Review: The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

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http://www.amazon.com/Everything-Store-Jeff-Bezos-Amazon-ebook/dp/B00BWQW73E/?tag=dedasys-20

The Facebook, Apple and Microsoft stories have been made into movies.  Google’s founders are fairly well known, but Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and the company he created are far more opaque.

This book changes that.  Detailing the rise and rise of Amazon, this is the most comprehensive description of what makes Jeff Bezos tick, how he works, and how he runs his company.

As such, I’d highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Amazon and the many, many markets it touches, from cloud servers to streaming video to all kinds of things you can buy and have shipped to your house.

Critically for such a private person, the book builds on several interviews with Bezos.  Apparently, those are not so easy to come by, due to Bezos’ understandable desire for privacy.  While any biography is unlikely to be perfectly accurate, and despite Bezos’ wife commenting on the book’s faults, I do get a sense that it’s better than anything else that has been written on the subject to date.

Some things that stand out about Amazon’s way of doing things:

  • They are highly customer focused.  It’s easy to see this in the numbers, too: http://finance.yahoo.com/q/ks?s=amzn+Key+Statistics : the profit margin is 0.31%. Compare and contrast to Google at 20.91%, Microsoft at 26.9%, and Oracle at 29.33%!   They are very clearly reinvesting a lot of money in the company, and simply giving customers good deals.  Numerous quotes attest to this throughout the book:

“Bezos believed that high margins justified rivals’ investments in research and development and attracted more competition, while low margins attracted customers and were more defensible.”

“Like Sam Walton, Bezos sees it as his company’s mission to drive inefficiencies out of the supply chain and deliver the lowest possible price to its customers”

“We don’t make money when we sell things. We make money when we help customers make purchase decisions.”

  • Relevant to Kindles:

One of the primary conclusions from their research was that a good book disappears in the reader’s hands. Bezos later called this the top design objective. “Kindle also had to get out of the way and disappear so that you could enter the author’s world,” he said.

  • This quote makes a great deal of sense for those trying to sell something on the internet.  There’s no longer a lack of storefront space, like along a busy road, but getting people’s attention among all the other people trying to sell stuff is very difficult:

“In a world where consumers had limited choice, you needed to compete for locations,” says Ross, who went on to cofound eCommera, a British e-commerce advisory firm. “But in a world where consumers have unlimited choice, you need to compete for attention. And this requires something more than selling other people’s products.”

  • On eBook pricing.  Granted, given how long it takes an author to write a book, the paper and other bits are really inconsequential when we talk about costs, but still, it feels a bit insulting to readers to sell an eBook at a higher price than a paper one, especially because you can’t resell the eBook.

“Customers are smart, and we felt like they would expect and deserve digital books to be lower priced than physical books,” says Steve Kessel.

  • Occasionally, Amazon steps on other people’s toes.  Part of the reason is that they, like Google, and perhaps Microsoft before them, grew so quickly that they still have some of the “go get ‘em” startup mentality.  That’s something you need when you’re a small company competing against giants, but when you’re a giant thinking that way, sometimes it leads to people getting stomped on.

“It’s a weird mix of a startup that is trying to be super corporate and a corporation that is trying hard to still be a startup,”

Bezos comes across as being 100% dedicated to Amazon and its customers.  Occasionally this is depicted as being very rough on the people who work with him at Amazon, but the book conveys a sense that it’s not just about making more money for Bezos (although he certainly has), or exercising power, but about improving the company and their customers’ experience, whatever the cost to the people involved.

Certainly, there are many more chapters yet to be written in the Amazon story, but if you’re curious about the man and the company he built, this is the best book on the subject.

Kindle Formatting for Fiction Books

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Giving readers the ability to “lose themselves” in your book has always been a main goal for the people who design and develop the Kindle at Amazon.  Readers should forget about whether they have a paperback, a hardbound book, a Kindle, or a mobile phone in their hands and concentrate on the story you, the author, have written.

Here at LiberWriter, that’s our mission too: ensuring that nothing, including bad formatting, gets in the way of your readers’ experience.  Your book should look good on the Kindle and have all the features that readers expect, such as a working table of contents that allows them to skip around, should they need to.  We also do a thorough cleanup of the book to remove any formatting artifacts left by the program you used while writing your book. MS Word, for one, is notorious for its, well…we like to think of them as “droppings” in the sense that we need to clean up after them!

Fiction books are really where the Kindle shines.  Having grown up with paper books, I’ll admit that, for certain kinds of reference books, I’m still partial to paper, even though I buy more and more on my Kindle just for the expedience factor; having the book within minutes without leaving the house is a huge plus.  Also, books about rapidly changing topics, such as computer programming, quickly become out of date, so it’s better not to clutter up the house with thick books that are no longer relevant.

On the other hand, a novel is the type of book that you sit down and read from start to finish, usually for enjoyment, without flipping back and forth between sections, and this works wonderfully on the Kindle.  I was impressed the first time I realized that I was speeding through a novel as quickly as possible on my Kindle, without any cognizance of what I was reading it on. I was really “lost” in the book, and I began to realize that eBooks were not just a fad or something to use when you have no other option.

The main reason why fiction books work so well on the Kindle, in technical terms, is that they “flow” very well.  The contents do not need to be “just so” in order to read well, the way non-fiction often does. The rule for fiction books is that bad formatting will get in the reader’s way and detract from the story, so it should be avoided at any cost. Anything that isn’t bad is probably ok.

Since most fiction books are fairly straightforward, they do not usually need much work to make them look good.  That’s why we price them at an intermediate price: http://www.liberwriter.com/pricing .  Non-fiction books that are simply essays also fit well in that category. However, once you start to add charts, images, tables, and the rest of the great stuff that goes into many non-fiction books, then we have so much more work to do, so, naturally, they cost more.

Many of our customers ask us how to best prepare their novel for Kindle formatting.  Luckily, the answer is easy: keep it simple!  This is covered in more depth in this post: http://blog.liberwriter.com/2013/11/09/best-practices-in-word-for-kindle-conversion/ .  When all is said and done, as an author, especially as the author of a fiction book, you should concentrate on writing the best book you can and worry about formatting only when the book is finished.

Translating Your Book – Is It Worth It?

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There are a lot of people in the world who do not speak English as their native language.  Even most of the people who can get by in English on vacation or for business reasons probably prefer their native language when it’s time to kick back and read a book.

So clearly, if your book is available in their language, it’ll sell more copies! “Where can I get started?”

Not so fast – translating a book is a difficult, time consuming endeavor that is going to cost a lot of money if done properly.

It’s not enough to sort of speak another language – the translator must be a native speaker of the language they are translating to.  For instance, many years ago when I did translations, I would only translate to English (my native language) from Italian (the other language I speak) even though there’s probably more of a market to translate into Italian from English.  To properly translate something, you have to read it and understand it completely – the nuances and subtle meanings and everything else – and then rewrite in your own language in a way that both preserves the original meaning and sounds good.  Most people know that literal translations are not very good, but beyond that, you need to capture the tone and style of the author as much as possible, while still writing something that sounds good in the target language.  Even the reading part of the process, let alone the rewriting, is fairly involved, as you can’t just cruise through the book, enjoying it.  You have to read and fully digest every single phrase.  Then you have to go through, again, reading, writing, and reorganizing, a bit at a time.

It’s a very time-intensive process, but one you don’t want to try and get done on the cheap, because the people reading the results are going to think that the shoddy work is probably your fault, as the author.  Even determining who is a good translator and who isn’t is not an easy process – without speaking the language, you can only go on reputation!

In other words, the whole thing is a headache that you, as a new author, don’t need.  Build up some profits from your writing, and worry about translating when you’re comfortably established as an author, and can afford to get things done properly.

PDFs and eBooks

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PDFs and eBooks: warning, danger ahead!

Why?  Let me explain: eBooks are meant to “flow”.  You mark up what is a paragraph, what is a chapter title, and so on, and that will be displayed in the most appropriate way depending on the device your reader is using.  On a mobile phone, the paragraph is going to be a certain width, on your PC’s screen, it’s going to be different.  Same goes for iPads, Kindles, and so on.  eBooks are very “portable” this way – you can read them wherever, and the reading system will adapt the book for you to make the experience as pleasant as possible.  You can read more about what differentiates eBooks from print books here: The “One Thing” About Kindle Formatting and here: The Difference Between Print Books and eBooks.

PDF’s on the other hand, are a very precise, but brittle format that is meant to show you exactly how the book is going to look when it’s printed on paper of a given size.  That’s fine for paper books, but breaks down more or less completely when transformed into an eBook.  PDF’s have a bunch of information about exactly how wide the text is, what font and font size to use, the line spacing, and so on.  That may sound like what you want, but the problem is, with eBooks, it is the reader and the device they happen to be using that control those things, not the person that formats the book!  So the result often ends up being what you get when you try and put the proverbial square peg in a round hole.  The PDF thinks it should be fine on the sheet of letter paper it was designed for, and doesn’t want to be squeezed into the mobile screen that one of your readers is actually using to read your book.  And that’s when things go well – more complex PDF’s can come out just plain garbled and illegible.

The moral of the story is: use a Word file, use an OpenOffice file, use Pages to output a Word file, but please, please  don’t try and start from a PDF if at all possible.

What if all you have is a PDF?

That’s tricky, and depends a lot on the file itself and how much “junk” it has in it.  For now we don’t actually provide this service at LiberWriter, but can put you in touch with someone who can help you with the first step: turning your PDF into a Word file.  Unfortunately, paying to have someone turn the PDF into a Word file is going to add to the cost of the eBook formatting, as it will still need to go through the normal conversion process afterwards. Clearly, if it is possible, it is better to dig around and see if you can’t find an original Word file of your document somewhere!

eInk vs LCD screen technology

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I firmly believe that for most books, a book is a book is a book, at heart, and ultimately, the technology should distract neither the author nor the reader if it’s working right, but it’s worth talking about tech from time to time.

One thing that I think is important to understand about eBook readers is the screen technology, because there is a big difference between eInk and LCD: eInk is a lot easier on the eyes, and the readers tend to be single-purpose devices, without email and apps and notifications and all the other stuff that a “tablet” (like an iPad or Google’s Nexus 7) has.

In other words, eInk devices like Amazon’s Kindle are better for really losing yourself in a book, and forgetting about what you happen to be reading it on. LCD screens are great for general purpose use because they are in color, and besides text can also display videos because they have a quick refresh rate.  eInk screens are comparatively slow to refresh, so don’t display video at all, and have a slight “ghosting” effect.  eInk is very different from LCD in that it’s like paper you read it with ambient light – including bright sunlight – rather than having a glowing screen.  That said, Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite also has a built in light for reading in the dark which is pretty handy, but it’s basically just illuminating what is already on the screen, rather than shining light out at you like an LCD does.

Something that’s important to point out is that despite sharing the “Kindle” brand, Amazon’s Kindle Fire is a tablet with an LCD screen, rather than an eInk device.  This means it’s great for watching movies and TV, but I don’t really care to use it for reading: I spend all day in front of computers, so to relax I much prefer something without a bright screen like the one my laptop has.

Here are some devices and the screen technology they use:

Apple iPad – LCD screen

Kindle Fire – LCD screen

Kindle Paperwhite – eInk screen

As an author, it’s handy to be able to check out your book on more than one platform, like we do here at LiberWriter.  My personal favorites right now are the Google Nexus 7 as a tablet, using the Amazon for Kindle app, and the Kindle Paperwhite as an eReader.  The Kindle Fire is nice, but Google’s system has more apps, and gets updated more frequently with software improvements and fixes.  On the other hand, Amazon is the place to go for “content” – books, of course, but also movies if you like to watch those on a computer or tablet.  If you’re selling your book on Amazon’s KPD, for most people, that’s where 80% of their eBook sales are going to come from, so it’s well worth your time to get at least a basic Kindle (they can be had for under 100$) to familiarize yourself with the experience.

And for the sake of completeness, here are some Wikipedia links explaining the details of the two systems:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E_Ink

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LCD

How to deal with pirates

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A lot of authors are concerned with having their books “pirated”.   Here’s Rebecca P. McCray’s story of what she did when she found her book, The Journey of the Marked ,  on offer on one such site.  I think it’s a great way of dealing with the problem:

I found a similar request for my book on the same website. I watched it for a couple of weeks and then the users “bumped” it to keep it active (apparently if no one supplies a copy in 3 weeks, they remove the post). At first, I was frustrated. But the more I thought about it, if the large publishing houses can’t stop them, I didn’t stand a chance. Besides, I was offering the parts of my book for free at different times on Amazon, so really a little hypocritical of me to make a fuss. In the end, I tried a different approach:

I registered with the website and I posted a reply to the requester. I wasn’t accusatory or rude. I simply explained that I was an independently published author, had spent quite a bit of money on my book, and had made very little in return. Then, I asked about the nature of his request, never acknowledging the purpose of the website, as I knew they’d delete my post if I did.

He responded to me in a private message. Explained that my book was double the price it should have been in India (oops – be sure to watch that if you just let the price translate based on current exchange rates) and that he could only afford one book a month, but loved to read. Now, I really don’t know how honest he was, but he was nice enough. So in the public forum, I posted the days parts of my book would be free and encouraged them to download from Amazon. Of course, I also pointed out that if Amazon found a free copy of my book somewhere that they would pull my book from their website, which would lead me to NOT publish book 2 of my series (little hint as to the possible negative impact on the requester). The moderator froze the thread at that point, but left the post visible to other readers.

Interestingly, I was invited by a user to another thread where they were discussing whether to separate independent authors from mainstream ones. Again, I posted to the thread in a way I thought might resonate with them. I mentioned the fact that I required a full-time job to support myself. The job meant less time for writing, which meant a much longer time before Book 2 would be ready (negative to the readers). I was never accusatory and simply stated that I either needed people to buy the book or promote the book to people who would buy it.

The moderator posted a “supported author” note by my last post, which encourages their members to either buy or promote my book. In the end, I feel pretty good about the results.

She is not a LiberWriter author, but I liked her story so much I asked her if I could repost it.

Actually going after one of these sites legally is not likely to work out well for most self-published authors:

  • It’s like playing whack-a-mole: another one will spring up in its place if you manage to get one.
  • You don’t have the resources big publishers do, and those guys still aren’t able to shut this stuff down.
  • A lot of them are not in the US; indeed, many of them may be in places like Russia where enforcing US copyright is not going to be easy or cheap.

I think a lot of people on these sites don’t think of authors as actual human beings that are possibly struggling to make a living with their writing.  The internet is so good at making other people anonymous, that it’s pretty easy for some people to rip others off without thinking of it much.  By going in and chatting with these people, hopefully Rebecca has helped them understand that real people are hurt by their actions.

By the way, thanks for reading – Rebecca says her book is on sale today (Tuesday December 10th), so go check it out!

Nathan Barry’s “Authority”

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Do you write non-fiction?  Is what you are writing valuable to people in that they could use it to make more money at their jobs?

If so, this book may be worth a look:

http://nathanbarry.com/authority/

At $40, the price is a bit steep, but the argument is that what he’ll teach you will help you earn that money back through your own writing.

Even if you’ve never written anything, the book also targets those people who have knowledge in fields that are in high demand, but who don’t know how to go about writing and marketing a book.  If you’re a well-paid professional, the book has a lot of suggestions on turning your knowledge into some extra cash, and, at the same time, helping people out by sharing what you know with them.  Chances are, a lot more people will buy a book from you than hire you at whatever hourly rate you charge, so this is your opportunity to reach a wider audience with your knowledge.

Here at LiberWriter, we’re very much in the Amazon camp, because for most of our authors, that’s where the majority of their sales are going to be.  So one thing that was interesting about Nathan Barry’s book was that he recommends selling the book more or less directly, perhaps using a site like Gumroad to help you with the actual payment/credit card handling.  This lets you keep something like 95% of the book’s price, rather than the 70% you’ll get out of Amazon if you stick to their terms, such as pricing between $3 and $10.  Furthermore, by going direct, it’s likely that you can also get the email addresses of your users, and as is explained in detail in the book, email marketing is a really good way of getting people to buy your stuff.

As a concrete example, say you write a series of books, and place the first one on Amazon, and it sells ok.  Then you write and prepare the second one, and want to do a big launch.  Fine, but guess what? You have no way of sending email to all those people who bought your first book.  By using a system like Gumroad, you can collect the purchasers’ email addresses, and – if and only if you have their permission – add them to a mailing list that you can then use to alert people when the second book comes out.  Since those people already bought one of your books, they’re quite likely to buy another one.  If you had sold via Amazon, you wouldn’t have their email addresses.

Now, that sounds good in practice, but there are also a few things I’m skeptical about for authors who go it alone:

  • There are no reviews for your book.  Sure, you can get quotes from friends and others singing the praises of your book to paste on your web page, but opening things up for reviews is a way to demonstrate that people really do like your book, and are willing to say so.  I often glance at the one star reviews just to see if they have a point, or if they’re just bitter or crackpots, or something else.  Reviews are stronger “social proof” than hand-picked quotes.
  • Readers lose out on the extremely convenient Kindle purchases.  I don’t have to touch my credit card to buy new books for the Kindle.  With a book like Authority, though, I had to physicall get my credit card out of my wallet and carefully think about whether I was really going to shell out money for it.  Granted, the target market – professionals – is not one where you’re trying to score impulse purchases, since the price is high, but at the same time, it’s still nice to keep your customers from dwelling on their expensive purchase by getting it over quickly.
  • For the moment this isn’t as relevant: but what if everyone sold their own books from their own site?   It’d sure be a pain in the neck – you’d always be reentering your credit card in this, that, or the other web site, and couldn’t take advantage of the economies of scale that Amazon offers.

However, 95% is a pretty powerful reason to go it alone.  But only if you’re willing to put in the time marketing the book…

And that’s one of the subjects the book covers extensively, covering many of the details of how to create a mailing list that you can then use to sell what you have created.  Naturally, “social media” such as Twitter and Facebook are mentioned too, but email still rules the roost in terms of bringing people in and getting them to purchase what you’re selling.  In other words, if you have limited time, focus on email marketing and leave the social media stuff to someone else.  The book contains several pages talking about the advantages of email as a way of reaching the most people the most effectively for the lowest price.  This is something I’ve heard elsewhere to, and I think it makes a lot of sense: if you’re an author, you should probably put together a mailing list for people who like your stuff via a site like MailChimp.

The theme that runs throughout the book, in terms of attracting people’s attention, is actually giving away valuable information.  By being generous and not trying to hoard every last scrap of your knowledge, you can create a blog or email newsletter that people will happily subscribe to.  Those are good platforms to sell your book with, or for that matter your consulting services!

Nathan also covers how to get a basic landing page, blog, and mailing list set up, for those who need suggestions about what to use to create those things.  Formatting is also covered, although his advice does not always match what we recommend for Kindle publishing.

Would I recommend reading this book?  If you’re a professional with valuable skills who can commit to writing a book with the aim of making some money from it, the answer is an unqualified ‘yes’.  As a fiction author, you might find cheaper alternatives that are more tailored to the set of problems you face, which are different from those of someone writing about something that’s likely work related.  It does have a lot of valuable information though, so if you’re reading books to get ideas on how to improve your own self publishing, this is a good one.

In any event, I enjoyed the book, as it’s well written, and a different perspective from ours here at LiberWriter.