New Emphasis On Libraries

I’ve been talking with a friend about libraries recently. He had noted that the only people he had seen using libraries lately were older; that children had no desire whatsoever to even enter a library. Of course, this bodes ill for the institution because the youth of today will be the supporters of libraries tomorrow. However, his observations don’t match my own. Our local libraries seem to be packed with children. In fact, I saw three children standing outside our local library the other day while waiting for the doors to open. The difference in these two observations has me quite curious.

The way in which people use libraries has always interested me because these public warehouses of knowledge are essential to a functioning society. People require some method of accessing exotic or expensive texts—especially people who have limited means. The way in which libraries present information to the public will change in the future, but I have no doubt they will remain. In fact, I’ve touched on this topic before in my “Future of Libraries?” post. Before a future kind of library can take shape, however, the children of today must be engaged in the materials that a library can provide and see these materials as useful.

The two of us are still discussing the topic of libraries because the differences in our observations provide good fodder for discourse on the topic. My thought is that the differences in our observations could come from a number of sources:

 

  • A difference in the community (small town versus large city)
  • Differences in the society (such as, beach community versus Midwest farming community)
  • Times of observation
  • Motivation level of the librarians manning the library
  • Perceived value of the library’s content


Our local library is blessed with a great librarian and strong support from volunteers who truly care that we have a library. For example, we actually host events at our library to get people engaged and to enter the building so they can see what the library has to offer. The state has also been running ads to help support the local libraries and those ads may be boosting the number of people the library sees. Whatever the difference, I’m truly happy to see children waiting for the doors to open at our community library.

Of course, I always want to hear your opinion. What level of participation do you see at your local library? Who goes there and what seems to interest them most? What do you see as factors that affect participation in your local library? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com

 

E-book Integration in Schools

I use every opportunity I can to track the change in how people read information. Some of this material is in articles, some comes from readers and friends, and some comes from just observing. For example, at one time people would grab a magazine from the rack at our doctor’s office. Now it’s quite likely that they’ll take out a Kindle or other reading device to view their favorite novel. Even at our library, I see people sitting in front of computers reading, rather than holding a book. Increasingly, I get questions from readers who use the e-book version of my books, instead of paper copies. Let’s just say that in the year and two months since I wrote The e-Book in Your Future, things have changed considerably. E-books are reducing the cost of reading material of every sort, especially technical books.

That’s the reason I’m a bit concerned about some of the things I read about our school system, especially when conversations with students tend to bear out the information I read. One ComputerWorld article in particular, “The e-book revolution is bypassing U.S. elementary schools” really grabbed my attention. The author, Joe Mohen, makes some astute comments about the benefits of using e-books in schools. As an author, I see significant benefits in using e-books, such as the ability to update the information as needed. Schools often struggle with outdated texts now due to a lack of funds, using e-books greatly reduces the cost of updates making it possible for schools to keep their texts updated.

More worrisome is the fact that most of our colleges still use paper texts. In talking with any number of students, I have yet to find any of them using more than one or two e-books for their classes. Given the high cost of education, it makes sense to reduce costs by providing students with materials in electronic format. A recent Forbes article, “Should College Students Be Forced To Buy E-Books?” makes a strong case for using e-books in colleges. The same article points out that only three percent of students currently use e-books for their education.

My interest in e-book technology isn’t just a passing fancy. Part of the reason I spend so much time delving into this issue is to discover how to serve you best. A large percentage of my readers are college students. What if my books were offered only in e-book format? Would you still buy them? For now, my books will continue to appear in both print and e-book format for the most part, but the time could come when I’m asked about how my readers would be affected if the publisher produced only e-books. To answer that question, I need your input. Let me know your thoughts about e-books, especially in the school environment, at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Obtaining Kindle for Your Non-Kindle System

A number of readers have written me about my post entitled, “The e-Book in Your Future” where I discuss the future of printing and the viability of devices such as the Kindle. The problem for many readers is that they either don’t want to get a Kindle or they want the e-books they buy to appear on more than just their Kindle. For example, they may use a PC at work. It’s not impossible to use your Kindle too, but it could be inconvenient. Perhaps you want to cite the content that you found in a book as part of a report—being able to see that content on your PC would make it a lot easier to copy and paste the citation to the report.

What many people may not realize is that Amazon has made it possible to read your Kindle materials on non-Kindle systems. Because I want to encourage people to use the device that best meets their reading needs, I decided to put the following list of Kindle software downloads together.

 

 

After you download the software, you install it on the host system. Any Kindle-compatible e-books you own are now available on that device as well. I haven’t tested the setup on anything other than the PC so far, but it works well under Windows 7. I’d love to hear how the software is working for other people. If I get enough feedback, I’ll provide an update about the Kindle software here. Send me your comments at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

The e-Book in Your Future

Back in February I wrote a post entitled, “Paper or e-Book?” where I stated a personal preference of using paper for fiction books and e-books for anything technical. I expanded on that post by writing about the advantages and disadvantages of online media when compared to technical books in my “Is the Technical Book Dead?” post. I even considered the effects of electronic media on libraries in my “Future of Libraries?” post. Let’s just say I’ve given this topic a lot of thought, but up until now, facts have been a little hard to come by. Most people speculate about e-books, but they can’t truly back up their speculation with hard facts of the sort that just about anyone can accept. However, I’ve been seeing articles such as, “Ebook Sales Both Rise and Fall in Wiley’s Divisions” (by Mercy Pilkington) as of late.

It seems as if I’m not the only one who finds the convenience of e-books addicting when it comes to technical topics. However, according to this article (probably the best of the batch I found online), the sales of e-books are stratified. Someone is less likely to buy a cookbook in e-book form, than a tome on writing your first application in C#.

My take on everything I’m seeing is one of practicality. A technical book in e-book form is convenient. You can pack entire bookshelves in an incredibly small form factor. Even the least expensive Kindle can pack 1,400 books in a tiny form factor. You can read all of your books anywhere you go and modern screens have become better at presenting information under a range of conditions, as long as you can focus on the e-book, rather than the surrounding environment.

I also see e-books becoming status-quo in the classroom. In addition to being able to store a hoard of books in an incredibly small space, schools will find book updates far easier to provide and less expensive as well. The media options provided by e-books will enhance the learning experience. From what I’ve seen, e-books are already becoming well established in the school system and I see a day coming soon where a student won’t touch a paper book as part of the educational process.

However, e-books are less useful in some situations. If you spill a sauce on your paper cookbook, you wipe it off and continue on as if nothing happened. Spilling the same sauce on your Kindle will have disastrous results as the sauce oozes into the device and damages it. Even a cheap Kindle costs $79.00 (at last look), which makes for a mighty expensive sauce.

I can also see problems using a Kindle for woodworking. For one thing, the print is small enough that it would be really hard to read construction instructions while using a Kindle. Not only that, but imagine trying to use a drawing in the Kindle—good luck. In addition, dust specs from the woodworking environment would eventually end up inside the device. I haven’t met an environment yet that wood dust can’t penetrate.

It’s hardly surprising then that e-books have become quite popular in some areas, but not in others. The debate is over though. Sometime in your future you’ll likely find yourself using an e-book for a practical need. The more time I spend researching the topic though, the less likely I find it that paper books will go away anytime soon. Paper is still quite practical for many needs and people will use something that’s both inexpensive and practical. Not many people are into gizmos for the sake of having them.

That brings me to my latest project. For the first time I’m writing a book that’s designed from the ground up for the electronic environment. The book is entitled, “Java eLearning Kit for Dummies” and the more I work on it, the more fascinated I become with the possibilities that this book provides. You’ll receive a CD with this book that contains a fully interactive environment. In fact, for the first time ever, you’ll be able to engage in one of my books without bothering with the paper content. You’ll gain access to the book’s information by interacting with the content on the CD. The entire concept is amazing and I’m having a great time working on it.  I’ll let you know more details when the book gets closer to release, but for now, it’s something to think about as you look over the book offerings online. Expect to see more books of this sort.

What is your take on e-books? What niche do you see e-books filling? Do you see yourself using e-books in the future (why or why not)? Talk to me about your expectations for e-books at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Is the Technical Book Dead?

Some time ago I wrote a post asking the question of whether paper books would go the way of the dinosaur (see Paper or e-Book? for details). I recently came across another question, one of whether books will exist at all in the future (at least, technical books). It seems that at least some people now think that online articles (referenced through Google and other search engines) will answer all of their questions and that books are passe. We’ve heard the same death knell sounded before and this one is just as false as those that came before.

There was a time when people said that radio was dead because of television. Fortunately for everyone, the doomsayers were wrong. Radio is still with us—albeit in a different form from those days gone by. In fact, when something proves useful enough, it remains viable and in use despite the appearance of newer technologies. Because of the comments I received from the Paper or eBook? post, I strongly believe that for this reason alone, books will remain one method of choice for obtaining technical information.

Online media does have many good attributes. I have no doubt that it provides a useful and welcome adjunct to books. I use online media myself for some of my research and for general information. From my perspective, online media has the following advantages over books:

 

  • Timely: There isn’t any way a book will ever beat online media to market. Books can’t even beat magazines to market.
  • Succinct: One misconception about online media is that there is no word limit. However, I haven’t ever seen a truly viable book-length online resource. Online resources are broken into small pieces that someone can digest in just a few minutes.
  • Updateable: Both magazines and books have strict limits on updates. If the author makes a mistake, the publisher must provide a separate errata that the reader may not ever find.
  • Inexpensive: There are paid online resources, but they’re in the minority. Most online resources, including this blog, are free. Some online resources do rely on subscriptions and a few are purchased as individual content items (much like a book), but I doubt that paid online media will ever take off as a major industry because it suffers from a severe problempeople tend to post the purchased online media on other sites so that others can download it free (often without any knowledge that the content is pirated).
  • Searchable: Online media has all other forms of communication beat when it comes to searches. You can find what you need quickly, provided that the search engine isn’t overwhelmed with junk listings.


There are probably other reasons for using online media, but these reasons best serve the technical reader. It would seem that these reasons alone would compel a potential reader to use online sources. However, books continue to offer value in other ways. Readers will continue to flock to books (either in paper or e-Book form) for these reasons:

 

  • Accurate: Because books are somewhat permanent, the vast majority are edited by someone other than the author. In fact, most books have several editorseach with a different specialized skill set. Multiple sets of eyes tend to reduce the probability of errors; although, some errors are bound to creep into any form of writing (see my Errors in Writing post for details).
  • Fewer Fads: Books tend to focus on technology that has proven its worth, rather than following every fad on the market. Business runs on proven technology. Someone who is looking for time-tested technology will look in a book, not at an online resource.
  • Author Availability: Having worked through the vagaries of community support myself, I know that it sometimes works, but often doesn’t. A good book author will provide a certain level of support and will answer reasonable questions about book content. You simply don’t get this sort of support using online media.
  • Cohesive: A book offers something that online media can’t in the form of a cohesive work. Whatever the topic is, a book will offer a progression of some type and lets you see a technology from a long view, rather than as snippets.
  • Less Junk: Online media can be clogged with all sorts of junkmaterial that has nothing to do with the topic at hand or that you simply don’t require. Books are more focused, stick to the subject, and are easier to visually filter. As a consequence, you can spend a lot less time getting what you need from a book.


There are some personal issues I have with online media. Many of the books and paper magazines I read are professionally written by authors with the experience to write well. Yes, some online media is also professionally written, but you’re just as likely to run into information written by an unknown entity. Because of the anonymity of the Internet, I find myself checking and rechecking information I obtain from it. Normally, I require at least three different sources, written by different authors, to confirm a fact from the Internet. I’m more likely to accept material from the books of authors that I know well simply because I have read the works of these authors for years and I’ve built up trust in what they have to say. Yes, it’s true that you should verify anything you read, but I find the Internet resources I read are far less reliable.

Much of the confusion about online media has nothing to do with the material itself, but with the authors. When you work mainly with books you hear the voices of a few well-known authors who have helped you over rough spots for many years. The Internet provides a cacophony of many voices that I don’t know. I don’t know how to read between the lines with these authors or understand when I need to consider the author’s personal biases. Again, this is a personal issue, rather than something you’ll need to consider, but if you’re like me, you do need to think about it at least.

I also find that the purpose of online media and books differ. Online media focuses on informing someone of a fact. When you read an online source, it’s to find a bit of information you need now in the fastest manner possible. On the other hand, books tend to focus on teaching. A book presents a topic in a way that helps the reader learn about the technology so that there is a better chance the reader will be able to answer questions about the technology later. This difference in focus is the reason I feel both technologies will remain useful.

As with the radio versus television discussion, I don’t think either online media or books are going to go away. They each have something valuable to offerthey both have their place in your technology toolbox. The ability to choose the right tool, at the right time, has always been the mark of a professional. If you rely exclusively on online media to obtain your technological information, you’re at a distinct disadvantage when compared to the person who uses both online media and books. How do you get your information? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Future of Libraries?

I was talking with a friend the other day about the direction that libraries are taking. Both of us are experiencing the joys and consternation of a new library project in our respective neighborhoods and both of us have noted a significant increase in the emphasis on e-learning. In fact, I don’t actually visit my library to view the stock of books anymore. All I need to do is go to the library’s site online, look for the book I want by anything that comes to mind, and then order the book. I physically go to the library to pick the physical book up later, but I see this as a fading technology designed to make the older among us feel a bit more comfortable. The future, as described by devices such as the Kindle, is electronic.

I had touched on this topic a little in my “Paper or e-Book?” post, but didn’t take the discussion to a logical conclusion at that point. What will happen when the library becomes completely electronic? It could happenprobably not within my lifetime, but definitely within the lifetime of the next generation. It could eventually happen that you’ll receive a device that connects to a worldwide library and delivers only electronic media. There are a number of advantages to this arrangement:

  • A book would be at your disposal 24/7 without much effort on your part at all.
  • There is no limit to the number of people who could view a book.
  • Rare or exotic books could be scanned and made available electronically.
  • Reading would become a do anywhere sort of activity that might actually benefit children who don’t currently read nearly enough.
  • Money would no longer define access to knowledge.

This future world has a few problems, of course. The people who put creative talent into materials of all sorts are already under attack today. Many people feel no need to pay for the materials they usethe information should be free in their minds. Barriers still exist to some degree and most people realize that people with creative talent require compensation in order to live, but the library of the future will make such barriers non-existent. How will someone who writes, draws, sings, or does anything else creative survive in a world where free electronic forms of everything exist?

I imagine that artists of all sorts will need to find some other means of support in the future. Perhaps that government will step in and provide compensation to artists from library fees or taxes. Certainly, the current system of copyright is breaking down already. I read about copyright issues almost daily online in articles such as this one on ComputerWorld. However, legislating morality has never worked in the history of the world and I doubt very much it will work now, especially considering what I see happening in government funded agencies such as libraries. Change is inevitable, if not always good. Then again, I can’t see this particular change as necessarily bad (despite not necessarily wanting to live it myselfcall me attached to the physical book or simply outdated).

What sorts of changes are you seeing in your local library? Where do you feel these changes will end? How will people of a creative bent be compensated in the future? I’d love to hear your views on any or all of these questions at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Using a Horizontal Web Site Layout

A friend recently wrote to me regarding an issue with Web site layout. Of course, I’ve dealt with Web design issues in a number of my booksmost notably C# Design and Development and Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements. If you look at most Web sites today, they all have three serious problems:

 

  • The line length is too longforcing the eye to work extra hard to read the material because the eye loses track of the line and actually making it tiresome to review the material.
  • The page contains too much material, which makes it tiresome for anyone working with a screen reader to listen to all the material before finding the one bit of information actually required from the site.
  • The use of vertical scrolling is contrary to the historical use of horizontal scrolling. If you look at how people worked with scrolling in ages past, it was always horizontal, making it easier to read the material.

She even sent me two articles that describe the problem in greater detail. The first article is entitled, “Are Horizontal Website Layouts the Wave of the Future?” and points out that research shows that most people don’t even read the excess material on a Web site. If nothing else, the strong research showing that my efforts are being wasted would tend to make me rethink my design. The second article is entitled, “Horizontalism and Readability” and it places more emphasis on the historical approach to horizontal layout, rather than focus on modern research. I tend to prefer tested approaches to presenting information when I can get them (new ideas are fine for someone else to test).

Of course, a Web site is not the same as printed material. Trying to equate the two could very well be a mistake. Here is my take on how the mediums differ:

 

  • The method of presentation differs. You’re not relying on paper, you’re using a video screen of some sort and that does make a difference in how the reader perceives the material.
  • The environment differs. I don’t usually sit in my easy chair next to the fire when I read materials online. I’m normally in my office in a formal work environment.
  • The approach to reading differs. My paper reading environment is relaxed and long term. It’s nothing for me to spend an entire day reading a good book. My online reading is more like a sprintI find what I need quickly and never read for more than a half hour at a time.
  • The technology differs. When I read a book, I get print in one size. So, if the print is less than appealing or causes eye fatigue, I’m just stuck with it. My browser allows me to change the font size a Web site uses so I can make the print eye friendly. In fact, I can even use a CSS file to change the typeface and other features for some Web sites.

The obvious question now is whether the two environments differ enough that considerations normally made for paper don’t apply to Web sites. My thought is that creating Web sites with smaller amounts of material, eye friendly design, and shorter columns are all great ideas, but I’m not completely sold on the idea of horizontal scrolling. What is your take on this idea. Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Paper or e-Book?

I’ve been thinking about something for quite a while now. For me, there is nothing better than sitting by my wood stove, coffee cup next to me, reading a favorite book. Of course, I’m talking about a hard cover or paperback book. Nothing quite matches the feel and smell of paper, especially when you’re reading a book for leisure. The hours I’ve spent reading books have been pleasurable to the extreme. I’m transported to worlds of mystery in some cases, worlds of the future in others. Fantasy, science fiction, techno-thriller; they all hold a certain thrill.

It’s a different matter when I start working with technical material. As you might imagine, I’ve collected quite a few technical books in 23 years. In fact, I’ve discarded quite a few books during that time; a mountain of technical knowledge that no longer seems important to anyone but a historian. That is, until I figure out that I discarded the one antique I really did need for a particular project. Suddenly I’m looking somewhere, anywhere, for that book. Even when I know where the book resides and I peruse its well thumbed pages by instinct, finding just the right information can prove difficult.

Unfortunately, no book cataloging system in the world will solve my problem. I could catalog each of my hundreds of books and still not find the information I actually need with any speed. Of course, the ability search quickly is one of the benefits of electronic storage. If I had my books in electronic format, I might avoid the hours upon hours of search time for that one piece of information I actually need. Then again, I’ve accidentally found many pieces of useful subsidiary information during such searches, so it’s not possible to discount paper as unworthy. Still, speed is of the essence while I’m working on my next project.

For now, it appears that my future will rely on two media for books: paper for leisure and electronic for work related materials. It’s a sad thing for me to admit, but the paper book has become a bit too cumbersome for a world where speed is prized above all. What about you? What do you feel about e-books?