Creative Histories – Day 1

As promised, I am in Bristol. I have not yet got to explore the zoo, but I have listened to four interesting papers and made a bunch of new friends. I have also discovered that you get very well fed at the zoo. Or at least you do if you are a human (or masquerading as one). I can’t vouch for anyone else.

Creative Histories is all about engaging with history in creative ways, not all of which involve fiction. The first session today was all about more visual arts. We learned about a project to make textile arts based on stories found in the historical archives of Hertfordshire (which featured alchemists, pirates and witches). We also heard about preserving the artistic heritage of Wiltshire, including making pottery in the style of the Bronze Age “Beaker People” (because Wiltshire looks down its historical nose at most of the rest of the UK in the same way that Egypt does at Greece and Rome).

Session two was all about children’s fiction. We saw a great interactive ebook project based on a YA novel about the Spanish Civil War (which sadly sank without trace because Apple’s big plans for interactive ebooks never amounted to much). There was also a really powerful paper about the evolution of children’s historical fiction in Australia which had some of us in tears. Also bonus Shaun Tan mention.

Tomorrow I get to do my paper. I am in a great session. I have Sonja who is currently based in Newfoundland but is a newcomer to Canada. She’s talking about writing about Colonialism when you are a person whose culture was colonized. And I have Joanne who is talking about teaching history though comics. Her paper is titled, “Punching Hitler” and she has an awesome batgirl-logo necklace.

Basically all is well, apart from the flamingos who have been barracking loudly from their enclosure just outside the windows.

Making eBooks Work – The Anime Encyclopedia

Inevitably, this being “World” Book Day in the UK and Ireland, some bright spark in the media thought this would be a good time to do some more controversy farming on the subject of ebooks. Stepping up to the plate as designated outrage merchant is Fay Weldon, who opined in The Independent that authors should write specially dumbed down versions of their books for release as ebooks because people who read such things can’t be expected to be as intelligent as those who read paper.

Yes, well. The less said about that the better. However, I do have an ebook that I want to bring to your attention, because it makes brilliant use of the format.

I have not seen a physical copy of the new 3rd Edition of The Anime Encyclopedia, but I expect it to be huge because Amazon tells me that it is 1160 pages. They don’t give a weight, but it is 9.2″ tall and 2.5″ thick. Reading it in bed would probably give you a wrist injury. In any case, the price of the paper edition is over $80 (though it may be cheaper in the USA as I’m probably getting stung for VAT). In contrast the Kindle edition is a bargain at under $18, and is in some ways a much better book.

Why? Because it is cross-referenced with hyperlinks. So if you go to the section on Sailor Moon you will find links to everything from other works by Naoko Takeuchi to the inevitable erotic parody of the series (Venus Five, for those of you sufficiently desperate to go and look for it). General entries such as “Science Fiction” or “Wartime Anime” inevitably contain heaps of links. As someone who has edited ebooks, I am well aware of the vast amount of work involved in producing something like this, and am delighted to see it has been done.

Of course both books contain the fabulously erudite and often cutting text provided by Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements. I naturally headed straight for the Sailor Moon entry to see what they had to say about the initial US releases. I was not disappointed:

With reincarnation a given, the show is unafraid of death; the first season closes with a harrowing assault on the icy lair of the evil Queen Beryl, in which the entire cast is killed off (albeit temporarily). Needless to say, the sanitized U.S. release unconvincingly pretends they have merely been detained elsewhere.

You can spend ages just flicking through the book and following links. I’m by no means qualified to judge the content, but I know Helen and Jonathan and have great respect for their knowledge.

I am also reminded that I really need to get a copy of Wandering Son, one of the few animes to actually address the issue of real trans people rather than using gender-swapping as a plot device or joke. (I am likely to thump the next person who tells me that Ranma 1/2 is a story about a trans kid.) The entry for Wandering Son is very positive from the artistic point of view, and when it comes to the subject matter McCarthy & Clements say:

This is a magical series, one of very few to address the issues facing transgender or gender-conflicted children with the respect and love they deserve, but so rarely find.

Yeah, if you have any interest in anime, buy this book in electronic form. It is a bargain for all sorts of reasons.

Farewell, Readmill

The weekend provided that sad news that Readmill, the company who produced by far the best ebook reader, is closing down. Baldur Bjarnason has a few words to say about their fate here. By and large, I think he’s right. Their app was superb, but their business plan appeared to rely on getting people to read socially, and most people don’t want to be discussing what they are reading with random strangers.

From my point of view, the primary benefit of Readmill was that they provided an opportunity for customers at my bookstore to download purchases directly to customers, just as you can do on the Kindle. But of course few of Amazon’s competitors were interested in working with a third party. All of the big stores are trying to replicate the “walled garden” strategy. For small stores such as mine, losing Readmill blows a big whole in the shopping experience.

There is one small ray of hope in that Readmill’s development team has apparently been sold to DropBox. What they will be doing there is unclear, but if they do add ebook reading capabilities to DropBox, and we get a “send to DropBox” button that we can add to stores, that could be very useful. Fingers crossed.

Talking of the bookstore, Shopify has just produced a “reviews” app, so if you buy a book from the store you can leave a review of it. Please consider doing a favor for writers whose work you have enjoyed.

Potential Good News For Bookstore Customers

One of the things that has hugely irritated UK-based ebook stores is that, while they have been required to charge 20% VAT on all purchases, multi-national companies such as Apple and Amazon have been basing their European operations in places like Luxembourg where VAT on ebooks is much lower. In order to remain competitive, UK-based stores such as Waterstones (and presumably the Robot Trading Company) have had to swallow the additional tax that they had to pay.

That should now end. As per this report, George Osborne has actually done something to close a tax loophole. In theory, anyone selling ebooks in the UK will soon have to charge UK rates of VAT. I say “in theory” because “soon” happens to be from January 1st, 2015, which leaves Apple and Amazon plenty of time to find a new loophole, or to bribe the government to reverse the decision, but at least it is planned.

Ideally, of course, ebooks should be zero-rate for VAT, just like paper books are. And doubtless this ruling will lead to yet more complaints that ebooks are over priced, and that authors are raking in huge profits (because it is always easier to blame authors than faceless corporations). However, there is potential good news for Wizard’s Tower Books customers.

You see, we are small enough to not have to register for VAT. This costs me a bit of money, but saves me a huge amount of time doing VAT accounts and allows me to offer books for sale without charging VAT. As the EU has recently ruled that the “most favored nation” clauses, used by the likes of Amazon and Apple to prevent other companies undercutting them, are anti-competitive, I should be able to offer books rather more cheaply than you can buy them on Amazon.

From Jan. 1st, 2015. Assuming nothing changes before then.

Me Elsewhere: Talking About Frawgs

My good friend Pete Sutton asked me for a guest post for his blog this month. I decided to say a few things about why I love all sorts of books (despite the fact that I publish and sell mainly ebooks). I talk mainly about things done by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, because the combination of Wonderbook and Cheeky Frawg illustrates perfectly why we need both paper and digital. You can read the post in full, and Pete’s thoughts on Wonderbook & Jagannath, here.

Finncon Day 2 – E-books, Academics & Thor

My other panel at this year’s Finncon was on the subject of ebooks. I got to moderate it (thanks Jukka!), which means that it went pretty much as I hoped. There were no lengthy digressions into technical neepery, and no political rants. We covered a whole lot of interesting issues, and I gave away a bunch of business cards at the end. Hopefully this means a few more sales.

I confess to grabbing lunch rather than going to Peter Watts’ GoH talk, which may have been a mistake as I think he talked about cephalopods. Tentacles are good.

Immediately after lunch there were two fairly serious panels. The first saw a bunch of writers and critics, including Aliette and Stefan, talking about the use of metaphor in SF. Tom Crosshill moderated and kept it all moving smoothly.

This was followed by Merja Polvinen talking about using the techniques of cognitive narratology to analyze The City and The City. Most of you, I suspect, will glaze over at the term “cognitive narratology”, but basically all it means is the study of how the mind processes story. In the case of China’s book, this means looking at the linguistic tricks that he uses to convince the reader of the reality of his twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. This is the sort of thing that all serious writers should take an interest in. You can learn so much.

By this point I was seriously in need of a nap, so I headed back to the hotel. The skies looked a little dark, and shortly after I got to my room Thor put in an appearance. It was very loud, very wet, and thankfully very brief. By the time I had to head back to the con it was dry again.

The last panel of my day was a presentation by some visiting Russian fans, which was very interesting and worth it’s own post. After that I had to judge the masquerade, and again that is worth a post of its own.

Readmill, Anyone?

One of the big advantages that Amazon has over other ebook stores is the simple purchase process. When you buy a book, it is automatically sent to your Kindle account, and is available on every device where you have a Kindle app. If you are online the book will even synchronize to the last-read position when you switch between devices. It is all very convenient.

Of course Amazon has put a lot of money into providing a good shopping experience. There’s no way I can replicate that with my own store. But other people are trying to help small business like me compete. Enter Readmill. It is a German company, and their product is a cloud-based reading system that is trying to do for epub what Kindle does for its proprietary format. Currently their reader is only available for iOS devices (iPad and iPhone), but according to this report they are working on an Android app as well. Crucially they have a simple system for sending books direct to your library when you buy them. I have added it to my store.

The Readmill reader for the iPad is really nice. Someone has put a lot of effort into making sure that the books it renders look great. Personally I can’t wait for an Android app because I own a Mark I iPad which is rather too heavy for carrying around everywhere. I do most of my reading on my Google Nexus, and I prefer to use the Kindle app to read on that because the Android reading apps are so bad. Hopefully Readmill will come through with an Android app soon.

There are things that Readmill can’t do. In particular it can’t read books that are locked to a specific reading platform with DRM. But all of the books I sell are DRM-free so you won’t have that problem. As of now I haven’t found a way to download a book from the Readmill library. Of course if you buy a book from me you’ll be able to download a copy when you buy it, as well as sending a copy to Readmill, but an option to back up your Readmill library to local storage would be a good thing to have.

Has anyone out there got any experience of using Readmill? I have had a quick look around the Internet, but any bad things people are saying about Readmill are being drowned out by bad things people are saying about treadmills. Any feedback would be gratefully received.

Some Thoughts for Authors

I have a lot of catch-up to do after two days away, but I’d like to start with a couple of thoughts for authors.

The first was prompted by meeting up with my friend Jon Turney in London. Jon, as you may remember, recently wrote a book called The Rough Guide to the Future, which was a finalist for the 2011 Winton Prize, given by the Royal Society. As Jon explains on his blog, the paper edition has just gone out of print, but he’s not sure what is happening with ebook rights.

Jon’s book is a special case, as it is much more than just the text. However, having been following the big fuss that John Scalzi & friends have been making over author contracts recently, it occurs to me that having a contract that allows your paper book to go out of print, but leaves the publisher holding the ebook rights, is not a healthy position to be in. Jon has a good agent, who I suspect will be able to fix this. The rest of you, please take care.

By the way, I have been intending to blog about ebook contracts, given that I have an ebook publishing company. I just haven’t had time. I will note that Mr. Scalzi was one of the people I asked for advice when drawing up the WTP standard contract.

The other thing was promoted by one of the review requests I get. Simplifying massively, it seems that there are two sorts of publicists that big publishing houses employ. The first type recognizes that there are smart people who say interesting things about books online, and have an audience, and treat those people with respect. The second type sees a world full of “book bloggers” who are dumb, childish people who need to be kept in line with a combination of transparent flattery, offers of free cool stuff, and veiled threats as to what might happen if they don’t deliver the review for which they are being paid in flattery and stuff. If your publicist is of the latter type, your book probably won’t get reviewed by me. Or indeed by anyone else with an ounce of self-respect.

State Sponsored Piracy

Yesterday there was a bit of a dust up in UK social media on the subject of book piracy. As you doubtless know, all Wizard’s Tower books are DRM-free, and are available for sale all over the world. Aside from currency conversion charges, which are usually only a few cents, the books are easily available to everyone at the same price. I think this is the best way to encourage people to buy the books rather that get them for free from pirates, while accepting that piracy is inevitable, and understanding that some people genuinely can’t afford to pay the prices I charge.

Big publishers don’t see things the same way. At the recent Digital Book World conference someone said:

DRM and geolocating are crucial in pricing, so that lower priced books don’t bleed into the other markets

I don’t know who said that, but it was reported by someone from Flipside Publishing, so maybe Charles Tan knows. I find that sort of attitude very sad, but perhaps it is inevitable given commercial pressures.

As we know, big media companies are always lobbying government to strengthen copyright law and introduce ever more draconian anti-piracy laws. They believe that such things are in their commercial interests. From my point of view, on the other hand, implementing DRM and region restrictions would cost me more than they are ever likely to save, unless I did so by something like selling only through Amazon, which is unwise for other reasons.

The most interesting comments I saw in yesterday’s discussions came from the @Gollancz Twitter feed (presumably Simon Spanton). The tweets were as follows:

That a system as rapacious as capitalism would allow something as valuable as information to remain free is a forlorn hope.

Market forces will dictate that someone ends up having a financial interest in info. I want copyright owners to be in there.

This makes a lot of sense to me, and point was reinforced spectacularly today by Ursula K. Le Guin in this blog post via Book View Café. As you’ll see, at the same time as lobbying ferociously for better defenses for their own copyright work, big media companies are also lobbying for the right to steal work produced by smaller companies and individuals, on the grounds that it is too much trouble for them to find the copyright owner and pay for the rights. This is a particular issue for photographers who are regularly seeing their work stolen by major newspapers. Governments, as ever, are prone to roll over and ask for their tummies to be tickled when approached by a large multinational corporation. As a small business, and someone who writes online, I find this sort of thing just as worrying as torrent sites.

Interesting News From Smashwords

Wizard’s Tower books are not available via Smashwords. There is a very simple reason or this. They don’t allow you to upload a finished book. They insist, instead, that you upload a Word document which they put through a really crappy automated converter (and, based on a few examples I have seen, insert legal language banning you from selling the book anywhere except through Smashwords). I’m proud of the books I produce. I don’t want Smashwords producing substandard versions of them, and I want to be able to sell them through many different stores.

Yesterday, however, Smashwords announced that they are finally beginning to test a system for direct upload of epubs. See Liz Castro’s post for details. Once that is up and running I’ll be delighted our books for sale through Smashwords.

It’s Not Amazon, It’s You

Well, not all of you, obviously. Some of you are very clued up on ebook issues. But the various Amazon fails that have happened over the past few weeks have brought home to me how many people who profess to be opposed to Amazon have in fact bought into the narrative that Amazon = ebooks and There Is No Alternative. Which is, of course, just what Amazon wants us all to think. Let me explain.

Some of the people yelling at Amazon are opposed to the whole idea of ebooks. That’s their right. I love paper too, and still buy lots of paper books. But, until such time as our electronics-based civilization collapses, ebooks are here to stay. If you don’t believe that, let me tell you a story about a man called Cnut.

A more reasonable complaint is that ebooks have Digital Rights Management (DRM), and people want to buy their books, not rent them. I’m very supportive of that position. But not all ebooks have DRM. Indeed, not all ebooks sold by Amazon have DRM. It is an option that you can select when you upload your book the store. None of the books published by Wizard’s Tower have DRM, no matter where you buy then. None of the books sold in the Wizard’s Tower bookstore have DRM. You can also buy DRM-free books from stores such as Weightless Books, Baen, The Robot Trading Company and Book View Café.

Then there’s the question of formats and readers. Amazon’s business plan is heavily based on trying to lock you in to their hardware platform. They want people to think that you can only buy ebooks from them, and you can only read them on a Kindle. That’s by no means true. If you have DRM-free mobi files then there are other ways you can read them, and the whole point of the epub format is that it is portable. An epub file should be readable on a wide range of different readers, including the iPad, Nook, Kobo and various Android-based tablets.

One of my favorite reading platforms right now is using the Kindle app on my Google Nexus tablet. The Nexus is nice and light, and the Kindle app is a better e-reader than any of the other Android apps I’ve tried. You need a little bit of technical skill to use that platform, and the (free) Calibre format converter, but it shouldn’t be beyond anyone reading this.

You don’t actually need an e-reader device at all, because there are cloud-based systems such as Ibis that allow you to read your books on any device that has a web browser. And sometime next year, if you have a smart phone, you’ll be able to get a Beagle e-reader for a ridiculously low price.

How about region restrictions? They are a real pain on Amazon, mainly because of the region-based rights contracts that the big publishers love. None of the books I sell in my store have region restrictions, and I’m proud of that. You can buy them anywhere in the world. But when I released Colinthology through my store I had people complaining that it was “unavailable” in the USA. I had to put it on Amazon before they would believe that they could buy it. I’m guessing that’s because my store prices in pounds, not dollars, but that doesn’t stop you from buying the books. Europeans do it, Australians and New Zealanders do it, and they don’t use pounds. PayPal will levy a small currency conversion fee, but it will only be a few cents per book.

Finally there’s the whole self-publishing scene. Some people have been saying that because Amazon is bad you should only ever buy ebooks direct from the author, or direct from the publisher. “Cut out the middleman!” is the battle cry. Folks, middlemen exist for a reason. Some authors are very good at selling their books, but others are bad at it, hate having to do it, and are very grateful to have someone else do it for them. Equally some publishers are good at selling books direct, while others don’t have a clue and end up either outsourcing to Amazon or being very corporate about the whole thing. Look, if Barnes & Noble do something bad people don’t yell ,”boycott independent bookstores!” So don’t do it when Amazon misbehaves either.

I get as angry about Amazon as the next person. But I don’t think you can fight them by trying to fight the whole idea of ebooks, or by buying into the meme that ebooks and Amazon are one and the same thing. The only way Amazon’s hold on the ebook market can be broken is if there are viable alternatives that people who want to buy ebooks can use. And that means that we have to recognize that alternatives do exist, and that those alternatives and often much better to deal with. The best way to strike back at Amazon is to encourage people to buy from their competition.

Update: Book View Café added to the list of sources of DRM-free ebooks. Any more?

E-Book Settlement – Amazon Wins Again

If anyone was in any doubt that the e-book pricing anti-trust lawsuit was a case of capture of the legal system by Amazon, here’s the proof. Normally when there’s a class action lawsuit, the courts collect the money and parcel it out to the victims. Not in this case. The publishers who have agreed not to contest the case (Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon and Schuster) are paying out, but that money goes to Amazon, and the only way that the supposed victims of the crime can use their money is by buying something from Amazon. Sure its convenient, but it doesn’t look good at all.

New Toy – Nexus 7

With the large number of Android devices available on the market these days, and with my very busy August having put some money in the bank, I figured that it was about time that Wizard’s Tower Press invested in an Android tablet. So I am now the proud owner of one of the Nexus 7 machines produced for Google by Asus. This is a very preliminary report.

I’m very impressed with the Nexus as a device. It is heavier than the Kindle, and I don’t expect the battery life will be anything like as good. However, it is much lighter than the iPad, has most of the same functionality, and is much less of a walled garden. I think that there is a good chance it will replace the iPad in my life for most uses, and replace the Kindle for reading on anything less than a long haul flight (and not even that if the plane has USB charging points at the seats, which modern ones do).

The one problem I had is with the main charger. It comes as a base unit plus an optional cover plate that they swap out depending on the regional plug standard. You do need to make sure that you push the two parts together firmly until they click into place, otherwise it won’t work.

I’m now looking at eReaders. The Kindle app, FBReader and the free version of Moon+ all seem to get the job done. However, Aldiko appears to be spectacularly useless. The free version appears to ignore even the most basic CSS commands, even with the “advanced formatting” option turned on. It may be that only the paid version will handle CSS properly. If so, there are other readers that don’t force you to pay to get that functionality. There are lots of Android eReaders, so I have a lot more research to do.

B&N Meets Microsoft

The big industry news from yesterday, which I was too busy traveling to comment on, was the deal between Barnes & Noble and Microsoft regarding the Nook e-reader. John Scalzi has some thoughts on it here.

My own view is that this is a very smart move by both of them. B&N in particular was handicapped by the poor quality of its online presence compared to Amazon. Microsoft has the software expertise and deep pockets required to invest heavily in a better shopping experience, and hopefully a worldwide presence. And as far as Microsoft is concerned it gives them a content platform for their Windows-based mobile devices.

Scalzi talks about wanting a better way for independent booksellers to enter the market, which is an issue I talked about here. Somehow I don’t see either Microsoft or B&N being interested in building an open distribution platform. However, the more competition there is in ebook selling, the more incentive there will be for someone to create one.

A False Permanence

One of the mistakes we literary folk tend to make is to assume that just because someone is a good novelist he or she must be wise as well. Case in point, here is Jonathan Frantzen being silly.

The gist of Frantzen’s argument is that because ebooks are not as permanent as paper books they are a threat to our society. Only if the words in a book can be preserved exactly, unchanged, for ever and ever, can civilization be maintained.

There are obviously dangers about work only published electronically being lost because electronics decay more quickly than paper. But this isn’t the point that Frantzen is making, and anyway the same charge could be leveled at paper vis-a-vis writing on stone tablets.

It is possible that Frantzen is concerned about the ability of Amazon to change the text in a book you have purchased without your permission. However, that only applies if you buy from someone like Amazon or Apple, and don’t take steps to ensure you have a safe copy of what you bought. We shouldn’t expect non-SF authors to be computer literate, but again this doesn’t appear to be his main point. What he really wants is for those words, presumably especially the ones he wrote, to be preserved exactly as they were written.

So I wonder, what would he have done had he been alive in Homer’s time? Because before mankind invented writing, all literature was handed down from one performer to another and had to be remembered. I’m sure the ancient bards, no matter what culture they came from, were very good at memorizing stories. But I also suspect that they were not perfect, and that some of them could not resist the temptation to extemporize.

I note in passing that one of the joys of Arthurian scholarship is to see how the stories have been reconfigured over the centuries to fit the prevailing culture in which they are being told.

For that matter, what would Frantzen do if he were a playwright? Because one of the joys of theatre is to see how each new director interprets classic plays. What would Shakespeare have made of West Side Story? Given that he made no attempt to put his plays in historically accurate settings, but rather put the ancient world in a contemporary (for him) Elizabethan environment, I think he would have approved.

So this desire for permanence, while understandable in a novelist (and perhaps ever more so in a poet), is really anti-art. Furthermore, I suspect that the idea that things written down centuries ago can and should be used as absolute guides to correct moral behavior now has been much more damaging to society than the idea that texts might be changed. Really, Mr Frantzen, there is no need to panic.

Update: Chad Post was much less polite than I have been.

A Key eBook Law Suit

It isn’t often that a law suit taking place in New York has the potential to directly impact my business, but this one has me a little worried. HarperCollins is suing an ebook publisher called Open Road, and the basis of their suit is that the phase “in book form” in a contract automatically includes ebook rights. If they win, then authors who have separately sold ebook rights to their back list can expect to get rude letters from their print publishers.

It did take a bit of provocation for HarperCollins to take this step. Open Road was founded by Jane Friedman, a former CEO of HarperCollins, and they very deliberately target high profile books for which to believe the paper publishers do not own ebook rights. Friedman will know the HarperCollins back catalog well, and is therefore well placed to exploit it. But this case has the potential to affect lots of people. Given what they have done with SF Gateway, I don’t suppose that Gollancz are too pleased about it.

I should note that this won’t affect authors’ ability to re-sell their back catalog if the rights to those books have expired. It is only cases where the paper publisher still claims rights over the paper edition(s) that are affected. But it could affect the Ben Jeapes books I have published, and many of the books that I have on sale in the store. I’ll be watching this one closely.

Cheaper Ebooks, But Only From Amazon

There’s good news for UK buyers of ebooks. The price they pay for them is going to come down soon, but probably only if they buy them from Amazon. UK-based retailers may match them, but will have to swallow the price difference if they do. And this is all thanks to our beloved government.

This doesn’t affect me terribly much because it is all about VAT, and my business is sufficiently small that I’m not required to charge VAT on sales I make. As I pointed out last month, that means that publishers get substantially more money from a sale through me than for a sale of the same book through Amazon (39% more in the case of Tim Maughan’s Paintwork). I’d like to be able to undercut Amazon, but if I did there’s a huge risk that they would notice and reduce their prices to match, which would do a huge disservice to the publishers whose books I stock, and who have no control over what price Amazon sells their books at. But all this will go away soon, because the rate of VAT that Amazon charges will drop significantly in January. From then on it will only be 3%, not the 20% they currently charge.

Why is this possible? Well Amazon’s European operation is based in Luxembourg, and the government there has decided to bring down the rate of VAT on ebooks to help “local” industry. You can see why they might do that, especially as there are other small European countries that Amazon might decide to relocate to if Luxembourg proved unresponsive to their lobbying.

This will be a major headache for any UK-based company that sells ebooks and is unable to relocate to Luxembourg or a similar friendly outpost. Here we still have to charge 20% VAT on such purchases. (Yes, I know VAT is zero on physical books, but ebooks are apparently “software” so the standard rate applies). As the online buyer is extremely aware of price comparison, this means UK-based ebook sellers will either lose a lot of business to Amazon, or they’ll have to swallow that 17% difference, which is a pretty big hit to take on a low-margin business.

What does our fiercely nationalistic government have to say about this? Are they, perhaps, pleading poverty and the need for tax revenue to fund essential services? Not a bit of it, as The Bookseller explains, their defense is that EU law does not allow them to reduce VAT on ebooks, and they have to do what the EU says. Except that Luxembourg is part of the EU. And so is France, which is also reducing the rate of VAT on ebooks.

So there you have it. Mr. Cameron is very happy to show off his bulldog independence in economic summits, but when it comes down to providing multi-national companies with tax advantages that allow them to massively undercut British businesses it is a different matter. Amazon’s wishes must be respected, so in such cases the British chihuahua rolls over and explains how much it likes having its tummy tickled by Brussels, while the fierce French poodle looks on in stunned disbelief.

(Sorry Mexico)

From Russia With Steam

I have just put a new book on sale over at the Wizard’s Tower store. It is Heart of Iron, by the very wonderful Ekaterina Sedia. The book is set in a steampunk version of the Russian empire, and features international intrigue, big trains, and a dastardly British secret agent called Dame Florence Nightingale. It sounds an awful lot of fun. It is also only £2.99.

Of course, this being Kathy, there is some serious history and feminism in the book too. She has blogged about some of the background here, here and here.

Those of you less interested in history and feminism can instead salivate over machinery. Or, more specifically, trains. This one is for you, Kevin (art by Marcin Jakubowski).

Heart of Iron - Ekaterina Sedia

Bookstore News

After a fair amount of messing around while Amazon tried to ensure I had the right to publish the material, the two Ben Jeapes books I released before Eastercon are now available on Amazon. What’s more, those of you who prefer to pay in Euros can get them from the new Kindle store. Of course Ben and I get a lot more money if you buy direct from Wizard’s Tower, but I understand the convenience and currency issues.

We also have one book on a massive sale. ChiZine are trying the 99c experiment with Simon Logan’s Katja from the Punk Band, so from us you can get it for £0.59 instead of £6.95.

Introducing Ibis Reader

One thing that is abundantly clear from yesterday’s discussion of ebooks is that many people are still very unclear about the technology. To start with I would like to make a few things clear. When you buy an ebook from me:

  • It is yours — you own it, and I can’t take it back
  • You can lend it to your friends
  • You can sell or give it to someone else
  • Just like a paper book
  • You can buy it anywhere in the world
  • And you don’t need to buy a special device to read it on

Really, no special device? No, you don’t. The About Ebooks page at the store has a list of different free programs that you can buy to read an epub file on an ordinary computer, but today I’d like to tell you about another reading system that I’ve found since I wrote that page, and which I have come to think is the best option.

Ibis Reader is a web-based epub reading solution. You upload the books to the site, and can then read them anywhere using a web browser. That means you can read them on a PC, a Mac or a Unix machine; you can read them on an iPad, or on any other tablet or smartphone that has a web browser. The software works fine on all these platforms, though for the very small screens of smartphones there is an app alternative as well.

Although Ibis is a cloud-based solution, that doesn’t mean your books are trapped there. You own them and can download them at any time. It is more like an offline backup than a streaming service.

There’s no charge for using Ibis. All you need to do is sign up for a free account so that you have a login that will take you your library. Obviously it is an online service, so for people still on dial-up it is not a good option, but if you have a broadband account it will be fine. And again with the smartphones you can use the app and store books locally.

Ibis works with epub files, which are as close as we have right now to a standard. It does require that the files conform to the epub standard (yes, some publishers don’t bother to check) and are DRM free. All of the books I publish should be fine, and I’ll try to check all of the books in the store, though that will take time. Those of you who are comfortable with software can make epubs from other formats using Calibre.

The biggest obstacle I have found to getting people to buy from places other than Amazon is convenience. There’s that one-click option. But there is an interface for Ibis too. If you have an account, try this:

Add Salon Futura #1 to Ibis Reader

See, easy isn’t it. 🙂

What I need to do is to work out how to add that functionality to the store so that once you have bought a book you are presented with a link to load it into Ibis. As it is commercial store software I may not be able to do it myself, but I’ll work on it.